Head of State: The Original Pitch

I have had at least three people ask me how I pitched Head of State, as Obverse Books currently have open submissions for their Faction Paradox range, and mine is the most recent Faction Paradox novel.

My pitch was actually a bit different, as I had already come on Stuart Douglas’ radar as someone who might be good for the range. I initially sent a thousand-word synopsis, reproduced below, plus the prologue that ended up in the final novel unchanged as a sample of the writing style. I later had to send a full chapter-by-chapter breakdown.

Note that THIS IS NOT A GOOD TEMPLATE TO FOLLOW, because it is more than twice the length of the submissions they want. But it *was* a successful pitch, so it might be of some use.

SPOILERS FOLLOW, in particular for the end of the novel. If you’ve not read the book yet, why not buy it and read it first? This post will still be here when you’ve finished…

What I want to do with this book is tell a series of nested stories, with a variety of different narrators, in a variety of different time periods, that connect up into one larger story. A lot of the book will be about the various unreliable narrators, rather than about the plot itself – my biggest strength as a writer, I think, is taking on the voices of different narrators, especially those with rather archaic prose styles. I also prefer those Faction Paradox stories where the Faction remain a ghostly presence in the background, rather than where everything ties deeply into the mythos.

With that in mind…

A lot of the story is backstory:

The most deeply-nested of the stories will be the story of one of the Malakh, a human-looking one, and the depradations he subjected the world to, how he ruled over a kingdom of grotesques that terrorised most of the middle east, until an adventurer turned up, a wanderer who had no name, and destroyed the Malakh. But as is the way of the Malakh, he is not dead, but only sleeping, and will return and try once again to take over the Earth. At that time, a warrior will rise up and destroy him.

That story will be presented as the thousand-and-second night of Scheharazade, in a translation by Richard Burton. The framing narrative for it will say that despite the happy ending that most of the bowdlerised versions of The Thousand Nights And A Night have, including the one that Burton made public, the true story of Scheharazade had a rather less happy ending. She was in fact executed — beheaded — after the thousand and first night, and this story was one that her decapitated head spoke after her execution. Hearing it drove Shahryār to take his own life as a result.

Both the story itself and the framing story about Scheharazade will be written in the style of Burton’s translation of 1001 Nights, and will have annotations and comments in Burton’s style.

We then have another story, the story of how Burton collected the story of the thousand and second night, his journey into the desert, his encounter with a tribe of mystics wearing skull-masks and his initiation by them, and finally his meeting with ‘the Dark Lady’, a woman who claims to be the reincarnation of Scheharazade, who tells him the story but urges him to keep it secret.

As is the way with secret texts, far more people seek out the secret story than ever would have read it if it had been made public, and a whole mythology built up around it amongst conspiracy theorists and occultists, and that’s where our main story comes in.

The main story, which takes place in roughly the present, is narrated by two relatively minor characters – a journalist and a psychotic conspiracy theorist. Both of them tell, from a relatively remote perspective, the story of a political campaign.

A charismatic presidential candidate, for a new third party, is making waves in the US Presidential elections. While it’s never made explicit, the rhetoric in his campaign speeches suggests three things to anyone at all familiar with the FP mythos:

That he’s a member of Faction Paradox

That the Homeworld and the Enemy are using the Republican and Democratic parties as proxies in their war

And that (my own interpretation of who the Enemy are, but this will be even more subtextual than the other stuff, and I won’t state anything explicitly, because that would of course ruin the point) the Enemy are in fact the same as the Homeworld, and that the War is as much as anything a game to keep the Homeworld vital.

So we have a journalist following the campaign, and he is being fed information by a Deep Throat kind of figure that seems to suggest various bad things about the candidate. Nothing from this source is conclusive proof of any kind of misconduct, but several young women who had a distant association with the campaign have disappeared, more than would be statistically likely. The candidate’s first wife died in an accident, and it’s rumoured that she was planning to divorce him. That kind of thing.

So our journalist puts out various stories about the candidate, getting more and more negative, but dealing only with the actual verifiable facts. He’s sure there’s something fishy going on, but he doesn’t know what.

Our conspiracy theorist, on the other hand, is sure. As he puts the information together from our reporter’s stories, he becomes more and more convinced that the Presidential candidate is none other than the Malakh described in the Thousand And Second Night. The physical description fits, the disappearances of the young girls fit, everything fits.

And so he becomes determined that he is the warrior who has to rise up and defeat the Malakh, before the Malakh takes over the world and turns it into a bloodbath. His opportunity comes during the inauguration – an apparently unaccountable lapse of security allows him to shoot the new President just as he’s taking his oath of office.

So his running mate steps up and becomes the new President. This is the climax of the novel, and it ends within a few pages, but in those pages we realise that the running mate is the person who’s been feeding these stories to the reporter. She also fits the physical description of the Dark Lady who gave Burton the story in the first place. And her name, Lola, is certainly…suggestive.

As the story ends with President Lola declaring martial law, while also declaring a proud new age free of the false divisions of the past, we realise that the whole thing was a plan by the new President, and that the USA — and soon the Earth — is under the control of House Lolita.

One other thought – an idea I’d love to do but that I think might overload the book with too many levels is to have a Shift break in to the narration — but have the Shift be a character who appeared in an early draft of the book but has been written out, and is trying to write himself back in. I want to try this, but the Shift parts will be excisable in case it doesn’t come off.

Now, you’ll notice a LOT of differences there from the final version — in particular, I dropped the ableist notion of the conspiracy theorist being mentally ill, and tied him into the Shift stuff instead, and I made the journalist a bisexual female blogger rather than the Woodward/Bernstein type I was originally thinking of. I also didn’t even mention what was, in my mind, the most interesting part of the story (Lolita’s wanting the Caldera). But at the same time, you can clearly recognise the basic shape of the book, though it’s nothing like as good.

So anyway, that was the initial pitch. I may post the chapter-by-chapter breakdown at some point, if anyone’s interested, though probably not for a few more months.

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