___WORDS FROM ME_____________________________________

after that, this

I’d just come off the back of a big book that I was then calling HEARTSTONES TO ALAEDORNIA. It was a fantasy novel, and it was complicated, and it had hurt my head to write. The first draft was just over 200,000 words long and if it was ever going to look like something anyone would want to read – including me – I was going to have to do a lot of work on it. It was a messy first draft, but okay, at least it was something to work on, and something to work on is better than nothing.

Over the next year, as I continued to write new short stories, I did do that work. I found the thread of the narrative and pulled it tight, pared away the excess (including the TO ALAEDORNIA in the title), and got the book down to a leaner 136,000 words. I polished it. Buffed it up. Then I started to send it out.

During the time HEARTSTONES was collecting rejections, I started on a new book. After all, that’s what you do if you write, isn’t it?

(I mention this because I have met a few people who write their first book and then sit on their hands while they send it off to agents and publishers – and they wait, and they wait, and they wait. Uhm . . . No. Don’t do that. Write the next thing you have to write while the first book is going out. After all, if the first people who see it accept it, you’ll be expected to write another one anyway. So why waste your time? Get on with it. Write.)

HEARTSTONES was a pretty serious piece of work. In my mind, at least, it tried to do all the things that I thought a good book that aspires to be more than disposable entertainment should do. It had themes and subtext, a challenging narrative, a complicated set of characters who grew and changed over the course of the book, and a resolution that felt like it had always meant to be that way. It was technically challenging to write, in that it was really only a one-character point-of-view piece but took place over different times in the characters’ lives and in some unusual locations. But it was a pretty satisfying experience for me, and I thought I had done a good thing in making it, even if it wasn’t perfect. Because, after all, no book is perfect, however hard the writer works on it. I was probably as pleased with it as I could be. Somewhere along the way the book had become the book it wanted to be and not the book I had wished it had been, and that is fair enough and something I have learned to accept when it comes to writing books. They often know what they want to be more than the writer knows.

But . . .

There was one thing I kept coming back to, though, when I thought about the book. That fantasy novel, it was pretty serious, I kept thinking. It was quite grim in places and pulled very few punches. There weren’t many moments of levity in it.

For my own sake as much as anyone who might read it, I decided the next book should be a little lighter. The tone should be easier, even if darkness crept in – which, seeing as I was writing it, I suspected it would.

I didn’t have a title or a plot. I had vague ideas about a couple of characters, including one of their names: Rusby Once. The location for the first part of the book would be the country lanes in which I used to play as I’d grown up, and I wanted to use an old folly in the area as the basis for something, some plot development, some important part of the narrative. That’s about all I knew. Apart from one other thing: I knew I wanted the prose to set up the way the book might come across. I like long sentences, and have to fight with myself not to go on and on when I write. So, with that in mind, I decided to do something a little more punchy than usual. Shorter sentences, shorter book, I was probably thinking. And more dialogue to convey ideas. Make it more easily accessible than HEARTSTONES.

I had an opening line, and like most of the lines that I write, I had little idea where it had come from. But I went with it anyway, deciding to follow where it led to. Here’s what I had for the opening:

Weird 24.

That’s all. But it felt right. I carried on from there, trying to keep things sharp like that, while allowing room for the characters to introduce themselves. In relatively quick time they did, and when the characters come alive then some sort of plot inevitably follows. After a few months that stretched to close to a year (with a few months’ break in the middle thanks to pesky old real life interfering in the process) I had a first draft – what I like to call the story draft – of about 90,000 words and I thought it hung together pretty well and had some nice light moments in it, and yes, some dark ones too.

My girlfriend read the book, while I went back to sorting out what was going on with HEARTSTONES (after a few rejections I did yet more work on it to make it a little shinier, a little more polished, so I could submit it to a few other places). Anyway, the good news was she liked it. She made a really good suggestion, too. That I should up the age of the leads. In the first draft they were 11 and 12. She thought that, by beefing things up a little, the book would be better served with them as older teenagers, and the moments of darkness wouldn’t be traumatic to any younger audience that the book might naturally have picked up with protagonists of more tender years. I thought about this and realised she was quite right, so Gideon Sawyer became 16 years old and Rusby Once fast-forwarded through a few summers at the flick of a pen to become 17.

In the meantime, as HEARTSTONES continued to pick up rejections, and on the back of finishing the first draft of the new lighter fantasy, which at this point I was calling “the Rusby Once book”, I had a sudden window of good health and energy and, in a fit of pique at the fantasy novel getting rejected so sorely and surely, I wrote what would become my first published book, HOUR OF THE BLACK WOLF. It was written at break-neck speed and first drafted in 10 days, and like the Rusby Once book, had some lighter moments in it. It was about 56,000 words long. It was accepted on first submission, on condition I made some revisions. So I did, and it went through the all the usual steps of being professionally edited and proofed and published without a hiccup. It even picked up a couple of good notices when it came out. If there’s a moral to this, or a life lesson to take in and abide by, then I don’t know what it is.

Baffled but pleased, I went back to sending out the big fantasy, and started on the rewrite of the Rusby Once book, wondering if it and HEARTSTONES would find a publisher as easily as HOUR OF THE BLACK WOLF had done. All I was sure of was that I could breathe out now, that I was finally someone who’d had a book professionally published. The rest would happen as it would. Or wouldn’t. But for a working-class kid sending out his own untutored prose, I thought I had done well.

As it happened, HEARTSTONES found a publisher, and then wasn’t published. Because of me. But that’s another story. And I found a better title than “the Rusby Once book” for the Rusby Once book. I decided to call it A CLASH OF ICHOR AND BLOOD and I sent it out to the few agents who’d made nice noises about my earlier books. They made more nice noises but that was about as far as it went. I didn’t have the heart to go through the dreary task of hunting out new agents only to be turned down by them. It felt too depressing and time-consuming. (After all, if you keep repeating the same actions you’re going to get the same results, and I really didn't want the same results.) So I decided to do something different with A CLASH OF ICHOR AND BLOOD.

In future posts we’ll get on to what I’m doing, have a guess at why things have turned out as they have, the good and the bad and the ugly, and what I’m doing about it.

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