There’s a saying among writers that you have to write and throw away ten novels before you get one that’s publishable. Or is it twelve? Or some say you have to write a million words. Whatever, it’s a lot.
Looking back, I pretty much ticked those boxes before my novel At An Uncertain Hour was published in 2009, although I haven’t actually thrown all of them away, as will become clear. I was writing stories from the age of four, but I didn’t complete a novel on paper till I was in my twenties.
Yes, on paper. I went through a strange phase, between about ten and twelve, of composing around fifteen novels in my head. And this was composing novels, not just making up stories – I did the narrative, description, dialogue, even named the chapters. I just didn’t write any of it down.
Just as curiously, they were all about espionage, a subject I’ve rarely returned to since (my story The Treason of Memory is the only exception I can think of, and that isn’t a typical treatment of espionage). A few had contemporary settings, but most were SF, set in the aftermath of a solar-system-wide war. I only remember odd bits, and I regret I didn’t get them down, but the reality is I probably wouldn’t have finished them in writing. They gave me experience in constructing novels, at least, for when I started properly.
Travels With a Unicorn – My first complete written novel was what would now be classified as YA fantasy, although at the time it would have been described as “for older children”. It was a tale of a contemporary boy who gets whisked away to another world, befriends a unicorn, rescues a princess and goes through a journey of self-discovery.
It wasn’t a bad tale and, ironically, it got further in the publishing process than anything till At An Uncertain Hour – I even had an agent with a good reputation trying to sell it, but with no luck. I wonder what would have happened if it had succeeded. I’d have taken the contract like a shot, naturally, but I’m not sure how good it would have been for my writing. Then again, I’m sure I’d have learnt a lot from the editorial process, but I might have ended stuck up in the YA field.
The Flame of Kargor – This was my first complete attempt at what’s now my Winter Legend trilogy. In my teens, I’d begun an attempt to write this in blank verse (don’t ask – it seemed like a good idea at the time) which I’d abandoned, but this was a finished version of part one. There were a number of things here, too, that seemed like a good idea, especially the decision to write it with no point of view. I’d fallen in love with the Icelandic sagas, which succeeded in portraying character and motivation superbly without once letting the reader into any character’s head, and I thought I could do the same. Having attempted it, I now have even greater admiration for the saga-writers’ skill.
I eventually rewrote this from the bottom up, but this early version at least enabled me to get to story laid out on paper.
The Goddess of Assh-Bafrzah – This started as a short story, relating the meeting of three characters, one of them a young, naive goddess. I wrote several sequels – essentially sword & sorcery, though perhaps owing more to Leiber than Howard – before deciding to expand the original into a novel, cannibalising some elements from the other stories.
This is, I still think, a good story, but the telling had a lot of faults, the main one being that I didn’t really develop the characters and relationships as well on paper as they were in my head. In particular, I seriously skimped the relationship between the goddess and her high priest, which should be central. I’m intending to radically rewrite this, although it’ll have to wait its turn in the queue. With a different title, though.
In Dreams Begins Responsibility – The sequel to The Goddess of Assh-Bafrzah, and only a sort-of novel, this was made up of six short stories/novelettes that followed both a sequence and theme, linked by the kind of summaries de Camp used in the Conan books he edited.
This too is scheduled to be rewritten in its due turn, but as a proper novel this time. My plan is to base it around the last, and longest, of the stories, bringing some of the others in as episodes. And the title – it’s quoted from Yeats, and I like the phrase, but it’s pretty awful as a title.
The Undercity Masque – Now, this was something entirely different – a contemporary novel set in a surreal version of London. Perhaps influenced by Moorcock’s Cornelius stories, though without the SF element, it featured a character who had a completely different physical form every time she appears, yet was instantly recognisable, and a “narrator” who revealed on the final page that he wasn’t the narrator – his name was the first-person pronoun. It was that sort of book.
I wrote it in a haphazard way, just writing individual chapters and gradually getting an idea of how they might fit together. The third chapter was labelled “A Slightly Belated Prologue”. It’s definitely a chalk-it-up-to-experience project, though I wouldn’t rule out revisiting some of the characters.
Darkflight – A much better contemporary novel, this was closer to magic realism than the surreal style of the previous effort. The early part told the story of the main character’s childhood and teens, resolving into a battle for his soul between two sinister groups representing collective mediocrity and selfish individualism – though with some suggestion they were ultimately the same. The later part was set in a ruined castle on the edge of the Wasteland – an area that doesn’t appear on any map because not even the map-makers will look at it.
I haven’t entirely abandoned Darkflight, and I may try to rewrite it one day. One serious problem would be that a fair amount of it is about computers – and it was written in the eighties, so it’s mostly obsolete. Also, if I did rewrite it, I’d probably mix the two main sections together, rather than telling the story in strict chronological order.
The Tryst Flame – The rewritten version of The Flame of Kargor, this got the story much closer to being right. Besides having actual POVs, the characters were considerably stronger, some of the more random sequences of events were cut, and the whole story flowed much more smoothly. It still had many faults, though, one being that I hadn’t quite got out of the Tolkien-influenced assumption that an epic fantasy novel has to include regular poems and songs. This had many and, although I was writing pretty good poetry elsewhere, the constraints of the context meant these weren’t up to standard.
This one certainly hasn’t been abandoned. I’ve done two major rewrites since then, changing a number of details and characters (and cutting the poems), but essentially adapting rather than replacing. I think it’s just about ready to go, now, and I’m working on the rest of the trilogy.
Children of Ice – I knew how the Winter Legend began and ended, but I’d always been hazy as to how the two would link up. After I’d finished The Tryst Flame, I had an idea that made everything fit into place, and I wrote Children of Ice (a title I’d used for a poem nearly twenty years earlier) as the second part of the trilogy. This, too, has been radically rewritten twice – or rather, I’m in the middle of the second rewrite at the moment – though I’ve only recently written most of part three.
The Unicorn Queen – Like my early, unwritten novels, the origin of this was an unwritten sequence of scenes that kept going through my mind. I established an origin and began writing with very little idea of what was going to happen beyond what I'd already imagined. What came out was a blend of alternative history and fantasy, set in a real-world but imaginary eleventh-century kingdom called Westria, that settled down into a quest for the Grail.
The main problem with The Unicorn Queen was its length. At a word-count that’s unlikely to be accepted from a writer whose surname doesn’t happen to be Martin, Jordan, Rowling or a few others, there weren’t many openings to submit it. I did half decide to try splitting it into a duology, but the growth of e-publishing may have made the market a little more flexible about length. It needs some repolishing, especially in the opening chapter (there’s no point submitting a novel if the first chapter isn’t right) but I still hope to see this one published.
On a Darkling Plain – My vampire novel. Well, you have to do one, don’t you? This was very much urban fantasy, set in contemporary London, with my own personal take on vampirology, though with respect for the tradition and a few backward nods (a major character with the surname Harker, for instance). I think there were a few specific things in this that made it a hard sell, which I may be able to tweak out of the problem zone and make this a possibility for future publication.
I actually started writing a sequel (loosely) called Ignorant Armies (both titles come from the same passage, at the end of Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach) but abandoned that after half a dozen chapters. It’s still there, ready to rise from its grave, if On a Darkling Plain should ever be published.
And then, in 2003-2004, I wrote At An Uncertain Hour, which was accepted by StoneGarden in 2007 and published in 2009. Since then, I’ve been working on the Winter Legend trilogy, after which I have five novels lined up to go. By the time I’ve finished those, I’ll hopefully have twice as many new ideas, which will benefit from all my past novels, from the unwritten espionage ones to what I’m working on now.