The many lives of a writer – 1

DragoncharmMost people are like cats – they live not just one life, but many. Writers are no exception. Here’s how I got started with my first writing life.

Life 1 – The Dragon Years

My first writing life began in 1992. I was in my late twenties and, after noodling around for years with odd scraps of short fiction, I decided to knuckle down and actually try writing a novel from beginning to end. Without pausing to don any kind of safety equipment, I plunged headfirst into a fantasy epic about dragons called The Turning of the World. Two and a half years later my initial longhand draft had evolved into something resembling a finished typescript. All that was left was for me to buy a copy of The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook and start sticking pins in the list of publishers.

So far, so starry-eyed. After two rejections, I resigned myself to what was surely going to be a long and ultimately heartbreaking process. Then, a month or two after I’d aimed my submission cannon at the HarperCollins slush pile and pushed the ‘Fire’ button, I got a strange and enigmatic reply from editorial director Jane Johnson in the form of a handwritten postcard that read simply, ‘We’d love to meet you.’

After a nervous phone call and a slightly sweaty train journey, I found myself in the Hammersmith offices of Voyager Books, HarperCollins’s (then) brand new science fiction and fantasy imprint, facing Jane and editor Joy Chamberlain. I sat bemused as they enthusiastically itemised everything that was wrong with my manuscript. Eventually (I fear my face may have betrayed my warring emotions) Jane realised that she’d forgotten to mention upfront that the reason they were tearing my beloved novel apart was that they actually wanted to publish it.

I remember only two other things from that meeting. The first was learning that the Voyager offices received around 2,000 unsolicited manuscripts every year, which meant that just by being there I’d pretty much won the lottery. The second was a piece of advice Jane gave me just before I left: ‘Whatever you do,’ she said, ‘don’t give up your day job.’ I heeded that advice then, and heed it still.

The journey from that frankly unbelievable moment to my very first publication day took the best part of a year. Along the way there were extensive rewrites, a title change from The Turning of the World to Dragoncharm and some negotiation as to what I’d write next in order to fulfil the two-book contract Jane wanted to put in place. The obvious answer, I thought, was the new novel I’d just started writing. It was called The Wall and didn’t have any dragons in it at all. I submitted the work-in-progress – 20,000 words or so – only to have it politely rejected. Um, did I have anything else more in line with the book about the dragons?

While Jane didn’t ask for a sequel, I was convinced that was what she wanted. So I wrote outlines for two more dragon books, the first of which sealed the deal.

Dragoncharm sold well enough to get reprinted, and to spawn a US edition and a couple of translations (German and Hungarian). The film rights got sold twice; second time around a trailer got made, although the project collapsed shortly after. Meanwhile, I was dealing with the abject terror of writing a contracted-for sequel to a tight deadline while raising a young family. I did most of the work on Dragonstorm weekdays between 4am and 6am, in between night feeds and driving forty miles to my day job as a graphic designer.

Apart from the bit about feeding babies, that’s more or less what I still do now, by the way.

While I was working on Dragonstorm, Jane commissioned me to write the third book – called Dragonflame – of what had now become something I’d once sworn I would never write: a fantasy trilogy. I was pleased with the sequels, but the sales figures weren’t so shiny. On good days, I told myself it was because I’d been brave enough not to play things safe (Dragonstorm gets fairly chaotic and contains a not-especially-graphic but undeniably unpleasant rape scene, while Dragonflame has a tricky multi-thread narrative and a bit where the dragons meet some cavemen – no, really). On bad days, I told myself they just weren’t very good.

All in all the dragon years were great. But, as they came to an end, I found myself poised on the brink. So far I’d managed to sell three books unagented. Pretty good going. I had ideas for plenty more and, while writing Dragonflame, I’d pitched quite a few of them to Jane and Joy. Every one of them bounced back. I told myself I was living the dream, but I had a funny feeling e a rude awakening was just around the corner.

Everything came to a head when I set off on the train back to Hammersmith for would no doubt be a convivial – though probably final – publishing lunch. Such lunches are perfect opportunities to pitch your latest idea. Unfortunately, I’d already used up the good ones. What I did have, however, was two hours of solitude cooped up in a rattling train carriage with an empty notebook. Could I come up with anything before the alarm clock rang, bringing the dream abruptly to an end?

Next time I’ll tell you about my second writing life, during which I clambered over precarious ledges and stared deep into the abyss.

Comments

  1. This is great, I love hearing the story behind some of my favourite books. (Still waiting for the ebook versions of Dragoncharm et al by the way!)

    I’m looking forward to reading about how the Stone trilogy came about.

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