Life 2 – A Long Way Down
One of the ideas I pitched to Voyager Books during my dragon years was a dark fantasy novel about the power of memory. It also contained dinosaurs. As I rode the train to London for what looked set to be my final publishing lunch at Voyager Books, I found myself thinking about that old idea again. Since I’d become known as the ‘dragon guy’, I wondered what would happen if I swapped the dinosaurs for dragons. I also wondered if I could resurrect some of the ideas from another failed pitch: a partial manuscript I’d long since filed away that was called The Wall …
By the time I got off the train, my notebook was full of scribbles. Not long after, as I sat chatting with Jane and Joy in the Voyager office, the dreaded ‘what’s next?’ question finally came up. I spent five minutes or so pitching an idea for a new fantasy trilogy set on a parallel world – a world that’s actually a vast and infinite wall. I got quite excited. I waved my arms. I drew diagrams on borrowed scraps of HarperCollins stationery. When I was done, Jane and Joy exchanged smiles and I knew that somehow I’d managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Writing the first of the new books – Stone & Sky – was an absolute joy. What I’d feared might be a desperate mash-up of old ideas turned out to be something quite fresh. Although there were dragons in it, the story was mostly about people – a refreshing change for me given my track record to that point. There were strange environments, even stranger creatures and a peculiar kind of time travel. I couldn’t quite work out if the end result was fantasy or science fiction or something else altogether, and that was just fine. I felt I’d finally hit my stride, and that the writing was wholly mine. Stone & Sky got some good reviews, though no comments pleased me more than my editor Joy’s remark that my writing was ‘strange and subtle.’
As with the dragon books, writing the sequels was much harder. Dealing with my father’s death while doing it didn’t help. Halfway through book three – Stone & Sun – I got completely mired and did something I’d never done before: negotiated an extension on the deadline. Writing the second half of that damn book was slightly less painful than having your wisdom teeth out (I speak from experience). What made the process harder still was the sure knowledge that the Stone trilogy wasn’t exactly lighting up the bestseller lists. It looked like this time my days with Voyager really were numbered.
One of the reasons was simple finance. Back then, Voyager habitually committed to big print runs for first edition mass market paperbacks – in my case 12,000 copies. That’s a lot of paper to shift. The problem is that, if you don’t shift it, your name ends up written in red on the final year accounts … which makes it very hard for a commissioning editor to justify further investment in you, however much they might want to (and I have to say that Jane Johnson was never less than totally supportive). In the end, though, it comes down to the books themselves. The Stone books aren’t easily categorised and, much as I believe they contain some of my best writing, I’m equally ready to admit they are a little, well, strange.
My last few exchanges with my friends at Voyager were strained, not through any fault on their part, but because of my failure to accept the reality: my second writing life was over. I should have been happy to have six published novels under my belt. Instead, I was deeply depressed that things had stalled. Looking back, I can see now how poorly I understood the publishing world back then. I’ve likened getting my first novel Dragoncharm published to winning the lottery, and that’s not a bad analogy. It was time now to jump off the luck-dragon and start earning my keep.
Time, in fact, to start the next chapter in my writing life. The big question was, what form would it take? It took me a while to work that one out. When I finally got my head together, I realised the answer was staring me in the face: wipe the slate clean and start again. I would write a new novel and submit it to some literary agents. If the new book was any good – and if my bibliography counted for anything – maybe one of them would take me on.
So that’s what I did. It was exciting, the beginning of another adventure. For a while there it had felt like I was falling off that damn world-wall I’d created for myself. Maybe I didn’t have to fall at all. Maybe I could fly.
Next time I’ll tell you about my third writing life, during which I discovered that size isn’t everything.
- The Many Lives of a Writer – 1
- The Many Lives of a Writer – 2
- The Many Lives of a Writer – 3
- The Many Lives of a Writer – 4
- The Many Lives of a Writer – 5
- The Many Lives of a Writer – 6
- The Many Lives of a Writer – 7