The many lives of a writer – 3

The Wooden Baby illustration by Michael Komarck

Most people are like cats – they live not just one life, but many. Writers are no exception. Here’s how my third writing life saw everything change.

Life 3 – Size Isn’t Everything

After cutting the cord with Voyager Books, I wrote a dark fantasy novel called Panopticon. The title referred to a magical prehistoric structure that, from the outside, appeared to be unbroken stone. When you went inside, however, you found yourself faced with twelve windows, each of which looked out on another world. The story was told through the eyes of an illustrator called Armstrong Campbell who discovered that, just by drawing what he saw, he could summon living creatures through the windows and into our world.

I wrote Panopticon longhand in half-hour bursts while sitting in a train carriage on the way to my day job. A totally different way of working for me, and a process I came to love. It took about a year. When the manuscript was done, I packaged it up and sent it along with my bibliography of published work to a longish list of agents I’d compiled. I got a little interest and plenty of rejections, and finally hooked up with Dot Lumley of the Dorian Literary Agency. Dot duly sent the manuscript on a tour of likely publishers, none of whom liked it nearly as much as we did.

Looking back, I now see Panopticon as a kind of transition piece. There’s heaps in it that I like (and that may yet see the light of day in some form or other) and just as much that needs serious attention. It’s big on character and atmosphere and thin on story. But it’s got a good vibe, you know?

After Panopticon, I tried out a number of ideas for novels, all of which stalled after the first few chapters. I expressed my frustration to Dot, who told me to stop worrying and enjoy the process of experimentation. Oh, and by the way, had I ever thought of trying some short fiction?

Coincidentally, I’d just finished reading a pile of short fiction anthologies, including a Dashiell Hammett collection. Feeling all noirish (and suspecting that Dot’s throw-away suggestion hadn’t been nearly as throw-away as it sounded) I wrote a short story called The Wooden Baby, a light-hearted fantasy-noir mash-up. To my delight, Shawna McCarthy, editor of the now sadly defunct short fiction magazine Realms of Fantasy, bought it.

Before long I was smack in the middle of my third writing life. I was writing short stories and novelettes, some of which were getting published. I was also getting very good at writing novels that never got past the 20,000 word mark (I’ve amassed quite a collection of these: a dragon book called Shikari, several versions of a book I may yet still write called The House on Memory Street, a space opera called Unsuitable Worlds … oh, and umpteen others).

More importantly, I’d learned to relax. I can’t deny that part of my mind was still fixated on producing the Next Big Thing, but mostly I’d rediscovered the simple pleasure of writing for writing’s sake. The creative urge is a curse, but indulging it is the most powerful form of therapy going. I suppose if I wasn’t cursed I wouldn’t need the therapy, but that just makes the whole process a kind of karmic wheel. Or a vicious circle, depending on how you look at it.

Even though I’d grown to love writing short fiction, I still felt a growing urge to create something a little more substantial. I had more ideas for novels than I’d ever had before, and less ability to decide on which of them had any merit. And I still couldn’t get past that damn 20,000-word barrier. To make matters worse, I’d become intimately acquainted with the demon called Doubt. You’ve probably met him yourself. He’s the guy with claws who perches on your shoulder, stinks of sulphur and asks constantly if what you’re doing is really any good.

How was I going to break the deadlock? It wasn’t writer’s block – I was actually more productive than I’d ever been before – just an inability to see a long-term project through from beginning to end. Luckily, just as the demon on my shoulder started assuring me that I’d never finish another novel in my life, an opportunity came along.

In order to take it up, however, I was going to have to become a ghost.

Next time I’ll tell you about my fourth writing life, during which I wrote. And wrote. And wrote.

 

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