In the beginning

So, I promised a post on where it all began for me, but the problem with that is that I’m not sure exactly when that was. I initially thought that I started writing things when I was a teenager, but after some research into the dusty depths of my archive I now have to adjust that to my early twenties, or definitely no earlier than when I was about nineteen or so.

My first ever writing effort began as a collaboration between me and two of my fellow students. When I dug it out of said archive, I was surprised to find that it is in Dutch. I’m not entirely sure why that surprised me, since I was living in the Netherlands, speaking Dutch and interacting with fellow Dutchmen, but there you have it. The story itself was a Fantasy adventure about a young man who sets out on a quest to find three magic swords. I think. I’d have to read the whole thing through to refresh my memory, and having read through the first part of it I’m not particularly keen to do so, since it’s dire. I’ll give you a tiny excerpt (translated of course):

“The girl looked at Yastar with her deep blue eyes, in which shone something green and yellow. ‘Fine,’ she said. ‘You must be on a journey; why else would you carry such a big and valuable sword, right? I’ll give you something else valuable.’ She gave him a ring with a stone as red as her hair. ‘I cannot explain to you how it works, that would take away its magic. But I think you’ll find out soon enough.’

Yastar put the ring on his finger, looked from the stone to her hair and asked, ‘Aren’t you afraid that you’ll stand out too much with that hair?’

She laughed. ‘Nah.’

Yastar laughed as well, showing his beautiful white teeth.”

To be fair to us, it started off as every one of us doing one line each, which then shifted to paragraphs, sections and eventually ended at almost full chapters. I’d get the manuscript back and find that my predecessor had taken the story into a completely different direction, requiring further adaption and adjustment, and in the end it just petered out. Still, the story is interesting because here already there is the evidence of my deep-seated preferences: Yastar was dark, as all my male protagonists have been so far. This will likely remain the case – I simply do not like blond men. The girl was a redhead – another recurring favourite. People who have already read The Ritual will certainly recognise this.

After this ill-fated foray into the realm of Fantasy, my next attempt at writing was based on the Play by Mail game I had started to play. It was a simple turn-based game in which you controlled a group of adventurers who travelled from town to town, encountered monsters on the way and generally did whatever adventurers do in a turn-based Fantasy game. The game’s language was English, so the story I wrote about it was in English as well. I spun it out into the story of a young man who had run away from home at age fifteen, then joined a troupe of travelling entertainers. When this troupe was then pretty much obliterated by trolls around twelve years later, he swore to rid the land of such vermin and became an adventurer instead. In essence it was a Fantasy biography, and the protagonist was a dark-haired, dark-eyed man called Yastar.

At this point you may start to realise that I’m very big on recycling ideas, but this too was dire. Here’s another excerpt:

“The scream cut through Yastar’s thoughts like a knife, waking him from his semi-absent state and he looked around, trying to work out what it had been that had hit him.

‘Can’t you pay attention to where you put your legs?’ an angry voice said from somewhere down below. Yastar looked in the direction the sound came from and saw a girl sitting on the ground. She rubbed her knee and was surrounded by a large amount of apples, scattered all over the ground. It was only then that he noticed the apples in his lap and the large basket on the other side of his legs.

‘I…I’m sorry,’ he stammered. ‘Did I trip you up?’

‘Yes, you did, how very observant of you,’ the girl said sarcastically.”

Needless to say, this attempt too was abandoned before it ever even got close to finishing. Still, it was very enjoyable to write, since my best friend was playing the same game and was writing her own story about her group of adventurers, and her group leader was Yastar’s elder brother (that he didn’t remember he had. This story had more drama than your average TV soap series).

After that I should mention the semester during which I dabbled with the English Language department (I studied Russian) and took a literature class in Science Fiction and Fantasy, which has always been pretty much the only kind of literature I’ve been really interested in. In order to get the study credits for this class all the students had to write an essay. This could either be a ‘regular’ essay, or if you wanted to you could write an additional chapter or different ending to any of the books we had read. This latter option seemed much more attractive to me, so what I did was write an alternative ending to Forty Thousand in Gehenna, by C.J. Cherryh. It appears this book is out of print, since Amazon only offers used copies for sale, but it tells the story of forty thousand clones who are sent to a planet to settle and colonise it, together with a few hundred non-clone personnel, and are subsequently abandoned and have to adapt to a planet with an indigenous species completely unlike any man has encountered before. Fairly classic sci-fi, I suppose, but I hated the ending, so I wrote a different ending.

When I got the essay back, the teacher had given me a 10.

To clarify, Dutch grading doesn’t work with percentiles or A to F grading. Instead you are marked between 1 and 10, with 1 being a reward for putting your name at the top of your work (but nothing else), 3 being a bag of shite, 6 being barely sufficient, 8 being good and 10 being perfect.

When I went to query such a baffling grade (how on earth can an essay ever be perfect?) the teacher explained to me that the book was his all-time favourite book ever, and he had always hated the ending as well. My alternative version, he said, was how it ought to have ended, and as such he had given me the perfect score.

It remains one of the biggest ego-boosts I have ever had in my life.

Not much happened for a few years after that. I met my husband while I was still at university, and shortly after graduating I moved to England to live with him. Existing friendships became remote and I began to spend more time online, where I stumbled across an Elfquest fanholt. Elfquest is a series of absolutely gorgeous graphic novels with a storyline that encompasses war, betrayal, loyalty, love and anything else you can think of in between. For more information, go here: http://www.elfquest.com/social/index.php

This rich world inhabited by humans and elves has spawned many fan-sites where people own their own Elfquest-based characters, and the site I joined was no different. I owned two characters, a sister and brother called Birchbark and Rock, and although I contributed some pretty bad artwork, my main efforts were always short stories centred around one or both of these characters. Simple tales of everyday life in a community of elves, involving hunting, love, fears, hopes and loss. Here is a small excerpt, from a story in which Birchbark loses the wolf she has bonded with (as all elves of her kind do):

“His fur was patchy, Birchbark noticed. Funny how she hadn’t noticed it before. She scratched his favourite spot behind his ears and smiled through her tears when he squeezed his eyes shut in delight.

They didn’t open again. His head slowly seemed to grow heavier as his strength slipped away, and when Birchbark carefully placed his head on the ground, she noticed that the steady movement of his chest going up and down had dissipated.

She sat for a moment, a blank look in her eyes, then the first howl welled up in her throat. She tilted back her head and let it out in one long, mournful sound.”

Looking through these old stories it seems I didn’t write as many as I thought I had. I quit the holt when I ran out of ideas, when I felt there was nothing else I could write about the two characters I had created save one last story, which would have been in response to an event which had not yet happened. I returned once as a guest author when that event finally did happen, and that story is one I am truly proud of. I wrote it in 2004.

My next project must have started a little before then, and has kept me occupied on and off for close to ten years. In essence it was a Mary Sue based on the Lord of the Rings films, in which I was a young make-up artist drafted in to work on film set during the year-and-a-half project in New Zealand. I’ll spare everyone the details, save that it was driven by a film which very quickly became one of my favourites of all time, and a rather persistent crush I developed on Billy Boyd, the actor who played Pippin. What can I say, I’ve always had a soft spot for Scotsmen.

I won’t embarrass myself by posting up an excerpt of a Mary Sue story, but one of the things it spawned was a vague what-if idea. What if Middle-Earth really existed, and it was a land in a parallel dimension? What if there was a way of travelling between the two realms? What if a young woman from Earth somehow ended up in Middle-Earth? This idea lived in the back of my head for nearly ten years before I did anything with it, but once I did it turned into A Shire Romance, a novel I wrote in the space of about two to three weeks in the summer of 2011. This was completely unprecedented for me – never before had I had such an urge to write, to the extent that I literally plonked myself down at my computer the moment I got back from work and wrote until near midnight, stopping only for dinner. I just did not want to do anything else until I finished the novel. It eventually came in at around 75,000 words, and I realised that in little more than two weeks I had produced something that would have qualified for NaNoWriMo, had I written it in November rather than August.

I expressed my surprise at this on Facebook, and got a few reactions from people who said they were interested in reading it. Until then that wasn’t something I had ever even considered – I wrote for my own pleasure, and had no real intent of ever foisting it onto someone else. Then the first person I had sent it to came back to me, several weeks later, to say she had pretty much read it in one go because she couldn’t stop, and had really enjoyed it. Another ego-boost, and certainly more than I had ever expected. It led me to privately publish it and distribute it among colleagues and friends, mostly at cost to myself.

Reading that novel now, barely two years later, it makes me cringe a little. Not because of the story, which is good, but because of the elementary errors in basic writing style it contains. I fully intend to rewrite it at some point (maybe as a bonus for this blog), once I get the time. For now I want to concentrate on finishing my trilogy.

At the time I was doing a course in Italian, and one of my fellow students informed me that Good Housekeeping magazine were running a ‘Get your Novel published’ contest. They required three chapters and a synopsis, and the grand prize was a £25,000 book deal. I really wanted to enter, but A Shire Romance could never qualify due to copyright issues (the Tolkien estate would sue my arse off if I ever published it properly). The only other thing I had available to work with was a barely-started project dating from about six years earlier. Unfortunately I cannot find out exactly when I started it, but it was based on an ill-fated tabletop roleplaying campaign which never went beyond two sessions. For this campaign I was playing two characters, identical twin sisters, one a rogue and the other a sorceress, and Chiarin and Shaniel were born.

In its first incarnation the story was weak – it was too closely based on the roleplaying campaign and I was too intent on writing two more chapters to have enough to enter the competition by the deadline (since it was not necessary to have a completed novel). With hindsight I realise that what I entered was a badly-executed rush job, but it did what I needed: give me a kick up the arse to write a proper, publishable book. I continued knocking out chapter after chapter until I had worked my way through the plot concept and had a book of 16 chapters and around 109,000 words.

I should mention at this point that after writing A Shire Romance I had re-established contact with an old friend who I knew was writing her own book. She had sent me drafts of it before, years ago, but I had never truly made the effort to give proper feedback on it, and now that I had my own taste of how good it felt to have people say nice things about your work, I decided that I should make up for my earlier lack and offer feedback on my friend’s book. I will add that even in that early draft of years ago it was a very exciting book, and I was curious to see how far it had got.

This has since then developed into a mutually beneficial friendship where she offers fantastic constructive criticism on my writing, and I generally just tell her how fecking awesome her writing is. Still, neither of us is afraid to tell the other when something doesn’t feel right or is missing something, which is exactly what any writer worth his/her salt needs. She ripped apart my first draft of The Ritual (in the nicest possible way), and because of that it owes a great deal of its quality to her, which is why I dedicated the book to her. A lot of what I now know about writing I owe to her, and once she is ready to publish her own book I will do everything I possibly can to promote it to people, because it deserves to be read far more than my book does.

So that brings me to where I am now – with my first proper novel published and out there and my second novel in beta-reading stage. Feedback on both has so far been much better than I had anticipated, and the main thing I have got out of that is that it’s worth being out there. It’s not as good as what some of my favourite writers have produced, but it’s a damn sight better than what some other authors with proper publishing deals have churned out.

If you have read The Ritual and liked it, please spread the word. You could do me no better favour than that.

Next week I might try and write something about the traps and pitfalls of writing in a language which isn’t the one you learned from birth.

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4 thoughts on “In the beginning

  1. H. Anthe Davis

    You big flatterer. It amuses me, though, that we both have a bit of background in an ElfQuest holt. A couple of my other online friends also played in holts, but as far as I can tell, they were all different ones; our paths never crossed there, only in the time since.

    Reply

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