In The Beginning

I thought I’d kick off my ramblings about writing with the story of how the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker series came to be published. Hopefully, if you’re a writer still looking for your lucky break, my experiences will give you encouragement and possibly even inspiration.

The idea for this story first came to me over 15 years ago, while I was doing laps at my local swimming pool. A central image: two friends, one royalty, one commoner, now enemies. The prince has ordered his best friend’s hand to be struck off. Why, I wondered in between gasps for air, would one best friend turn on another and order him to be maimed? Who are these friends? How did they meet, and how do they reconcile after such a falling out?

It took a great deal more thinking before I found the answers to those questions. Eventually, I had a rough idea of what the story was about, and who these people were, and the kind of world they lived in. I started writing. And I stopped writing. And I started writing again. I was like a car kangaroo-hopping down the road. Even though I believed in the story and the characters, faith in my own ability to tell the story was a lot harder to come by. I was good at some aspects of writing, pretty awful at others. I was easily distracted. Real life kept intruding, so that I’d put aside the work for months at a time. Start other stories only to abandon them to return to Asher, Gar and company. I was intimidated by the process. Not at all certain that I could write this story. While I was completely comfortable writing Asher, Gar proved far more elusive. It took a long time to realize I needed to know myself better before I could truly know him.

I made the mistake a lot of inexperienced writers make: I sent the work out nowhere near polished, and not even finished. I was having a hard time living on nothing but faith. I thought that if somebody told me the work was worthwhile then I could finish it. I didn’t understand that I had to find that faith for myself first,  regardless of what other people said.

I’ve lost count of the times I gave up on writing this story, only to return to it, incapable of forgetting the characters and their complicated lives. What I didn’t know, but understand now, was that I still hadn’t become the person I needed to be. The person who could write the story as it deserved to be written.

All my life I’ve wanted to write. And I have. Before Kingmaker, Kingbreaker I wrote three young adult romance novels, had a play performed in New Zealand, wrote magazine articles as a freelance journalist and many times returned to my safe haven of fan fiction. In fact, it wasn’t until I was ready to leave fan fiction behind that I could really focus on my own work. Until I could believe in the world I’d created as passionately as I believed in other peoples’ worlds. But I have to tell you, in many ways it was fan fiction that saved me. I’d get comments from people literally all over the world, saying ‘Wow, that was great, write more, and why aren’t you professionally published?’ In my darkest moments, when I despaired of ever finishing my novel, I remembered those kind words and they gave me hope.

The other thing that kept me going was getting involved in what was then the Del Rey Online Writers’ Workshop. (It still exists, but as an independent organisation – the Online Science Fiction and Fantasy workshop. Check out the Links page to visit them). I submitted an early version of The Innocent Mage’s opening, got some very positive feedback and was nominated Runner Up Best Fantasy Chapter for that month by the editorial team. Subsequently I submitted the opening chapter of Empress, the first book in the Godspeaker trilogy,  and that was voted Best Fantasy Chapter. These achievements were very encouraging, and I kept on plugging away.

But clearly, I was still unfocused, trying to divide my attention between two separate stories. Unable to let the characters go, I returned to Kingmaker, Kingbreaker. That was the original title, because I was writing it as a stand-alone. A single novel. And it still wasn’t finished. I kept reworking the beginning, over and over and over, refining the ideas, over and over and over, but just couldn’t seem to reach the end. I think a part of me was afraid to. While I was still writing, its publication was possible. Finished, and submitted, I was closer to having my dreams not come true.

Eventually, I realized I either had to piss or get off the pot. I saw an article about a scriptwriting competition, thought the story might make a good fantasy film, and wrote the whole damn thing as a script. Dialogue only, with the requisite minimalist stage directions. I’ve always found dialogue fun. Somehow, this approach freed up my imagination … and I finished the story. All the way to the end. I couldn’t believe it. I had a real live finished story. After years of waffling and false starts I had a beginning, a middle and an end.

I entered the competition and didn’t win, but the feedback I got encouraged me to think I might have an entertaining story. So I went back and rewrote the whole thing, as a novel. Still as a single volume, because of course I’d finished the story in the format of a 2 hour movie.

Then I submitted it to HarperCollins Voyager. And, in due course, received the most wonderful rejection letter from the editor, Stephanie Smith, in which she very kindly pointed out the story’s many shortcomings, made some brilliant suggestions as to how it could be fixed, and invited me to resubmit if I liked, once the changes were made.

Next to an offer of a contract, this is the best response you’ll ever get from a publisher. I was ecstatic. I put Kingmaker away, wrote something else, and then came back to it. Upon re-reading, it became woefully obvious that I’d shortchanged the story in a major way. It needed to be two books, not one. I found the place I thought best suited for an ending, put aside what was left, and concentrated on polishing the first part into what would become, eventually, The Innocent Mage. And I rewrote. And rewrote. And polished. And tweaked. And fiddled. And then, when I thought it was as good as I could make it, I resubmitted the manuscript along with an outline for what would become Innocence Lost.

And it sold.

There really are much easier ways to get published. I think I made every mistake under the sun, and invented a few new ones along the way in my journey to publication. But I learned heaps … about myself, about the writing process, about how the publishing business works. At the end of the day, I couldn’t have reached this place any other way. This was my journey. Other writers’ journeys are massively different.  For every writer you ask ‘how did you get published?’, you’ll receive a different answer — each one dictated by that person’s circumstances, personality and particular life journey. This was mine.

But, in the interests of other people learning from my mistakes, I’ll take a moment to hand out some totally unsolicited advice.

Stay focused. Commit to a writing schedule and stick with it. Don’t give yourself permission to make excuses. Feel the fear and doubt and do it anyway. Even if you’re only writing a page a day, do it. A page a day is an excellent beginning. Make writing a priority in your life. If it’s not of overwhelming importance, or if you allow fear to get in the way, you’ll never get there.

Finish the damn thing. Just plough on, regardless, because until you’ve got a completed first draft you’ve got nothing. Be it short story or novel, just keep on writing till you reach The End. Make no mistake, writing a novel is a grueling endeavour. It’s a marathon. How do you finish a marathon? By putting one foot in front of the other over and over again until you hit the 26 mile mark. A novel? By writing one word after another, one sentence, one paragraph, one chapter … until the story’s told.

Don’t think about getting published at this stage. Forget about what’s selling today, what editors are looking for this week. A good story well told will never go out of style. Put all your energy and effort into telling your story as well as you can, with as much flair and style and polish as you can. If you focus too early on getting published, you’ll either intimidate yourself out of finishing, or you’ll rush the work and end up with something that isn’t as good as it should or needs to be.

Find a circle of critics who’ll give you the feedback you need … not necessarily what you want. It goes without saying you’re desperate for people to love your writing. But the chances of producing the perfect story first up are practically non-existent. Even the best writers produce less than fabulous work in the early stages. The trick is learning how to identify the mistakes and correct them, and for that you need an outside observer who isn’t emotionally involved or attached to the story. And then you need to listen to their feedback. Close friends and family are probably not right for this exacting task. They’ll be more inclined to protect your feelings. Find a good writers’ group instead, or  handful of trusted beta readers,  and be prepared to take criticism on the chin. The best compliment you’ll ever receive is somebody taking your story seriously enough to criticize it honestly and provide useful feedback. Cherish that.

Write with passion. Love your story, your world, your characters. Cynical attempts to ‘cash in’ on a currently popular style or genre are doomed to failure and it’s insulting to both editors and readers.

Always be professional. Treat everyone you meet with courtesy and care. Thank those who take the time to read and comment on your work, even if you don’t get the results you want.

 

13 thoughts on “In The Beginning

  1. This is a great article to read. Although, I am more in-line with illustration work, I do have hopes of writing and publishing my own work someday. You have given me nice nuggets of advice, thank you! =)

      • Thank you for replying! I will be sure to visit regularly!

        There is one topic that I would like your opinion on, if possible (perhaps even for a future topic, if you haven’t done it already). Today, I was told about how the publishing world has become such an environment that it scrutinizes authors that are not entirely politically-correct. Some examples included not being able to mention women as house-wives, mandatory mention of characters of different ethnicities and villains unable to be portrayed as certain races. Have you experienced anything like this in your time being published?

  2. Hey Wing —

    first of all, fantastic to see you at Forbidden Planet! So sorry to be slow replying to this, but I know you know how frantic I was on my UK trip!

    As for the whole PC thing, well — I think it varies. I think some editors are very aware of authors and politics and can make decisions accordingly. Others don’t care so long as the work is good. At this point I’d suggest you not worry too much about it, just focus on your work, write the best book you can, and then look at the next stage. It’s too easy to get distracted by stuff that’s either never relevant, or not relevant now.

  3. Fantastic post, Karen! Really, really useful! In the process of editing my 2nd novel now, and this is a real boost.
    Also, I *just* missed you at Galaxy Bookshop the other day. I was told we were something like three minutes apart.

    • Hey Jeremy! So very pleased you enjoyed the article. If you get a chance you might enjoy the podcasts too. Now that I’m back from Europe I’ll be continuing the series. And I’m sos orry we missed each other at Galaxy. Next time! Good luck with your book — I’d love to say it gets easier the more you do but, on balance, that’s just not so! *g* At least in my experience. Sigh.

      • Yeah, that’s true. I’ve had over twenty short stories published, and every time I sit down to do another I have doubts about it. *le sigh*

        I do have something to ask you, though. (Sorry if this isn’t the best place). I’m an assistant editor on a Hugo winning podcast called StarShipSofa. Every week we feature SF stories and turn them into audio. I’d like to ask you to be on the show. If you have a science-fiction (this can be very loose) published short story, novelette, or even a novella, that has not been translated into audio, I’ll very much like to have it on our show.

        And for the record, we’ve had people like Gaiman, Sanderson, Moorcock and Bova on the show, so you’ll be in good company.

        Hope you get back to me,

        Jeremy Szal

  4. Oh, Jeremy, what a fabulous compliment. Thank you. Alas, I do not do short fiction! The closest I ever came was short fiction for the official Stargate magazine, and for the Star Wars magazine, and I only managed them because they were media tie in work and even then I got nosebleeds! But the whole show sounds great, so if you can please email me about them I’d love to do a blog post featuring the site and what you do.

    • No worries, will do. I’ll use the contact form, yeah?
      And still, this Star Wars short fiction sounds interesting. I’d be willing to take a look if you’re willing to send it over. (I actually saw one of your Star Wars novels when I was in Thailand recently.)

      More in the email.

      Cheers,
      Jeremy

  5. It was very interesting to read how things satrted for you. I think it’s easy to forget that everyone, no matter how famous and/or popular, had to deal with rejection at some point and it’s always good to remind yourself of that every now and again. And all those rewrites paid off for you as well! I think Empress was the first book by you I read and I instantly fell in love with it, and then after that series I moved on to Kingmaker/Kindbreaker and loved it every bit as much.

    Thank you for the excellent advice in this article, too, especially the ‘One page a day thing is an excellent start’ bit. I tend to be very self-critical, especially when I feel like I haven’t written enough, so this should probably be printed and put up by my computer somewhere!

    • Shutting up the inner editor is one of the hardest things to do, but it’s vital if you’re going to finish a first draft. You must give yourself permission to write badly, just so you can finish the story. Then you get to fix it. The first draft is for you, not anyone else.

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