[Image by Kadir Celep on Unsplash]
As do novels, all too often. It’s exactly six years since I sat down to write a 2000-word short story, The Bath Curse, for the Open University Creative Writing course I was then undertaking. At the time, I thought it might also make a good opening to a novel about Roman Britain.
Well, six years later an awful lot of caldarium steam has flowed out from that particular hypocaust. The central characters of The Bath Curse became supporting characters in The Governor’s Man, or were relegated to a later novel (sorry, Irish prince-turned-slave Tuathal – your day will come in Book 3.) But not before I spent many months in a cul-de-sac developing the story into a full YA novel, and writing about 14,000 words before running into grave difficulties. I just couldn’t make the book work, no matter what I tried. I gave up, and returned to writing short stories.
And then a wholly different novel came to me, that absolutely had to be written right then and there. I’ll just touch on Entangled, my alt-universe SF adventure featuring an Australian Aboriginal particle physicist who works with an American design engineer to uncover the unfortunate deaths of so many of his friends, and, it transpires, avert the end of the world… Yep, that one. Now edited, short-listed and almost published three times. (The last time was a Covid casualty in Arizona. I burst into tears, and shoved the script into a metaphorical bottom drawer. One day.)
So back to the Roman novel, still at that time a sorry mess with a very soggy middle. I handed it over to my independent editor, Gemma Taylor. ‘Simples,’ she told me. ‘Your heart is not really in this YA business, and anyway you have two other characters, Quintus and Julia, in this subplot over here (imagine Gemma waving her hand to the right, as we sit drinking tea in a Droitwich cafe, on a drenching wet day in autumn 2018) —they are so much more interesting. Older, both with baggage, they hate each other, and they’ve much better equipped to solve a murder mystery than Aurelia and her very young swain.’
Oh, I thought, it’s that kind of story then. And how right Gemma was. But more was needed. A change of main antagonist— twice. Then additional bad guys to trip up Quintus along the route to justice and enlightenment. Which, it transpired, he wouldn’t be able to do without a sidekick. But he already had a sidekick, hadn’t he —Julia? Trained healer, educated tribal noble and all-round useful matrona docta? Gemma sternly reminded me that Quintus and Julia hated each other. That might slow down the pace somewhat, if they were to sit in corners sulking instead of charging headlong into increasing danger across the muddy landscape of third century Britain. That was when the magnificent figure of Tiro, tousle-headed truculent little Londoner, ex-NCO, decorated unarmed-combat champion, burst into view. It was all going to be so easy.
By now we had reached 2019. I had come up with a whole new plot for GM, and begun writing chapters. It was a slow affair as I was increasingly distracted by Brexit and my part in what was supposed to be its downfall, until it wasn’t. After organising a ‘Farewell to Europe’ party for 300 local Remainers on Departure Day, 31 January 2020, Him Indoors and I sighed, packed our bags and flew to New Zealand to see family and drink our way round that remarkable country (see my Land of the Long White Cloud travel blog ) In March 2020 we came home—to Lockdown 1.
Okay, I admit to being even more distracted by that. Well, weren’t you? I took my eye off the novel-writing ball for a couple of months, and blogged quite a lot on the subject of Life in the Time of Coronavirus. When it became apparent that Covid-19 was a far cannier player than our benighted government ( I have other names for the government, but out of regard for my readers will leave it at that), and Lockdown 1 had merged into endless porridge for me, being a Clinically Extremely Vulnerable person, I realised the time had come to buckle down. To allow the Novel In Me to emerge. And the rest is history: I wrote the first draft of 90,000 words between May and October 2020, sent it to my wonderful volunteer first readers and to Gemma, spent a week on a very wet beach in Devon, and returned to drum my fingers and research Governor’s Man #2. And to await with dread my volunteer readers’ comments. Fortunately everyone (mostly) was enthusiastic and kind, and several readers asked about the next book. Gemma was very encouraging too, although of course she sent a mass of edits back needing my authorial attention. No self- respecting editor could do otherwise, surely? That re-writing took me to early February 2021. The novel was now finished, and I sent out bespoke enquiries to seven literary agents and two publishers allegedly seeking unagented historical mysteries.
So job done, then? Sit back and watch the royalties roll in. Maybe a nice launch party when lockdown lifts.
Don’t make me laugh. Side-splitting. Okay, now we move onto Plan A and Plan B. Plan A (the less likely) involves Someone Out There picking up the script with enthusiasm and a chequebook, and the willingness to publish my book. As all the various Somebodies require twelve weeks to elapse before they reject my story, I’ll allow myself two full cycles of unbearable tension and dread before I move on. That gives me till August to write GM#2, The Carnelian Phoenix. [Shout-out to the uniquely wonderful Sue Willetts and colleagues at the Hellenic and Roman Library in London, who have changed my life.] Thanks to Sue, a Trojan (if that isn’t too mixed a metaphor) during these troubled times, this story is already largely researched and outlined, and I’ve made a start on writing scenes. I’m very excited about sending my three protagonists on a sort of working holiday across Gaul, and on to Rome. Quintus wants to see his family. Tiro wants to confirm that Londinium really is a better city than Rome. Julia just needs a break. What could possibly go wrong?
Plan B kicks in when all 12-20 agents on my rolling submissions list reject me, and no suitable publisher can find room for my novel. (Plan B, it must be accepted, is the realistic likelihood given how many other lockdown novels are flooding out there.) So then GM#2 goes off to beta readers and Gemma for editing, and while it’s being pummelled into shape, I get to plan my first foray into the exciting world of Self-Publishing and Doing My Own Marketing.
That, my dearest Reader, will be quite another story, and an even mightier oak to grow…