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A North-South Divide
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The Writing Of
Please be aware that this article contains some very minor spoilers for A NORTH-SOUTH DIVIDE.
The original idea of NSD came about after I finished reading THE PAINTED MAN by Peter V. Brett. In the book, Arlen Bales becomes a messenger, delivering messages and post to towns and villages. I liked the idea of writing about a similar character, but wanted him to have some more motivation. The idea that the as-yet-unnamed character would be also searching for something came next. After turning the idea for the book around in my head for a while, I decided on a messenger called Duncan searching the world for the scattered pieces of an amulet that he would need to repair in order to rid himself of his curse. There were a few other elements that I had to deal with, such as why Duncan was so eager to hide his affliction from the world. Soon enough, the Purifier came into being - it was to be the only thing that could kill Duncan and thus condemn his soul for eternity, sealing his fate.
Something I decided right away was that I didn't want to write a book that was composed of people engaged in bitter conflict with one another (be that war, personal grievances, etc); I had recently read plenty of fantasy books where an angry protagonist is expressing his discomfort at the world by spilling blood at every turn of a page, and so I wanted to do something different. This was to be a character-driven story about a man in search of redemption. He was to travel to places, meet old friends, make new ones, and, through his own actions and insight, show the reader how different the world has become compared to what he once knew. That's not to say that there isn't conflict in the story - it's just of a different sort.
One of the first ideas for the story that popped into my head as I began fleshing the story out was of Duncan meeting some others who were also cursed - one in particular being a man who always spoke in rhyme (this was dropped from the final story, as writing his dialogue provided very difficult). I also decided that this would be a one-off meeting and not something that Duncan did throughout the book. I considered at one time the entire book taking place during this meeting, with Duncan talking about his former life, what he has been doing the whole time, and how he was progressing with his search for a cure. Having Duncan telling his life story to a bunch of people was too close to The King Killer Chronicles (THE NAME OF THE WIND / THE WISE MAN'S FEAR). Duncan was to be a wanderer.
I decided right away that the book was to tell of Duncan's final year as a cursed man (incidentally, the original title of the book). When I finally hit upon the idea that part of Duncan's curse was making him intolerant of the cold, forcing him to move about the world, I knew I had the idea of the plot nailed. I then had to just sit down and write it.
For me, A NORTH-SOUTH DIVIDE was quite a difficult book to write, as the focus was purely on Duncan's travels around the world as he searches for the last piece of the amulet to return him to normal. This presented the danger that it might seem as though nothing happened in the book, since the messenger would be moving from one place to the next, mostly talking to people. I was to slowly bleed elements of Duncan's past into the book as it went on, finally culminating with a meeting with a community of magical beings commonly known as blue nymphs, while he is helping a woman find asylum. I actually wrote a select number of chapters back in 2011 before aborting the entire thing. After struggling to make some parts work, I concluded that I didn't have the skill to write the story; it was complicated and would require a writer with a better grasp of penning a story that was 100% focused on the travels of a man seeking redemption. I was more used to writing action orientated books where I could investigate a character's personality in between the high velocity action. And so, somewhat reluctantly, I shelved the book for five years.
It was while I was in Japan that I decided the time might have come to try again. My guided tour around the country saw me having to get on a number of trains, and so, to pass the time, I began to write down the events of the story in order, detailing what would happen in each chapter, who Duncan might meet, and what their backstory would be. By the time I returned from holiday, the muse had returned, and so I got to work on the story. Amusingly, one can see a small influence my trip had on the book in the second chapter of the novel - Duncan loses his magical bag when he falls into a river and returns to the bridge the next day to retrieve it. He considers the bridge as he approaches it, concluding that it is nice-looking one. I took a number of photos of the bridges in Japan:
The bridge that Duncan fell off was a bit higher up though, and the river it lay above was also deeper!
I also travelled to Miyajima, an island famously known to be overrun with deer. Jumping on the boat to take the journey over lead to me deciding that the southern part of the world would be composed of many dozens of islands (before this, there had simply been too large continents) - one in the north and one in the south. The last thing I did was to decide that the other fantasy book I wrote would be set in the same world, during the same period. This meant that Duncan would see the red dragon on occasion and also interact with Alysha at one point. It was fun to write, but does sort of look a bit like the two characters are stalking each other, their paths crossing on a few occasions (more on this another time).
One of the themes of A NORTH-SOUTH DIVIDE is the importance of education - Duncan is seen to have invested much of his accumulated wealth into the founding of various colleges.
This being my first fantasy book, I discovered that keeping track of the locations of towns and the overall shape of the world was a lot trickier than star systems in a space opera. In order to ensure that I knew where everything was and referred to it correctly, I fired up GIMP and drew a rough map, adding in the locations of the major towns and areas that Duncan was to visit during his journey:
Yes, they're pretty bad, but they served to help me note where thing were relative to one another.
Moving on from rejection
I had hopes that A NORTH-SOUTH DIVIDE would find a home with a traditional publisher - I consider it, along with ALYSHA, to be the most commercially viable novel I've ever written - and for a time it seemed that it would. After querying a few dozen agents, I got a request for a full manuscript from one and then, not a little later, a request of the balance from a well-known publisher that I had directly submitted to. Sadly, the publisher passed on the book and the agent who requested the full never got back to me. I chased, but got no response. What became of the submission, I don't know. I imagine it was binned off and the agent chose to pursue other works. ALYSHA wasn't so lucky - the story didn't receive any interest at all, all parties passing on it, either by way of direct rejection or with the wall of silence that implies that the agent has chosen to pass.
The issue the publisher had with the story was the flashback chapters. This is quite funny, as the flashbacks were a late addition to the story that I added after the second rewrite had been done. I felt that there was something missing from the story; we needed to know about Duncan's life before he became cursed and began to wander the world. There still existed the chapter where Duncan recounted the night of his curse to the overseer of the blue nymphs, but because it involved his old teammates and was set a hundred years earlier, featuring monsters and heavy use of magic, it felt jarringly out of place. The reader was suddenly jerked into this other setting with characters and elements they had not seen in the story at all. The details needed to be bled in. I felt short flashbacks were the best way to handle this.
Needing to keep his curse secret, Duncan has very few people to talk to about his past life. And those who are aware of Duncan's affliction are already well aware of his past by the time the story begins. It might not have been something the publisher liked, but the flashbacks serve to show how the world has changed since Duncan was cursed, as well as interactions with his old friends. There was of course the possibility that I could have rewritten the book so that Duncan was telling the story of his life to a bunch of other cursed people - this meeting actually occurs halfway through the novel, but Duncan doesn't furnish the other attendees with all the details. I chose not to do this, as it was far too close in nature to how THE KINGKILLER CHRONICLE has been written. I suspect that comparisons to Rothfuss's masterpiece wouldn't go well for me..! One change I did make in response to the feedback was to subtitle the flashback chapters to make it clear they took place before the present day (by adding the phrase 'X summers before the infliction').
So, with both stories complete I chose to self-publish them. I got in touch with Kate Haigh (www.kateproof.co.uk) to do the proofing for me and also commissioned some cover art from Dale Halvorsen (aka Joey Hi-Fi) - dropr.com/portfolio186082, who has created a number of covers for Angry Robot Books and Solaris, as well as the hardback cover for Lauren Beukes's THE SHINING GIRLS.
As noted in a previous news post, I was actually quite stunned by the number of typographical errors that Kate spotted in A NORTH-SOUTH DIVIDE, as well as some discrepancies in the story itself. I thought that NSD was in a far better state than it turned out to be. This yet again goes to show the importance of an editor, and Kate was great to work with on this. Thankfully, there weren't any major rewrites required, only a few tweaks here and there to clarify some plot points and items. One thing Kate was very keen to stress was for me to keep in mind the age of my audience - NSD does contain some strong language at times and Kate obviously didn't think it would be appropriate for me to drop four letter swear words into a novel that could well be read by a younger reader.
I'm not generally a fan of swearing in books. Used poorly (in other words, all the time) and I feel it can actually spoil the reading experience. In the BATTLE FOR THE SOLAR SYSTEM trilogy I never wrote one single swear word, as I didn't want it to be something that could potentially drive away readers. Having said that, I do think a bit of swearing is fine, so long as it's measured and suits the context. In the snippet above, a very grumpy and evil fae is getting frustrated at her inability to rid herself of a curse that made her human. As the scene paints her as being an obnoxious and evil being, I allowed the one instance of the f-word in the novel as I felt it went with her character.
With all the tracked changes done, I worked through the notes to clear up the errors and inconsistencies, and then awaited the cover art from Dale. Dale kept in regular touch with me while he worked on the covers and asked me to clarify a couple of things, such as what the amulet looked like and whether or not I had produced any maps of the world.
Judging a book ...
Dale soon emailed me a work-in-progress version of the cover, with several different colour schemes. Being at work when I got the mail I decided to wait until I was home to read it properly. I was nervous when I came to opening it. What if I didn't like the cover? What would I say? I forwarded the email to my brother before I looked at the images myself and told him to give me his opinon, then pottered about for a bit tidying up the house and putting off opening the mail. A notification then came on my phone from my brother. It simply read: "Holy shit! That cover's awesome! I REALLY like number 4!". I opened the mail from Dale right away and almost fell off my chair. The cover was perfect. Dale said that he thought it was probably far from what I expected, but that couldn't be further from the truth. It was as though Dale had seen directly into my mind. This is the cover for the book I had always dreamed of.
As should be plain by now, Dale is an incredible artist. I was very pleased with the result and the depiction of Duncan (and Nilus). After I collected myself I took some time to consider each of the options Dale had offered. It came down to a choice between #4 and #5. Eventually I settled on #5. While #4 is quite striking and the dark background helps to bring out the red and blue hues, I felt the textured white background of #5 works best with the greys of the main art. I also prefer the text placement of the latter three options compared to the prior.
Dale made some more changes (such as adding in the depictions of Duncan's former teammates) and then sent the final cover over to me. I was very, very pleased with the result. The only thing that left me disappointed was knowing that, since a publisher isn't involved, it wouldn't be displayed in a bookstore. It clearly deserves to be. Maybe one day.
That's it for the writing of A North-South Divide. The writing of ALYSHA will come in a future post.
You can find out more about A NORTH-SOUTH DIVIDE and where to buy a copy at the book's dedicated page.
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 Some might argue that I still don't..!