One of the most often-repeated pieces of advice to writers is that you should write the book you would want to read, rather than chasing some idea of what readers might be looking for.
That’s good advice for anyone wanting to write their best work, but not necessarily good career guidance. Taking my own career as an example, I started out a little over thirty years ago with a gritty, anguished post-cyberpunk thriller. I followed this with a horror novel that never sold, and then a high-SF duology, and then a fantasy novel about the death of fantasy (and therefore one that didn’t feature a lot of actual fantasy), and then a contemporary crime novel.
If I’d chosen to follow up that first novel with a direct sequel, a top US publisher was willing to publish me at the top of their list, but I held to my artistic principles and followed my muse. No regrets, but my career would have been very different. Hell, if I’d even stuck a little more closely to a single genre groove my career would have been very different. But I genre-hopped and never quite settled – and probably had a far more interesting career as a result.
Anyway, this is a rather long-winded introduction to an idea that occurred to me recently. I’ve written a lot of fiction over the years, and now I’m very far-removed from actually writing those early books. What would it be like to re-read some of them? Would I find that it all came rushing back and it’d be something akin to that umpteenth editing pass where you’re sick of the words you’ve written and don’t believe anyone might find them even vaguely interesting? Or might that distance actually allow me to read the books with fresh eyes?
So I thought I’d give it a go.
I’m not intending to slavishly reread every word I’ve ever written, but there are some interesting concepts back there. Like that fantasy novel about the death of fantasy and belief. It’s an idea that’s been explored elsewhere, of course, but this was my take on it: a story set in the tail end and aftermath of a brutal civil war, where some people rally around faith while others question any kind of god who might allow such carnage. Early drafts went by the title Scar Tissue, and my lead character was called Blair, in acknowledgement of George Orwell, whose Homage to Catalonia was one of the big influences on the setting and dramatic tensions. The novel was a very near miss, with interest from a major publisher taking it right up to the point where it was listed in their Forthcoming Titles catalogue, but internal changes at the company before signatures hit the contract led to it falling through the gaps. After that, it was a difficult book to place – for a variety of reasons, one of which was that it didn’t fit any neat publishing categories, being neither mainstream nor out and out fantasy. It ended up coming out under the title Lord of Stone from Cosmos Books in the US in the late 1990s, and then I republished it through infinity plus a few years ago.
Rereading it now has been an interesting experience. The book is full of familiar echoes, like a movie rewatched after several years. There are scenes I remember vividly, and others that have surprised me; characters who are like old friends or colleagues, and others who I had totally forgotten.
Within a very short space of time I was totally absorbed in the story of a young man in the thick of a foreign war. First a bystander, Bligh (as I renamed him, because by the time the book came out a certain other Blair figured large in UK political life) soon becomes passionately involved in the struggles of people he has come to know and love; and before long he’s fighting in the international corps, while powerful forces of the old religion close in around him, and he is clearly being marked out as something special. The fantasy element remains ambiguous – just like the characters in the novel, the reader can choose to believe or not, a fine balance that, for me at least, draws me right into Bligh’s struggles to understand what is happening to him.
It’s odd. This is a book I wrote. These are words that occupied a year or more of my life back in the early 1990s. And yet I’ve actually enjoyed reading this novel as much as any other novel I’ve read this year. Does that sound egotistical? Arrogant?
Perhaps. But remember that piece of writing advice. Always write the story you would want to read. And by setting Lord of Stone aside for a couple of decades I find that I’ve given myself enough distance to prove that true. This novel might not have the same resonances, or power to move, for you or anyone else, but for me this is exactly the book I would want to read. And regardless of career trajectory, marketing, or any other aspect of a writer’s life, you can’t really ask for any greater success than that.
Trace: a country where magic is dying out. A country at war with itself. A country where the prophecies of the Book of the World have started to come true.
Bligh: a young foreigner, drawn irresistibly to the war in Trace. A man who has rejected religion, yet appears to be possessed by one of the six Lords Elemental. Bligh thinks he’s going mad, but if he is then it’s a madness shared by others…
‘Satisfying prose … well realised and visualised characters … powerful and vivid portrayal of the conditions of war.’ –Eric Brown
‘Keith Brooke’s prose achieves a rare honesty and clarity, his characters always real people, his situations intriguing and often moving.’ –Jeff VanderMeer