As this is my first post, it seems only fitting that it should be about why, and how, this whole (writing/blogging/rambling aimlessly in print) thing got started. If you’ve read my About and Biography pages, you know I’ve already touched on the story in both, as it was understandably germane in both places – but now that we’re here, at the beginning of what I intend to be an ongoing string of commentary and vignettes centered primarily around my writing, I feel I should explore the subject in a little more detail. I don’t think the account will turn out to be too redundant to what I’ve previously shared, and if it does… ah well, not to worry – subsequent posts will bump this one back down the page soon enough.
First of all, I should mention that this isn’t really the beginning at all. I suppose it may be obvious from my age and what I’ve told you about my background elsewhere (and hopefully also from my writing itself), but I, like many authors, first picked up the proverbial pen sometime in my youth – although in my case I honestly could not tell you when exactly that was. I’ve certainly been reading for as long as I can remember, and in fact, far longer than that. According to my parents, when I was as young as three years old, I would continue story time well after they had left the room by reading aloud to myself (“I pull the likes of you? Indeed not!“), and it was not long before I was the sort of little boy that could be left for hours upon hours by myself in my room with a book (or, to be fair, Legos). Looking back, I now realize that this time spent retelling other people’s tales (and developing backstories for my Lego creations) must have been the first precursor of what would eventually become my ever more intense interest in spinning my own yarns. At first these were always in the context of schoolwork, as creative writing essays quickly became my favorite assignments, but at some point in junior high or high school, writing evolved into something I wanted to do for myself, and that I dreamed of doing professionally. So, I began to dabble in my free time, working on snippets of short stories, as well as some poetry – and, if I recall correctly, some of that early work showed a fair glimmer of promise, especially given how young I was when I produced it.
But then something happened: I went to college. You would think that this would actually have been a great boon to my development, as I went to a wonderful institution where I studied English under some of the leading professors of the subject, and took creative writing classes with world-renowned authors like Russell Banks and Joyce Carol Oates. Instead my work went downhill. It became tortured and self-involved, and what I produced was little more than the results of me working out my issues on the page – that is, when I bothered to put in the effort at all. And while there’s nothing wrong with employing writing for therapeutic purposes (in point of fact, it can be quite beneficial), by no means does it inspire one to want to write more. And it most certainly does not lead to great literature.
Which brings me to the second contributing factor that led to my eventually stepping away from the keyboard: after a dozen years of ravenously consuming almost every fantasy novel I could get my hands on, during my college years I gradually found myself beginning to look down on the genre. The process was slow and it happened subconsciously, but it was inexorable – and inevitable – nonetheless: after all, when you spend four years in the ivory-est of towers, you cannot help but observe what is considered to be in the canon, and what is not. And while it is never stated explicitly, you learn that no fantasy novel is considered “great” – unless perhaps it does an end run around the rules and achieves that status under the guise of children’s literature. So, while I was still spending my own time in the fantasy aisle on the lookout for Robert Jordan’s next book, in class I was being trained that if I wanted to write anything worthy of respect, it could not be in my favorite genre.
Then, I graduated and began a two-decade-long career working at high-stress jobs that demanded 60-80 (and sometimes more) hours per week, every week. As you can imagine, this sort of lifestyle is not conducive to crafting anything resembling quality prose in general, and it is absolutely toxic to writing that seems like drudgery in its own right. Every few months or so, I would buy a little notebook and jot down notes on some potential “capital L” literature idea (generally based on my own life and experiences), but whenever I attempted to transfer them to the page, they would never make it past more than a paragraph or two – and they were never good enough to keep. Finally, after a few years of repeating this pattern, I stopped even that pretense, and from my late twenties through my late thirties, I don’t think I composed so much as a single sentence of fiction.
Though I had difficulty writing anything of my own during this period, that fact never stopped me from reading. Indeed, in retrospect, my struggles may have inspired me to read more. And while I devoured some wonderful books such as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Cold Mountain, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time* and scores of others over the years that went by, fantasy – and especially high fantasy – remained what I loved best. I could always lose myself in the pages of such novels, finding joy and wonder, no matter how dark or frantic or out of control my own life seemed at the time. Sadly, however, what had once seemed an unending flow of fresh series from the publishing houses (at least one new quality, along with another half dozen or more not-quite-so-quality, debuts each year), soon began to taper off. Yes, authors like Jordan, who had begun their sagas years earlier, continued to advance them, and yes, other fantasy works like the Harry Potter novels and Susanna Clarke’s dazzling Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell provided lovely distractions for a time – but I still longed for new versions of the traditional epic. And none were forthcoming.
Instead, fantasy began to go in new directions, producing (admittedly innovative) new sub-genres, promoting the anti-hero, and focusing more and more on action-oriented narratives rather than those that built a sense of the mythic. Even those new works that seemed at first to promise a return to the archetype I so loved inevitably veered off onto a new course once they had me well and truly sucked in (oh, George R. R. Martin, you dog, you). And so, when I first saw the promos for Game of Thrones on HBO, I finally came to the conclusion that the industry wasn’t about to give me what I craved any time soon; if I wanted a new high fantasy epic, I would have to write it for myself.
One Saturday afternoon, I cracked open the clamshell of my laptop and began to type. And what do you know – I made it to one whole page without deleting it. And then another. And another. Suddenly, it was no longer about wanting to write, I needed to do it. At first, some weeks would go by where I wouldn’t get more than a page, or even a paragraph, done due to my busy schedule, but I always came back to it, always got something done. The more
I wrote, the more it became my priority. Eventually I stopped working so hard at my career in the hopes that I might someday have an opportunity to devote more time to writing, and instead I refocused that career, freeing up the hours necessary to devote more time to writing today.
And now, five years later, my novel, The Herald’s Dark Progress, is finally done.
On to the hard(er) part: getting the book published. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I understand why years ago editors no doubt finally grew tired of high fantasy – to anyone who’s seen as much of the form as they have, it must feel done to death. And frankly, I myself have no desire to simply copy what’s already been so well written by others. But the genius of authors like Le Guin and Jordan was that they took the archetype, and rather than shunning the classic elements as “tropes”, they embraced them as hallmarks, and then took their tales in new directions, developing engaging new storylines, and exploring new themes of their own. That is what I also have set out to do. And while I certainly would never dream of claiming to be the next Ursula K. Le Guin, I think I can truthfully say I’ve been successful in following her example. The challenge now is to find a champion in the industry who agrees.
So, here we are. I took a near-twenty year break from writing, and meanwhile the major publishers have taken a near-twenty year break from publishing classic high fantasy epics. I finally ended my hiatus, and am about to try to convince them to do the same.
In my opinion, it is long past time they did.
*I mention these titles specifically, because I think they are beautiful and engaging works of prose that everyone should read.