Writing

Sara’s Bio: 2001

Sara Douglass is not my birth name – I’m actually Sara Warneke, but if I’d been a boy I would have been called Douglass … so when my first publisher HarperCollins Australia insisted I choose a different surname to get me off the lowest shelves in bookshops, I went with ‘Douglass’ with the double ‘ss’ to feminise it.

I was born on the 2nd June 1957 in Penola, a small town in the south-east of South Australia. My parents, two older sisters and older brother lived on a farm called Gundealga (look out for the name in the Axis books) where Dad and Mum farmed sheep and a lot of hope. I loved the farm, and hated leaving it to go to school and, eventually, to move to the capital city of South Australia , Adelaide, when I was about seven. We moved to Fisher Street in Malvern, a southern suburb, living in an old and gently decaying bluestone Victorian house (which I still dream of regularly … it was the house where I did most of my growing up). I was packed off to school, Methodist Ladies College, which was gentle, gentile and caring, and totally oblivious to the social revolutions of the ‘sixties.

I came home one day to find Mum complaining of stomach cramps, saying she was off to the doctor. I can still remember that day, and even the dress Mum wore. It was the start of the bleakest 3 years of my life as Mum unsuccessfully battle ovarian cancer. Watching her die, and watching a family disintegrate under the strain (while grimly clinging to that old Victorian value of there being no strain, and nothing is wrong dear, it is just your imagination). When I wrote Enchanter, and did the scene where Azhure finally relives the horror of her mother’s death, it was, for me, a cathartic experience. Immediately after that scene Axis, in order to save Azhure from whatever bleak hell she’d gone into, has to apologise to her on behalf of the entire world for all the wrongs of the world. For me, that was even more cathartic: I’d needed someone to apologise for the living hell that my childhood had been – even though there was no one to blame, and no one who should have been blamed. Immediately after writing those two scenes I went and lay down on my bed and cried for 3 hours. Even though so many years have passed, Mum’s sickness and eventual death remains one of the pivotal experiences of my life (although I carry no chip on my shoulder over it … I’ve only talked about it here because a very insightful journalist probed me about those two scenes, and eventually their genesis made it into national print here in Australia).

Back to school and growing up. I loved school, adored it (probably because it was a wonderful escape from family life). I had a terrific group of friends there as well – hello to Robyn, Trish, Ingrid and Cathy. I had a mad, insane crush on Cat Stevens. I developed a mad, insane passion for horse riding. And I did a little writing – not much, but a little … coming second in a national essay competition on the life of horses in the circus, the rodeo and racing (I am convinced I would have won if my essay had been more politically sound). And eventually I finished school, and passed into the great wide open world.

My father Bob, and my stepmum Joan, had been gently insisting for many years that I take up the female family tradition of nursing. Oh God, I loathed it. I loathed it, and yet it took me 17 years to escape. I loathed the stress, the anxious watching of patients in bed lest they do something silly like burst an aneurysm or have a cardiac arrest, the arrogance of the doctors (as the bio in front of so many of my books attest – and yes, I’ve had arrogant emails from doctors about that, as well!). I finished my training when I was 20, and took off with a friend to Europe for about 6 months. This trip was another of the great milestones of my life. Never had I felt so free – free from family expectations, free to be myself. It was brilliant, liberating, eye-opening. When I came home I managed to find a position as a registered Nurse (‘sister’ here in Australia … I was Sister Sara for many, many years … wasn’t that Clint Eastwood film as well??) in a small, bizarre private hospital on East Terrace in Adelaide. When I say bizarre, I mean bizarre. This was a place which hadn’t evolved since the 1920s – all us sisters had to wear long starched veils – this in the ’80s and 90s! This was a place where the housekeeper carefully collected blood from the operating theatres and poured it over the garden at night (“It helps the camellias, dear.”) And this was the place where a manic possum stole the keys to the dangerous drugs cabinet (please don’t ask me how the possum got the keys, that is SO bizarre you would never believe me) and ran off with them to the highest gum tree it could find – it took the military might of the SA police’s Star Force (the elite anti-terrorist squad … it was a slow night when the sister in charge rang the police to help in apprehending the possum, and they police sent the anti-terrorist squad!) to get those keys back. I don’t think the possum survived. (Can you imagine? The search lights, the guys in their bulletproof jackets and helmets, the guns, all trained on this gum tree and the little possum’s face, blinking way up high with the blue velvet ribbon of the dangerous drugs keys in his cute little paws.) I think I’ve said enough about this hospital for you to get the picture … anyway, while I was there I started a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Adelaide.

This BA changed my life (again!). I was amazed that people actually took my thoughts seriously, and I adored the study. To cut a long story short I completed the BA, and then did a PhD in early modern (16th century) English history. I loved and still love the University of Adelaide, not only for the people, but for its remarkable library – the Barr-Smith library. All my manuscripts reside there in their special collection, if you ever want to see them (and if they’ll let you). The staff club of the university remains, I swear, my spiritual home. All this time I was still working the odd weekend as a nurse to supplement my scholarships and grants, but in 1992, a year after I’d completed my PhD, I finally abandoned nursing and took a position as lecturer in medieval history in La Trobe University, Bendigo, which is in central Victoria, Australia.

I’d jumped from the frying pan into the fire. This job was the most stressful I have ever held. The interdepartmental politics, the teaching, the emphasis on research even though you never had enough time or the facilities to do it. And the house I lived in … (see the first house link). So in an effort to find a way out of that job I began writing again, seriously (very seriously, this was the only thing I could think of to save me), wrote several really awful novels, a couple of not bad ones, and then one day, sat down to begin BattleAxe. I knew by the time I was about 100 pages in that this was the novel that was going to do it for me, if any novel was. So when I was done I wrapped it up in brown paper, picked out a literary agent’s name from the Yellow Pages (Australian Literary Management), and dropped it off into the nearby postbox. Instantly I knew I had made a terrible mistake. This novel was laughable! No one would ever take it up! And the agency took 6 months of umming and ahhing before they decided to accept me. Within 6 weeks HarperCollins had picked me up … and Sara Douglass was born and the land of Tencendor took off into the stratosphere.

Finally I saved enough to buy my beloved Ashcotte (which ties me to Bendigo … I mean, if I wanted to sell the prospective new owners would have to be interviewed by the ghost) and to leave academia to concentrate on … well … on my gardening and maintaining of web pages … and a bit of writing!

And here I lie still.

2001 Women in Fantasy Tour: USA & Canada

Juliet Marillier, Jacqueline Carey & Sara Douglass
28th May to 16th June

women-in-fantasy-tour-map1. Los Angeles – start and finish
2. Dallas Forth-Worth, Texas
3. Chicago
4. Ann Arbor
5. Cleveland
6. New York
7. Washington D.C.
8. Toronto, Canada
9. Seattle
10. San Francisco
11. San Diego

Sorry about the map – it looks dreadful, but it was the best that I could do in a short time. Some of the cities are not in quite as precise a location as they could be, but you’ll get the general idea. Also sorry for any spelling errors, typos in this page – I’m too tired to go through with a fine tooth comb.

OK, Juliet and I left Australia on May 28th, heading with Qantas to Los Angeles. Should I say, we only just left. Tor’s travel agency had a small bit of trouble getting our flight tickets to us … basically, until about half an hour before the flight both Juliet and myself thought we weren’t going to go … and then finally the tickets came through. Those two sentences don’t convey the stress that we both went through – international calls, a huge effort on the part of Qantas staff and the desk staff of Melbourne Airport Hilton (both sets of staff went out of their way to help us, so thanks, guys)… both Juliet and myself think the whole thing could have been organised a little better – it was a foul way to start the trip.

But, hey, it just got worse! The Qantas flight was spectacular (we flew business class) … and then we landed in Los Angeles Airport (LAX), which is one of the hugest airports in the world. At that point Juliet and I had to make a connecting flight with American Airlines to Chicago … simple, you think? Not when American Airlines have recently earned themselves the ire of the travelling public by cancelling flights willy nilly. Juliet and I discovered that our flight had been cancelled, we were passed through several very uncaring American Airlines desk clerks who really couldn’t care less about whether we got to our destination or not, put on another flight, turned up at the gate for that flight, told it was full and we’d have to wait hours for another one (bear in mind that by this stage neither Juliet or I had had any sleep for over 28 hours), then, in the next breath told we could fly to Texas, Dallas Fort Worth, and catch a plane to Chicago from there, but that we’d have to leave NOW (the aircraft doors were about to close). Snap decision, Juliet and I both hated LAX so much by this stage that the prospect of different scenery seemed better than sitting around for yet another flight to be cancelled under us, so we grabbed the boarding passes and ran.

More drama. To put us on the flight to Texas American Airlines had pinched seats from a couple of other passengers who had just gone to the bathroom before their flight (never ever do that, better to go on the plane!). So we were pushed on the plane, and I was sat next to a very good looking woman who stared at me. “You’re not my husband,” she growled (yes, her husband was one of the unfortunates still in the bathroom and now seatless!). So here I was, sitting next to a woman whose husband had lost his seat to me, she was flying home to Texas but her car and house keys were stuck in the back pocket of her husband’s jeans (still in the bathroom!), and man was she angry! The entire plane heard about it, but once she had voiced her feelings she turned to me, smiled, patted my arm, and said, “I don’t blame you at all.” Which was lovely, because I thought she was just about to kill me!

So at least I didn’t get killed by the irate wife (who then proceeded to feed me sweets for the rest of the flight), but I was so stressed. Juliet and I were now well over 36 hours with no sleep (we’d both had a very early morning in Australia before the Qantas flight trying to work the damn tickets out of the uncaring travel agency … as also trying to reach our contacts in Tor to explain the dilemma … only to discover that it was Memorial Day in the USA and no one was answering their phones), we were heading to Texas when we should have been going to Chicago, and we had no idea if we were ever going to get OUT of Texas! Our opinion of American Airlines was now at an all-time low (I must hasten to add here that, with one extraordinary exception, every other airline we travelled on within the USA and Canada was fine, if not brilliant) , and the prospect of our hotel room in Chicago had become the shining unobtainable Grail. We finally landed in Texas and, amazingly, managed to catch a plane out of Texas to Chicago within an hour. We finally struggled into our hotel late that night and got into bed 42 hours after we’d both last slept.

It was an incredibly bad start to the trip, and consequently both Juliet and myself were stressed and jet-lagged for almost a week. We got one day to recover, and then were launched into Book Expo America. (Jacqueline Carey arrived in Chicago the day after us.)

Breathless silence. The BEA is massive – second only in size to Frankfurt book fair. It the publishing industry’s annual get together – a huge fair showcasing authors, books, products etc. The three of us were there for some 3 days, launching into Tor’s promotional “Women in Fantasy Tour” 2001, which was meant to showcase women writing fantasy, and Jacqueline, Juliet and myself in particular. At the BEA we did book signings, met and talked with a large number of book sellers (the tour was mainly aimed at introducing us to booksellers, some of whom have massive buying power), had many late night dinners (Juliet and I almost always nodding off over desert). Chicago remains a bit of a blur to me …

Having survived Chicago and BEA, and just managing to finally crawl out of jet-lag, we flew out of Chicago on Tuesday June 5th to Ann Arbor, Michigan, just a ways out of Detroit (the home of Borders Books).

We almost didn’t survive this flight. (Sara grins, remembering.) We were loaded onto the airplane, waiting to taxi off, when there was a bit of a noise from the back of the plane. The cockpit door opens and the first officer strides down the aisle to have a look-see. He was the Great American God in looks – all muscle, tanned skin, blue eyes, blond hair, perfect white teeth and a uniform to die for – and he strode down that aisle as if to set the world to rights.

We waited a few minutes. The First Officer suddenly hurries back down to aisle towards the cockpit, his face all white, his uniform all sweaty and creased. The cockpit door slams. Silence. Then the captain comes on the intercom (please imagine a southern drawl here). “UM, ladies and gentlemen … um … ah … I am afraid there will be a slight delay as … um … as we attempt to put the back door back on the aircraft.”

!! To cut a long story short we sat on the tarmac for at least an hour as various engineers and sundry airport staff put the door back on again (with lots of welding and cursing). To be honest, most of the people on the plane were terrified, not of the door falling off in flight, but that we’d be asked to change planes. The American domestic airline industry is in huge strife at the moment (and to support my case I cite all the articles that appeared in the American press while I was over there) – huge delays, and having a ticket does not necessarily mean you’re going to get a seat. We were on a plane, we had seats, and damned if any of us were going to relinquish them!

Finally the back door was nailed/welded/gummed on to everyone’s satisfaction, and we took off. Most of us had our belts adjusted real tight … just in case the thing blew off again. (I’ve since talked to a friend, who claims that she had a friend who had the same experience in Russia – except that then they couldn’t get the back door on again … they took off anyway, but they flew real low, everyone dressed up in as many woollies as they could find.)

We finally arrived in Detroit (thence to Ann Arbor) safely! At Ann Arbor we were to spend less than 24 hours, the main purpose of our visit to have a dinner with book buyers from the Borders and Waldenbooks chains (we’re talking people with the ability to purchases tens of thousands of copies of our books here!). That was actually a very enjoyable dinner, and we all fell into our beds happy little authors … only to face a 4.30 am rise the next morning to fly into Cleveland … and to discover that our Ann Arbor hotel was unable to supply coffee that early in the morning. We were 3 very cranky authors on the drive to the airport (where we finally managed to get some coffee – thank God for Starbucks!).

Cleveland was Wednesday June 6th, and here we had a lovely evening talking and signing books at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, a lovely shop, and even lovelier staff!

Next morning it was off to New York and a couple of very full days. On the day we arrived we had lunch with Jim Killen, who was the fantasy buyer for Barnes and Noble Bookstores (another 20,000 sales, please God!), and then the three of us went in turn to a New York apartment where a film crew shot short clips of us doing talks about ourselves and our books. These clips will (eventually) appear on sites like Amazon.com etc. as clips next to our books, so you’ll get to see them eventually. It’s a very new service, and authors are in the process of being filmed around America – Juliet and I were lucky we were there at the right time. We were filmed in an apartment so it looked ‘homely’ rather than a tv studio … and what I remember most about that experience was that the owner of the apartment had a pet tortoise that wandered about the apartment – most people were terrified they were going to step on it at some stage! Always in the background would be this ‘click click click’, as if a woman’s high heels on the wood floor – it was the tortoise scurrying around (or as fast as a tortoise can scurry).

That took up most of the afternoon – and that evening Tom Doherty of Tor books took us out to dinner on top of the World Trade Centre – what a view!! A third of a mile up (your ears pop in the elevator). Fabulous meal, and afterward Tom took us on one of his famous walks (Tom loves to suddenly spring walks on people) along the New York harbour-front. It was spectacular – I remember standing on the banks of the Hudson River, staring down the waterfront to the Statue of Liberty … it was a clear night, and overhead you could see jet aircraft lined up for 30-40 miles on their approach route past the Statue of Liberty to La Guadia Airport. It reminded me of the immigration ships that used to pass the statue on their way in to Ellis Island (or where-ever) – now was the same, save instead of sailing ships there were aircraft lined up high above the Hudson River.

Next day (I’m leaving out all the physical and mental exhaustion here, but please imagine it) we headed off to Tor’s offices in the Flat Iron Building on Fifth Avenue for a morning tea and heaps of signings, before we headed off to Washington DC where we did an event at Borders books – a lovely night, and I should be getting a great snap of the 3 of us through at some stage.

Next day we stayed in the same city for a change! Amazing! We did a single function at Books-a-Million, and thus managed to do a bit of sightseeing either side of the function. I joined the crowds outside the White House … and was amazed at how small it was. I’m not too sure what I was expecting … but the overall concept of the White House is of world power – the actuality was a little disappointing (and George didn’t invite me in for a cuppa, I felt quite snubbed).

Next day (Sunday June 10) we were off to Toronto! Arrived early, and feeling OK for a change, so did a harbour cruise … then back to the hotel for a snooze. I should explain that the 3 of us were so mentally and physicaly tired throughout this tour that even when we had a free afternoon or evening we tended to snooze rather than sightsee. We’d struggle into some hotel, put our bags down, look out the windows, say “Yeah, yeah, so that’s Chicago/Cleveland/San Francisco,” and then head straight to bed.

In Toronto we did interviews for Space Television, and did a reading at Toronto university (where I met fang). Next day, having read in the morning newspaper that Canadian Air pilots tend to fall asleep at the controls an awful lot because of their heavy schedules, we flew off to Seattle in north-west USA. This is where Sara stupidly lost her US visa! We went through US Immigration in Toronto, where I had to endure a grilling by the Immigration Officer on the nature of my work and morals. Being a fantasy author didn’t appeal to him at all! He wanted to know what kind of fantasy I wrote, and how notorious I was. Finally he gave me another visa and I was off (I found the original one a couple of hours later, so if anyone wants a spare US visa, current through to September of this year …).

Seattle was gorgeous – we flew in during a long long northern summer’s evening – it was still light at about 10 at night, and the air had a beautiful quality about it. My main memory of Seattle (where we did another talk/signing at University bookstore) was stumbling across the quilt store and finding the Amish quilt that hopefully will be arriving in Australia any day soon.

Then down to San Francisco next day, and one of the highlights of the trip – Alaskan Airlines and Greg, the flight attendant. Anyone who has done a reasonable amount of flying will know the aircraft voiceovers almost by heart – the safety procedures, the collecting of baggage procedures. They hardly differ from airline to airline … save for Alaskan airlines. It’s going to be difficult to get across the actual hilarity of this, because it was done in such a bored deadpan voice that itincreased its effectiveness ten-fold, but here goes. This is Greg, the cabin crew member from Alaskan Airlines.

Greg on smoking in the toilets: (this is the first indication that he was about to depart from the usual voice over) “If we find anyone smoking in the toilets, and we’d truly hate to do this, we’ll have to ask you to step outside.”

People slowly looked up from magazines, wondering if they’d heard aright.

Then Greg launched into a description of the food about to be served: “The flight attendants will shortly serve you a snack. Alaskan Airlines have asked us to call this a breakfast snack, but I’m not going to insult your intelligence by doing so. We know what you think of airline food, and we agree with you. If it is any consolation, we’ll be bringing the beverage cart along right after the food so you can wash it down as quickly as you can.”

Greg serving me my ‘snack’: “Here is madam’s cinnamon roll. If madam doesn’t want to eat it she can always use it as a weapon.”

Greg on the coffee: “Alaskan Airlines has spared no expense in ensuring that you have the widest selection of coffee available. We have black, we have black with cream, we have black with sugar, and we have black with cream and sugar. We also have decaf black, decaf black with cream, decaf black with sugar, and decaf black with cream and sugar.”

Greg on the extensive range of wines available during the fight: “We have red and we have white. If you want blush, then you may have one glass of red, one of white, and one empty glass for mixing.”

Greg on landing: “If you were silly enough to check in baggage, you may collect your bags from the baggage claim, carousel 14, in 15-20 business days.”

“Thank you for flying Alaskan Airlines – it’s been our pleasure to take you for a ride. We like taking your money, so fly with us again soon. May I remind you that California is a non-smoking state, so if you want to light up you’ll have to go to Nevada.”

Greg on taxi-ing to the terminal: “Please remain in your seats with your seatbelts fastened until we have docked and the captain has turned off the seatbelt sign. Please don’t stand while taxi-ing as this aircraft has an unfortunate habit of coming to sudden stops, and we’d hate for any one of you to reach the terminal before the rest of us.”

As the plane docks and people’s hands creep to their seatbelt catches: “Don’t even THINK about it!”

As the seatbelt sign is switched off: “Go! Go! Go!”

As we’re waiting to file off: “Please check your seat and overhead locker for personal belongings. If you don’t want them, there’s no reason to suppose that we do.”

On explaining that the flight is to continue on to Mexico: “This flight continues on to Mexico. It is a customs requirement that, even if you are continuing on this flight, you must take all personal belongings off the plane so that customs can inspect the plane. Anything left behind will be confiscated by customs and disposed of. Please resist the temptation to leave behind your unwanted children.”

I suppose you had to be there, but it was one of the highlights of the entire trip. I love Alaskan Airlines!

In San Francisco (hot!) we did an event at a bookstore called Borderlands books then, next morning, flew into San Diego for the last few events! yeah! Our very last event was at a delightful shop called Mysterious Galaxy (where I met Teal and avoided telling my tasteless sheep joke for the sake of her children). Then Juliet and I flew to LAX once more (Jacqueline to Michigan), then on to Melbourne, it was so good to get home!

All in all, I made two great new friends (Juliet and Jacqueline) without whom I doubt I would have survived. All three of us found it totally exhausting – and we weren’t wimps! Our escort for the San Diego part of the trip told us that she’d recently escorted a rock star (his name escapes me now, but it was one that I recognised) on a book tour recently. He’d said that he loved doing rock tours, but found the book tour unbelievably exhausting. I feel vindicated. I was so tired during the tour, in fact, that even though I had taken my camera with me, I took not one picture!

Now, I must crawl off to bed and try to get rid of this terrible throat infection that I picked up on the way home.

©2001 Sara Douglass Enterprises

The Rules of Writing

Currently some 99% of manuscripts sent in to publishers end up in the rejected pile. This is a horrible statistic, but it can be avoided. Of that 99% possibly some 50% could have had a decent chance if only their authors had adopted a more professional and business-like approach. This page is designed to give you some general tips, from starting out on your first work, to presenting a manuscript to a publisher. It is not a complete guide to writing; if that’s what you’re after, you should make use of one of the many excellent books on the market.

First rule – don’t give up. It generally takes time and disappointment to get published. But if you keep at it, and are prepared to learn … then the chances that you will succeed are good.

Second rule – be prepared to wait. Publication, fame and fortune almost never happen overnight.

Third rule – be professional. The publishing industry is run on hard-nosed business principles, and the sooner you understand that, and approach your writing with business sense rather than emotional expectations, the sooner you will be published.

I reiterate the point I made above … for some reason people lose all common sense as soon as they have a collection of words down on a collection of pages. Writing is a skill, not a talent. No-one is born with a ‘talent’, so everyone has to learn the skill of writing … it took me fifteen years of practice and honing skills. Take time to learn the skill, practice your craft, and then approach a publishing house with the same degree of common business sense as you would a bank manager from whom you hope to get a loan.

Some general advice on writing: what kind of book might be best for you to write, how to establish a discipline of writing etc.
Learning how to make your reader’s imagination work for you. One of the big things in writing is learning to use your reader’s imagination; making your reader work will work for you.

Once you have a manuscript, then you need to know how to approach a publisher.

On a more personal note, how do I write? And where do I get my ideas and inspiration? Easy. I have a business-like approach to baths.

If you’ve written something, and would like someone to read it over for you and give you some advice, then there are people who can read your work for you … but for a fee. Reading and commenting on a manuscript is a great deal of labour-intensive work, and there are professional assessors (who often work as freelance editors for publishing houses) who can give you high quality feedback on your work. They will professionally assess your work, which is something friends and family cannot do. You can find professional readers and manuscript assessors listed in writers centres or even the phone book (please don’t approach writers to do it, no professional writer has time to read anyone else’s work!).

Two very good Australian services which I highly recommend are Edit or Die, and Driftwood Manuscripts.

A word of warning: there are a lot of sharks out there – people who feed off the desperate need of those who want to be published. Beware of people who charge a great deal of money for reading alone: if someone charges you to read your manuscript, then you have a right to expect something back in return – an extensive critique or commentary, for instance. The USA has had a huge problem with literary agencies who do nothing but charge people for reading their manuscripts – the agencies never actually seemed to take on clients. This is not, as far as I am aware, a problem in Australia. A literary agent should never charge you to read your manuscript (apart from a small fee for return postage) unless that agent is going to provide you with a lengthy written commentary on the manuscript. So just be a little bit wary about who is out there.

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises

Creating the Modern Epic Romance

Some time ago I gave a talk to the Shakespeare Society here in Bendigo (I’ve since given abridged forms of this talk elsewhere) called Creating the Modern Epic Romance. It’s a bit silly, but you might enjoy it.


This evening I’d like to talk about 2 things: why the fantasy (I loathe the word, but must perforce use it) … why the fantasy market has exploded throughout the western world in the years after world war 2, and some of the highs and lows of trying to write in a genre that demands not only thick books, but never-ending streams of thick books that deal with distant worlds, eternal quests, and an undying conflict between good and evil that can never be solved.

Fantasy is now the largest — and growing larger by the month — genre in fiction in the western world. Its fans range from children to inmates of aged care homes, from bricklayers to judges. Love of fantasy crosses all sexes, all classes, all ages, all walks of life. It sells as well in K-Mart as it sells in top notch book shops. There are millions of Australians, more millions in western Europe, the UK and the USA, who badger bookshops and publishers for more, please. A successful author is never left alone and never left in peace. She or he has got to get the next book out as soon as she or he can, and preferably last week. Why?

People who have never read fantasy, or who don’t like it, believe that fantasy is a) a fad based on Tolkien and, b) is childish. The reading public is bound to grow up at some point (when they will, presumably, start to read Jeffrey Archer), and the Tolkienish fad will die. Neither view, in my view, is justified. Fantasy is far older than Tolkien (again, it is only in the post WW2 years that the genre has been called fantasy) and it is far from childish — although there is a large proportion of fantasy out on the market that is either meant for children … or is indeed just plain childish. The fantasy genre as a whole is not helped by the fact that there is some very, very bad fantasy out there.

So before I talk about some of the highs and lows of trying to create the ‘modern epic romance’, I’d just like to talk briefly about where fantasy has come from, and why it still sells so well.

People often assume that fantasy began with Tolkien (and Tolkien is the greatest burden the modern fantasy author must labour under and eventually escape from if they are to succeed). But the assumption that fantasy began with Tolkien is wrong — the history of the genre extends back thousands of years into the folk tales and myths of pre-medieval society. All human societies have always loved epic tales and myths, they’ve loved their constructs which are used time and time again, and today’s fantasy genre is merely a continuation of a love that has endured for thousands of years.

But not only is fantasy a continuation of an ancient love of myth and epics, it is one of the only ways people can now access that ancient love. Apart from the odd film, or role-playing game, there is virtually no other way people in our society can sate their craving for epic romance (although they might not think of fantasy as epic romance) that is relevant to their world.

But what is it about fantasy — or whatever — that people adore? There are several aspects to this, several things, or several needs, that fantasy can provide that people find it very, very hard to find elsewhere.

What? Action and adventure, yes, but it is far more than action and adventure. Romance? Yes, but it is more than romance. Fantasy allows people to — safely — indulge in their craving for a world where the mysteries of that world outnumber the sureties or the answers, where life is a constant conflict between the forces of good and evil, light and dark, and where life itself becomes a quest — a frightful, dangerous quest, but a quest where people can at least become something other than the mundane, where they can grow into some thing, or someone, with the power to aid the forces of good into eventual victory (of sorts) over the forces of evil. Fantasy gives their life a meaning they can’t find in their daily lives.

That may seem a tad pretentious, so let me explain myself in a bit more detail. Before the rise of modern science, let’s say before the sixteenth century, people lived in an enchanted world that was literally filled with the forces of good and evil: saints and angels, demons and sprites, spiteful elves and homely goblins. All of these creatures and beings truly existed, because the medieval world — and world view — allowed them to exist. The medieval world was literally a magical and an enchanted world but a world under constant threat from the forces of evil. People grew up and lived in a world where the ultimate goal was the salvation of their souls. People knew that the angels and saints were engaged in constant fight with the forces of evil for their souls. Life was a continual contest between good and evil. It was a horribly scary world, because the forces of darkness could snatch you or your child or your one remaining cow at any point, but it was a world that sated whatever desire it is that lives within humans for the unknown, for the mysterious, and for the unexplained. It was a world that was rich in food for the soul.

And then, if I can push things along a bit, along came the science. At the same time the Church, or churches and religion, began to fail and to lose their influence. In the new, brave and sterile logical scientific world, science exiled the elves and the angels. They didn’t exist. They were cute, but they were childish. The ancient conflict between good and evil, the never-ending fight to stay one step ahead of the demons and sprites who lived in the dark spaces of your home and farmyard were pushed safely into the realms of children’s fairy stories. People could relax. The only important things in life were to get a good job and pay off the house.

Science expunged the mystery and the danger from our lives. And perhaps, for a while, we thought that is what we had always desired. A safe life.

No longer does our world endure the once eternal conflict between the forces of good and evil. No longer must we keep a light burning in the house lest the demons creep out of the gloom and snatch our children. No longer need we appease the gods in the woods so that our crops might continue to grow. We only need to add blood and bone, and the only person we need to appease is the check-out girl at Safeway.

Our lives have indeed become a safe way. We have science to explain it all for us, and to get it all done for us. Life is full of logical explanations. There are no mysteries left, or, if there are, then the people in white lab coats assure us that they’ll be solved next week, or next year at the outside. The unexplained is no longer allowed to exist. It must be explained. It cannot be allowed to remain unexplained.

Science has done wonders for our lives — and I am the first to admit that I love the comforts that science has brought to our lives — but science has stripped us of mystery, and of romance, and of adventure and of the unexplained. We are not allowed to partake in the mysterious and the unexplained any more, because there are no mysteries left, and there are no adventures left to dare, and there certainly aren’t any demons lurking in the gloom under the gum tree waiting for the first chance they can get to snatch your soul. The forces of darkness have been repelled. Three cheers for science.

Well, our lives have become safe and comfortable, true, but they have also become bland and boxed. Being able to achieve a good job, and being able to pay off the house is wonderful, and it sure brings a nice warm feeling inside … but modern life goals are no match for the mystery and enchantment we’ve lost in the quest for a ‘safe and comfortable’ and totally explained life.

Our souls — the very ‘whatever it is’ that makes us human — crave romance and excitement and mystery. And isn’t it a remarkable observation on today’s society that one of the few places that people can find mystery and romance and adventure, one of the few places that people can once again engage in the quest and in the eternal conflict between good and evil (apart from religion), is labelled ‘fantasy’. That very label speaks volumes for what is important, and what is not, in today’s society.

It is, therefore, heartening to know that ‘fantasy’ sells in huge numbers, and it is heartening to know that one of the things that I am told over and over again — especially by young people, but it comes from all age groups — is that they read, and adore, fantasy, because it replaces the mystery and romance that they feel has been lost in their everyday, and somewhat mundane life. It fills the gap — and where else are they to go? Yes, people want a good job and a paid-off home, but they want a garden for their soul as well, a garden with strange, unmarked paths down which they can quest for the unknown and mysterious … and where they can risk their lives and souls in that quest.

Why else are we alive?

Having said all that, especially having said that people crave the mystery and excitement of the quest where death awaits around the next corner, people don’t actually want to literally experience the quest. No-one wants to wake up one morning and find Evil Incarnate at the front door and saying something like, “Swords at dawn okay for you, then, mate?” A book is a nice safe outlet for the yearning for the quest; it sates the craving in the soul for mystery and adventure and danger without the need to fret about how good your sword-wielding skills are.

So, fantasy sells well, hugely well, because it fills a need, in an otherwise often soulless existence, for mystery and romance and adventure, a need for a quest in which we can find ourselves something other than we first thought, and a quest in which we can prove ourselves. All the ‘cliches’, or constructs of modern fantasy, are there because people want them to be there.

However, and whatever the history that stretches back hundreds if not thousands of years, there are some things which are out in modern fantasy writing. I’ll talk about these in a while, but there’s one I just want to mention at this point. Strangely, I had someone say to me on the weekend that they’d had a manuscript rejected by Pan Books because, and I quote, “No-one wants to read about the quest these days.” I could cheerfully assure the rejected author that a) not only were Pan Books extremely suspect when it came to knowing what was in and out (after all, Pan had initially rejected me as someone who would never be able to sell a single book … some months ago my agent was on the phone to Pan about something else when she sweetly interjected that were they aware that Douglass’ sales were 200,000 and climbing, and what was it exactly they’d said about me?) … where was I? Ah yes, the rejected author who had included a quest and had been rejected by Pan on that count. Well, not only can Pan not always be trusted to know what can sell and what can’t, but I think the quest is very much in, and probably will be for all human time.

The quest is vital to both the fantasy book, as it is to our daily lives, but the author must be aware of what the quest is about before they embark on trying to build one themselves. Certainly there is always something that the heroes, or characters, or whatever, quest towards, whether it be a magic sword, or enchanted ring, or the single book in creation that can tell them how to deal with the evil lord that’s currently gobbling up the ice-bound north. What the author must realise is the object of the quest is never, never important, it is the quest itself, and what the characters who quest learn about themselves. A quest, for whatever object, is really an internal quest for what lies within, even though it is acted out in an external quest that may extend across a thousand leagues and several mountain ranges in the process. A quest is about finding yourself, about finding your true meaning, and about being transformed in the process. Whatever Pan thought, readers still long for the quest because it gives them the hope that one day they might find that kernel of truth within themselves, and become something other than what they appear, or what the world tells them they are.

So the quest is still a very, very vital part of the fantasy epic … the trick is not to make the object the important part of the quest … but to make the internal and very personal quest of the lead characters the important thing. The bad fantasy books around that make me tear my hair out are those in which the characters don’t change during the quest: they remain the same people as when they began. For the reader, that is one of the most frustrating, even hopeless, situations, because it denies them the hope for their own voyage of self realisation.

So here we have the fantasy author who wants to write a book, and hopefully one that will provide a garden for all those hungry souls out there. How does one go about creating the ‘fantasy’ world, how does one create the modern epic romance, and what are the highs and lows that involves?

First of all, one must create a world in which to place your epic. Again, before the rise of science in the sixteenth and later centuries, such tales were placed in our world, because this was a world in which goblins and elves and evil workers of enchantment and magic could exist. But science has banished all these creatures and peoples and enchantments to the realms of children’s fairy stories, to the world of fantasy, so the modern author, in order to allow their readers to suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in the tale, must perforce create a new world, or a different world, or, place their tale in one of our past worlds.

Thus, one must create a new world — and one of the great luxuries of being a fantasy writer is being able to create a world in which you make up all the rules. I remember speaking to a author who does crime fiction (can’t think of his name) who, in the past year or 2, put out a book about a murder mystery in Melbourne. At one point in the book, the author had the hero take a ride on a number 8 tram through the streets of Melbourne where he finally got off at the corner of St Kilda Road and some smaller street. Not sooner was the book out than the author was overwhelmed by mail from readers saying that the Number 8 tram not only didn’t stop at that particular corner, it didn’t go down St Kilda Road in the first instance, and what the hell did he think he was doing, ruining the story like that? The poor fellow was tearing out his hair, because he’d spent months researching that book, and taking tram journeys around Melbourne and making sure that people could get off a Number 8 tram at such and such a corner, and so he went back to check his copious notes, only to find out that he’d meant to put down a number 18 tram, but somehow in the printing process the 1 had been dropped and the entire murder mystery had been endangered in the process. No wonder I prefer to create my own worlds! At least none of my readers can actually take the merchant ship across the Sea of Death to prove that the Island of Fear actually lies in the Bay of Tears rather than the Inlet of Grief.

However, having said that the fantasy author creates a new world, we create is actually this world … but this world very slightly warped and returned to a more magical and — perhaps — a more naive age. The template for most fantasy writers is the medieval world — the last western world in which the fantastic was allowed to exist.

It is also, even for most Australian writers, a northern hemisphere world, where January and February are cold and snowy, and June and July are hot. Why? I am often asked … well, mostly because we’re forced to by the expectation of our readership. We might live in the great hot southern land, but our culture, and our mythic imaginations, are mostly European. And the northern European landscape (both geographic and mythological) is still where most fantasy writers choose to set their grand tale. Again, there are exceptions, but they are the exception.

Whatever, the fantasy author must recreate this world … with only a few slight changes (and those slight changes are generally to be able replace the mystery and magic that science has cut out). The problem in creating a vastly different world, and the reason why we don’t do it, is that the reader won’t be able to relate to it, and the one thing most fantasy readers want to do is to relate to the world they are being presented with, and to be able to place themselves within it. They want/need to be able to partake in the journey as well. They still need to be able to access the quest.

I just want briefly to mention how I create this ‘new’ (or revamped earth) world. Sometimes people who want to write fantasy feel daunted by the whole idea of having to create a new world, of having to create a plot that is deep enough to sustain at least one thick book and hopefully 3 thick books, and also creating all the characters and situations to go with this in depth plot. Not only that, but in creating a new world you must also create a new religion, a new culture (and a culture with myths that stretch back hundreds if not thousands of years), a new language, new systems of counting, new of ways of relating to space and time (new distances, new ways to tell time), new swear words … the list goes on and on. And, you must do this for every race you create to live in your world: every race has its own culture, languages, religions, myths etc. How long is all this going to take? the would-be author thinks, and perhaps decides it would be best forget the entire idea.

So how long does it take? No less than half an hour, no more than 2 hours, and 2 hours is more than ample. Quite literally, all you have to do is create a map, that is, create a landscape … and that landscape will then present to you the types and numbers of races, the structures of their societies, what is important in their lives and how they live their lives. It also give you religions, gods, systems of magic, government … whatever. Even the myths that stretch back into the unseen past. The landscape itself will give you the rest.

I’ve always started with a map. I sit down and take a half an hour to draw freehand, and without any planning, a map of a land. Here’s the coastline (always putting in a bay or two so you can have a port town … ports always come in useful), here’s a few towns, here some lakes, here hills, here’s a bog, here a road, and so forth. Oh, and always a fog-bound island or two off the coastline from whence fierce pirates or mysterious barges can sail forth from time to time. Once you’ve done that, then you can see where different peoples are going to live: here the people who live on the plains and grow crops and herd livestock; here the hills where live isolated groups of mysterious monks; here the peoples who live in the soaring mountains or the flat wastelands. The landscape dictates how they live, and from there you move quickly to the nature of their religions etc., the types of conflicts which might occur between the various races, the resentments that will blow up, etc. etc. etc. By morning tea time you have a plot and something to keep you out of mischief for several years while you write it up. Easy.

Now, I’ve always found that process easy, but I didn’t realise how easy it was for other people until this past weekend when I conducted a workshop on how to construct the fantasy world for the Bendigo Writers’ Group. I divided people up into groups of 3 or 4, gave them some general instructions and some do’s and don’ts, and set them down to, in their first half an hour, create a landscape. I must also add that about half the group were made up of people who’d never read fantasy and didn’t know much about it.

So I left them to it and wandered off to the kitchen and had a cup of tea and eaten all the chocolate biscuits the Writers’ Group had kindly provided, and then I wandered back in to see how everyone was going. I was stunned by what had taken place in my absence. All the groups, in half an hour, had not only created a landscape, represented by a rough map, but had also created the societies, races, creatures etc. which lived in their landscape. Myths and cultures were there as well. Not only that, they’d also got well started on their plots. All in half an hour. None of this had I asked them to do … it was just that once they had a landscape before them, the peoples and races and cultures almost literally leapt off the page and bit them on the nose. By the end of the workshop, which extended over 5 working hours, most groups had books ready to be typed up.

It showed me two things. One, the power of the human imagination given only a few prompts. And 2, what the human imagination does once it can visualise the landscape of a different world. Instantly it populates that world with gods and religions, races and conflicts, heroes and scoundrels, and even a thousand years of myth. One group, in presenting their world, got so carried away they began their presentation with the hundreds of years of myth and history that had shaped the races of their land.

Well, back to the creation of the fantasy world. Like most fantasy authors, I almost always use a clone of the western European medieval world as a template. In fact, my societies and landscapes are the medieval world, and I bless the day I decided to bind up my first year lecture notes and send them off to a literary agent as fantastic fiction. I haven’t looked back since.

Even though the author may choose to recreate one of our past worlds, most often the medieval world, the author faces some restrictions, and a few things that he or she must be very, very careful about. Because the fantasy world is so largely (if loosely) based about the eternal conflict between good and evil, the issues within the fantasy book can too easily become rigidly black and white. It therefore becomes a huge temptation for the fantasy author to portray not only issues, but cultures, in purely black and white terms. It becomes too easy, in using the template of a paternalistic and racist world, to be both sexist and racist in the newly created world.

An example: in many fantasy books (and some of mine, I admit) the main plot is driven by the conflict between two races (generally of very different creatures). Here is the race which leads a blameless (if rather boring) life on the plain, and here the malformed, dark and evil creatures who live in the hills and who, through sheer evilness, resolve to invade the good folk who live on the plains. Dark enchantment is hurled about by the handful, and at the very last hour the good (if somewhat naive and boring) folk who of the plains find amongst themselves a golden hero who is able, through sheer goodness and strength and bravery, to revive the forces of the good against the evil swarming down from the hills, and defeat them — generally only by the skin of his teeth. Ultimately the forces of the hill folk are completely wiped out, their culture is destroyed, their homes burned, and their leader killed in a particularly disgusting — but totally justifiable — way.

There is no shading, there are no grey areas, simply the good and the bad, and the bad have no redeeming qualities and must be wiped out … often only because they are ‘different’.

That’s bad. but it is all too easy, and the author has to be careful to avoid it while still trying to couch the tale in terms of this eternal conflict between the forces of good and evil, light and dark.

So, how to avoid it? The most successful fantasy books about are those which shade the difference between good and evil to the extent where there is almost no difference at all. There may still be a conflict between two races, or two types of beings, one of which closely resembles us and one of which might well closely resemble deformed toads, but the issue of who is right and who is wrong, who is cruel and who generous, who good and who evil, can be blurred to the extent that the readers should despair that any one side, or race, must lose at all, or must despair at the flaws and faults of the so-called good guys.

The sexist trap is also an easy one to fall into. Again, if the author bases his or her work on a medieval template — which society was highly sexist according to our understanding — then having weak and directionless female characters becomes too easy. Female characters can be shoved into roles that don’t allow them to choose their own destiny, or where they are merely beautiful appendages to the golden (and male) hero. Men, on the other hand, become the ones to lead the quests (their beautiful appendages carry the backpack with the food), it is the men who obtain the magic sword (their beautiful appendages will dust it off for them and glue the enchanted ruby back into its spot on the hilt), and it is the men who then thrust the magic sword — grunting manfully — into the dark overlord’s person (while their beautiful appendages swoon gracefully, and beautifully, in a gloomy corner). While this is easy too use (and I admit to having played about with it myself), no-one really wants to read it any more.

And, I am more than pleased to say, it seems to be the men leading the charge in not wanting to read it. I’m certainly pleased that my books have sold well, but I am more than surprised that my main readers seem to be men, because while I use the basic formula (golden hero leads quest to destroy evil overlord), I have strong female characters, and in almost all situations and books it is the girls who save the day after the golden heroes have tripped up miserably over their pointy-toed shoes and don’t know what to do next.

The other trap that fantasy authors have to be very careful not to fall into is what I call the ‘cute-trap’. There has been, and remains, I guess, a perception that fantasy is somewhat childish, and that if grown ups still read it, it is because they yearn for the tales and constructions of their childhood. Feeding this perception is the ‘myth’, if you like, that Tolkien is the grandfather of all fantasy, the best fantasy writer there ever was, and all fantasy not only derives from him, but must be as much like him as can be. All of that is false. Tolkien was/is only one aspect of fantasy, and his style is but one aspect. Tolkien was very, very good at what he did, but Tolkien-pretenders are so far out they’re lost somewhere on the Sea of Death as far as the current market is concerned. Why? Mainly because although many readers start with Tolkien, they grow up and move on, and they want fantasy that has grown up and moved on as well.

So Tolkien pretenders are out … what else is ‘out’? Cute furry creatures are out. Cute scaly ones are, as well (at least as main characters). Elves, goblins, dwarfs and dragons will virtually get a manuscript rejected on first sighting. There’s a manuscript that has been going around the Australian publishing houses for the past 3 years. It’s basically a very good manuscript, but it has a goblin on p. 49, and that’s been its death knell with every publishing house thus far.

What do publishing houses and readers want? Grit. Realism. What many hopeful authors over the past 30 years have overlooked — and I’m convinced it is the key to success in today’s fantasy market — is that, as I have said, the people who read Tolkien as children or teenagers, and who adored him, then proceed to grow up. For many years there was a huge hole in the fantasy market. Readers of 25, 35 or 55 still wanted to read fantasy, but they were sick to death of cute (especially if it lived behind a green door), they were sick to death of dragons, they were sick of people being stuck in the guts with swords and not saying, “Oh, gosh, that hurts”, and they were beyond sick to death of teenage hero after teenage hero. The adult readers wanted fantasy they could relate to, not the stuff of childish imaginations. They wanted to be able to partake in the quest, and they were not being allowed to.

About 15 years ago readers started to get what they wanted, although it came out only in dribs and drabs. Books that addressed real issues, books that had flawed heroes of over 25, books that had grit. Where pain was pain, and people endured large amounts of it. Where sometimes the good guy died and evil won. Fantasy over the past few years has become increasingly darker, and I don’t think that has any other reason for it than the fact that the market was over-stocked with the cute-Tolkien would-bes.

But while there are several aspects of fantasy that are ‘out’ in today’s market, there are some things about fantasy books that have remained, and I suspect will remain, the same for a very, very long time.

The first and most obvious of these is that fantasy books not only come in thick, but they also come in series of 3, 6, 9 or 13. One of the things I’ve learned as an author is that stand alone books often don’t sell. There are exceptions, but the market literally demand a tale that doesn’t end for a very, very long time. People want to immerse themselves, and they don’t want to leave. There is only one time I’ve been castigated for writing very thick books: a man came up to me once and said that he found my books very hard to read in bed because they were so thick. “I can only use one hand for the book,” he said, and so I asked why he could only use one hand to read in bed. Why? “Because I like to keep the other hand on my wife’s breast,” he explained.

So writers are stuck with the thick book, and the need to produce thick book after thick book. (Readers not only like to immerse themselves in the tale, of course, but they also like to get as much value for their $14.95 as they can.) This creates its own problems … fantasy authors have been known to pale and get the shakes when their agent rings them up to say, “Your last was such an outstanding success we need another 5 more. By next year, if you can.”

Can you imagine how hard it is to create a plot that you know will probably have to go on for 3 thick books and, if the initial series is successful, may have to go on for another 6 or 9 thick books?

So how do you do it? I always start by creating as many characters as I can: I can always kill them off later if I find I don’t need them (I know my characters spend their time between scenes in a pleasant room somewhere drinking endless cups of tea and saying things like, “Oh god, she’s halfway through book 2, that means she’s going to start to kill off those of us she’s decided she doesn’t need. Look out, chaps, half of us are for the chop!”). But what a large number of characters means is that I must also create numerous subplots to keep everyone gainfully employed, And what that means is that I am going to have to end up tearing my hair out trying to keep track of them all. Often, although not always, I must keep huge charts showing where every character and subplot is at all times, just so that I can keep everything under some semblance of control.

But just as often things get completely out of control. One of my nightmares, and one that occurs in just about every book, is that, as the quest runs its course, all the characters from every one of the plots ends up in the same inn at the same time. (Everyone always stays at roadside inns on quests. It’s just one of the things one does.)

Think about it. Thirty-five characters, all of whom are important enough to justify their own scenes, end up in the same inn at the same time. Thhis is no scene where they can all have their say — that would be a book in itself — and only some 3 or perhaps 5 of them will ever be able to talk. So where does that leave the other 30? Standing against the wall so involved in their jugs of beer they don’t feel like talking?

Over the years, and the books, I have evolved my own way of dealing with these scenes. In the early days I’d have the lead character stand up and say something like, “Well, I know what we’ve all got to do, and I’m going to stand here for an hour and tell you, and I don’t want anyone else speaking until I’ve finished.” And then when he has finished, he can say something like, “That’s it, no more to say. Now, everyone off on the quest. Hop to it! Go!” And out the door they’d all obediently go.

But you can’t do that too much, and I still have those damn scenes with everyone crowded in the same room and with not much for most to say. So now I’ve evolved a different way of dealing with it.

First, everyone gathers and someone buys the lot a round of drinks, complaining about the price as she or he does so. That takes care of half a page but I’ve still got all 35 standing and wanting to have their own important say. So, before the hero arrives, I stage a fight. Ten people are involved, out of which 6 are so badly injured they slip into a coma and can’t say a thing for the rest of the scene (down to 29). Several of the other characters, let’s say 5, can be so concerned about the 6 in a coma they decide to ride off in search of herbal healers. (Now we’re down to 23.) At this point the hero arrives and is so appalled by the carnage he ejects from the room the 4 fighters who are still on their feet (down to 19), plus 6 more men whom he says should have stepped in and stopped the fight in the first instance. (Down to 13.) Another 5 can be thrown out for swearing, or for being too drunk (down to 8), 2 more can be sent off to make sure the horses are okay (down to 6), another can be sent off with an important dispatch for the king (5), a further 3 can be sent to make sure nasty black creatures aren’t about to crawl down through the roof . That means we’re down to 2. One of these 2 can get upset with the hero and storm out of the room, and the other can drop dead from the poison put in the beer earlier by the landlord concerned that the 35 would not stay about to pay their bill (he was right).

That means the hero is left in an empty room (apart from those in comas or dead), with no one left to tell what to do. He can sit down and have a beer and wonder why there’s never ever anyone around for him to talk to. Problem solved.

The other problem with masses of characters is that you forget what you’ve done with them. I may have smiled with the author who got the number of the Melbourne tram wrong, but I’ve done far, far worse. After a while, especially when into the fifth book of a series, and there’s 4,000 pages behind you, and perhaps 3 or 4 years of writing, you just forget what’s what, who’s who and who’s got what. The odd instance where someone’s eyes mysteriously turn from blue to green is mildly annoying, but sometimes it gets far, far worse. In my most recent book (Pilgrim) I had a character who had nimble enough fingers to take up weaving as a craft … what I’d overlooked that I’d blown off his left arm in the previous book (Sinner) (and that arm-blowing-off scene had been the big scene of that particular book). Not only had he grown his arm back – but he’s taken up weaving as a craft!

I had numerous, and somewhat anxious, inquiries from readers wondering how he’d regrown his left arm. Needless to say, the arm has now been re-blown off in the reprint (can you imagine, in that room where all my characters wait out there turns for scenes, drinking endless cups of tea, there’s one poor chap who had been immensely cheerful because abruptly he’d got his arm back he’d been able to both drink his tea and eat his date cake all at the same time, and now he’s lost it again). I just have to be more careful about keeping track of characters, and it means that on my big charts of who is where and when, I am now also going to have to add things like, ‘left arm blown off one book ago,’ ‘one eye gone’, ‘minus two arms, a leg and a nose’ etc. It quite takes all the fun away!

Another of the great lows of writing endless series of books is being tied by what has gone on in previous books. It can be something as small as wondering what colour someone’s eyes were (and then trying to skim back through 4,000 pages trying to find the single line where I’d ascribed his or her eyes a particular shade), to trying to explain convincingly how so and so, killed in book 1, has now made a reappearance in book 4. None of my characters ever stay dead.

Nevertheless, whatever my mistakes, readers always seem to forgive me, so long as they feel they’ve got something precious from the books: a moment of hope, a chance to experience the grand romance and the mysterious and dangerous quest themselves. There’s one way that has really forced on me the realisation that my books do affect people … and that’s the number of babies about that have been named after some of my characters … and some amazing names. I was amazed to learn that some months ago a couple had decided to give their newborn son the name DragonStar … at least it was as his middlename and not as his first!

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises

The Contract

There’s not a great deal I can say about contracts … save that I’m glad I have someone else to negotiate them on my behalf! If you’ve been offered a contract then I advise you strongly to use a lawyer or agent, or at least to get their advice, during negotiations. I also want to emphasise that contracts are negotiable. Don’t think that you have to accept the first document the publisher puts before you; on the other hand, if this is your first book, then you may not have much power to drive the bargain you want. Nevertheless, you can negotiate, so do it.

A publishing contract covers many areas:

  • Who the contract is between, typically yourself and a publishing house, but if you use an agent then the agent’s name will be inserted in there as the person who gets all the monies initially (the agent then extracts his or her commission, and sends the rest on to you).
  • The title(s) that the contract covers
  • When publication of the title(s) is expected (this often changes during the editorial process).
  • When delivery of the title(s) is expected.
  • How much, and in what form, the advance covers.
    – What is an advance? When a publisher accepts a title for publication they work out how many copies they are likely to sell. They then decide how much of your royalty (see below) they decide to pay you up front (anywhere from about 30% to 100%). For instance, if the publisher estimates they can sell 10,000 of the title for $10 a copy, and the author will receive a 10% royalty on each of those books ($1 per book), and, being generous, the publisher decides to give you $10,000 as an advance. This $10,000 is unlikely to be paid in one lump sum; rather, there will be a percentage of that $10,000 paid on signing the contract (perhaps one half: $5,000), another 25% on delivery of the manuscript ($2,500) and the final 25% on publication. Thus the payment of an advance is generally paid out over at least a year. If an author sells a series of books as one title (a trilogy, for example) they will receive an advance covering all the books of the series, but this advance will be paid out over the number of years it takes to publish the series. Thus you sometimes hear of authors who get a magnificent advance for a 10 book series … what most people don’t realise that the advance will be spread out over at least 10 years, and in fact only represents a fairly modest income p.a.
  • The royalty you receive. Royalty rates are, unfortunately, slipping. Once you could confidently assume that an author received an average royalty rate of 10%. Now that can be as low as 6%. On the other hand, the contract will also generally specify something called rising royalties (and if it doesn’t, then it should). Rising royalties basically give you a higher royalty once a certain number of books have been sold. For instance, you might start out on 10% royalty, but once 25,000 books have been sold, you might then go onto a royalty rate of 12.5%
  • The territories the contract covers. VERY few authors sell world rights to their titles. Generally, you sign country by country. Thus there will be separate contracts for US rights, UK rights, German translation rights, French translation rights etc. etc. etc. These other countries don’t automatically fall in line – you must sell your work to publishers in every country. Getting your book published in one country is no guarantee that it will be published anywhere else.
  • The rights the contract covers. If you are selling to a book publisher you should sell (or lease, because these contracts cover the lease of rights rather than the actual sale of them) the print rights only. Publishers sometimes try to take the electronic rights, film rights, radio rights, graphic novel rights (and whatever other rights they can think of) as well. Don’t. Sell off your various rights one by one, don’t give one organisation exclusive control.
  • Sundry incidentals … are you using quotes or photographs in your book that are copyrighted to someone else? If so, it will probably be up to you to gain permission to use the material, as also to pay whatever fees that permission includes. You must vow faithfully and cross your heart that all the material in your book is of your own authorship (unless otherwise stated and paid for). The cover art of the book is sometimes mentioned … generally along the lines that the author has no say in cover art at all (although, in practice, you generally do have a say). You will also have to agree to make yourself available (as your work commitments allow) for publicity purposes on the release of the book.

There are a number of other things that crop up in contracts – how many free copies of the book you are entitled to, for instance – but the above lists the main clauses.

Either the publisher or the author can extract themselves from a contract, but it takes a serious breach of contract to do that … although sometimes there is a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ and both parties mutually agree that they have no interest in doing business with each other and all rights are handed back to the author.

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises

Who’s Who in the Publishing House

Who might you meet in the publishing house? Here’s an abbreviated list (with my sincerest apologies to everyone I’ve left out!) of the kinds of people an author can work with during the long and arduous process of getting the book out.

The Publisher:

The top dog who keeps everything running smoothly and who decides on the direction the publishing house is going to go in (“What the heck, let’s abandon genre literature and concentrate on cookery books for the next ten years.”). He or she probably won’t have much to do with the actual editing and production of an author’s book, but undoubtedly will be heavily involved with negotiating the contracts.

The Commissioning Editor:

This is the person who makes the decision (generally in concert with an editorial board) about which manuscripts to take and which to reject. While the commissioning editor is generally far too busy to take a hands on interest in the editing process of the accepted manuscripts, he or she will take a fair amount of interest in the overall inhouse progress of the manuscript, and whether or not the author is happy.

The (Senior) Editor:

This is the person who works one on one with the author in the editing process, and comprises that one person the author has most contact with. Occasionally the editor may be freelance – more publishing houses are sending their editorial work ‘out’ to freelance editors now. I don’t like it, it is always better to have someone at the other end of the phone.

The Copy Editor:

Although usually the editor does all the editorial work on a manuscript, sometimes a separate copy editor goes through the manuscript as well. This person is very often freelance. The copy editor does all the minutely detailed editorial work.

The Proof Reader:

Once a manuscript has been through several editorial stages, it goes off (or out) to a proof reader who checks for inconsistencies or mistakes.

The Designer:

The person who designs, or gives an artist the commission to design, the front cover of your book. Usually the author is consulted on this process, but it depends on the publishing house as to how much say the author will have in the final appearance of the book.

A slightly new group in publishing houses these days is the web design team: more and more publishing houses now have a significant presence on the web. Depending on what ‘web presence’ the publisher decides to give the author, the web designer can often be an important person in the production of a book.

The Cover Artist:

Rarely does the cover artist work within the publishing house. They’re usually freelance. They are paid to produce cover art work for the book – these pieces might be oil paintings measuring 8 foot by 4, or computer generated peices of art work. (If the art work is a ‘real’ piece of art work, the artist is usually happy to sell it to the author.) how much say the author gets in this art work varies from publishing house to publishing house.

The Publicist:

The publicity department is responsible for letting the world know the book is out there. Weeks, if not months, before the launch or a book they’ll be discussing with the author and with their colleagues how best to promote it. Should they advertise in print or on television? Should the book have its own dump bin? Should the author’s photograph be disseminated as widely as possible or diplomatically and silently consigned to the nearest wastepaper basket? Once the book is launched they’ll arrange media interviews for the author, and perhaps also a publicity tour.

I love travelling about with my publicist – it is the only time in my life where I feel totally looked after and someone else worries over the details of how to get from A to Z. Touring is very tiring (ah, those touring days starting at 7 am as the star of a “Meet the Author” breakfast, progressing through interview after interview and book signing after book signing through the day …), but it is one of the only chances an author gets to actually meet his or her readership.

And now for the people who generally get forgotten, but who often are almost entirely responsible for whether or not your book is a success …

The Book Reps:

Every large publishing house has book representatives in every state. These reps have their own ‘patch’ of book stores that they visit every month. Their job is to convince the book sellers to stock their particular house’s books … in the end your book is not going to sell if it is not in the shops, and if the book reps can’t convince the book sellers to take a book … well …

I absolutely adore HarperCollin’s book reps here in Australia – they do a fabulous job, and the feedback I received from book sellers has convinced me that if the reps hadn’t done such a brilliant job of pushing BattleAxe when I was a totally unknown author, then neither that book, nor I, would have done well at all. I owe them a tremendous amount, so … thanks, guys.

And many  more…

There are a thousand different people who I haven’t mentioned. Sorry! I am always amazed by the numbers and variety of people who turn up – there are the warehouse staff, the legal people, the web people, sundry other ‘techies’, the gofers, the marketing managers, the general ‘fixer-uppers’ … the list just goes on and on.

How to Create the Fantasy World

This page is based on a workshop I gave on building the fantasy landscape. I’d like to discuss briefly several things;

  • What is it that makes the fantasy world?
  • Some do’s and don’ts.
  • The fantasy landscape and natural world
  • Races, societies, and creatures
  • Religions and Magics
  • Some writing techniques and considerations for the fantasy author

Today’s fantasy market is expanding at great rate, and rather than have me repeat what I think the reasons for this are, read my paper on creating the modern romance epic.

Basically, this page is not so much a ‘how to’, but is merely intended to make you think about the kind of world you want to create.

What are some of the ingredients of a fantasy novel and world?

Science fiction can be set in this world, but fantasy is usually set in a different world, or in a pre-modern world. Why?

  • Neither magic nor adventuring quests can be believably set in a modern, logical and scientific world (while science fiction can). We cannot believe in fantasy or magic in our scientific world — we’re not allowed to, therefore to be believable (for the reader to be able to suspend disbelief) we must set a fantasy novel in a new world (or in our past, pre-scientific world). Again, I discusss this in more detail in creating the modern romance epic.

The Fantasy World: must be pre-scientific and pre-technological. a world where magic can be believable … but how different does the fantasy author dare to be?

  • Basically, not very different at all. The fantasy world must be our world only slightly altered, and the differences must be so small as to be hardly discernible : Why?
    – readers must be able to easily suspend disbelief, and that is easier in a virtual clone of our world
    – readers yearn for the magical and the enchanted in our world; it is easier to satisfy that yearning if the fantasy world is as close as possible to our world. Readers want to be able to relate to the fantasy world, they want to be able to place themselves within it, thus is must be as much like ours as possible (that way that can almost believe that our world might be like the fantasy world).
    – Readers don’t want the gap to be very wide at all, they want to be able to step across the instant they take up the book. The most successful fantasy books are those where the fantasy world is our world in all but name. For example:
    – Tad Williams, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn
      – Raymond Feist Riftwar Saga
    Both of these authors also used medieval history and legends as the base for their plots (always a good ploy!).

Before I get down to the elements of the Fantasy World I’d just like to discuss what’s in and what’s out — what has been overdone and what can still be used and developed.

You must be careful in fantasy writing not to:

  • be racist (the bad guys are very, very bad, and the good guys are wonderful and charming). It’s often been pointed out that fantasy books can foster racism, simply because of the stark contrast between the good races and the bad races, where the bad races are always unredeemable.
  • be paternalistic and sexist, esp with treatment of female characters. Modern publishers are desperate for books with strong female characters, as are the public. Don’t just have your female characters be gorgeous princesses on the side who weep and wail and wait for the golden hero to save them. Try to avoid sexist constructs in the fantasy novel — they’re too easy to fall into simply because of the ‘medieval’ non-tech world you throw them into. It is a fine line to tread and you must be careful.
  • be Tolkien-ish. Tolkien is out (for new authors): dragons are out, as are elves, fairies, gnomes, goblins etc. Avoid everything that has been overused before (and often used very badly). Too many authors try to be like Tolkien, but the market, as publishers, basically don’t want another Tolkien-imitation. I think we must all be heartily sick of those blurbs on the back of books that warble: The next Tolkien!
  • gratuitous violence is out, unless it fits in with a character
  • Something else to be careful of is unthinking use of the fantasy formula: Dark evil lord from snow-bound north against golden hero from sunny south, evil wizards, etc. Use it, but be original with it.

So what’s in?

  • grit is in, realism is in, the blurring of lines between good and evil is in, strong female characters are in, flawed heroes are in, sympathetic bad guys are in.
Creating the fantasy world

The Landscape. The landscape is vital as it dictates social structure and religion. This section also addresses how large (or detailed) the landscape should be for the size of the project (a trilogy demands a much larger landscape than a stand alone volume or a short story).

Where do you start? Draw a map! It is invariably the first thing I do when creating an entirely new world (or even when I place a tale within our world). If you can visualise your world, everything becomes so much easier.

How vast should your world, or map, be? H ow large and varied your landscape needs to be depends on how large and varied your plot will be:

  • the more features, the more creatures, races, societies, religions you will be able to have.
  • on the other hand, there is no point for either yourself or your reader if you have a very complex landscape for a minimalist plot (e.g my stand alone book Threshold) with little or no journeying about, few places mentioned, and where the action mainly stays in one spot or in one plot.

The natural world: together with the landscape, the seasons (weather, climate) will profoundly affect the peoples and story the author creates. Will your world have two moons, or just one? Will there be four months or twelve? What are the names of the months? Will you have northern hemisphere seasons, or southern? While all of this can be fun, if you’re not going to have a plot that actively uses the landscape (i.e. have characters out and about) then you may not need to much of this.

On the other hand … seasons and the natural world affect the type of society as well the type of religion your world will have.; more of this below.

Races, Societies and Creatures: some things to think about.

The creatures: how extensive (and how varied) a bestiary should you have? The animal (as vegetable life, for that matter) must suit the landscape.

Dragons might be out, but you can do a great deal with, for instance, creatures from classica mythl or medieval bestiary.

The races: how many different races, and just how different? There’s little point in having a huge variety of races if neither landscape nor plot will support them. The tension within the book can come just as much from a clash between individuals or groups within the same society or race as much as between races. Be careful, as I mentioned above, not to get too carried away with race versus race in sheer black and white terms.

The society: Typically a pre-modern society must be primarily agricultural, non-educated, relatively poor (cashless economy) with a social and a religious aristocracy who control all power (economic, political, social and cultural) within the society. There must be a significant population o ‘have-nots’, for it is from the have-nots that the hero (or the hero’s motivation) will emerge.

The nitty-gritty of life: how do people live in a pre-scientific world? How do they eat, work and construct their homes? How long does it take them to travel by foot, horse or barge? How far can a laden horse go in one day, anyway? Health, diet, utensils and so forth must always reflect the non-technological and scientific world in which that characters live.

Culture, particularly myths: Every culture and society is deeply affected by their myths, so the fantasy author must develop a rich mythological background for their world (and each race will have a different background) without overburdening their readers with boring and unnecessary details.

Religion, Magic and Language: The religion is as important as the social structures, perhaps more so. Pre-modern and pre-scientific worlds are supernatural worlds, that is, the supernatural is used to explain the world and to get things done in the same way that science explains and achieves for us. Religion is affected by many things: the landscape, the variety of races populating the worlds, as their needs and lifestyles (the kind of religion a desert-based and trading people would vary significantly from that of a forest-dwelling, hunter and gatherer race), and the ‘negatives’ of the particular world (those things which are perceived as evil or as uncontrollable).

You must also think about the accoutrements of religion – the festivals, mysteries, and services rendered etc. – as well as what type of priesthood you have for your religion, the hierarchy of the priesthood, and how much power within the society the priesthood has. Does this priestly power generate conflict? Or does it impart such comfort that the society could not function effectively without it?

The system of magic. Fantasy worlds are magical worlds, and generally have systems of magic that, as with the supernatural, are used as a means of getting things done. ‘Magic’ is as structured as religion, and it must reflect the landscape, society and religion within which it exists. What are you going to call your magicians? How is the magic accomplished? What is its power source? Are your magicians part of the priesthood, or separate from it (and perhaps even in conflict with the priesthood)?

Language. What words do people use? How do people count? Or swear? For example, most profanities are based around religious concepts, so the language (or the words the characters use) must reflect the world that has been created for them. As as example, you can’t have characters in a different world going around swearing “by Christ” or “By the Devil!” , and you must even think about such common (and, we think, free of religious connotation) words such as bloody – which is merely a corruption of “By the Lady Mary!” (The Virgin Mary). The religion and gods you create will dictate your profanities.

The fantasy formula: how to use it to your best advantage

Depicting the conflict between good and evil: this is one of the fantasy favourites that is hard to get away from, and, to be perfectly honest, I don’t see why there’s any need to. But, again as I’ve said above, be careful not to make this too black and white, be ‘grey’ in your depiction of who is good and who bad … and play about a bit with your depiction of ‘evil’. It’s one of the things that I love to play with, and it is something that I like to make my reader think about – what is good, and what evil? One of the things I do in books is to turn the concept of ‘evil’ on its head; after all, perception of evil is only what your culture teaches you is evil … what if evil is the best way out? The best way forward?

Using the ‘self-discovery’ concept (the lead characters are not who they first believe themselves to be) . This is also one of things that occurs a great deal in fantasy – and again I don’t think there’s any need to try and escape it. After all, the character who knows exactly who he or she is, is the most boring character in the book. One of the reasons why this ‘fantasy trope’ is so popular is because we all long to believe there’s something ‘other’ within ourselves, and as readers we go on our own journey of self-discovery and growth as we read about the character’s self discovery (the physical quest, the journey, should only be the physical means by which the characters confront the ‘other’ within themselves, and discover their true selves).

Undoubtedly the typical fantasy novel (especially if it is part of a series) has masses of characters. How many should you have? Enough to keep the major plot, as well several subplots (if you need them) going for however many books it takes to get the story told. How many main characters? It’s up to you, but for a trilogy I generally have between 6 to 8, and anywhere between 25-40 minor characters (not counting one-liner bit parts!).

Naming your characters, and developing a coherent naming system, can often be difficult (it’s not something I achieved with all that much success in the early Tencendor books!). Whenever I start a new world now, I go to one reference book for the culture that I’m basing my world on (for instance, one of my favourites is The Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible) and take the names from that, or at least develop them from that.

If you have a number of characters in order, especially if they’re involved in a number of plots, can be really difficult. Every writer develops their own methods … but I often have massive wall charts showing me where various characters are in time and space and plots. Messy, but it works.

How to use (and curb!) your imagination. Imagination is better used with restraint than with abandon. Fantasy relies very much in being able to maintain your reader’s suspension of disbelief. If you get too carried away then you risk your reader suddenly deciding the entire story is utterly unbelievable and putting the book down in disgust. Again, I believe the ‘new’ fantasy world must be as much like ours as possible – that keeps the reader’s suspension of disbelief healthy – but that’s only a personal view.

How to use your reader’s imagination. Read the page I have on this.

How to show and not tell. This is part of learning how to make the reader work, and is also a somewhat difficult task. It is too easy for an author to patronise the reader by telling them what is going on, or what a character is like, rather than showing them. Actions are more important than words. If one of your characters is a bigoted, hot-tempered idiot, then don’t patronise the reader by writing “John walked in. He was a bigoted, hot-tempered idiot.” Instead, show the reader why kind of guy John is by using his behaviour to make the reader realise the guy’s not very likeable.

How to present background information

Most novels begin ‘part-way’ through a story … what I mean by that is that there is almost always some background information that the reader must be informed of (some past incident or history that affects the current story, some events in a character’s past that does the same). But how to do this? Again, I don’t think there’s any need to spell it all out in one or two scenes (young and naive character meets up with older and more worldly character who spend 76 pages telling him exactly why King Fred is at war with Wizard Emily). That is also patronising the reader. We can learn gradually as the story unfolds of the long and torrid history of the relationship between King Fred and Wizard Emily.

I hope this has given you some ideas, as food for thought, in your own quest to construct the fantasy world!

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises

Some General Advice on Writing

So, what do you do first? Well, if you want to write, then, dammit, write! Start with something achievable, perhaps a short story, and start with a genre and a subject that you’re familiar with. Don’t write science fiction if you’ve only ever read one science fiction story in your life. Don’t write romance because you somewhat depreciatingly think it’s easy. Pick a genre and a subject you:

  • admire;
  • know something (preferably a great deal of something) about;
  • feel a real enthusiasm for.

In the early 1990s I stupidly thought I’d make a killing writing light romance. Easy, I thought. No matter that I thought light romance was stuff for fools. No matter that I hadn’t read a light romance since I was fourteen. What happened? I failed miserably. It was bloody hard. I wrote some three novels in the light romance vein, and they are all laughable. That’s not the genre’s fault, it’s mine. Light romance is as difficult or as easy to write as adventure or science fiction; what makes the difference is the author’s attitude and experience, and I failed on both counts.

So don’t pick something because you think it will be easy. Pick something because you like it and are familiar with it.

You must accept that most of what you first write won’t be any good (this is the hardest thing to accept). Perhaps most of what you write for months or even years won’t be much good. That’s okay. The important thing is that you are writing, and you are learning as you go. You will become more familiar and more comfortable with the pacing of plots, with the intricacies of dialogue and with the development of characters the more you do it. I wrote close to six or seven novels, all of which are unpublishable, before I had learned enough to write something that was publishable (although I also completely changed the genre I was writing in as well, and that helped). Maybe I’m a slow learner, but I needed the experience of those novels behind me to eventually write something that worked … and that I could sell.

Short stories I can give no advice on at all, because I’ve only just begun to write short stories. I cut my teeth on novel writing, so that’s what I’ll concentrate on here.

Establishing a Discipline of Writing

Writing must be one of the most disciplined professions on earth: it has to be, because without discipline nothing will ever get done. As I explain on my page on discipline in the bath (you have to read that page to understand the title!), I find writing very hard, and literally have to force myself to do it. Getting that first draft down is very, very difficult. Personally I find that the only way I can write is to discipline myself into a routine, and I think most writers have their own discipline and routine. You have to find your own routine, but once you find one that works for you, then you have to discipline yourself to keep to it, and not to waver and wander. If you set aside Saturday to write, then write on Saturday, don’t keep running out to do the shopping, or going off for a few hours to watch the kids’ football. If you set aside one day a week to write, then be totally selfish – that is your day to write, and nothing comes between you and your writing.

You not only have to be disciplined in setting aside time (and then being selfish enough to insist on keeping that time to yourself and your writing), but you must be disciplined in ensuring you are constantly moving forward in your writing. Don’t waste yourself in constant revising and rewriting until you have a first draft done. As I mention elsewhere, I’ve watched friends constantly revise the first half of a novel for year after year, and they won’t accept that they will never finish that novel. I’ve been in the same position. You write a bit, then you succumb to the temptation to go back and revise it. Just a bit. It won’t take long.

A decade later (I jest not) you realise you’ve squandered every chance you may ever have had to actually write a book. All you have is ten years’ worth of revisions to the first three chapters (or whatever).

MOVE FORWARD. PUT THOSE DAMN WORDS DOWN ON PAPER. Write, and keep writing until an entire draft is done. Then you can (and, indeed, you must) revise it. Steeling yourself to constantly move forward is something you must do.

The First Novel

The hardest lesson to learn is that your first novel will undoubtedly be dreadful. You must be prepared to let your first novel go. Face the fact that one day you’re going to have to turn off the life support systems.

This is hard. Planning, writing and completing a novel is an achievement in itself, and the first-time novelist is generally so emotionally attached to his or her creation they are incapable of seeing it with objective eyes. I have a friend who has been reworking her first novel for the past 7 years … she won’t let go, she won’t accept that she must move on, and she can’t see that she has virtually ruined any chance she has of ever succeeding in actually completing a publishable work. No-one amateur painter expects his or her first work to be a masterpiece (and keep reworking the same canvas for year after year) … so why do amateur writers?

Some 98% of manuscripts are rejected by publishers. My guess is that the majority of those are first-time novels whose authors have no idea, or who can’t accept, how bad they are.

It took me some five years to realise that my first novel was so bad it would never be published. Its worth lay not in whether it would or would not be published, but in what it taught me. Once I accepted the fact that it would be easier (and better) to start a new project than continue to try to resuscitate the First Novel, I took the first great big step towards success.

The second attempt at a novel was easier to let go – and that made it easier for me to view it objectively and learn from its mistakes.

By the third novel I knew what I was doing, and I think by that stage I’d accepted that I was in a learning mode rather than in a ‘get-rich-and-famous-quick’ mode. I think I typed in the final fullstop, then closed the file without a single emotional twinge, and instantly began work on the fourth novel.

I was on a roll. I’d managed to remove myself enough from my writing to be able to view it objectively, to recognise instantly when something wasn’t working, and by this stage I had enough experience to know what to do to correct it.

I was still writing romance, but I knew that this genre was not for me. The excitement was building, because I knew I was close to a breakthrough.

The Breakthrough

The breakthrough for me was finding the perfect genre for my style of writing and for the peculiar and often dark shape of my mind. Fantasy. I’ve read a fair bit of it over the years, but it’s certainly not my favourite genre (what is my favourite? Military adventure fantasy – Tom Clancy, for example, or mystery and crime). The day I thought, “Why not try fantasy?” it felt so right that I instinctively knew this was going to be my best chance at success.

From the moment I wrote the first chapter of BattleAxe I thought it had a really good chance … my practice runs gave me the experience I needed to recognise saleable worth when I wrote it.

But there was something else about BattleAxe that made it different. This one I wrote almost exclusively for myself, whereas all the other novels I did with an ‘audience’ in mind. BattleAxe I LOVED writing. I lived that book, and it lived for me. Consequently it lives for most (not all, she grins, remembering the odd review) of my readers. So if it works for you, then it may well work for others … but again, you’ve got to balance involvement with objectivity.

What To Do With It Now?

So you’ve finished the piece that you think may see you through into book signings and pleasant conversations with your bank manager. What to do with it now?

First, take a deep breath, put it in a drawer, and forget about it for about two, or even six, months. Then take it out, view it with a fresh eye, and revise it ferociously. Make yourself see all the bits that don’t work, and force yourself to change them. Authors always find it hard to change a single word of their masterpiece, but, believe me, masterpieces can always be improved (if you can’t find much wrong with your manuscript, then it’s probably so awful it should be burnt). The more improved your manuscript is, and the more professional (and professionally presented) it is, the greater chance you will have of being published. It’s a hectic world out there, peopled by agents and editors who are overworked and underpaid, and the first thing that catches their eyes is professionalism. They don’t have time for anything but.

If you want some more hints of constructing prose, then you have a look at How to Write the Perfect History Essay, something I wrote for my university students way back when. Although it concentrates on academic writing, what it says about organisation and clarity of prose goes for whatever kind of writing you are engaged in.

You can also have a look at the many books available on the market on how to write.

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises

Using your Reader’s Imagination

There are many different skills a writer learns during his or her apprenticeship, but one that is rarely discussed is the skill of using the reader’s imagination. The best books around are those that make their readers work – and readers love these books, although they don’t consciously realise what it is about the book that makes it so attractive.

What do I mean?

Well, there’s the obvious way in which a reader tries to work out a mystery in a plot – who murdered the butler out of a scullery full of suspects, for instance. But there is a far more subtle way good authors manage to make use of their readers’ imagination.

All of us have imaginations (no matter how many people claim they don’t). We’re human, we think, we imagine. More particularly, our imaginations embellish the bare facts set before us.

If I say to you, “The woman walked into the kitchen”, what do you see in your mind’s eye? Just a woman walking into a kitchen? No, your imagination takes that simple statement and embellishes it. You ‘see’ a kitchen – that is, knowing what a kitchen usually contains you place within this kitchen the tile floor, the sink, the stove, the fridge etc. You probably also give the woman an appearance – whatever appearance you associate with women in kitchens (a middle-aged woman wearing an apron? Whatever …). You are literally incapable of not embellishing that statement.

Thus when someone reads, their imagination is constantly at work, embellishing every phrase they read. A good author (in the same way as a good film maker) uses this to their advantage. A bad writer is one who constantly describes, or who constantly tells the reader what they should see in that kitchen. For example:

  • The middle-aged woman, of a dumpy build, her greying, oily brown hair in curlers, a dirty and ragged apron wrapped about her waist, sensible but thin-soled shoes on her feet and a resigned expression on her lined and tired face, walked into the kitchen which had a stove in the northern corner, a fridge in the southern corner, a white and brown-tiled floor, a strange dove mobile hanging from the central flourescent light which flickered on and off, on and off, on and off, paint peeling from the walls, a table covered with a faded green and cream checked tablecloth and cracked crockery set out with stained stainless steel cutlery to its side.

That’s too much! Far better to say, “The dowdy woman walked into her drab kitchen”, and the reader’s imagination will supply the rest! You know the paragraph above is bad – it is boring to read, but it also insults you by giving you too much information. Give your reader prompts, but don’t explain it to them as if they were five-year-old children (who, if truth be told, don’t need to have things spelt out for them either!). The boring description is not only insulting, it slows down the pace of the plot, and as any good editor will tell you, “Pace! Pace! Pace!”

So the good author gives their reader prompts, or hints, but forces their readers to work things out for themselves. The reader rarely realises this is going on, but they really enjoy the book, because they are so involved in it.

I’ll give you two of the best examples I’ve ever found in fantasy or science-fiction books.

  1. Simon Brown in Privateer. Simon’s aliens are reptilian in appearance – but he doesn’t actually tell the reader this until fairly late in the book, and by this time the reader has worked it out for themselves from the subtle hints Simon places throughout the text (“his feet clicked across the floor”; human feet rarely ‘click’, so there’s something different about these feet … perhaps they have long nails, or claws …).
  2. Robin Hobe in the first book of Assassin’s Apprentice. Robin never told you the exact nature of the lead character’s magical ability, you had to work it out for yourself. It was brilliantly done.

One more thing that flows on from this, and this is something that I learned from my first editor, Louise Thurtell, is that you rarely have to use ten thousand adjectives to describe dialogue: the dialogue itself should explain how it is being said, and how characters react to it, rather than the use of patronising adjectival tags. Characters say, they do not shout, expostulate, grumble, laugh, murmur and so forth. If the dialogue doesn’t make plain what a character is feeling, or how a character reacts, or even the manner of their speech, then the dialogue is very, very poor.

Your readers have active, intelligent imaginations. Make them use them. They will literally love you for it. Sometimes a reader comes up to me and tells me that reading my books is like watching a movie, and a recent review said that “the Douglass brand of fantasy is intensely cinematic”. Why? Because I consciously use prompts that propel the reader’s imagination to create their own vast landscapes: I don’t describe in detail, I don’t have to, because I make use of my reader’s imagination.

This explains the saying that there is a different book for every reader that takes it up. Whatever I write, as whatever every other writer writes, takes on a different meaning for every different person who picks up the book. There is not one land of Tencendor – there are half a million different lands of Tencendor.

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises

The Editorial Process

Writing the book and finding someone to publish it sometimes seems like the easy part. Just when you think it’s time to sit back and take a big deep breath … you find yourself submerged in ‘The Editorial Process’.

Publishers rarely (ever?) let a book go to the presses without it undergoing some form of editorial revision. What form that revision takes, and how extensive it is, depends on the publisher, the type of book, the personal preferences of the editor and the quality of the manuscript delivered to the publisher in the first place. The following description of the editorial process has been written from the twin perspective of an author (both of academic books and popular fiction) and an editor (of academic essays, articles and books), slanted more towards the popular fiction process.

First, the publisher generally likes to have the manuscript in their hands about eight months before publication – it will easily take some six months of going through various publishing processes before it emerges in print form. Having accepted the manuscript, an editor within the publishing house will read it and decide what work needs to be done on it. Often this process itself is shared by several editors, perhaps one or two freelance editors outside the publishing house. Whatever, once all the ideas and suggestions have been collated from the various readers, then one editor will sit down and begin the serious work of editing the manuscript.

Editing literally means going through the manuscript word by word, working out what works and what doesn’t. Usually the author is the last person to be aware of this as they are so submerged in their work they can’t view it objectively. An editor can ask an author to revise a character, even cut a character, or change names (I’ve lost count of the number of names I’ve changed and characters I’ve reformatted). They can ask the author to rewrite scenes, cut scenes, add new scenes (generally the day before you’ve got to send the damn thing back!) or write a scene from the perspective of a different character. The editor will generally cut the manuscript back, but can sometimes ask that the text be ‘plumped out’.

Once the editor has finished his or her work, the author receives the manuscript back for revision. Depending on the editor, you may receive a manuscript that is covered in thick pencilled suggestions, notations, and (almost always in my case) heavy lines scored through unwanted text, or the pages may be almost free of pencilled marks and covered only by a brief letter asking that a few minor points be addressed (and thankfully I’ve received manuscripts back like that, too). In this age of electronic communication and the wonders of the Internet, all of this may be accomplished via email. Two of the books I’ve authored have been edited largely via email – one with a Dutch publishing house (think of the time and postage we saved), the other with Hodder Headline here in Australia.

One of the hardest things I find as an author is to sit down and read what someone else thinks of my work. When you’ve spent months and a great deal of emotional investment in a book, staring at someone else’s vision of what works and what doesn’t can be devastating … especially when you see all those cut bits of text! But editors generally do a great job. They have a keen and, more importantly, an outsider’s eye, and they can spot far easier than you what works and what doesn’t. All my books have come out the better for the editorial process.

So, the author then has to sit down and revise. You don’t always agree with what the editor has suggested, and generally no editor is going to force you to change something if you violently disagree (unless you’re being utterly unreasonable … and in that case you’ll probably never publish with that firm again). In my experience, it’s a question of give and take … of negotiation. I’ll generally accede to editorial wishes (generally because the editor is completely right in his or her suggestions), but occasionally I’ll dig my toes in over something and win my case. What percentage of changes do I agree with and change? Probably between 70 – 80%. If I disagree with something, then I can always make added changes elsewhere. With Enchanter, where one third of the book had to be cut (always be suspicious of the editor who rings up and says cheerfully, “there’s not much we’ll have to do”), there were large portions of the text towards the end of the book I wanted to keep but that the editor wanted to lose simply to make up the required number of words we had to cut. So I cut portions elsewhere and kept the sections I wanted.

Having made the editorial changes (and they can sometimes take weeks), you print out the manuscript (or leave it on disk) and send it back to the editor. Depending on the editor, book or publishing house, it may then go through a further editorial revision (sometimes with a different editor) that will come back to the author for the okay.

Once everyone’s agreed that the manuscript has been finished, and hoping that no lives have been lost in the process, the manuscript is then typeset. That shouldn’t take too long, and then the author (who is often so heartily sick of the book by this stage they wish it would just go away and leave them in peace) gets the proofs back to read and correct. But at about this time the author finally realise that the book is nearing reality and a little germ of excitement can flower again.

During the entire editorial process the editor will have been consulting with you about the cover, and marketing strategies and so forth. Authors are generally listened to about the cover, but contracts will often state that it is the publishing house who’ll have the final word. Marketing departments and book reps (those unsung heroes who actually sell the book to the bookshops) have been busy and have, hopefully, managed to get advance sales that will make everyone smile.

The author will get copies of the book well before it’s released. You sit and admire it for ten breathless minutes … then open it at random and find a mistake on the first page you read!

The Great Day. Release Day. Believe me, if it’s a first book you’ll be rushing from book store to book store admiring the displays. There’s almost nothing as exciting as seeing your first novel in the stands (I’ve hung around book stores like you would not believe, but I’ve never actually seen anyone buy one!). Then you can go back day after day and watch the piles diminish. I’ve never quite got so low I’ve counted the books remaining in displays from day to day … not quite …

Waiting for the first royalties statement can also be nervewracking. Royalties are only divvied out every six months, ending in June and December, and it’s generally around September and April before the author actually sees them.

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises