I always loved those programmes about the making of the film… Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Arc, James Bond… so in that spirit, here’s my take on the development of Nether Light.
Picture the scene, 2016, 4 years ago… I sit down to try and write a book. The first line I write turns out to have some sticky to it…
‘Guyen sat at his bench tinkering with some copper cornicework.’
OK, so actually, the only sticky thing about my first attempt at this book was the first word, Guyen, the name of my protagonist. It was about the only thing that would stay.
As soon as I started writing, I was hooked on the process, which was good. But I had no idea how to write, aside from arranging letters in some meaningful order. But I thought I’d see what happened. And so I began on one crazy journey…
Mistake the first!
20,000 words in, I realised I had begun from the wrong starting point. This was in fact the 1st book in a second trilogy, following on from the original one, which I hadn’t written yet…. Oops.
So, I began again.
Mistake the second!
This time, I wrote the story of a younger Guyen. Someone who would learn about the world and the magic, taking the reader with him. Again, this didn’t work, for reasons that would become clear a year later when I offered the completed 130k word manuscript to beta readers. One of the main problems was that the character’s young age didn’t chime with the themes I was coming up with – adult scenarios, more Dickens than Dahl. The skin was too YA for the bones. This hit home when one of my beta readers, an exceptional cartoonist, provided my first ‘fan art’ – her visualisation of Guyen. A wonderful piece of art, the problem was, she had drawn someone who looked like a child – as that’s what I had unwittingly presented on the page.
My first feedback as a writer!
That first beta read (using critiquing platform Scribophile and trusted friends) was invaluable – the first time I’d had my writing critiqued in depth, and I learned A LOT. Everything from technical issues, to not providing enough explanation on the page, to tired tropes I was falling into, forgetting to make my characters likeable, melodrama, head-hopping, passivity – basically all the standard elements of a first book that means such tomes hardly ever see the light of day.
But (like Guyen) I’m not the kind to give up, so I determined to rewrite from scratch. Hopefully, now I had some idea how to go about this. All the while, I was learning, studying craft, writing poetry, critiquing others’ works. I released a novella (Deliverance at Van Demon’s Deep), exploring some of the world building elements of the story, and wrote other side projects. It all helped.
Over the book’s creation, Nether Light was prematurely named several times.
The Book of Talents
Song of Suns
Blood’s Warm Curse
Army of Me
Hope of the Makers
Back to the Start!
So, I began again, pretty much from scratch. I kept what I considered (and had been told) were the best bits – the core of the probability-based magic system (later to be expanded and branch off down several interesting directions), the main key events in the story, and overarching world building.
But my protagonist aged overnight. Only by a few years, but now they started off in the story as a man. This would work out much better for my themes.
I dropped scenes like fight training, and all the filler, and rewrote everything from a more adult perspective. I wanted this book to feel real. Standing on the shoulders of giants like Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman, I designed the world to be faithful to what we know, but bending it in subtle ways. I have a theory called Reality Cake. Truth is the most important thing in a story, no matter what the genre, and you have a limited amount you can slice off it before you break the fourth wall and lose that all-important suspension of disbelief. I’m quite a comedian in real life, so for a start, all the snarky wit had to go, I wasn’t writing a comedy – even if there are some funny lines in the final piece, they’re in the dialogue.
Then all the unbelievable events had to go. I paid more attention to practical concerns (you can’t see in the dark, for instance, a monetary system should actually be able to support an economy… and so on). The trouble (or the great thing) was, the magic in this book is mind-bending, as are a lot of the events, so I needed to reserve my unreality quotient for these things, which meant cutting back wherever else I could.
A year later, I’d finished. Except that I hadn’t. It would then take another 9 months to finish the edits and proof reading. All in all, Nether Light, my debut novel, released almost 4 years to the day from when I’d first sat down and written that first line.
Editing over and over
My editing process goes something like this – write a book, plot a book, outline a book, write the book again, then go through it with a fine tooth comb. I’ve spent whole afternoons on a single paragraph, and must have dumped millions of words. When I had editors on Twitter telling me they would edit a 5,000-word chapter in a couple of hours, sometimes it would take me 2 or 3 weeks.
Overall, a chapter edit might go something like – deep edit, listen (I made a lot of use of text-to-speech), take notes, fix issues and inconsistencies, listen again, fix more issues, listen, line edits & dialogue honing, listen again, fix repeated words, final listen and speed read.
All the while, lines would be honed, dialogue improved, words swapped out for better ones… The truth is, I’m not sure I’m that great a writer, but I’m a very good deleter, and I know when something’s not right. I just had to get to the point I could no longer see anything wrong.
Of course, it would never be perfect, no book ever is—one of the more important lessons I learned on my writing journey—but eventually it felt right, and was as good as I’d ever make it within the limits of my sanity. By the end of the project, I must have read the book at least a couple of hundred times, and it still moved me. Hopefully anyone else who reads it, just the once, will be equally enthralled.
Anyway, in the end, I finished it. Which is the main thing. Now you can read it!