After the writing and the re-writing,
After the striving, and the despicable cost of postage,
After the rejections and the resubmissions,
After all of these things, and so ad infinitum,
And if your gods favour you,
You may hear the Call.
The Call should, if there was any poetry or justice in this world, come to you in the sound of a great bellowing horn blown on the mountaintops to summon you to your rightful place; there should be signal fires leaping from peak to peak; a messenger, arrow-shot and near-death, should crawl the last few paces to your door with desperate words of battles at last won. All of this, you should have. However, if this world possessed its proper quota of justice and poetry, we wouldn’t be writing fantasy, now, would we?
So it comes by way of a small letter. A letter, mark you. Not the stodgy bulk of a returned manuscript. That, in my experience, has never betokened anything other than dismay. Instead they keep the sample chapters you sent them, and they want more. Specifically, they want the rest.
There are a number of options as to the identity of “them” (1). They might be publishers. They might be agents (3). But be warned (4), whilst I couldn’t say whether Many are Called and Few are Chosen, it is possible to fall even at this fence. I know because I’ve been there.
It was a good few years back, but I had completed a book which I had originally entitled Southmarch (5). I sent off the first chapter to the usual suspects and one publisher actually got back to me – O excitement! – and wanted to see the rest.
The manuscript was duly dispatched, and damn the postage, and… wait, and wait, and…
And they didn’t want it. To be honest to myself, the book wasn’t all that. It started well, but flagged, had a nice sea battle in the middle, but the ending was unconvincing, when I looked at it later with the clarity of distance (8). They were very pleasant about it, but firm. It was a case where the first chapter, which frankly was dynamite, did not quite justify the thereafter.
Back to the drawing board for me, but a valuable lesson learned. I had an example, in my own fair hand (9) of a hook that caught a fish, even for a moment. It’s worth noting that I took the lessons from that first chapter into Empire, so the experience was worth having, even though I pounding a nail into me head at the time.
But the Call came again, thank you. This time it was an agent’s letterhead on the simple communication: let’s see it all.
So I sent it all, and they saw it all, and the telephone call came (note the advance in intimacy this time, not a mere letter but actual human contact (10) ) to ask whether I might not want to drop into London some time to meet face to face.
(1) Giant ants from a black-and-white B-movie, for example. (2)
(2) Or even giant bees from a black-and-white ant movie, conceivably.
(3) They Might Be Giants, even.
(4) It seems that every time I talk about getting published I’m flourishing caveats and admonitions like some overbearing parent. However, this particular road to Damascus is paved with broken glass and angry lobsters, so I think the warnings are justified.
(5) However I later decided that Southmarch made it sound like some unauthorised sequel to Middlemarch (6) and so I skimmed off the title of one of my very, very early efforts at writing, which I had called Flames of the Dark (7), and changed Southmarch to Flames of the South. It was a title I was never particularly happy with. I find that, with titles, I am either immediately and permanently happy, or never entirely satisfied. Empire in Black and Gold falls happily into the former.
(6) Tad Williams later brought out a novel entitled Shadowmarch, damn him.
(7) A friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, suggested the alternate title for this one as A Burst of Guts in the Dark, which actually fit the book rather well. It was, I must stress, a very early effort.
(8) With endings as with titles, either it’s right there and always satisfactory, or I have to reach for it, and am never one hundred per cent settled on it. However, as of the last six or so books I’ve assayed, the ending is usually one of the inspirations that comes to me as part of the introductory package. It’s been a long time now since I started a book I didn’t know how I would end.
(9) Which fair hand bears a remarkable resemblance to Times New Roman.
(10) And note, as well, that again the manuscript stayed firmly there, rather than being returned here. Over the years I rather naively blew a lot of hope and prayers on returned packages with my address written in my own writing, in the erroneous belief that people sent the stuff back so that you could print out the balance of the work, add it to the returned chapters, and resubmit it complete. To my knowledge this never happens, and the return of a manuscript is the end of the line, sure as taxes, before you even open the package and read the one-liner they’ve enclosed with it.