By Dame Jackie
Yesterday, Silver James asked:
Is there one non-published book you’ve written that you really wish had been published? If so, what was it about?
All right, kids. Grab some popcorn or some coffee, because Dame Jackie is going to tell you about the Great American Novel. Specifically, hers.
I’ve always had a thing for fantasy fiction. All Tolkien’s fault, really. As a kid, I’d read The Hobbit and had enjoyed it. And then when I was a teen, I read The Fellowship of the Ring, and that took my breath away. Next was The Two Towers, and as soon as I finished the book I begged my mom to take me to the local bookstore so I could buy Return of the King. (Of course, since it was 9 pm on a school night, she said no. First of all, school night. Second of all, the store was closed.) After I finally got the third book, I devoured it. I’ve since reread the Lord of the Rings saga easily twenty times — and each time I read it, I find something new to marvel over. Rings firmly cemented in my mind the epic importance of the battle between Good versus Evil. (And the need for good accessories, preferably ones that won’t attempt to possess you.)
Other major influences: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe when I was a wee thing. A Wrinkle In Time when I was a scad older, along with A Wind In The Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. These books introduced me to the notion of kids from Here, today, getting involved in a place that’s There, somewhen — a place that’s steeped with magical things.
And then there’s the idea of the extraordinary woven into the world of the ordinary. That’s thanks to my love of superhero comic books: how everyday, how natural, it was for John Q. Public to see Superman foil a robbery or slam a supervillain into a wall. Not to mention all those Greek myths I read as a kid, in which the gods interacted with mortals pretty much whenever they damn well wanted to. Magic as an everyday affair? Of course. Fiction showed me that it was all around me, if only I’d squint a little when I looked.
I blame Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman for my desire to write fantasy novels. Dragonlance — the series, not the roleplaying game, although I loved doing the AD&D version in college — introduced me to the concept of ensemble casts in books, even more so than Rings. Maybe that’s because Rings is written as high fantasy and Dragonlance is more accessible, more fun…more about the notion that “This could be you.” Okay, only if you’re a half-elf or a paladin or a dwarf or what have you, but the concept itself of roleplaying means that you could be any of these characters, doing battle against (or, cough, for) Evil, and trying to save (er, take over) the world.
By the time I was in high school, I’d fallen in love with my creative writing classes. I truly enjoyed writing stories, and I toyed with the idea of writing…something. Maybe a book; definitely a story. And it would have to be about someone from Here who winds up There. It wasn’t until I was a college freshman that I started really thinking about that There, the place where magic was real. I wrote a short story in my creative writing workshop called “Corodine,” which was about this college boy named Cody who bought the latest street drug (the titular corodine), which was supposed to make him trip so much that he actually felt like he was somewhere else. (What is it about college and drugs?) Of course, he’s met by a guide (a bad-ass dwarf) who gives him the Rules and warns him of dire consequences should Cody break them. So Cody and his guide step through the portal (there’s got to be a portal) and wind up in that There. And just as the story finally kicks into gear, I end it: Cody breaks a rule, and the guide kills him.
Hey, I never said it was a good story.
In another creative writing class, I revised the story completely. Now dubbed “Trippin’,” the story featured two college girls, Robin and Laurie, who also buy corodine. Laurie, the protagonist, wants to spend more and buy the rules, but Robin talks her out of it (drugs and peer pressure — what does that say about my college experience, I wonder?) so the girls start out at a disadvantage. They take the drug; they meet their guide (same one that gleefully murdered Cody in the previous incarnation of the story). They go through the portal. They make it a touch further than Cody did; Laurie and Robin learn a little more about the world that they’re on…before they, too, break a rule (easy to do when you don’t know what they are) and are attacked. Robin, alas, is toast, but Laurie makes it back to Here. Unfortunately, corodine has a nasty side-effect: the user becomes instantly addicted. So the story ends with Laurie, weapon in hand, leaping through the portal once again, ready to do battle with the guide and his cohorts.
Yeah, I know. But hey, I was trying.
Slowly, the short story evolved into an actual book, complete with an ensemble cast. It wound up being this horrible mashup of Dragonlance and Wardrobe — and, actually, very close to what Joel Rosenberg did at the start of his Guardians of the Flame series. Except Joel’s was well-written. And my book, called The Naming (yeah, I know), was about 10 years after Joel’s The Sleeping Dragon (which I didn’t read until after I had written my book and let it stew for a few years). So I finished Naming.
Oh my God, I’d written my Great American Novel! Yes, I wrote the GAN, and soon it would be published! I was an author!
Well, not exactly. The book sucked. (Really. I still have the spiral-bound copy I printed out at Kinko’s.)
But I didn’t give up. For the next few years, I tinkered with it. Now along with the college seniors, there were cat-like creatures who helped out our 21-year-old protagonists — one of whom unknowingly held the magic of the world, bwahahahaha!
Isn’t the originality killing you?
All right. Fast forward to 2003. I decided to get serious about getting published. So I dusted off Naming, and for that entire year, I revised the book. I’d made some definite improvements: it no longer ended on a cliffhanger. The characters were no longer completely two-dimensional. The magic system kicked ass. The pace was still atrocious, and most of the plot was horribly contrived, but it was still getting better. By January 2004, I thought the book, now called Stonelord, was ready for prime time.
One year and more than triple-digit rejection letters later, it became clear that no, it wasn’t.
So in January 2005, I pushed Stonelord aside and wrote another book. A completely different book. A chick-lit book. That also didn’t score me an agent or a sale…but it got me to try something new. And later that year, I wrote Hell’s Belles.
And lo — validation! I was now an author!
But even as I wrote the next Hell books, I couldn’t stop thinking about Stonelord. I loved those damn characters — Cody and Laurie were still there, but now they were real characters, not just placeholders — and I loved the magic system. My critique partner wrote middle grade and young adult novels, and that got me to thinking: maybe I should try Stonelord as a YA story.
So all through 2006, I revised. By that I mean I scrapped everything except the main characters (whom I made high school juniors) and the magic system. I thought through the world-building in a way I never did before. (Writing three books for publication definitely made me a stronger writer.) I figured out the various motivations of the various players. Soon I began writing.
The result was mixed. Definitely better than Naming and Stonelord. But it still wasn’t quite right. My agent at the time gave me some advice, so I revised again, adding more chapters to the beginning to better set up the new world. He put the book on submission.
And it didn’t sell.
When I signed up with Dame Agent, I revised again (and took out those added chapters), and she, too, put the book on submission.
And it didn’t sell.
By now, I’d sold Black and White and the unwritten Shades of Gray, as well as Hunger. I had started reading more YA novels as well as some middle grade, and after Harry Potter ended I started on the Percy Jackson series.
And then I thought…what about trying the GAN as a middle-grade novel? Dame Agent gave me the green light, so I started rethinking the book.
By summer 2009, I was back at my computer. This time, I was positive I was onto something. When I was done, my crit partner read it, and she agreed. This was It. I gave Dame Agent the newly rewritten middle-grade novel that September. We went back and forth for a bit — I still had a lot of YA in there, which was pretty damn dark. By the end of 2009, the manuscript was back on submission.
And there it is today. Fingers crossed!
This book has been part of my life for almost 22 years. The thought of giving my boys a book that they could read when they’re 10 or so makes me giddy. Should the day come that this book sells, man, that would be a day of massive celebration.
So there you go: the story behind the story of my Great American Novel. Twenty-two years, and I still haven’t given up. Maybe this time, it’s finally the right story.