In keeping with the “Mistakes I’ve made” posts I’ve been running over the last few weeks I thought I’d root around in my Big Bag o’ Personal Screw Ups, when I realized that the one I had in mind is a bit more complex than the others. For years it was a major mistake. And then, without warning, it turned out not to be, a truth that has rung extra loud this past week.
Here’s the basic story. Twenty years or so ago I wrote fantasy novel I couldn’t sell. I managed to get an agent who liked it, but when she sent it out, everybody and his dog passed. I fretted, tinkered with the book, but it was—my shiny new agent assured me—dead in the water. So what did I do? I wrote a sequel.
Yep. It took the best part of a year during which time, needless to say, I wrote nothing else.
This was a very bad idea. Mind numbingly stupid, in fact.
I guess I was thinking that a publisher might take a harder look at the first novel if they thought the series “had legs,” as it were, that the characters would last longer than a single book, clearing the way for a long and glittering franchise, presumably involving movie deals and the like. What publishers actually saw was a second installment of something they hadn’t especially liked the first time around.
Needless to say, we couldn’t sing the duet any better than we could the solo. Since I had a bad habit of dropping everything while I waited to make a sale, this little diversion (adding writing and submission/rejection time) probably cost me two years of productivity.
Now, over the years I continued to fiddle and tweak, sometimes drastically, but the two books remained substantially the same stories over the next decade and a half, though they were definitely polished up some. When I got a new agent (who I’m still with), I coaxed her into taking the books out again, but with no more success.
More tweaking and fiddling followed, now in the background as I worked on other things, and after I started having some success as a thriller writer, I pressed the results on my long suffering agent. This time we sold them no problem. Both of them.
Act of Will came out in hardcover 18 months ago, and went into paperback in July. WILL POWER, the second of the series, came out on Tuesday as a Tor hardcover, the last stage (at least before it goes into paperback a year or so from now) of a two book deal twenty years in the making.
The new book is a self-contained adventure and need not be read after the first, though it’s probably better taken in sequence. As some of you will know, Act of Will had an irreverent tone for so-called “High Fantasy” (if there’s such a thing as Low Fantasy, Will is its spokesperson) and the second book in the series takes this a significant step further. It pushes the envelope about what fantasy fiction is, I think, and wrestles with some of its not entirely pleasant legacy. (At some point, when I am less in danger of ruining the story for readers, I’ll try to write a post about the pleasures and perils of critiquing some of the more problematic aspects of fantasy fiction from the inside!) There’s action and adventure along the way, of course, all from Will’s jaundiced and ironic perspective. The first book lived or died by its voice; the second has a core idea which, I think, actually makes it a better book.
Having written the book a long time ago meant that returning to it was a bit of a shock, like stumbling into a younger version of myself. I liked the core story, but the book needed a lot of work, even after we had sold it. Once over my horror at what I thought was weak or otherwise unacceptable in the writing, I experienced the perverse pleasure of feeling like I’d grown as a writer. The overhaul was extensive, and I sometimes wished I was starting from scratch rather than salvaging something created by that earlier version of myself. But I suspect that if I hadn’t written both books when I did, I would not have pushed so hard to get either up to speed, and there’s no doubt in my mind that my publisher did actually like having two books in hand rather than just one. So, from this vantage point, my former idiocy now looks like a shrewd business move. Funny how that works, isn’t it? Get the right angle on past failures and they seem to merely pave the way for future successes.
But what do I know?
I’m the idiot who wrote a sequel to a book he couldn’t sell. You can read an extract from it here.