Monday, 21 December 2015

Stephen King says... don't be scared of Genghis Khan, Katherine Roberts.

Ever since discovering a copy of Stephen King's On Writing in my goodie bag at a British Fantasy Convention way back in the 1990s, I've admired the man for his no-nonsense approach to writing. I'm not especially a horror fan - those familiar with my work will know I'm more into fantasy and legends with a bit of science fiction mixed in. But I enjoyed the screen adaptations of King's books, such as writer's nightmare Misery, where the author of a popular series finds himself incapacitated at the mercy of his No. 1 fan, who forces him to write another book in that series. Having someone smash your ankles with a sledgehammer must concentrate the mind, I suppose, and makes me wonder how autobiographical that book was when he wrote it. After all, Stephen King's No 1 tip in his tips for writers published recently in the Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/30/ten-things-i-learned-about-writing-from-stephen-king is "Write whatever the hell you like".

Up until around 2006, I'd always pretty much done this, and had the luck to get most of that 'whatever' published so that I could afford to continue writing in the same vein. Those were the days before publishers were run by accountants, and (while a few years after the Net Book Agreement died) I think it must have been before Bookscan figures really started killing off what the industry likes to call the 'midlist' - a term which is wielded about by industry people much like King's sledgehammer to break the metaphorical ankles of such authors, and one which always puzzles me when authors insist on using it themselves, since this list so many of us are supposed to be in the middle of is not our list, it's the publisher's list, and publishers naturally have a different business model. Anyway, I lived in blissful ignorance of the 'computer says no' syndrome and wrote what came from my heart, not the part of my head that juggles figures around in the hope of putting food on the table.

Ten years ago, fresh from the admittedly rather rocky publication of I am the Great Horse, I started writing a book about Genghis Khan, for no greater reason than that he seemed a worthy successor to Alexander the Great and the history of Mongolia interested me. I'd also just watched a contemporary drama series on TV - I can't remember the title now, or even what it was about, but it was in three parts with three cleverly interwoven character viewpoints and only at the end did you 'see' the whole story. That structure fascinated me. So I wrote my Genghis Khan book in the same manner, using three first person viewpoints each covering the same period of 12 years - a complete cycle of the Mongolian animal calendar - and (having sadly just lost my agent to cancer) sent it off to various editors and agents.

Over the course of the next five years or so, I collected plenty of well-meaning advice and feedback. It wasn't romantic enough... the three first person viewpoints were confusing... the girl's story was interesting, but the boys got in the way... it was a tough read... the original structure was too challenging for young readers... historical fiction for teenagers was (still is, apparently) an uphill struggle... why didn't I rewrite it, mixing up the viewpoints in the standard linear fashion? Why didn't I write something else more saleable... or just stop bothering them and go the hell away? Though nobody actually said as much to me because most children's editors are much nicer than that, and I wasn't bothering adult publishers with my work because, as one agent helpfully pointed out along the way, "of course, Conn Iggulden has already wooed the adult market..." In other words, "it's already been done for the only viable historical fiction market".

Indeed, Iggulden's Conqueror series about Genghis Khan turned out to be phenomenally successful at the time, which made me wonder why a book about Genghis Khan wouldn't work for the teen/YA market. But I appreciated my story was very different in style from his male-oriented historical adventure approach. Besides, after spending more than five years re-writing the book, I was pretty much sick to death of the whole thing and somewhere among those endless rewrites had lost sight of my original concept completely. So I stored my various versions away and buried the project, while I moved on to new work for younger readers that might prove a bit more market friendly. That younger project did prove a lot easier to sell to a publisher, and a few years later the Pendragon Legacy about King Arthur's daughter (published by Templar Books in the UK, no US publisher yet) took over my creative life for another couple of years.

True to his real life persona, however, Genghis Khan refused to die after I'd buried him. Clearly, I'd forgotten to gallop my unicorn nine times over his floppy disk to keep his spirit quiet. So, finding myself again between publishing contracts after yet another publisher takeover and editorial clean sweep, I pulled the Genghis files off their old floppy and on to my computer. Every so often I'd open these files and take a quick look and, although I tried very hard not to, I'd get inspired by the story of Genghis Khan's teenage years all over again. Taking a break of years from a project lets you read it with fresh eyes, almost as an editor might. One day I sent those files up to amazon for conversion so I could put them on my Kindle to see if they worked, and from there it seemed a small step to making a few obvious edits and publishing the ebook edition.

I've decided to return to my original three-viewpoint structure, and this month sees publication of the first of what will become a series of linked novellas about the early years of Genghis Khan, based on the 13th century Secret History of the Mongols and retold in the young characters' own worlds. It's not a Conn Iggulden-style historical adventure. Nor is it your typical girly YA romance, though it touches on a spiritual werewolf theme. I'm not sure it even counts as YA, or which shelf it would sit on in a book shop, if it ever gets that far. It's simply a project that, for one reason or another, has taken me ten years to get out into the world. It's got some of my blood and tears in there, if nothing else.



Temujin's story is published under the Atlantic YA Press label, and is the first of my signature books published for older fans and collectors of my work. (The 'A' stands for my middle name, not 'adult', so I doubt older teenagers will blush very much... just don't give this one to your nine year old, okay?) In some respects, this is a throwback project that should have been published years ago yet somehow slipped through the cracks so I hesitate to promote it over my other work - but, since it's Christmas, Book 1 of the series is free to download until 25th December.

DOWNLOAD PRINCE OF WOLVES - FREE TODAY (21st - 25th December 2015).

Find out more about Katherine Roberts and her books at www.katherineroberts.co.uk

Follow Katherine on Twitter www.twitter.com/AuthorKatherine

4 comments:

Susan Price said...

Get it out as a paperback!

Katherine Roberts said...

Not yet, Sue! The novellas will be ebook only to start with, although I will probably release a print on demand paperback of the complete trilogy if no publisher picks it up in the meantime.

By the way, it's free now... seems there was a slight delay at amazon this morning!

writinginthehouseofdreams.com said...

Congratulations, Katherine! I love the cover, by the way.

Katherine Roberts said...

Thank you, House of Dreams! I painted the covers for this series in the style of the old Chinese portraits of Genghis Khan. You can see all three covers on my website.