I tried to be a hack. Honestly, I did.
The story of how I wrote a better book than I set out to.
In Stephen King’s essential memoir On Writing, he admonishes the aspiring writer not to come to the task timidly. Writing is serious business. There’s too much bad stuff out there, too many rubbish books, so if you haven’t got something to say then don’t say anything at all. And if you do have something to say, make sure you say it as best you can. Swing for the sky.
The writing of my first book, Winter’s Shadow, began in a fit of arrogance. There was no divine inspiration, no burning desire to tell a personal story. I was not aiming to lift the literary form to new heights. I’d read Stephenie Myer’s Twilight and thought I could do better. Simple as that.
This is not how illustrious careers begin. No respected author would ever point to a critically reviled airport bestseller and say that’s what drove them to put fingers to the keyboard. Nevertheless, we take inspiration where we find it. Or should, in any case. Snobbery, be damned.
So, I began to write a story. A story about a girl who falls in love with a vampire. There was a graveyard, a chance encounter, thunder, lightning — the usual stuff. My prose was fine, but the story felt uncomfortably hollow. Little wonder. I’d started writing with the goal of imitation, not innovation.
My characters were two-dimensional cartoons –all brooding poses and lustful stares. It was scary how easy it was to adopt the stripped-down lurid Mills and Boone style that Myer’s had employed in Twilight. Easy enough that I could have kept writing and finished the book in a matter of months. Maybe, it might have been good? Probably not. In any case, I stopped writing. I was so bored with my story I couldn’t continue. Worse, I was ashamed of myself.
The authors I idealised were imaginative storytellers — folks like Stephen King, Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Dickens. I might not have been able to match their genius but I could do better than a tepid Twilight knock-off.
So, I began to challenge myself. No, challenge is too weak a word. I battled myself. Every time the story began to take a familiar shape, became cliched or generic I wrestled it towards a more innovative path.
What if the boy my heroine falls in love with isn’t a vampire? What if he’s something else? Something readers haven’t encountered before.
From these questions, a new mythology was born, new worlds were discovered, new monsters stepped out of the shadows. I created an original supernatural backdrop in which to play out my story. Now, I had to re-examine those pesky characters I’d created. Shade in the loose sketches. Give them details, flaws, life.
Winter’s Shadow is written from the perspective of an eighteen-year-old girl. I am not a teenage girl and have never been a teenage girl and you could feel it in my writing. Winter was little more than a clone of Twilight’s Bella. A poor one at that. When your primary character description is clumsy you’re doing something wrong.
Again, I battled my lazy creative instincts to arrive at a more idiosyncratic solution. Surely, teenage boys and teenage girls aren’t that much different? Everyone feels alone. Everyone yearns.
I mined my own teenage years and imbued Winter with all the angst I could remember. It turned out I could remember quite a lot. We never experience heartache like we do when we’re a teenager.
The characters began to breathe, to walk around and talk to each other. To surprise me.
By the time I’d finished Winter’s Shadow, my book didn’t resemble the knock-off paranormal romance I set out to write. It was so different to Twilight, and most of the other books that followed in the wake of Stephanie Myer’s phenomenon, that it didn’t really sit comfortably on the same shelf. It was too scary, too sad, too strange.
I’d started writing Winter’s Shadow thinking I had nothing new to say. Three books later and a concluding chapter on the way, it turns out I did.