Have you ever done something you kind of didn‘t quite believe you would manage to do, even while you were doing it? Finished a marathon, wrestled a crocodile, asked someone out in sixth grade? These are the achievements that will come to define your life. We all have them – times when we’ve pushed ourselves to the limit of what we thought we could do, and pushed so hard that we popped out on the other side. Sometimes, of course, it ends in screaming and loss of limbs – but occasionally you actually succeed. Calibrating slightly for levels of adrenaline and fear of immediate death when attempting these feats, underneath is the same feeling of detached wonder and “Whoa. This is happening” – and it starts like this.
First, you get an idea. It may be mischievous, and it may be full of promise and come-hither looks, and so you start the doing of it and forget to stop for a little while. Instead of listening to the voices that say you can’t do it, particularly the one that sounds suspiciously like your own, you get lost in the task and some sort of momentum builds up. You hit a point where you’ve done too much to stop, and you’re still alive. Relief floods your system and the next couple of steps all of a sudden seem easier. “I’ve got this,” you think to yourself. “I know what I’m doing. This is not scary at all.” You whoosh through the middle bit with (possibly misguided) confidence. Now, one of two things may happen. You might smash through the end of your particular task, roaring “HOW DO YOU LIKE ME NOW? HUH? HUH?” which is apparently not “the done thing” at your company’s Christmas buffet, means you’re “difficult” and “should not take the ‘all you can eat’ sign as a direct challenge.” Alternatively if the last third of your task doesn’t surrender to your endeavours and efforts, you can find yourself in uncharted waters with sharks and sea snakes and one wet but seriously angry lion.
I am currently staring, in a near-bovine lack of comprehension, at the release of the third and final book in my series the Valhalla Saga, and so I am going to say something about the second option.
My writing process, such as it is, isn’t very complicated. I just want what I’m writing to be better than the last thing I wrote. So after the warm reception to Swords of Good Men and the consensus that Blood Will Follow was even better, I thought to myself as I started Path of Gods: “Fine. So all I need to do is tie up everything in a neat little knot, while being better than I’ve ever been, in about half the time.” Then I went and whimpered softly in a corner for a while, because it turned out that wasn’t so easy.
The first thing I encountered was the question of the new vs. the familiar.
When I wrote Swords of Good Men and actually finished it (which surprised a lot of people, myself included), I was buzzing. “I got this,” I thought. “Imma novelist now. I can write books and that. In fact, this stuff is easy.” I set to writing the then untitled Book 2, got about 20,000 words in – and got badly stuck. When that happens I usually hoot the Conch of Despair and, as if by magic, a man named Nick Bain appears at my house. Nick is the man who taught me to write, pretty much, which is quite annoying as he is a good decade my junior. However his advice is good and like all good Scotsmen he can be plied with tea and pork pies. So I pushed the fledgling manuscript at him and wailed, “Niiiiiick! It doesn’t work. Whyyy?” Nick, who doesn’t mince words, read through it at speed, drew out the central themes and said, “Because it’s a different town and different people, but you’re essentially writing book 1 again.” I huffed and puffed at this, mostly because it was absolutely true. Nick can be quite annoying like that. Then I had some cake, figured out what book 2 really was about, found the title and got on with it.
As it turned out, the second book was to become a lovely meeting of freedom and control. It was not so much an open road as an empty parking lot for me to burn through at will in an imaginary fantasy race car. I was free to swing the story in whatever direction I chose, a freedom I used quite happily for I am neither smart nor forward-thinking. There was a good base to build on, I liked the characters and I had some ideas, so I got started.
As you can probably surmise, there is a tiny problem with this approach. We shall call it, to pick a title at random and for no particular reason, The Rothfuss Juxtaposition. Now – I didn’t do a Full Rothfuss, for my beard is not yet mighty and I am but half-learned, and I also lack the bear-wrestling forearms needed to heft a manuscript of The Wise Man’s Fear-size – but I reckon we can charitably say I did a demi- or even a three-quarter-Roth. The result was a book I am thoroughly proud of and a proper headache for book 3.
In a position entirely of my own making I now had a number of threads that needed cutting or tying while retaining the voice of the characters and which also needed to be better than books 1 and 2. Unlike Rothfuss I was blessed with a lack of half a million furious and emotionally invested readers – but I had a few. Seven, I think. Eight if you count my Mum. These people demanded to know what happened next, and so I had to figure that out too.
I had an idea…
… but the difference between an idea and an actual novel manuscript is like the difference between a guest blog and a bouquet of over-used similes.
To add to that, my personal life was changing and with it my writing routine. No more stops in deliciously bland chain coffee shops in London. 12 hours of work, 4 hours of consciousness at home, eat, sleep, teach, repeat. (I am a teacher by trade. If some of Rothfuss’ half a million readers would develop an obsession with Vikings tomorrow night I wouldn’t mind so much). I had seemingly no time anywhere.
But I’ve found one thing, since I started writing:
Not writing is not an option.
So adjustments were made. My get-up got shifted from 6:20 to 05:45. Path of Gods got started and finished on the 06:50 from Hitchin to London Kings Cross. Writing spurts of 35-37 minutes would yield between 500-600 words. After a while I started to be able to write on the train back as well, scoping out the seats with the most leg room, twisting my laptop at an angle that minimized my fellow commuters reading over my shoulder about decapitations and necromancy and generally just putting one word in front of another.
And much like anything that gets started and doesn’t stop, after a while it was finished – on a train that was unusually dusty when I wrote “The End” – more or less on time, more or less like I wanted it, threads tied up, characters properly voiced. A couple of passes with the editing axe of the inimitable Jo Fletcher and it was exactly like it should be.
After six years, all told, of writing, editing, writing some more, plying Nick with tea and tearing at my greying hair, I’ve written a trilogy. And today I’ve stopped and looked back, and I’ve had that feeling of “… how did that happen?”
But not writing is not an option, so in the words of Dave Grohl:
I’m on to the next one.
Snorri Kristjansson‘s Path of Gods is published by Jo Fletcher Books tomorrow (July 2nd). They also publish the first two novels in the series, Swords of Good Men and Blood Will Follow. The novels are also available in the US. Here’s the synopsis for the final novel in the trilogy:
Audun and Ulfar have been reunited, but will they be able to hold the North for the old gods, or will the White Christ destroy all they have ever known?
Reunited, Audun and Ulfar have a new sense of purpose: to ensure that the North remains in the hands of those who hold with the old gods. To do this, they must defeat the people who seek to destroy all they have ever known with the new White Christ. But these are powerful enemies and if they have any chance of victory, they must find equally powerful allies.
In Trondheim, King Olav, self-appointed champion of the White Christ, finds that keeping the peace is a much harder test of his faith than winning the war. With his garrison halved and local chieftains at his table who wish him nothing but ill, the king must decide how and where to spread the word of his god.
And in the North, touched by the trickster god, something old, malevolent and very, very angry stirs…