I have a confession to make. My forthcoming novel, Border Crosser, took sixteen years to write.
Border Crosser is the story of Eris, a psychologically extreme secret agent who fights the fascist klept-oligarchs and theocrats of the far future while struggling to recover her own mind.
That such a novel took sixteen years seems as unusual to me as it probably seems to you. So far, I’ve written five novels. Three of those were part of the American Craft trilogy. Another fantasy novel is currently in the trunk (which means I’m not currently trying to sell it, and may revise it later). Each of those four books was written in a year of concerted effort, with some minor revisions afterwards.
Border Crosser didn’t go like that at all.
Border Crosser started as “Crossing Borders,” a short story I wrote at the six-week-long Clarion Workshop during week four. That’s often the emotionally most intense period of the workshop, and I think it shows in the story. Unlike many stories, the opening line was the first one I wrote: “Now, it was Monday morning, ship time, so she was against the Empire.”
When it came time to critique the story, one of our instructors, James Patrick Kelly, had been threatening us for days with his editorial “blue line of death” — that is, that he’d aggressively mark the place where an editor would likely stop reading. So I was worried what he was going to say about this strange and extreme thing I’d written. But when he got to my story, he said that there was no blue line of death here, meaning this story was close to ready to sell. It was one of my happiest moments as a writer.
Sure enough, “Crossing Borders” was my first pro sale. Strange Horizons published it in 2004.
After selling some other short stories, I turned my attention to writing novels. In the modern market, that’s necessary to have any real hope of making writing a full-time career. “Crossing Borders” seemed the natural starting point for this effort, both as my first pro sale and because its resolution left open the possibility of further adventures for Eris.
This first effort at a novel would be the template for writing my other books. Each month, I gave a coherent chunk (8,000-10,000 words was the goal) of Border Crosser to my writing group, and that allowed me to finish a first draft in a year.
When I finished the novel, I found an agent. They had me rewrite the whole manuscript, making it less picaresque with a stronger narrative spine. But they were trying to sell the book after the 2008 implosion. The majors didn’t bite, so the agent lost interest.
But throughout that effort and beyond, I kept writing. I finished two other novels, both fantasies. I found a new, more persistent agent, and I ended up selling my second manuscript, American Craftsmen, before Border Crosser.
I went on to complete the Craftsmen trilogy, with the last book published in 2017. While writing the trilogy, I had throat cancer. I’m cured now, but going through that unpleasantness made me take it to heart when my agent asked me the following question: “If you only could publish one more novel, what would it be?”
The answer to that question was Border Crosser. But that meant a top to bottom rewrite using my current skill set. And that would be a difficult thing: to completely tear up a massive amount of work I’d already done and put it back together again, better.
My window back into the draft text was the following strategy — I’d change the novel from third-person past to first-person present. Since I’d have to make these changes throughout, I’d have to revisit every bit of text anyway. That made the revision easier.
In terms of style, this wasn’t a random tactic. First-person present also better suited the point of view character, who lives in a continual emotional now with herself and her story at the center of all things.
But one other update was necessary. I started rewriting after 2016, so I needed to update much of the politics implicit in the book and make some of it more explicit. Science fiction often has a shelf life anyway, and adding those political references just formalized that I now had a clock running — I wanted this book published before November 2020.
Fortunately, my agent persisted, and we found a publisher just in time. The book is now available, and though it took sixteen years, it’s what I want to say, when I want to say it.
I hope you enjoy it.
Tom Doyle’s Border Crossing is due to be published on October 1st, 2020, available in North America and in the UK (and probably other places, too). It tells the far-future adventures of Eris, a psychologically extreme secret agent whose shifting loyalties cause chaos wherever she goes in the galaxy.
Also on CR: Guest Posts on “Going Global” and “Writing a Trilogy: Lessons Learned”
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Tom is also the author of the contemporary fantasy American Craft trilogy from Tor Books. In the first novel, American Craftsmen, two modern magician-soldiers fight their way through the legacies of Poe and Hawthorne as they attempt to destroy an undying evil — and not kill each other first. In the sequel, The Left-Hand Way, the craftsmen are hunters and hunted in a global race to save humanity from a new occult threat out of America’s past. In the third book, War and Craft, it’s Armageddon in Shangri-La, and the end of the world as we know it.
Tom has survived Harvard, Stanford, and cancer, and he writes in a spooky turret in Washington, DC. He is an award-winning writer of short science fiction and fantasy, and you can find the text and audio of many of his stories on his website.