I have always been a writer. I might be a photographer as well now, but my first and greatest love has always been writing. I used to joke that I could write before I could walk, but while that’s obviously not possible the truth isn’t so very far off.
As soon as I could write I remember having the impulse to write stories, an irresistible urge to create things and capture them on paper. I used to daydream about characters and events and while away half-terms with grandparents or long summer holidays filling notebooks of every description with ideas and stories.
It wasn’t long before I was designing a world of my own as well, because my natural inclination was to write about an imaginary world rather than things in the real world around me. This sub-creative instinct was well known to Tolkien and his ilk and it was from Tolkien that I received my formative inspiration about how to create a fantasy world.
So, from those early days my crude map-making was accompanied and supplemented by boyish prose, and soon those early characters were striding across landscapes transferred from head to paper. I remember that map getting bigger and bigger, so that I had to stitch together different sheets of paper to accommodate it, and the final masterpiece was pinned to the poster-board on my bedroom wall. I’m sure I still have it somewhere. Of course, it was badly flawed in many ways, failing at basic geography as my primary school brain hadn’t yet learned that rivers don’t flow uphill and deserts can only be found in certain places. But it was a beginning, and places like Maristonia, now cornerstones of my creation, were present right from the start.
My parents and family quickly recognised my natural flair for writing and encouraged it along the way. I found myself writing longer and longer stories, filling whole school exercise books, and completely exceeding the expectations of teachers who set creative writing exercises which they thought would run to a dozen pages and no more. I vividly remember staying up after bedtime, scribbling in an exercise book under my pillow by torchlight, unable to put my pen down as a fantastic story about a round-the-world voyage spilled out.
That ability to go long and persevere with a written task stayed with me, and as secondary school loomed my writing became more sophisticated. I transferred that long-writing tendency from school projects to my own fantasy world and I filled every available journal or notepad. I remember my Nana used to encourage me particularly, marvelling at what I wrote and making sure to give me ever more writing journals as Christmas presents because I never had enough.
Looking back it’s hard to discern exactly where particular characters or ideas came along, but amid many deviations, experiments and abandoned projects the world of Astrom gradually came into being, then honed into sharper focus over the course of many years. Writing dominated my spare time, the natural proclivity of an introvert with an outsized imagination.
Somewhere in the 1990s my writing went digital as well as hand-written. I remember typing early drafts of a story on my parents’ old Amstrad computer, and later on the Windows PC that I shared with my siblings. As the Millennium approached I got my own computer by the study window and spent long hours typing away. Astrom continued to develop, acquiring more and more inhabitants and a rich backdrop of history.
Things got serious mid-way through secondary school. One particular day is etched into my memory as a vivid turning point. I was spending one rainy lunch-time indoors in a classroom at Beaumont School, and whilst my friends chatted nearby I drew a new map in a squared exercise book. No planning, no thinking, it just came out right there and then in a single session. My friends couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw the finished project, perfected in colour a few days later. This would be my definitive world. After earlier essays and abortive attempts, I had now settled on an outline I was happy with. A lot of the names remained the same, but the shapes and contours changed altogether. Astrom had come of age.
That was in 2001, in year 10. Armed with this new map I embarked upon my first proper novel. For reasons I can’t remember, I called it Oron Amular: The Amulet and the Sword. It was set in this new map and became my first full-length novel, running to 228 pages on the PC, comprising 14 chapters and completed in 2002. I’d done it. I’d written a novel. And what’s more I’d done it in the middle of my GCSEs, because apparently I didn’t have enough to do!
The logical next step was immediately apparent, and the firm articulation of a vague desire born long before: I wanted to be a published writer, a full-time novelist. As I entered Sixth Form I started the long, thankless quest to find a publisher. Between 2002 and 2018 I’ve made scores, if not hundreds, of approaches to publishing houses great and small, as well as literary agents by the dozen. Most I never heard back from, and those that did, with the exception of one brief glimmer of hope, declined to take it on. I knew getting published would be hard, but little did 16-year-old me realise quite how hard.
Nothing deterred, I kept trying, and I also kept writing the meantime. Now that everything had clicked, Oron Amular was merely the first foray into a world that continued to grow and deepen. Adding to that first map I created a veritable atlas of literally hundreds of full-colour A3 maps, now underpinned by the knowledge of an A*-graded geography student. New realms were forged, extra coasts plotted and higher mountains raised.
Swiftly I embarked upon the sequel, Starbane, in 2003, and then the prequel, Ruthion, a few years later. And these were just the novels; as well as them I wrote hundreds – by now probably thousands – of pages of history, character outlines, language primers, calendars, mythology and short stories, all set in the same world. I mapped out 11,000 years of chronology and expanded my universe, which had an insatiable appetite for more details and endless questions needing answering. When was such a such device invented? What is this character’s back-story? What is the translation of this name? Where does that plot-line go?
It was all-consuming, exhausting, and indescribably fulfilling. I felt like I was living out my purpose, doing what I’d been born to do. I wasn’t published yet, but I poured my heart and soul into this vast creative project. Other things were happening in my life – gap year travels, university, meeting Lucy, getting my first job and having children – but the writing never ceased.
After a creative hiatus, caused by the intensive demands of undergraduate and post-graduate study, I came back to writing with new resolve. The 2002 draft of Oron Amular wasn’t good enough to be published. It had the germ of many good ideas and personalities, but it was written by a 16-year-old and needed to be better. I embarked upon a complete re-write, keeping the main framework but wholly reworking everything within in, and applying everything I’d learned in the meantime. My writing was much more mature now, and it showed as the 2016 re-draft went through editing in 2017. I would try again, reaching out to more publishers.
Still no joy. The marketplace is too crowded, the entry-points too small and hard to find. I’ll be honest, by this time, living in Cambridge with a home and family of my own, more than a decade after first trying to find a publisher, my hopes were ground down to a low ebb. I’d keep trying, but I was confronted with the increasing likelihood of needing to self-publish to get into print. It wasn’t what I ideally wanted, but I would do it if necessary. I enjoyed my marketing job, but there was something else I really wanted to do: write full time. I’d been blogging since 2014 and had dabbled in fundraising copy-writing, but fiction prose was where my heart really lay. Besides, in my head I had ambitious plans to write dozens and dozens of novels, and if I didn’t start writing full-time soon, I would run out of time to write them before I died.
That was when I met Malcolm Down, whose initial manuscript assessment was incredibly encouraging, but ultimately seemed to be another disappointment, another door tentatively opened before slamming shut. This was a great novel, it said, worthy of publication, but outside our usual remit. The right publisher will publish this. It was a line I’d heard many times before, so my hopes sank again. How long, God?
But then, unexpectedly, that same publishing house came back announcing a change of heart: they wanted to publish it after all. Although not fiction specialists, they wanted to move into that genre and break into the general fiction market. Besides, several other fiction titles had come their way and everything seemed to be clicking. Finally, my long wait was over, or so it seemed. That didn’t mean there wasn’t months of delay, for various reasons, and extended discussions about how to do it, but finally, eventually, at long last, my quest for publication was fulfilled.
In July 2019 I signed the contract: Oron Amular would be published as a trilogy. My boyhood dream would become a reality, and my most cherished prayer, repeated ad infinitum, was answered. Praise God. now to take a leap of faith, and see where I land…