If I never have such trouble writing a book again, I will be a very happy man. And it had all started as smoothly as I had anticipated. With Cry of the Newborn safely away to the printers, I decided to get stuck straight into the second volume. All the ground work was done, the research was still fresh, the characters live in my imagination and I knew where the story was going.
If writing a novel can ever be described as easy, this should have been so. But after maybe fifty pages into the first draft, I struck iceberg after iceberg. Now normally, I say to people: look, if you’re stuck at any point, you might like to try just bullet pointing your intentions for the scene / chapter / whatever and then move on, coming back to it afresh in a week or so.
So I tried that. And found the next iceberg right behind the one I’d just dodged. It took me far too long to realise that something absolutely fundamental was wrong. Even if it didn’t necessarily impact on the meaning of the scene I was writing, it was there in the background saying… “yeah, but you see, this won’t work. None of it’ll work til you fix me, you know that, don’t you?”
I’m also a one for saying: Look don’t plan too much. Get started, see where you are, know what happens at the end and the rest will take care of itself. Now I know what happens when that method just doesn’t work. You see, the thing that was wrong was at the core of the book itself. Without it working perfectly, the book would fail.
It was the dead. The dead were not working and the mechanisms by which to make them work within the rules of my world were not there. I couldn’t make the dead walk and be credible to the world of the Ascendants and that fact was completely crippling.
So, come February 2006, well behind on deadline and questioning whether I could actually finish the bloody thing, I went where I have been before when trouble strikes and I need a helping hand from a man in the know. I went to see David Gemmell.
Now pretty much everyone reading this will know that David died on July 28th 2006. That made this trip my last as it happened and therefore to be treasured. Really bitter-sweet because I wasn’t really there all that long.
Following a major glass of champagne and an even larger slice of cake, we sat and talked, sometimes along with Stella, Dave’s magnificent wife. He only had to ask me one question and off I went, rambling and ranting about the problems I was having. He sat there, listened, paused and then said in that deep, sonorous voice;
“We need to take this one piece at a time, James.”
And so we did. Dave was so expressive and enthusiastic when talking about all things fantasy. So physical in his descriptions. We talked about how it would feel to have the power of the earth through you. What it would be like to wake up not realising you were dead. How the earth can give strength but also carried sickness and how channelling that through your body would manifest itself. We considered what it would be like to have the voices of ten thousand dead in your mind. What a God delusion would feel like. How did the dead function? What will did they have? Did they rot or did the magic sustain them? Could they rebel and how much of their lives could they remember?
It was in all regards a most uplifting moment in time. We didn’t finish talking until the early hours and by then had drifted on to many other ‘authorly’ topics, played out some battles in ‘Rome: Total War’ and discussed Dave’s latest work, the third part of the Troy trilogy, Fall of Kings.
What he gave me that day and night was the wherewithal to finish the book to the standard I wanted. He never handed out answers, just opened doors and let you walk through them. Many’s the writing student to have benefited from his teaching and he taught me a great deal in the midst of being a great friend.
The writing was going tremendously well until he died. My wife, Clare was pregnant and the world was a very happy place. But Dave Gemmell’s death was a hammer blow. The thought of writing was abhorrent for a couple of days until I remembered something else he’d said. And that is that writer’s must use every experience in their work, either expressed in the narrative or to drive them on.
It became terribly important that A Shout For The Dead was my best book yet. My attempt at a legacy for a great man as well as to satisfy myself.
This I believe I have done and early reports suggest that readers agree. I hope you do too.