No, really…

When Storytellers came out in March 2019, I kept obsessing about sales and reviews, refreshing my Amazon dashboard, checking Goodreads four times a day (HAHAHAHA more like forty). My first one-star review didn’t upset me – I knew I was bound to get one eventually and almost felt validated. I was a real, rejected author now! But, also, Storytellers was no longer my only baby and the love of my life. It quietly disconnected itself from me – I was working on my second book, Age of Fire, urban fantasy with Norse Gods in it.

I got a bit drunk on the five- and four-star reviews coming from complete strangers. They weren’t my friends or family members trying to humour me. Now all I had to do was write the next book, then the next one, and each would be better just because I was clearly really good at this.

Big mistake. Huge.

I wrote about video games, which I don’t actually play, then dumped all my knowledge of Reykjavík into it, including which supermarkets were the cheapest (Bonus) and how Icelanders socialised (in the public pools), and I felt so proud of this incredible… 

…turd.

It took me only a few weeks – and a few very carefully worded replies from my friends who read this masterpiece – to realise I lovingly and arrogantly shat all over my laptop (sorry about this visual). Which is not to say that Age of Fire was a bad book. It was putrid. It was so awful that one of the friends I sent it to never spoke to me again (true story!) and I never messaged her either – out of shame.

As my high school maths teacher said, there are four levels to a craft. Unconscious incompetence, when you don’t even realise how bad you are; conscious incompetence, when you do; unconscious competence, when you’re becoming better, but you don’t notice; conscious competence, when you realise that you not only do a good job, but you know how and why. On that day I crossed from the first level into the second, and I am grateful for the lesson. And those of my friends who read it and still talk to me. (We pretend it never existed.)

My mistake was deciding to write “the next book”. What I actually had to do was write a better one.

*

Where Storytellers was inspired by a dream and Age of Fire was uninspired, Children was born when I saw a picture of Prince Harry with Megan Markle walking in front of a crowd of journalists and paparazzi. The Duchess, who used to be an actress, looked relaxed and happy. Harry, whose job used to be drinking and waving, looked like a hunted animal. Even his clothes looked stressed out. And I realised something. Prince Harry was possibly the most famous nobody on Earth. Not even a “YouTube influencer”. He would never become king. He would just continue opening new schools and appearing in hospitals and whatever it is that princes do, his every movement scrutinised and photographed, his wife routinely scorched by the papers. Prince Charles, the butt of countless jokes, still stood a chance of sitting on that throne (do they have a throne? I don’t pay that much attention) again. Harry, unless some sort of horrid accident were to happen, didn’t.

How does that feel?

I could tell a bit from that photo of a rich, famous, generally liked man, who would never be free from being “the son of” and who would always be wanted because of being “the son of”. Few people felt sympathetic towards him – oh boo hoo, a rich and famous man, his opulent lifestyle financed by the tax-payers, one who will never have to do anything difficult, cry me a river. I kept thinking about the man who looked like prey sent for a walk in front of hunters.

I was always going to write about the Norse Gods. If the dream that inspired Storytellers didn’t continue to haunt me, I would have written something with the Norse Gods in it first. Only I didn’t know what that “something” should be. Now a vague idea began to form.

Where Odin, Thor, Loki, Freya, Idunn are heroes and heroines of their own countless stories, Thor’s son, Magni, gets two mentions. One when he saves Thor’s life from the troll Hrungnir, the next and last – when, after Ragnarök, he carries Thor’s hammer back to Ásgard with his brother Módi. (Which is the only mention Módi receives at all.) Thor is the most beloved among the Gods – straightforward, devoted to his humans as much as he is conflicted about the ice giants he is descended from, sleeps with, and regularly kills. Everyone knows Thor. How can it feel to be “the son of” an actual, immortal God?

Maya came from Age of Fire and just… moved in, demanding half of the book for herself. (I wish I had her assertiveness.) Another question slowly crystallised in my mind. What would it feel like to be an asexual and aromantic child raised by the Goddess of love and the God of sex? A girl who, when she screamed “you don’t understand me” at her parents like all teenagers eventually do, would actually be right? One in possession of just enough magic to achieve something – but not enough to be able to rebel against her incredibly powerful adoptive parents? Permitted to live among the Gods, knowing that the lowliest of the servants were of more use than she could ever be?

29 rewrites later, Children was ready. I felt very differently about this book than I did about Storytellers. I knew it was the very best book I was capable or writing – and that it was weird. I didn’t know what genre it belonged in. I knew that many readers of Storytellers would appreciate it, but some would feel properly conned. I didn’t know – I still don’t – how to figure out which were which. My pitch opened with “no, really…”

When the proof copies arrived, a realisation blew my mind. I was now an author of books. Two. Plural. My friends were not asking me “are you still writing” but “how is the writing going”. There were now expectations, even if the friends who had read Age of Fire probably set theirs low. I started chewing on my liver, the impostor syndrome back in full force. Yes, you conned people with Storytellers into thinking you could write a good book, well, now they will find out THE TRUTH.

The reviews were both what I hoped and prayed for, and what I expected. Some people didn’t get the book (it is a weird one). Some loved it. A few reviews praised exactly the parts I was proudest of. I made two straight men cry with my gay couple! I was already happily working on the sequel when some of those reviews gave me pause. A majority of people who enjoyed the book loved what I did with the Norse lore the most. Lots of the reviews talked about Children being a great retelling of Norse mythology. The follow-up, Land, is not a retelling of Norse mythology. It’s not even at the beta stage and I already know the pitch will open with “no, really…”

*

While I was aware from the start that I would be changing genres, I somehow missed the fact that I was also changing the topic. An unwelcome memory came back: the movie Hancock starring Will Smith made me feel cheated. I went to the cinema expecting light entertainment and liking the idea of a constantly drunk superhero. And I got exactly that… until halfway through the action movie turned into psychological drama about immortal aliens. Land is a historical fantasy book, a re-telling of the discovery of Iceland. There are Gods, there are the Hidden Folk, magic, and no actual myths. The genre change is nowhere near as drastic as in Hancock, but the exact thing so many people enjoyed is gone.

In my head, Land has always been the only logical continuation. I named the series The Ten Worlds instead of Nine for a reason. But in my head, for a few inglorious months, Age of Fire was a great book.

I started trying to cram some myths in, such as Loki’s theft of Freya’s necklace. This chapter not only didn’t work, it spectacularly didn’t work. It read like Age of Fire all over again, only now I didn’t need anybody to tell me that. I took the myth out and the book seemed to sigh in relief. I re-read Kevin Crossley-Holland’s wonderful The Penguin Book of Norse Myths, searching for something I could use, finding nothing. I wouldn’t call what I felt panic, but there’s a constant undercurrent of anxiety as I continue rewriting and revising a book that has the potential to alienate those who loved Children – and, as a second book in a series, will most probably remain untouched by the Storytellers readers who have no interest in fantasy.

“No, really…”

*

A few days ago a friend sent me an article, A Breakup Letter to My Writing Career, where the author writes:

Why can’t you be more like my wife and take risks? Isn’t any actual risk you might encounter just a projection of your fears? What if the world keeps spinning out of control and we never go back to the middle-class smoothness our relationship was based on? What if the time for stability is gone? Maybe the brave ones among us will find new paradigms, while the scared will go to their graves with their values, like slaves did with their pharaohs?

(It’s a long article, but absolutely worth it. It asks a lot of uncomfortable questions that don’t only apply to writing.)

A part of why I don’t completely regret Age of Fire is the enjoyment I got out of writing it, even if it didn’t work at the end. It was accidentally absurd and unknowingly trash, a lot of it consisting of my show and tell about how I Really Went To Iceland. A travel guide with a plot. But it was fun to write. Children isn’t a fun book, even though it’s funny, but it was fun to write. Shouting at my characters – Maya only revealed the reason for her claustrophobia during rewrite #28 – was (painful) fun. Writing in two very different voices, one of a sarcastic, smartass teenager, the other of an autistic, uneducated kid thrown into waters way too deep for him, was fun. Even the research was fun.

There are many writers who write for the market, some who mass-produce books (their words!), sometimes at the pace of 10 a year. Some of them make the sort of money I can barely imagine. Those are the people who have careers. I don’t know how to do it without getting a burnout, losing all the joy I get out of writing, or probably both at once. I wish this weren’t the case, because I very much like the idea of making six figures a year, every year. But I also remember how I felt about drawing.

My work once organised a group outing, a part of which was a painting class, with a real nude model and everything. When the teacher saw what I did, he asked how long I’ve been doing it. The answer was “never”, but I felt somewhat encouraged. I bought a few books about learning to draw and paint. I tried a few times. I made a pencil drawing of my own hand and it looked photorealistic. Then I stopped. Because I wasn’t enjoying it any more than doing the groceries or cleaning the kitchen.

It’s not that I considered both options and decided to become a tortured Artisté who rewrites one scene 40-50 times. It’s just that writing to market (like I even know what the “market” wants), or forcing myself to write faster and faster and faster, or building up on the success of Storytellers when all my ideas and interest lie elsewhere would make writing a job. A career. I had two careers before – a graphic designer and a musician. I remember how and why both of them ended. Blacksmithing, the second love of my life after my husband, was ruled out by spine injuries, same as any other physical work. I have learned, more or less, to live with my disability, but it does put a lot of limits on me.

So it looks like I’m not going to be the sort of person who builds a consistent brand; who can send newsletters every month and make them interesting, like Angela Boord or Marian L Thorpe; who can even commit to writing blog posts more often than, uh, not very often. I’m the sort of person who has rewritten this post four times and doesn’t feel super confident about it. No, really…