Write What You Like No.1: When Authors Go Mad

Christopher Fowler
I've just put a title to Chapter 81. 'Nuns At War'. This is my seventh draft of The Epic. It didn't start out as that. I must be insane. What happened was. Back in oh, probably the nineties, I wrote a short story called 'Tales of Britannica Castle'. It became a favourite of the more - let's say 'loyal' - of my readers. They pressed me to write another, so I wrote a sequel. The pair of stories turned up in a collection. I forgot about them. But I never quite forgot about them. It felt like what had started as an homage to 'Gormenghast' had turned into part of a much bigger subject, and I swore I would one day tackle it as a novel, hereafter known as the Dark Ages Epic. Years passed. Eventually I took a run at it. Then another. I couldn't stick the ending. I knew exactly what I wanted it to be, but here's the thing. My agent says I'm good at endings. Readers like my endings, but I have to haul everyone there. With a novel like 'Hot Water' (which no reader has yet guessed the ending of, hurrah) it's OK because it's the investment of a couple of hundred pages and lots of fun things happen along the way. With the Dark Ages Epic, I would have to keep up reader interest for a more considerable distance. Not that it's all about the ending - the chapters are meant to read like panels in an unfolding tapestry. Cut to the present day. Seven drafts. Six hundred pages. It's not even multi-generational or set in multiple locations. It's set in one location with one group of people. I think it's like looking down the wrong end of a telescope that only focusses at the end. Beware the author in late flow. Some of the best works appear close to the sunset of literary careers, and some of the maddest projects, although they tend not to get readers because it's not what readers like. They want romance and a bit of suffering with not too many laughs. They'll accept originality if it's familiar. I tried to think of other books that had taken my approach, and only ones I could come up with were all failures. I knew what I wanted to do; to write an epic that was neither pastiche nor fantasy. I showed the last draft to my New York agent and he was genuinely mystified. The guy knows what sells, and when to distance himself from the Hindenburg. At this point I start to think that dropping dead right now would be a good career move. I've vowed that if I'm still around, I won't start a new Bryant & May until the Dark Ages Epic is off my desk. So I'm giving it one last push before casting it out there and seeing if anyone is mad enough to publish it. By that time I won't care if they do or not. I'll have written it, so it exists. Anything else will be a luxury. This is not how you're supposed to write a novel. You're meant to research the market, lock your demographic and create something that's a slight twist on a million other books. Those of you who know me realise that this is complete anathema. I've always chosen the harder, less rewarding route because this way it doesn't bore me. If anyone's still interested, I may run a sidebar on the development of this project.


Bernard (not verified) Wed, 15/06/2022 - 11:51

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

A propos of nothing except strange coincidences...
Yesterday the name Arthur Bryant came up in two books I am reading. In both cases this was the historian Sir Arthur Bryant and not that disheveled curmudgeon who hangs around with the elegant Mr. John May. The first book is Masters and Commanders, another of Andrew Roberts' gargantuan and brilliant historical studies. The second is the late Robert Barnard's A Charitable Body.

Cornelia Appleyard (not verified) Wed, 15/06/2022 - 12:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

If you like it, we will like it.
That counts as market research, doesn’t it?

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Wed, 15/06/2022 - 12:09

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Without knowing anything about the actual content or its flow, perhaps 'hauling' readers through 300 pages at a time in a diptych might work. Somehow, to my mind, that befits an 'epic' and could also be more palatable for a publisher. Of course, you would then have to come up with two endings. But you would be in good company; Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings,' for example or Dumas' 'The Vicomte of Bragelonne' which, while itself is the last in the series of three separate novels of 'The d'Artagnan Romances,' has been split into three or more books since it was first published. And yes, by all means share the project development with us.

Mary Ann Atwood (not verified) Wed, 15/06/2022 - 12:11

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Sign me up for the "sidebar".

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Wed, 15/06/2022 - 14:20

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@admin You raise a classic metaphysical question (at least to my restless mind...) similar to the one about whether that tree falling in the forest with no one around makes a 'sound.' Is a novel complete or does it 'exist,' if it's not published ? And btw, I for one, am overjoyed that you (apparently) did not go through that hoary pre-novel 'checklist' with B&M. It might have never seen the light of day (or of my eyes).

Peter T (not verified) Wed, 15/06/2022 - 14:28

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I once followed a course on decision making, mainly because it looked the least intolerable of the management courses offered to me. It was good, mathematical, not the usual trickcyclical, self-help babble. Every outcome had a money value, a concept that some might disagree with. However, money's just a way of keeping score and, as the lecturer put it, the money value is merely a measure of what something is worth to you. If you prefer enjoying yourself, doing an honest work, over making a million selling rubbish, then that's what it's worth to you. Recognise it and give yourself credit for it.

Jo W (not verified) Wed, 15/06/2022 - 14:51

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I think I’ve said this before ( probably a few years back) but, you write ‘em I’ll read ‘em.
Just keep doing what makes you happy, Chris.
Btw, what happened to cutting back on the blogging?

Paul C (not verified) Wed, 15/06/2022 - 14:54

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'd buy it !

If conventional publishing houses decline there's always Unbound.com the crowdfunding option. They've published Terry Jones of Monty Python and Jonathan Meades and are stocked by Waterstones so it looks a decent firm. All
money pledged seems to be refunded if the book isn't published. At least it would be available to us aficionados.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Wed, 15/06/2022 - 15:40

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

'Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly...'writers gotta write (with apologies to Jerome Kern and especially, Oscar Hammerstein II). Why not consider crowdfunding as Paul suggests, perhaps for a 'signed limited' edition (which we here get to buy at a dramatically reduced price) ? Or, depending on your contractual relationship with Transworld, offer a publisher a two book deal: 'Dark Ages' and the next B&M or a slim volume of short stories (which, as I recall you have been working on). And btw, also in the 'pending' category --- what's the status of the 'Total Midnight' collection ?

Tina (not verified) Wed, 15/06/2022 - 16:32

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

If there really are no takers, could you self-publish? I'm sure lots of us would love to read it.

Alan R (not verified) Wed, 15/06/2022 - 16:32

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Following Stu's musical introduction, Leonard Cohen was found having a breakdown in a hotel room after trying to decide what verses should be used to finish Hallelujah. He had written many. One verse he finally decided on using to finish the song ....

There was a time you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do ya?

Bloody priceless.

I'd love to read a sidebar with your thoughts on how you are going to finish your book and avoid a breakdown in a hotel room like Len. Some more inspiration from Hallelujah?

Well, maybe there's a God above
As for me all I've ever learned from love
Is how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya

We will buy your book anyway. I would like to read a happy ending if that helps.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Wed, 15/06/2022 - 17:18

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@admin A final thought (for now) on the disposition of 'Dark Ages.' If you tire of 'pulling teeth' to get it conventionally published and/or are not particularly enthused about self-publishing --- make the original manuscript (presumably already in digital form) an NFT. Just remember Bill Gates characterisation of Non-fungible Tokens as '100 percent based on greater fool theory' — the financial concept that even overpriced assets can make money as long as you find an idiot to sell them to.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Wed, 15/06/2022 - 19:27

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Familiar originality?

Sarah Griffin (not verified) Wed, 15/06/2022 - 22:23

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

If you write about people we want to understand and follow then you can put it in any genre I’ll happily go a long for the ride! Keep on going with it!

Rachel Green (not verified) Thu, 16/06/2022 - 06:08

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

It looks a lot like "Howl's Moving Castle" :)

Jo+e (not verified) Thu, 16/06/2022 - 06:43

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Chapter 81 - I like it. Will it have 100 chapters, which sounds like a nice round number? 100 Years War, 100 things to do with lentils etc. This does sound like a good grand finale, much more so than another B&M and though the latter may be a popular choice 'Castle' sounds like something you need to do for yourself. If read it and it sounds fascinating. However could I ask you publish it as a) one big book with wrought iron covers and printed on parchment. b) a Trilogy, partly as a nod to Gormenghast but also because I find very thick books off-putting. And heavy. Or go one better than Merv and make it a Pentalogy (I had to look this up Stu). Publishers will love that - they get to sell more books. But maybe the ending isn't overly important in an epic as the thing is it just goes on. And on. I'm a bit bored with average books whose construct seems only to lead to a clever ending. So perhaps don't fret about the ending. It's the bit in between this and the beginning that's important.

I like the crowd funding idea and would blow a raspberry at your publishers. I'd buy in. Presumably we get a signed 'Forged Edition'? Plus an invitation to the launch banquet?

SteveB (not verified) Thu, 16/06/2022 - 09:11

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The thing about Gormenghast is, it kicks off with Steerpike making his escape over the rooftops. So although it‘s a really dense book, it kicks in with that exciting opening sequence which from memory is quite long 100 pages or so and draws you in and accustoms you to the style. And also introduces you to the antihero of course. If it wasn‘t for that opening, I don‘t think I‘d have stuck with it at the age of 18 as I did.
I think admin should do a limited first edition and offer it to the readers of this blog!

Roger (not verified) Thu, 16/06/2022 - 09:17

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Include B&m in The Epic - searching for the Occult Significance, perhaps - and get two sets of readers!

Roger (not verified) Thu, 16/06/2022 - 09:19

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Three sets of readers, in fact - there are the people who grab anything you write that they come across, as well as the Epic Fantasy and B&M followers.

MartinT (not verified) Thu, 16/06/2022 - 13:18

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Didn't know that you could draw as well!!!

Liz+Thompson (not verified) Fri, 17/06/2022 - 08:03

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Re Unbound. I've sponsored over 12 books in the last couple of years. And yes, you do get a refund if the author withdraws before publication. However, I sponsored a book back in 2020 which still hasn't raised enough to be published, and the money so far raised will not be returned until the prospective author gives up! NB I hope they don't give up, it sounds fascinating and I'm prepared to wait!

Martin Tolley (not verified) Fri, 17/06/2022 - 12:10

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

NOT suggesting this as an option if all else fails; but here's an odd/fascinating place to park publisher-unwanted manuscripts.

Christopher Fowler Fri, 17/06/2022 - 12:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

As much as I love Howl's Moving Castle this one cannot walk.

My book sadly doesn't have Steerpike clambering over the Field of Flagstones but it does have a cow getting shot in the very first line.

Paul C (not verified) Fri, 17/06/2022 - 14:03

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

If the cow's legs are shot off is it ground beef ?

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Fri, 17/06/2022 - 16:42

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@Paul C Give the lad a stuffie !

Helen+Martin (not verified) Fri, 17/06/2022 - 17:57

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

This is why I love this site. How do you recognize perfection? Applause for Paul.

Roger (not verified) Fri, 17/06/2022 - 18:23

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"My book... does have a cow getting shot in the very first line."


Jo+e (not verified) Fri, 17/06/2022 - 21:54

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Now then. When you say you have a cow getting shot, is this getting shot at or shot out? That is to say is someone trying to kill it with a hand cannon or are they catapulting it over the wall? A sort of early Ocado delivery? Either way you may have lost the Veg and Vegan readers by the end of the first line, so you do need to be mindful of the crowdfunding aspect of this.

I'll steer well clear of any cow puns.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Fri, 17/06/2022 - 23:03

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@Jo+e No need to contribute with Paul and Roger neck and neck in the Udder Nonsense Sweepstakes. Oops.

NancyB (not verified) Sat, 18/06/2022 - 15:44

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I would definitely buy and read it! Can't wait to see it.

roy thomas (not verified) Sun, 19/06/2022 - 10:22

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I would consider a great honor if you would allow me to publish it at my own expense indepently as I truly hate most people.I REALLY HATE THE DEMOGOGUES who are set in teir narrow minded approaches to quite frankly destroy the beautiful gift that GOD has bequethed us that is,the planet EARTH,Sincerely,Roy J thomas u.s.a. ALSO,I have arranged a rally to be held in pa.on sep 10.It is legal.I is on a bucolic privately owned farm called INDIAN ORCHARDS It has many features.chief among these are an original 1794 farm house which has been restored to mint condition this mild fith generation farm family are COMPLETELY removed from the pervasions of our modern world.I have developed a concise plan to ACTUALLY SAVE THE WORLD. I t is as follows.I theme is SAVE AMERICA. This WILL BE ACCOMPLISHED by presenting a sober way to do do this.After taking office in nov. the party will launch a congressioal investigation into all nefarious actors from the clinton admin.onward,including the repub.party.Not only will this save our country,your country but by extension the whole world.Ironically this is ONLY made possible by the the very tech innovations used to ruin it.Not surprisingly NO so called conservative academics have supported this.But the very citizens they purort th pontificate to are going to come,fram what I HEAR from freinds on thes so called SOCIAL SITES they responding joyfully to their opportunity.This is obviously an unprecedeted task that may very well suceed in being the single most important event in the majestic history of our blue planet.This is the LAST oputunity to save ourselves before GOD DESTROYS this creation now controled by satan.I could go on and on but since I type with one finger(which I MODESTLY consder myself to be the worlds foremost expert) YOU have influenced me greatly and taught me more than anyone could ever your own farcitious oxfords to my ivy league H ow awfully theses pretentious characters are!!! So if you would like to join this great CRUSADE you are most welcome LETS shake things up a bit.What say you mate.Winston wiill(BOTH OF THEM) BE SMILING DOWN ON US to have see that someoneone has finally had the courage and integrity to do SOMETHING ABOUT IT.Lastly since I was going to use many excerpts of john and artters combined observatios it would be much more nice if you did so yourself.Ihave a grat many friens who I cherish.Though we have never met you are among them.I wish to remain anonymous,even if this is pulled off.I HAVE ALREADY RECD.DEATH threats and am listing my HOME for sale and moving to to remoe location with security much in the fashion of Rushdie.you have my email this is my info which MUST be kept kept confidential.What you share is your business Just leave me THE FUCK OUT OF IT.Sincerely and fondly,your friend Roy J Thomas 537 ridge ave.media,pa.19063 phone 6108927185 p.s. I own EVERYTHING you have ever published.Oddly I CHOSE 77 CLOCKS out of curiiosity and it SUCKED.sO IT WAS NOT UNTIL this year when I saw your name on the new book display.The rest is history.Also I dont want wantANY renumeration from this I think you could write a book about this.Give me 1% of revenue so I CAN LEAVE rotten fucking kids a way to survive as they havent a clue to know how to.hope to FINALLY hear from someone not nearly as invisable as myself,Bye for now.

Christopher Fowler Mon, 20/06/2022 - 07:42

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

This, readers, is what happens when I fail to concentrate on editing the Comments page. A mad American sends me his gibbering rant about - well, who knows what? Perhaps you can decipher it...

Jan (not verified) Mon, 20/06/2022 - 08:54

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Well at least you have found someone barmy enough to want to publish it!

Just a couple of tweaks and there might be somebody saner interested.....hope all is ok with yourself.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Mon, 20/06/2022 - 11:27

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@admin I doubt Mr Thomas' plan to save the world is concise--- assuming he can remember what it is. An object lesson in the dangers of mixing your methamphetamines. But obviously a fan (except for '77 Clocks' ).

snowy (not verified) Mon, 20/06/2022 - 11:34

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

It would certainly be one hell of a launch party, you could probably sell tickets.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Mon, 20/06/2022 - 13:38

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@admin There is one thing that is clear: Mr. Thomas wants to publish 'Dark Ages' at his expense (and that, no doubt, of everyone associated with the endeavour). Although there is a chance, mind you, that he has confused your effort with a purported history of the BJ administration with the same working title. Wonder if I might interest him in subsidising an extended article I'm working on: 'Against the Grain: Is Inflation a Cereal Killer ?'

chazza (not verified) Tue, 21/06/2022 - 08:32

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"Bye for now"?
Missed his medicine, did he?