I know Roanoke, VA author Mike Allen primarily through his fantastic speculative poetry (his poem “Hungry Constellations” is currently featured at Goblin Fruit) and in his role as editor of both his poetry journal Mythic Delirium and his anthology series Clockwork Phoenix. But he’s also quite an accomplished short fiction writer, with stories in Solaris Rising 2, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Weird Tales, and his Nebula Award nominated story “The Button Bin” in Helix. (Though, admittedly, I didn’t catch it until it was podcast at Pseudopod.) And, with The Black Fire Concerto, he’s a published novelist as well. Here, Mike writes about the potential pitfalls of outrunning your own story.
By Mike Allen:
The hardest part of writing The Black Fire Concerto? Maintaining the pace without losing sight of the story.
The fact is, I didn’t exactly complete this challenge with a three point landing, at least not the first time through. Thank goodness for great editors.
To provide a little background, The Black Fire Concerto is actually my second completed novel. My first, Follow the Shadows, featuring a completely different setting and cast of characters, took me about five years to write, and does not yet have a home, though I continue the search.
The Black Fire Concerto, on the other hand, went from concept to finished book in an interval that measures about five months (with some breaks in between for other projects.) To be honest, I don’t recommend working at that speed, but it did get the book done.
The reason this novel exists: Black Gate publisher John O’Neill wanted to experiment with creating a line of novels in e-book form; John recruited author and poet C.S.E. Cooney to help find writers willing to take part in the experiment; Cooney recruited me. (She actually goes by Claire, but she likes being called Cooney, so I’ll keep doing that.) I had a novelette on hand about a young harpist trapped in the stronghold of a necromancer cult and the mysterious woman, a musician and gunslinger, who rescues her, and I’d always had in mind that this pair could have further adventures. Cooney read the story and just about demanded I make a novel from it.
Luckily for me O’Neill wanted something shorter than the typical commercial length – but even so, once I agreed to do this, I basically had two months to figure out the rest of the story. There was little time for longhand drafting like I normally do, and hardly any time to plot and plan – it was either sprint to the finish or miss the deadline. Not that anyone was going to punish me if I did miss the deadline, but as a newspaper writer I take deadlines very seriously. So I plunged ahead, basically running on sheer storytelling instinct. I knew there would be walking dead and other monsters, apocalyptic magic, hidden cities, fox people, surprise family connections, flying horses and epic battles, but I was connecting these dots on the fly. Naturally the story went longer than I originally shot for, which didn’t help that deadline problem. When I reached the end, I didn’t have a complete grasp of what I’d written, because so much of that first draft was made up on the go.
But I turned it in, and after reading it Cooney reassured me that the tale I’d dreamed up was sound, even though portions of it needs a lot of polish – which of course I knew. So then, after a break, came the redraft, which also took two months. And during that slog to fix one hastily jotted sentence after another I hit the wall. I burned out. I reached a point where I couldn’t stand looking at the manuscript.
So what do you do, when you burn out on a writing project? You have to step away for a while. Read some things. Get your mind off the seemingly insurmountable task. O’Neill and Cooney kindly moved the deadline back and gave me time to recoup. Then I started poking at it again, and resumed the march, and this time made it through. And the next complete rewrite, which took a month, went much more smoothly, guided by my editor’s detailed notes. Cooney was great at marking all the places where I’d stepped off the path.
Then, barring copyedits, it was done, and I was more than happy with the result. And now I know a novel need not take five years to complete. Though maybe in the future a full year is okay!
You can read a sample chapter of The Black Fire Concerto or even have it read to you by C.S.E. Cooney at the Haunted Stars Publishing website. And the book has picked up a great blurb from Tanith Lee among other early reviews: “A true departure from Mike Allen–Two unusual female heroes, a deceptively musical quest, and some very black magic indeed, should make this a prize for the multitude of fans who relish strong Grand Guignol with their sword and sorcery.”