Neil Gaiman once said that he approached the business of becoming a writer like an explorer working his way towards a distant mountain. Sometimes that mountain appeared close, sometimes it seemed dauntingly far away, but as long as everything he did kept him moving vaguely in that direction, he would eventually get there. Of course, that was spoken with calm wisdom from the top of the mountain, when the outcome was known. You forget the moments of doubt. Of teeth baring frustration. You start to wonder why it took so long, or why you ever doubted yourself. Some years ago I gave up trying to sell my second novel. It wasn’t working and I didn’t know why. That was a point where I might have abandoned writing altogether, but I didn’t. Now, Jacob’s Ladder, my third book, is ready for publication. It has a publishing date, and a cover and a finished proof. If someone were to ask me about the best route to getting published, I might say, however unhelpfully: it’s all about staying on the horse.
As I mentioned, the book is my third novel. The first was a bit of a mess (far too long and far too complex) and I never even attempted to sell it. The second, a children’s adventure story, got the attention of my agent, Faith, who helped me through a couple of redrafts and then sent it out to publishers in the UK and Ireland. The book got some nice feedback and some criticism too. Because I had an agent, I never had to deal with a slew of standard rejection letters. One publisher declared that they loved the first half but could not follow the second. I rewrote the second half and sent it again. The same publisher responded that they now loved the second half but were no longer as keen on the first half as they had been before. As a writer, you are always trying to peer into that crystal ball and see what publishers are looking for, but publishers often don’t know themselves. It takes a long time to learn that your own instincts about your work, provided you are honest with yourself, are as good as anybody’s.
The story of Jacob’s Ladder came to me at random one day. I don’t remember what I was doing at the time only that it popped into my head and stayed there for quite a while until I realised that it was a keeper. I had a clear picture of my protagonist, Leon, and I saw exactly how the book would start and end. Those things often take a while to emerge, but Jacob’s Ladder arrived into the world fully formed and I wrote a third of the book in about three weeks. That bull run didn’t last. The momentum came to a dramatic stop when I realised the story had changed in front of me, run away with itself, and if I continued the way I was going, it would be eight hundred pages long. It needed a rethink.
That reworking, and re-imagining took another three years in all, between drafts and edits, and it was a challenge to retain the energy of that first, rapid birth. I sought advice and help wherever I could find it. I went to Arvon workshops in the UK, where authors read sample chapters and helped me gradually excavate the heart of the story out of the heap of pages and ideas. Jim Crace saw right through all the entanglements of plot and world building and told me that what I had, in fact, was a story about a boy and his servant. When I was struggling with the gradual shift in the novel’s central relationship, Liz Jensen told me to make sure there was a clear point of decision, some event or action that marks a change of mind.
When I was closest to finished, I sent drafts of the book to the Inkwell editorial service, where Betsy Cornwell’s detailed reader reports addressed some of the critical issues in the book, including its stubborn length. It helped hugely to get a detailed review from someone who knew and read SciFi and went through the book from end-to-end. Her last report led me to cut twenty thousand words from the book. A deep cut that sent a bunch of favourite scenes to the recycle bin, but afterwards it all felt stronger, tighter. More like a novel.
Only when I felt it was really complete, when there were no doubts about any elements of the story or characters, did I deliver the finished manuscript to Faith. She sent the book to a couple of publishers, including O’Brien Press. Within a couple of months I had an answer. They wanted it. There was still editing to be done, and more cutting, but fundamentally the book was ready. The story was there. A long journey for sure, with a lot of self-doubt and a fair number of reversals. Not so long though, when considered as an apprenticeship in a difficult craft. The next book might not be any easier, but at least I will know that with time and patience, the mountain can be reached.
In a recent interview, Anne Enright said that she didn’t believe talent was the main requirement for writing a novel, but rather perseverance. There is a great deal of truth in that. Writing your best work takes time. That time is measured in years, not months. And it is not smooth, even if you have steady habits and get yourself up at five am every morning and knock out two thousand words before breakfast. There is always angst. Even authors with a shelf full of published novels struggle. I’ve written chunks of Jacob’s Ladder in my office before work, but also in café’s, on trains and planes, at night and in a free hour suddenly opened by a cancelled meeting. I found you couldn’t be too precious about it. But that is why writing is such a good antidote to so much of modern life. It does not zip along with any efficiency. The gratification is frequent but never instant. It pays out its pleasures like any long, steady human relationship, in love, aggravation, moments of sheer elation and long silences. If you are still with the novel after all of that, congratulations, you’re a writer.
(c) Charlie Pike
Charlie Pike started his writing career when he lived in Turkey, teaching English to adults and children. When he returned to Ireland he worked as an advertising copywriter and freelance journalist, writing feature articles for Irish newspapers, until an opportunity came along to work for an Internet start-up. In 2003 he formed his own web company, Usable Design. He met his wife, Birgit, in Turkey and they now live in County Wicklow. They have two children. Charlie is a graduate of Trinity College.
About Jacob’s Ladder:
We have heard your call You no longer need to fear. You will receive five messages, of which this is the first. The last message will inform you of the time and place of your salvation. Two hundred years from now, the earth is dying, scorched by powerful flares from the sun. A series of messages from an alien civilization sent to humanity over two centuries promise rescue to those strong enough to survive on their planet. Initiate Leon is a member of the True Path warrior culture and preparing for his Rising. But when his test comes – to kill in cold blood – he cannot do it. To redeem himself, he must journey to find the earth’s fifth and final message from the Saviours, with the help of his resourceful servant, Martha. Out in the wild, Leon discovers alarming changes in his body – he can drink water through his skin, and has poison barbs buried deep in his flesh. Martha reveals to him the secret that the True Path have kept from him all this time: Jacob’s Ladder, an adaptation for life on the alien planet, has lain dormant in his genes and is now being activated. He is part alien and part human, and he is in grave danger from those who wish to take what is in his body. An ambitious YA novel for fans of Patrick Ness, Rick Yancey and James Dashner.
Order your copy online here.