When I was deciding on what to write next, I contacted a previous editor of mine, asking if they’d be interested in seeing something new from me. Not *publishing* it, mind – nothing so demanding – just *seeing*, considering. I was not even given the politeness of a reply in the negative. I received simply, as has so often been my experience of editors and agents, a deafening, indifferent silence. This is part of the same attitude that kept Tanith Lee’s work away from major publication for years, as well as many others of my generation.
But anyway, resigned and not surprised, I thought, what’s the point of trying to write something that might appeal to editors who are simply looking for the current *hot* topic? Even if you somehow manage to hit the spot, perhaps submitting under an alias, so that your age and experience don’t go against you, the chances are you’ll be discarded just as quickly once the next hot topic or author comes along. Unless you’re J K Rowling or some other, often lesser, writer who’s somehow hit the Young Adult screen/book jackpot, the chances are you’ll be treated dismissively, almost as a necessary nuisance. And that’s even when you have a contract. Screw that!
I’m glad to be out of that carnival of miseries. Creating your own publishing house has its drawbacks – no fat advances for one, learning how to market and promote your work another – but the freedom is exhilarating. Plus the fact that if I’m rude to myself, I can be rude back! It’s very difficult to ignore yourself too. It’s important to secure a trusted editor to work with, who can be a writer friend or colleague willing to do it – because I believe even the most accomplished and experienced author still needs impartial eyes to examine their work prior to publication. But given what happened to Tanith, to me, and to many others, I do advise any authors out there, who are in the same position, to give self-publishing a go. Get all those back catalogue novels out there again that you had published in earlier decades. Allow a new generation of readers be able to immerse themselves in your worlds and visions. It’s not expensive now, either. You can opt, as I did, for a printer/distributor (Lightning Source in my case) who works only with publishing houses – i.e. you have to give yourself a company name and buy some ISBNs for your books from Neilsen’s Bookdata or the US equivalent. Or you can give outfits like Amazon Createspace or Lulu a go. The latter two being more helpful to those who are mystified by the actual publishing process and need a bit of handholding concerning book and cover design. I could write a whole article on the pros and cons of various publishing routes, and the whole self-publishing experience, and might well do that at some point, but for now, just want to say: you can do it. You don’t have to give up and think there’s no writing future. The internet is our friend. It’s freed us from being manacled to big publishing houses in order to be published at all.
Anyway, that particular rant over, I’ll return to the initial subject. What was I going to start working on next? I’d considered taking the Young Adult path, as most people making pots of money nowadays seem to have tapped into that vein, with huge movie franchises erupting from their books: Hunger Games, Divergent, City of Bones, Twilight, et al. But that’s not something I *want* to do. Even the lure of potential big money doesn’t inspire me to start thinking of a suitable story. In order to write, I have to love what I’m working on and, most importantly, believe in it. Friends have often said to me ‘churn out some chick lit’ or to write about whatever is the current fictional flavour of the month, but I haven’t the heart. Even if I tried, I know my efforts would inevitably turn into something supernatural or weird, because that’s just the way I’m wired. Ordinary simply doesn’t interest me. In my hands, Bridget Jones might possibly have become a psychic mass murderer!
I have synopses for a lot of books on my computer, but inevitably the one that drew me the most was another supernatural mystery, in the same vein as ‘The Moonshawl’, again set in the world of Wraeththu. I’m just not done with those characters, and am still very much *in* that world. Plus the idea for a story had already come to me, while I was finishing off ‘The Moonshawl’. I’m fascinated by the concept of mass hysteria, how fear itself can be an infection, how superstitious beliefs can become reality if a collection of minds focus strongly enough to vitalise it. I had a vague vision of where this story would happen. Not in the gilded fey lands of Alba Sulh or the exotic yet civilised countries around Almagabra. Not even in the uncharted regions of Jaddayoth, which even in the original Wraeththu trilogy were already feeling the effects of civilisation. I expect it has become a popular tourist location by now!
I wanted to go further, into the corners of the world where the civilising influences of the strongest and most organised tribes had not reached. I saw misty mountains, immense forests, silence, sacredness, savagery, mystery. I saw a pristine body of water worshipped as a deity. I then discovered such a place actually exists: Lake Baikal in Siberia. So I had my basic premise – hara affected by mass hysteria – and a suitable locale.
In the Wraeththu world, civilisation has been pushing both east and west, from cultures who – in the time frame of that world – are only just making contact again following the fall of humanity. Decades have passed, nearly a century. And in that time, all the flotsam of Wraeththu has been driven into the most unfrequented areas. Where else but the frozen north? Into the great territories of Siberia and Mongolia, natural wonders that even in our world are not that familiar to the average person.
But this being a Storm story, the mass hysteria is not simply hysterical. There are supernatural elements at play, or maybe hypernatural. The tribes around Baikal (which will have a different name in the book – just not decided on it yet) have been fashioned from feral hara escaping Gelaming justice (i.e. remnants of Uigenna and Varr tribes), and others driven out from various once-European countries, who have mingled with hara derived from the native human population of the area. This is a melting pot of different cultures and beliefs that have dissolved into each other to form a new whole.
A young har falls dead inexplicably in the shallows of the lake, and then his companions, who’d been with him, become ill, debilitatingly so. As these are hara, and sickness is rare and when it does occur short-lived, these developments are terrifying. The local braihara (shamans) cannot cure the condition. They do not know what it is or what caused it. The ruling hara know how to protect themselves physically and psychically, but this is something else they cannot defend against. And it’s targeting their sons. Reluctantly, the most prominent phylarch seeks the aid of the Gelaming, who have an agency in the area. The Gelaming are regarded with contempt and suspicion, but their help seems the only path left open. The Gelaming agents, though, cannot help. They too are mystified, so they contact Immanion, seeking the bigger guns who might eradicate the threat.
So that’s the setup. I then had to decide upon the characters, the protagonists who would be sent to this wild land to solve the mystery. I wanted this to be Ysobi and Nytethorne’s first case, and Ysobi’s old friend Malakess can conveniently involve him in it. But I wanted more than that, something that might potentially interfere with the case. That’s when I decided to include Gesaril, Ysobi’s erstwhile nemesis, in the party heading into the unknown.
It’s not my intention to have another angst-ridden emotional nightmare enacted between them. Fourteen years have passed since the original events described in The Hienama and Student of Kyme. Both hara have found contentment in their lives. Gesaril has powerful friends in Immanion; he’s eager to progress in his career, which involves working with underdeveloped tribes that might require help. This new case, endorsed by Malakess (very powerful), and offered by Gesaril’s mentor Fernici (very influential) is too good to turn down. The downside is that Ysobi is part of the deal. Gesaril can overcome any lingering personal feelings, yes, but when faced with an ex who was part of a fraught and messy breakup, it’s not easy to feel totally comfortable, no matter how much time has passed. Also, Gesaril is aware he’ll have to prove himself among his own party, not just to his supervisors in Immanion. And what he has to face amongst the savage, throwback tribes in Akruviah, as the area is known, will test his strength of every type immeasurably. None of the group have any idea of what they’re heading into.
There is one particularly unpleasant event I’ll have to write I’m not looking forward to, as I’m rather squeamish. I don’t do graphic details of such things, as I hate that sort of torture/killing porn found so often now in books, films and TV shows, but even so, can see them in my head as I’m carefully writing the scenes – implying rather than describing. As a writer, you can’t avoid horror completely, because it’s part of life, and to try and ignore it is to create a simplistic world that’s cosy and fluffy and – well – not real.
So far, I’ve got copious notes to work from and am doing a lot of research on the area and on mass hysteria. I see there’s a new movie out soon, called ‘The Falling’, on the subject, which I’ll have to see. I’ve also read Meg Abbott’s novel ‘Fever’, which is a real page turner and a fascinating study of this group phenomenon, especially among younger people. (Typically, there are synchonicities. Even though I’d decided to write about Baikal before reading this book, ‘Fever’ also features a lake as a possible cause, although that’s where the similarities end, other than the basic idea of group hysteria.) I’m also reading about eagle shamanism, and other aspects of Siberian/Mongolian pagan beliefs.
As far as the plot goes, I’m weaving that as I go along, as I did with ‘The Moonshawl’. So far, I’ve written twenty pages of the book, and that’s really just setting the story up. It’s taking some work to include enough information to satisfy readers new to Wraeththu, but not too much for readers who’ve read all the previous works. As I said, I don’t want to dwell too much on the past history of Gesaril and Ysobi, but it must inevitably play its part, because it contributes to what makes them the hara they are. Also, I think readers enjoy reading about awkward situations and character conflicts. It’s like hearing gossip!
I don’t know how long it will take me to write this book, as I don’t get as much time to write as I used to, and also don’t write as fast as in earlier years. However, I’m aiming to release it early next year at the latest. I feel that once I get over all the setup and can get to the meat of the story, the writing will speed up, as it did with my last novel. But I am working very carefully on the setup, with lots of rereading and rewriting, it’s so important to the frame of the story and has to be just the right balance of past, present… and of course future.
As a taster, here is a segment told from Gesaril’s point of view (at this moment, I’m intending to give both Gesaril and Ysobi first person narratives of their own, as I did for Gimel and Rayojini in ‘Burying the Shadow’). This is not the finished draft by any means, so forgive any roughness and gaps. I’d just like to share the experience of creating this new story.
Except from ‘The Shadowbirds’
Piegull was eight years old when he died. Only a few weeks past feybraiha, vibrating with lust and energy he was ready to throw at life, there was no clear reason for his collapse. They said it was sudden. One moment he and his friends had been racing their hounds beside the great lake, the next Piegull’s body had arched backwards into an unnatural, tortured bow, yet amazingly remained on its feet. A plume of liquid, which the observers said smelled of pus or rot rather than vomit, spurted from his mouth, which was drawn into a rictus grin. For a few stultifying seconds, as his friends either closed in to assist or shrank back in disgust, Piegull shuddered on his feet. Then his eyes closed. His mouth closed. He fell dead into the shallows where the lake licked the shore.
Two of the young hara who were with Piegull when this event occurred swore later that strange dull green lights had danced above the surface of the lake for nearly a minute. Not far off, quite near, but not close enough to touch. Others did not see these lights.
The young hara carried Piegull home; perhaps they should not have done. Perhaps he should have been burned where he fell. For within hours of Piegull’s body being laid on a bier outside the braihar’s dwelling, other young hara of the tribe fell sick. Illness: a terrifying thing for hara because in extreme forms it is rare. Our bodies are resilient, can fight back, laugh at the organisms that seek to dominate and wither our flesh.
The other young hara did not die, but they were crippled. Haunted by hallucinations of shadowy figures loping around their beds, or eyes gleaming from the dark corners of night time rooms, they became weak, listless, the skin loose upon their bones as if from dehydration. Water, they could keep down, but not milk, nor indeed any solid food. Their eyes sunk into their heads. They whimpered piteously like abandoned puppies.
At first, only the hara who were with Piegull by the lake were affected, but after a week, another young har fell sick, this one not yet at feybraiha. This was the son of Catblood, a har close to the tribe’s leader, Talysman. The braihar of the tribe, and even those called down from the mountain forests to assist him, were not only unable to cure the affliction, but could not divine its cause or origin. Had the lake poisoned the young ones? Had the malediction of another tribe erupted within them? Nohar knew the cause, although many suppositions were offered.
At last, driven by need more than desire, Talysman sent his theruna, Grail, to the Gelaming station fifty miles south. These prissy interlopers, these sly do-gooders, these mealy-mouthed, would-be conquerors, perhaps they might be able to help, seeing as they were super-hara, or considered themselves to be. Talysman was torn. Part of him didn’t want to believe the Gelaming could succeed where his most trusted hara had failed, while another, perhaps more sensible part, hoped that they could. Grail told the Gelaming this when he arrived. He said also that Talysman had to keep his position firm within the tribe; he must solve all dilemmas, vanquish all foes, make miracles. ‘So make a miracle happen for him,’ said Grail, to the astonished har, Therumin, who interviewed him.
Therumin went to investigate the case himself, found only a mystery. He took a healer with him, whose powerful agmara – the life energy of all – had no effect whatsoever on the afflicted hara. Therumin later admitted to us freely he’d anticipated only an afternoon’s work, for the healer to practice his art, then they’d return home. He’d expected a happy result: the tribe would be grateful, and – more importantly – perhaps the beginnings of a more trusting relationship would be forged. This did not happen – any of it.
Talysman would not speak to the Gelaming himself; Grail and the braihar led them round.
After a few hours, the healer murmured to Therumin, ‘This is beyond us. This is… I don’t know what it is. But we should know. We must know.
The implications hung like burned rags in his words. If these hara could be made sick like this, might not the illness travel, become an epidemic? Was this perhaps a remnant of some human biological weapon? Humans had tried many things to kill hara; such weapons had been generally the most effective. Yet we believed we’d conquered those long ago, made them toothless. Had something survived in the soil around the sacred lake, something we’d not encountered before?
The lake too was mysterious, always had been, long before Wraeththu walked the earth. Could its waters be responsible, as some had suggested? But the lake was regarded as a hostling to those who lived around it; inexorable, inscrutable, but ultimately benign.
Therumin knew he should not waste time. As soon as he returned to his station, he had his pod of listeners contact Immanion.
In Immanion, after some discussion had taken place, the Guild of Listeners contacted the Temple of Wellbeing, who contacted the office within it presided over by my mentor and employer, Fernici. I knew he’d always had an interest in that part of the world – mostly our work revolved around hara from the earliest of times of our species, who’d not evolved as they should have done, who were afflicted or maimed in one way or another, if only socially or culturally. Occasionally, the work had involved sizeable groups of hara, not merely individuals.
Fernici summoned me to his office. He is an ethereal creature in some respects; a century old yet appears still kissed with the fine brush of feybraiha. His inception, they say, was unusual, yet he does not speak of it. ‘The thing is, Gesaril,’ he said, his long hands expressive as they moulded the air, ‘throughout our history, the flotsam of Wraeththu has been continually swept northeast from the west, or northwest from the east. Up into the cold – I expect that was the idea. But what lives there now…’ He was pacing. He always paces when his interest is most ignited. ‘…strange evolutions, throwbacks… They killed some of our agents up there around a decade ago. Now, the station near the lake is heavily fortified. Yet it is intriguing, like a nature reserve. Dangerous predators, beautiful in their savagery perhaps…’ He shook his head, laughed. ‘Listen to me! Almost salivating!’ He paused, fixed me with his swift arrow stare. ‘I’d like you to go. Investigate. If possible, solve the problem.’
While I’d been on field trips before, they had not been particularly major cases. I was flattered Fernici wanted me on this job. ‘When do we leave?’
‘Oh, not me,’ he said, waving an arm at me and turning his back to examine a sheaf of papers he’d left on the low table that served as a desk, ‘much as I’d like to go, I can’t at present, so I’ll send only you from this department.’
‘Not you?’ I said, alarmed.
‘There will be a team,’ he said, ‘security, a couple of other investigators. I’ll speak to Malakess.’
‘Oh…’ A heaviness dropped over me that was faint dread. I hoped Malakess wouldn’t be on the team. Despite our attempts to be polite to one another, there was still discord between us; slight and easily ignored in the vastness of Immanion but perhaps prickly and uncomfortable within a small team far from home.
‘I doubt he’ll go himself,’ Fernici added, having read my discomfort accurately. He peered at me keenly, ‘Gesaril, it must be at least fourteen years ago, surely?’
I glanced away from him. ‘One of my faults is I find it hard to forget excruciating embarrassment.’
Fernici smiled. ‘Well, this is work, so overcome your personal feelings.’ His smile widened to a grin. ‘Also, it could be worse, couldn’t it? Malakess is the least of your historical demons.’
I grimaced at him, wishing wine on the occasional nights we had spent together had not loosened my tongue. We’d swapped stories of our histories, (or more accurately I had told him much of mine), but the problem is that however therapeutic such spillings might be, the result is always that somehar knows more about you than you’d like. Still, Fernici’s words tolled a bell within me like an omen. Malakess har Kyme, with whom I’d once been intimate back in our home country of Alba Sulh, was a pale ghost in comparison to the one he’d once reminded me of. Malakess was a substitute, an imitation. I realised I’d not thought of the original demon for perhaps nearly a year: Ysobi har Sulh. So, that was healing too, I suppose.