To this day, I marvel at my audacity. Me, an untried writer in his late 20s, declaring to any who would listen that he intended to carry Robert E. Howard’s banner onward by writing the Best Pastiche Conan Novel EVER! And I threw myself into it. I’d been a fan of REH since my youth; I first discovered the Ace paperbacks with their stunning Frazetta covers in my oldest brother’s library. In that same short span, I also discovered the work of JRR Tolkien and the glorious Holmes edition of Dungeons and Dragons. And if I couldn’t be a wizard or a barbarian warrior, if I couldn’t live in the Shire and smoke Old Toby on my front stoop while waiting for Gandalf (or march with the armies of the Witch-King, since I had a serious Orc fetish), then maybe I could write about barbarians, wizards, halflings, and Orcs (though I ended up initially writing cyberpunk and grotesque pseudo-horror for some unimaginable reason).
I called my pastiche effort Conan: Shadow of Vengeance; set after “The Pool of the Black One”, Conan leaves the piratical life behind after a demonic sending destroys his crew as it tries to kill him. Then, following a string of undefined bread crumbs, Conan tracks the attack to a renegade Stygian sorcerer called Menaphrates, who is in the employ of the King of Turan — and who wants Conan dead for his past crimes as well as for a prophecy imparted on the King: he would die at the Cimmerian’s hand. I plotted a few chapters and started writing. I probably wrote eighty thousand words of material — all of it concentrated on the first three chapters, which were written and rewritten at least twenty times or more.
I belonged to a small writer’s group, at the time. We’d meet a couple of times a month to
read each others work and critique it, shoot the bull, crack wise, and drink blended coffee
drinks at the local Books-a-Million. Myself, Wayne Miller, Kristopher Reisz, Edna Leo,
Nancy Morris, Abe Johnson, and the late Rob Reiser. A few others would come and go — most
often romance or spiritual writers who were driven off by our rather dark examples of prose
(or by our rather coarse sense of humor). These were my first readers. They read draft
after draft after draft of the same three chapters until it became something of a running
joke: “Scott’s bringing Conan, again. He changed a word and thinks it’s ready to proceed.”
As a young writer, I exhibited a curious mixture of over-confidence and self-doubt. I was
going to write a Conan novel . . . if only I knew how to write. The result was an orgy of
dithering, orphaned paragraphs, furious bouts of writing, and long dry spells. I left the
writer’s group, partially in an attempt to “work on the novel without distraction” and
partially because I didn’t consider myself much of a writer. By ’97, I was yet hammering
away at those three chapters and hoping for more. But then, I had a chance encounter, during a shift at my job as a video clerk at the local Blockbuster, with the first “real” writer I’d ever met: James Byron Huggins, author of several books including Cain. He was a friend of my oldest brother’s, and I knew him only tangentially. Still, we discussed writing while he scoured the Action Movie section, and he agreed to read my three chapters. A few weeks later, his critique would simultaneously crush me and set me on the path that brought us here.
He said: “The writing’s pretty good, but what are you going to do with it? I mean, you can sell it to one publisher [Tor Books was the only publisher licensed to do Conan pastiche, and they hadn’t done one in a while], but what if they don’t want it? You’d do better to come up with your own characters, your own Conan.” And he was right.
I slouched home in defeat, convinced I didn’t have one iota of what it might take to write
To be continued . . .