There And Back Again, A Writer’s Journey

[After yesterday’s post, friend of the blog Paul McNamee asked if I still had a post from years ago, detailing how Conan led me to write historical fiction.  It was several posts, actually, and here they are, edited together.  Settle in, it’s a long read . . . ]

Sometime in the late 1980s, I decided to write a novel. Up till that point, I’d been a short story writer — and an unsuccessful one, at that — who penned cyberpunk and dark fantasy tales with brief excursions into traditional fantasy. My biggest claim to “fame” at the time was a self-published role-playing game (Rogue Warrior, 1986) that got a little local press and fed my ego well beyond what my skill should have permitted. It was time to make the jump into book-length fiction, I decided. Time to go for the brass ring. Thus, in 1989 I enrolled in the Writer’s Digest School for Novel Writing; my assigned mentor was Elizabeth Ann Scarborough — fresh off her Nebula win for the novel Healer’s War.

I plunged head-first into the class materials, reading and analyzing comparable books, brainstorming my idea (a cyberpunk adventure tale reminiscent of William Gibson), creating characters, plotting, writing a synopsis . . . it went swimmingly until the last lesson: write the first 30,000 words. And then, the blank page caught up with me. I dithered. I wrote and rewrote the opening few pages. I doubted myself, second-guessing every decision until finally, wreathed in the stink of self-imposed shame, I simply let my enrollment lapse. Thinking back, I couldn’t tell you today what that book was about, who its characters were, or even what I called it. It became a learning experience (and an expensive one for a young, newly-married pizza guy).

But, I wasn’t done. Oh, no! Back to the drawing board I went and another cyberpunk tale emerged: “Skins”, the story of a young Native American fighting the Faceless Corporations in order to restore his people to their place as stewards of the land — a land ruined by greed, capitalism, and corruption. It went well for six chapters, and then . . . pfft. Nothing. I dithered, wrote and rewrote. Finally, I convinced myself it simply wasn’t my story to tell, since I have only a dram of Native blood in my veins. But I had a novel. I was sure of it. Thus, undeterred, I went back to square one . . .

The first few years of the 1990s followed this same pattern. Dozens, if not hundreds of ideas broke the surface of my little creative pond; most sank like the stones they were. A few floated long enough to create an impression, then dissolved. A handful flailed about like drowning sailors, fighting for the rope that meant salvation. But out of all that froth and verbiage, one . . . ONE stuck, and it was as unlikely a novel as any ever conceived.

In ’95 or ’96, I decided to write a pastiche Conan novel.

Know, O Prince . . .

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 a book.

Birth of a Hero . . .

It can be said that a writer needs must possess three traits: talent, luck, and perseverance. Without talent, one can get by on luck and perseverance; without luck, talent and perseverance can win the day. But without perseverance, all the talent and luck in the world isn’t going to help you. perseverance is the key ingredient, in my opinion, behind the success of any writer: the ability not to give up when the sky continually opens up and rains bowel and bile down upon you.

Then as now, any talent I might have possessed was entirely subjective. I could string words together to make a decent sentence, then braid those sentences into some semblance of a story. More often than not they weren’t good stories — they tended to be derivative and somewhat clumsy reflections of whichever author I felt under the influence of at the time. I had no luck, definitely. By the late 90s, I’d had four short story sales to non-paying markets. One folded before it ever published my story; the other three were to a friend who had started a quarterly magazine. My work was not in demand.

But I had perseverance. I had that by the bucket-load. Every rejection I took as a challenge. Oh, they stung. Rejection is never easy on the ego. I’d sulk and mope about for a day or two then strike back with renewed vigor. I was meant to be a writer, you see. It was my calling. Everything else was simply an obstacle to be overcome.

My friend Byron’s critique spun me around. It was something I should have considered, but I was too caught up in doing what I wanted to do to consider the real-world ramifications. After a good, long sulk I went back to the drawing board. I wish I had a precise accounting of my thoughts, back then. I wish I could point to a calendar and state without hesitation that this was the day Hasdrabal Barca was born. Alas, I cannot. My only evidence is a torn scrap of legal paper, undated, listing the traits Conan of Cimmeria possessed that I wanted to emulate in my protagonist, and a scrawled note in different colored ink: “Not fantasy. Maybe ancient Rome??”

Maybe ancient Rome. Maybe historical fiction. While I can’t recall precisely the moment of Barca’s creation, I DO know what was going through my mind when I decided to change genres: my fantasy work up till that point reeked to high heaven. My world-building was anemic and derivative; my characters were cardboard cliches, cut from the long shadows of better writers like amateur silhouettes. I despised history in school, but as an adult I had a fondness for historical fiction. So, I remember thinking, what if Conan were a product of a real ancient culture? What would he be like? How would he act and react? What would his story be?

With that in mind, I lifted the plot of Conan: Shadow of Vengeance from the Hyborian Age and set it down in the waning days of Babylon, during the reign of Nabonidus. Menaphrates became an Egyptian sorcerer who had cursed the Babylonian king with madness; the protagonist became a Phoenician named Barca (a name I lifted from the pages of Harold Lamb’s 1958 biographical novel Hannibal: One Man Against Rome), a down-on-his-luck mercenary who is dragged into this war of the powers. Again, I dithered. But, rather than start over, I decided to monkey with the setting.

I tried pre-Islamic South Arabia, with Barca as a Byzantine renegade, Afghanistan in the 1100s AD with Barca (called “Baldwin” in this iteration) as a renegade Crusader from Edessa, even Islamic Spain with Barca as a renegade Gael. Then, one night in 1999, depressed and heartsick over a failing marriage and continual failure as a writer, I turned on Turner Classic Movies late one night and caught the opening of The Egyptian with Victor Mature. I watched, enthralled, and by sunrise I knew Barca would return to being a Phoenician, and his story would be set in ancient Egypt — Howard’s Stygia would serve as the backdrop for my historical version of Conan.

And as my 11-year marriage crumbled, I threw myself into the study of ancient Egypt . . .

Sing, O Goddess . . .

It was no easy thing, in the days before ubiquitous high-speed Internet connectivity, to research ancient Egypt from a small and insular southern town like Decatur, Alabama. It boasts one library, one bookstore, and no university or museum presence; I relied heavily on an outdated edition of Cambridge Ancient History, the inter-library loan program, and the Barnes and Noble forty miles away. I used my terrapin-speed dial up connection to copy and paste text files from sites like TourEgypt and Reshafim, to copy bibliographies, and to email Egyptologists in order to ask questions.

The most popular period in ancient Egyptian history is, without a doubt, the New Kingdom (c. 1570-1070 BCE). This is the era of Hatshepsut and the warrior-pharaoh Thutmose III, of the long-reigning Amenhotep III and his son, the heretic Akhenaton; of the fabulous-yet-unremarkable Tutankhamun, Aye, Horemheb, Seti, and Ramses the Great. Most fiction falls into this time period, or jumps forward a thousand years into the time of Queen Cleopatra. I wanted something different — an Egypt in flux. I wanted a time when a Phoenician mercenary would not be remarkable, when Greeks and Chaldeans and dozens of other nationalities might congregate in the cosmopolitan capital of Memphis. I wanted an Egypt more like the Hyborian Age than like something from a dry textbook. This, I found in the Late Period. The 26th dynasty was Egypt’s last chance to seize the glory of the Elder Days, and it ended in bloodshed and ruin.

There is sorcery in writing. Never let anyone tell you otherwise. Writers are like the conjurers of old — the shamans and cave painters, the skalds and rhapsodes; their words weave enchantments of the imagination, and in weaving the tapestry of Barca’s Egypt I discovered a profound truth: all writing, regardless of genre, is Fantasy. The Egypt I created for what would become Men of Bronze never truly existed. There is no “historical accuracy” to it. It is a shared fantasy world built upon keywords and place-names that come loaded with sometimes centuries-worth of baggage. The sorcery of historical fiction is that it evokes the sensation that something is accurate — it rings true, so surely it must be true — when, in fact, it is created from the same smoke and dreams as Howard’s Hyborian Age or Tolkien’s Middle-earth. In deciding to eschew fantasy, I actually learned to write fantasy.

I started Men of Bronze (the name comes via Herodotus’ excellent Histories) in December of 2000, as a form of catharsis amid the ruin of my life, building on a decade of false starts and hastily-scribbled scenes; Barca grew, shedding his previous incarnations to become an original character in his own right — though his Cimmerian DNA is still evident, if one knows what to look for. I wrote THE END some two years later, in March of 2002. My first novel, and the longest thing I’d written to date.

At the time, traditional commercial publication was the only route if one wanted to be respected as a writer. E-books were new and untried; self-publishing had yet to become a viable alternative, and it was still largely regarded as vanity publishing — the last redoubt of the desperate or the disillusioned. I edited based on the opinions of my friends, all fellow writers, and set about compiling a list of agents. I sent queries out in batches of five via snail mail for the first year (most agents hadn’t embraced email queries), tweaking the content of the letters or the synopsis based on the rejections garnered. I still have them. All seventy-eight of them. Then, in 2003 I got my break.

Rebecca Pratt of Pratt Literary, a small agency in PA, asked for the full manuscript, read it, and took me on as a client. I was in a restaurant in Huntsville, AL when I got the call. Not being demonstrative, I kept my celebration down to repeated fist-pumps, a low whoop, and a Cheshire Cat grin. We edited the manuscript again, Rebecca and I, and she submitted it to the usual suspects.

On February 18, 2004, Rebecca sent me a note: ” I’ve got a hot prospect by the tail for MoB [Men of Bronze’s acronym], Medallion Press.” Rebecca submitted the manuscript, and on May 2, 2004, Pam Ficarella, who was then Medallion’s editor-in-chief, sent Rebecca this message: “I have been authorized to extend an offer to purchase Men of Bronze.”

People used to ask me how long it took to write the book. I knew what they meant, of course. Conventionally, it took two years to write and two to sell. But, in actuality, it took me most of my adult life to write Men of Bronze. It debuted on June 1, 2005, at Book Expo in NYC; it received a starred review in PW, and was generally well-received — even by Egyptologists, both armchair and working. At its heart, though, it remains for me my Conan novel and a tribute to the stubborn perseverance of a young man who was raised on fantasy and who dreamed of someday writing his own.

The Road Goes Ever On . . .

Most of this post was written as a series celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Men of Bronze. But, with the release of “The Shadow of Vengeance” in the ongoing Savage Sword of Conan comic from Marvel, some friends online thought it might be instructive to see the architecture of the circle. It has been years, now, since I tried my hand at writing true secondary world fantasy. After Men of Bronze, I wrote another straight historical novel, Memnon (2006), then went all-out writing historical fantasy – to mixed reviews. In 2010, Thomas Dunne Books published The Lion of Cairo, which was an homage to Robert E. Howard’s Crusader tales. It did not do well, unfortunately. It was followed, in 2017, by A Gathering of Ravens.

That brings us to now. The circle that started back in the 1990s has closed. Though not a novel, I’ve written a Conan novella. It received the official nod from Fredrik Malmberg, the good shepherd of Robert E. Howard’s literary estate. And, there might be room for more Hyborian Age stories from my pen. Nor am I neglecting my original novels – the sequel to A Gathering of Ravens is set for 2020, its sequel after that. And maybe a few more. It’s been a strange journey. A journey filled with false starts, roundabouts, and patches where the road was overgrown and nigh impassable. But, here we are.

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3 Replies to “There And Back Again, A Writer’s Journey”

  1. Thank you for sharing your journey, Scott. As an aspiring historical fiction writer, you really have helped inspire me to keep going when the journey gets tough. Thank you.

    1. With the current state of the world . . . I don’t really have an answer. I’ll start writing it later this year, but as to when and what format we’ll see it in, I have no idea.

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