Wordbuilding: From one scene to a finished novel

The making of ‘Changer of Days’

I am used to this – or I should be, it’s happened to me often enough. A character steps out of the ether, introduces himself or herself if I am lucky, and then proceeds to dictate a story which I have to scramble in order to render into the written word. Often they don’t even do that, but simply start living a life of which I am tacitly appointed chronicler – and God help me if I don’t come up to scratch.
Cover of Changer of DaysOne of my first books, Changer of Days, began as a single scene of some five pages or so – a band of fugitives running from a powerful pursuer finds a vantage point on the top of a hill and from there bleakly observes the dust of the armies which are in pursuit.
All I knew about them at this point made for a pitiful little pile of knowledge. One of them, the girl called Anghara, was the reason they were all here – and she had suffered something terrible at the hands of the man who was now pursuing her. Another was a lad named Kieran who was fairly obviously in love with Anghara, with her largely oblivious to this fact. Two more of them were a pair of twins, and somehow related to Anghara – and to Kieran. They were fleeing from danger and about to go into greater danger because Anghara spoke of  going to a place of mystery and a dark reputation, a land by the name of Kheldrin, to seek healing for her wounded spirit.
That was it. That was all I had. I remember, I wrote this partly at my tiny and cluttered desk parked in a corner of the Microbiology laboratory where I was, at this time, still working towards my MSc degree. There it was, and there it stayed, for a while.
I started playing with the story concurrently with performing serried ranks of lab experiments and writing a Masters degree thesis. I wrote up a bit of background for my setting, and the more I dug the more came – it was like digging a hole in a place with a high water table.
I found out who Anghara was – an ousted princess and a heir to an ancient throne. I found out who her pursuer was – her half-brother, Sif, who had usurped her crown. I found out that the twins were her cousins. I found out that she, the twins and Kieran were all fostered in the same household. I found out much about a gift called Sight, and how it controlled young Anghara’s life.
When I finally began the novel, it was with a prologue that took place many years before that isolated scene on the hilltop. Anghara was only nine years old, and about to taste the first bitterness of exile
There were several people who read sections of  this MS as it was being written – David, once-boyfriend and now best friend, who would sit across the table at a local Cape Town restaurant with his chin in his hand and listen rapt while I read the thing out to him out loud; Pandora, with whom I would exchange large swatches of paper and would devour her novel-in-progress while she read the latest adventures of Anghara (once a waiter at a coffee shop where we did this, unable to stand it anymore after he had circled our table four times and craned his neck this way and that to no avail, came up to us and asked plaintively, “Are you two studying something?…”).
And the thing grew, in fits and starts. I’d write a segment in a passionate fury and complete a great chunk of it – and then it would fester at this point for weeks or sometimes months because other things intervened or I simply could not find my way through a particularly thorny plot thicket. On the way at least one of the characters who had originally been intended as a walk-on, the Tath Prince Favrin Rashin, assumed a life and spirit of his own and became so fully-fledged that much later, on publication, there would be calls for a book devoted to him alone.
It took me months of writing, hundreds of MS pages, and a great deal of twisting of the plot to finally reach the scene I had written on my desk in the research lab, and by this stage I had long left that lab in pursuit of a livelihood.
Changer of Days was written over a period of two or three years – including a period of nearly four months right at the end where I left my hapless protagonists sitting on their horses in the middle of a winter wood because, subconsciously perhaps, I could not bear to write the next piece of the story which would have to be followed by “The End”.
I finally had to be pushed into finishing the novel, by a reader who begged me to “do something with those poor people, before they die of terminal frostbite!”
So, it was finally done.
I continued, as I had done up to that point, to read a lot of books in the fantasy genre, and now that I had a completed novel of my own (and what a novel! The completed MS weighed in at almost a quarter of a million of words!) I was inevitably comparing the published works I read with the thing that I had written, and was discovering that I had a good story on my hands – a damned good story – a better story, in fact, than much of what had found its way into print up until now.
And thus began my journey of faith, a decade of sturdy belief in the potential of Changer of Days, a refusal to give up in the face of the sort of iniquitous odds that face first-time novelists in the cut-throat publishing world.
There were a few milestones on the way – like the time I cornered a London literary agent who represented one of my favorite fantasy authors and essentially bullied her into reading the MS of Changer upon threat of not leaving the agency’s offices until she did – she accepted the MS, a little nonplussed, and then phoned me at my London hotel and talked to me for forty minutes about it. She took it to a publisher, who said, “Strong story, good characters, but a little too long. We might be interested in seeing it again when the author has done her edits.”
That was where things stayed, pretty much, for some time. I sent the MS to a couple of publishers, and it didn’t get very far – but it was still better, I knew that it was still better, than many of the already published offerings, and I wasn’t giving up.
When my mainstream novel, Letters from the Fire, was published by Harper Collins New Zealand in 1999, for the first time in my life I started developing a personal relationship with a publisher and an editor, highly placed staff of an honest-to-goodness publishing house who became friends. When I was asked to write a reader report on a fantasy MS Harper Collins was thinking of publishing under their new Voyager imprint in New Zealand, I took the new manuscript and gave it a good write-up – and then said, “But I’ve got a fantasy novel of my own. Would you like to look at it?”
They did and then said they would go ahead with the project, but split into two volumes to minimize the impact of all those words.
It had taken faith, perseverance, a stubborn and implacable dream – but Changer was going to be released into the world. For many years the name of my heroine had been my identity in the cyberworld of the Internet; I was, to all intents and purposes, my Anghara – and when I heard that it was going to be published, I cried. Tears of joy. Of vindication.
The book garnered a swathe of glowing reviews, and two award nominations. But more rewarding than all this were the reader comments that kept filtering through. The sort of comments that bore out my instinct that I had a good story and one that deserved to have an audience.
One of my favorites has to be the judgment of a friend’s teenage daughter who, having just finished Changer of Days and then followed that up by going to the cinema to see Fellowship of the Rings, the first Lord of the Rings movie. Walking out of the cinema, she turned to her mother and said blithely, “You know, Mom, this Tolkien guy writes almost as well as Alma.”
I was a writer. I was a fantasy writer. Changer of Days was a damn fine story, after all.