Writing the Black Magician Trilogy
Back in 1994 I made a rather scary decision. Sometime in the past I’d decided, naively, that I would write a book by the time I was twenty-five. But when I arrived at that age I found all I had was a large pile of notes and several floppy discs full of outlines, scenes, and first drafts of chapters. What had gone wrong? There just hadn’t been enough time, I decided. Clearly I was never going to get anything finished unless I dedicated more time to writing.
So I quit my full time job and started a freelance illustration and design business. The plan was: I’d work half of the time and spend the rest writing. It seemed like a reasonable plan. I was sure I could get enough work to earn an income that would pay the bills. As it turned out, I was able to just scrape enough of a living to pay the mortgage, if I lived frugally and budgeted carefully.
I also decided that, if I was going to do this properly, I ought to take some refresher courses on writing. So I attended a course called “Writing Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror” run at that time by the author Dirk Strasser, and a few punctuation and grammar workshops at the CAE (Council of Adult Education). All of these were immensely useful. I ironed out a few bad habits at the CAE classes, and received some good advice and feedback specific to the genre of fantasy in Dirk’s class.
But the best way to improve your writing is to write. A lot. A year of writing brought me to the halfway point according to my outline for the book – about 180,000 words. I realised that the final manuscript would be too big for a single volume and would probably have to be divided into two books. Six months later I finished the manuscript and the ‘book’ had doubled in size. I gave it a critical look over and discovered that there were two distinct minor conflicts and one major one that, if resolved at separately, would divide the whole story into three neat volumes.
Hmm. A trilogy. Publishers like their fantasy in threes.
Next was a round of reworking. Now that the first third was to be a separate book, I needed to focus and refine certain aspects of the story. Fergun had been a foolish, almost comical character in the first draft, but now came into his own as a sinister Warrior with his own plans for Sonea. The Thieves were much too nice, and I hadn’t fully explored the potential of Cery’s romantic interest in Sonea.
Once the reworked manuscript was finished, I sent it off to a publisher… and never heard anything of it again. Not even a rejection slip. When people asked where I sent it, I just answered ‘the black hole’.
Plenty of writing advisers say that your first book is a learning experience, so you shouldn’t be too distressed if it isn’t published. Don’t wait for an answer; just keep writing. So while I was dutifully obeying the ‘No Simultaneous Submissions’ rule – waiting for a response from the publisher before sending it on to the next – I started and finished another novel, called Angel of Storms.
By then I figured the first publisher had been given enough time to consider my manuscript, so I looked it over again. I did a light ‘polish’ in preparation to send it out again. An editor friend heard what I was doing, and offered to act as my agent. He sent it to a different publisher.
What followed then was two frustrating years in which the manuscript languished on that publisher’s desk. She promised to mark up chapters but they never arrived. It was frustrating both to me and my editor friend/agent.
Around the same time I was reading short stories for Aurealis magazine, and was inspired to write one myself. I sent “Whispers of the Mist Children” to the editors of Aurealis under a pseudonym, feeling a bit too fragile to cope with them knowing that this dreadful writer was someone they were acquainted with. To my surprise they didn’t reject it, but requested I shorten the story. This turned out to be one of my most valuable learning experiences. It changed my writing style to a snappier, less self-indulgent one. To my delight, the editors accepted it… and I had to confess who Silvia Ducat really was.
I knew this had made a huge difference to my writing when I attended a ‘Masterclass’ at the Victorian Writers Center. The teacher, Jack Dann, said my work had ‘good narrative drive’. At the time I wasn’t entirely sure what this was, but it reassured me that I was getting somewhere with this writing thing.
Suddenly those comments by the publisher that my manuscript was a little wordy made sense. I decided to do yet another rewrite. This time I carved over 20,000 words from the first book, purging anything I thought might be ‘wordy’. Then came one of those co-incidences that change everything. While working as a freelance designer for a travel guidebook publishing company, I befriended a new editor. Hearing that I’d written a book, she amazed me by asking for and reading the manuscript. She loved it and, overriding my doubts about approaching one of the ‘big’ established agents, sent it away to Fran Bryson for me.
Fran liked it, and asked to see the other two books. I spent several weeks frantically tidying up chapters I hadn’t looked at for over three years and sending them off to her. She still liked it, and suddenly I faced a dilemma. What of my editor friend? I considered carefully, and decided that I’d be crazy to turn down an offer from an established agent, and it turned out his experience with the publisher who’d held on to my manuscript so long has put him off the idea of being an agent. So I thanked my friend for all his work, and became one of Fran’s authors.
But now I had some big changes to make to the trilogy. Size was the biggest problem. My hard rewrite had reduced the first book to 95,000 words – too small for a fantasy. I needed to add “plot, not padding”. I was also to rewrite and polish all three books before any publisher was approached, which I estimated would take me a year – if I reduced my freelance work.
What followed was one of the most stressful and exciting years of my life. It began with the news that the short story I’d had published in Aurealis magazine had won the Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Short Story. Later, I was accepted for a three week residency at Varuna in Katoomba, NSW. At the same time I ran out of money, separated from my ex, moved house and a client I got most of my freelance work from cut their rates dramatically. Yet the year ended on a high with the best news of all: HarperCollins Australia made an offer on the Black Magician Trilogy.
It took seven and a half years and a lot of hard work before I got that publishing contract. It also took more determination than I ever believed I had in me, and some years living on a very small income. But the investment of time and work has been worthwhile, because not only am I now earning enough from my books to write full time, but people all around the world are reading and enjoying them.
I never get tired of hearing that people are enjoying my stories. It’s the best outcome of all the hard work that goes into writing a book.