That’s it. We’re there. The time to send the first volume in The Nemesis Engines series – The Peacemakers – out into the world has finally come. After almost four years in development, the series is ready to start rolling out.
The project started sometime in 2009. It began, like most things, as an idea. Actually, in this case, it began as an image: a man battling a terrible snow storm on a mountain. Who was he? What was he doing there? What was I not seeing yet? But perhaps more importantly, where was he going and why was it so important to him that he would brave life and limb to get there? It didn’t take long for the story to morph into a supernatural love and revenge story. The guy had been wronged. Terribly wronged. He had been turned into a monster and made to do things against his will, but now he was beginning to remember who he was, and the more he did, the more determined he was to make his enemies pay. There was a love story at the center of it as well. There would be flashbacks, allusions to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Haitian Voodoo. (Perhaps even Nazi superscience. Why not? It would add all kinds of fun possibilities.) In 2009, it seemed a simple, quick project: one novel. 320 pages, tops. I started writing plot outlines. I started with half a page (something very similar to Steven Pressfield’s Foolscap method), then pages, then hundreds of pages. The story began to grow.
Right about the time that I was beginning to write bits and pieces of it, I started working on Social Media ROI. Between client work, my travel schedule, finding the time to still ride bikes and have a semi normal family life, the novel project took a back seat. I had tight deadlines to meet for Social Media ROI and I didn’t want to screw that up. I never completely stopped working on The Nemesis Engines (which wasn’t called that at the time – it was just Untitled 23), but I went almost a year without being able to devote more than 30-90 minutes a day to it, if that. It was actually a good thing. During that time, I learned a lot about the process of writing a book, setting deadlines, the editing process, actually finishing a book (which, in and of itself, may be the greatest lesson of all for a yet unpublished writer), and the inner workings of the publishing world. Less tangible but just as important, two other things happened:
1) The book simmered for almost a year. It matured just by virtue of sitting there, sort of like cheese in a affineur’s cellar. (Check out this piece from Forbes about what affineurs do. Here’s the kernel of it) –
2) The more I couldn’t work on Untitled 23, the more frustrated I became with not being able to. It became an obsession. Not a day went by without some sort of inner monologue popping up in which I swore (shaky fist) that as soon as Social Media ROI was done, I would immediately start writing the novel… and that’s exactly what I did.
You know, there’s a difference between a runner who dreams of running a marathon someday and someone who already has. The runner who hasn’t completed the distance yet believes in his/her ability to do it, but there is still a little doubt. Can I do it? Will I fail the first time? What don’t I know yet that could work against me? And so on. The runner who has crossed the finish line after 26.2 miles knows that if he/she did it once, he/she can do it again. Writing Social Media ROI, getting through the brutal editing process, getting used to working on something for 6-8 months even when I wasn’t in the mood to sit for five hours and write (or rewrite) stuff… having completed the process, I was that marathoner. That little bit of confidence from having done it gave me all the gumption I needed to sit down and start writing my second book. Sure, it was fiction, but how different could it be?
Ha. Ignorance is bliss.
By the time I started seriously sitting down to write Untitled 23, it had already become The Nemesis Engines. (The title has layers of meaning, some of which are touched on in The Peacemakers.) The setting had already shifted from the early thirties to WWI. The protagonist’s journey now took him through the battlefields of Europe. Trench warfare and superscience had become integral parts of the plot. The scope was now considerably more ambitious than it had originally been. And that’s when I screwed up. I still believed that the new and improved story could be written in 320-350 pages. It wasn’t until I got to around page 230 that I realized I was still in the middle of the first act. That book wasn’t going to be 350 pages. It was going to be at least 1000 pages. Ergo: it wasn’t a novel. It was a series.
This is one of those moments when you have to make a choice: walk away, keep going, or start over. Walking away wasn’t an option. I wanted to write the story. Carrying on wasn’t going to work because as individual books, the existing structure wasn’t going to work. Books and characters have arcs. Randomly cutting things off around 350 pages wasn’t going to work for a reader. So I had to start over. It was heart-breaking and scary and frustrating. Not nearly as insane and courageous as John Le Carré throwing his first completed manuscript of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy on the barbecue and starting from scratch (true story), but almost.
I immediately started working on the rewrite. A new structure meant that a new narrative approach was necessary to introduce the story. I needed new characters. New settings. Subplots that were only mildly touched on in the original version could now become more important elements of the story. It was all there, but it needed to be expanded and fleshed out. As it turned out, starting over allowed for a much richer story. Harbert Pencroft, the narrator and principal character in The Peacemakers, was born on the first day of that rewrite (and it took some time for him to become the character he matured into). Sam Rafferty, the Chesterfields, Jack and his Pinkertons, Papa Jean, La Bretelle, the events that transpired at the Maison d’Anville and aboard the Lady Sargasso, none of these things were in the original story. They became part of the unexpected prologue to the original story that Untitled 23 was going to be about.
Starting over turned out to be the best decision I could have made in regards to telling the story. It was a massive pain in the ass, but I was so dumb and bullheaded that it never occurred to me that adding a full year (perhaps two) to the process would be such a sacrifice, at least time-wise. I also never imagined how much work it would be, but again: totally worth it. By the time I was 50 pages into the rewrite, I was hooked. It was like discovering a world that had always existed just under the surface of the original story, and it was fascinating. I knew pretty quickly that I had made the right decision. My only regret was that readers would have to wait until Volume 2 to get into the story’s original protagonist (Archie Whitfield), but I also knew that it would be well worth the wait. All things in due time. Good series get better with every next book. That’s what’s going to happen here.
The Nemesis Engines’ first volume didn’t find its title until I started writing the final two chapters. (Readers will find the exact moment when the title became The Peacemakers.) I suppose that in some way, I didn’t really start understanding what the book really was until then. (There’s always more to a novel than its plot and characters, and sometimes writers aren’t aware that they are writing stories in thematic layers until they start editing their own work.) I will have to talk about that a little more in another post.
Long story short(ish): the final phase of getting the manuscript ready to be released was the endlessly repetitive story editing process. Ironing out every sentence, every tournure de phrase. Cutting superfluous dialog, descriptions and adverbs. Changing scenes. Experimenting with different decisions to see where things might go. Making sure every character’s voice and actions remained consistent. Researching little details to make sure they were correct. Cross-referencing dates. The dialog was especially challenging at times. (Too much is too much. Too little is too little.) And making World War One era vocabulary flow in a believable but readable way for modern audiences was a challenge in and of itself. Finding typos too. That was a bear. Those things are like termites. They’re good at hiding and they’re very tough to completely eradicate.
That process of going back to the same 2000 bits and pieces of the manuscript over and over and over and over again took time. It took patience. A book isn’t written as much as it is rewritten 100 times over, one little piece at a time. That takes a toll on writers. Focusing on what’s wrong with the manuscript for months starts teaching you that your manuscript is full of errors and problems. After a while, that’s all you see. No one really tells you that when you get started. If you read about writing and self-doubt, it’s mostly discussed as resistance or fear. You get a lot of advice about positive thinking and pushing past resistance. But the truth is that there’s a mechanism in the book writing process that makes you doubt yourself and there’s no avoiding it. Focusing for months on what’s wrong with your book fills your brain with wrong, wrong, typo, mistake, too long, too short, too cheesy, this doesn’t work, this is clumsy… It fills your eyeballs with red ink. Before you know it, that’s all you see. It feeds into your fears (will anyone even like this book?) and your doubts (maybe it sucks and I’m a shitty writer), and you sort of get into the habit of validating that negative self-talk by focusing on the thousand little things that are wrong with your work, even once you’ve fixed them. Some days, you can get past it on your own. Some days, you need someone to get you out of that funk. It helps to have editors, proofreaders and reviewers around who can be honest with you and set you straight: if things need more work, you need to know that. If things work really well (better than you think they do), it’s important to know that too. Focus on improving the parts that need fixing. Don’t worry about the rest if it’s good.
And at some point, you come to a place where you know the book is ready. Perhaps not perfect (nothing ever truly is) but ready. You can’t find any more typos. The dialog works. You’ve worked out the pacing. Your characters are flesh and blood. The story is completely alive and real. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. By the time readers get to the last page, you know they’re going to be dying to read the sequel. That’s when it’s time to let it go and share it with the world, and that’s where we are, finally. Volumes 2 and 3 are in the works. It’s happening.
On Monday 24 March, The first volume of The Nemesis Engines will become is now available on Amazon.
If you have been following the intense debate over which of these covers will turn up on the first edition of the book, the suspense is almost over:
Note: The Peacemakers is by far the most literary and conservatively paced volume of the series, but there’s a good reason for it, as many of you will soon discover. Besides, as an homage to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, I owed it to fans of the genre to take the extra time to write it properly.
That’s it for now. I hope you will give the series a chance, and enjoy reading it as much as I think you will. The wait is
More behind-the-scenes story about the series: