Moving On

“Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving”

In Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing, the one that has always resonated with me is this one: “Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”

The tendency to keep refining my work is there. I can agonize over ever word, moving them around, adding, subtracting, to see if my intent is better expressed, if the emotion is stronger, the scene more intense. But if I do that, my books will never see the light of day. And I have more writing to do.

Empire’s Reckoning is done. It’s been structurally-edited, line-edited, revised, copy-edited, beta-read, sensitivity read, revised again, and the first ARCs are out. Twenty-two months of the most difficult writing I’ve done. I threw out the first draft almost completely and began again after 80,000 words. I excised 45K to become the novella Oraiáphon. I had difficulty finding my protagonist’s voice; I had difficulty with the two-timeline structure. And I had difficulty telling the story, because to tell my characters’ stories honestly and authentically, I challenge perceptions and presumptions about them. Not all my readers will be comfortable with how the story unfolds, I think, and that too was another difficulty.

“Move on, and write the next thing,” Mr. Gaiman says, but I can’t, not yet. I need time to let these characters who have lived so intensely in my mind for up to twenty years step back. They’re not disappearing, but they are giving way to the next generation; they will become secondary characters over the next two books in the series. I need time to get to know my new protagonist as an adult, to hear her voice clearly. I know the major story arcs of the next book, political and personal – or at least I think I do – but she needs to be living those conflicts, not being a puppet I move around within them.

I’ve lived, over the past almost-two years, a period of about eighteen months in my characters’ lives, a period for them of intense emotion, political intrigue, and personal growth. When I see them again, they’ll all be four years older, my original main characters feeling the aches – physical and spiritual – of middle age; the young ones the challenges and frustrations that come with taking their places in the world. It’ll be a bit like visiting friends or family you only see once or twice a decade, and get holiday and birthday cards from, but not much else: there will be a lot of catching up to do.

Sometime in the next week or two, I’ll clean up my study. I’ll take down the pictures of the actors that represent my characters at the stage of life they were at in Reckoning, and the pictures of northern Scotland and Vindolanda and Hadrian’s Wall and the Caledonian Forest that have kept me in the landscape of my book. The mindmaps and charts and even the song lyrics that line my study wall will go in a banker’s box and be relegated to the basement. I’ll back up all the files.

And then, in a few weeks, I’ll start replacing them: I’ll find pictures of my new protagonist as a young woman, not the girl she is in Reckoning. I’ll find the pictures of Rome that will inform the streets of Casil, its analogue city in my series and where most of the story of Empire’s Heir will take place. Empire’s Reckoning will be out in the world, for better or worse, and it will really be time to move on. Knowing that, following one more of Neil Gaiman’s rules, I’ve written my story as it needed to be written, honestly, and as best I can.

Empire’s Reckoning releases May 30.

From research papers to fiction: an interview with Helen Loney.

People use artefacts to relate to their world emotionally, as well as technologically. I like to explore this emotional and aesthetic relationship in my stories.

Helen Loney is an archaeologist by training and education, but the books she is writing are historical mystery and action/romances. One series, set in Victorian London, involves Lyster Clemens, a spinster who is housekeeper and librarian for her eccentric Uncle in Victorian London. Their house is burgled; the investigating policeman, James Harris, who now works for CID, is an expat American, once a sheriff in the west. Helen has much experience writing scientific papers and monographs, but fiction is a different beast.

What sparked this story?

Probably my childhood following my parents around the west during the summer. They were geologists, and we spent a lot of time in Death Valley, visiting ghost towns and old mining towns. As well, my experiences as an American living in England have influenced the story.

How does your own scientific education affect your writing?

Oddly, archaeology hasn’t really played that big a role so far, except that I like to put 19th century scientific philosophy into Lyster’s mouth. What archaeology has probably contributed the most is driven me to write something I don’t have to provide all the answers for. Archaeology is a pretty tightly controlled discipline at the academic level. With fiction I can dictate my own narrative that is not necessarily logical or rational. That said, I really have to have an accurate timeline, and I’ve spent a lot of time working out how long things take. I have thrown footnotes in the bin, however.

Do you think scientific training changes the way ‘what if’ questions are asked and answered?  Or is it just refreshing to be able to break away from that rigor and speculate without needing cause and effect?

Archaeology really is about connections and lateral thinking. We have very strict evidence-based interpretations and conclusions. Fiction frees me from that. I think you can’t get away from cause and effect, but I do like to allow for random accident, or just unexplainable events. However, archaeology is really about the connections between the material world and the mental one (cultural/social whatever), and I think that really adds to my writing. I’m very aware of how people use artefacts to relate to their world emotionally, as well as technologically. I like to explore this emotional and aesthetic relationship in my stories, for instance, using mundane tools or clothes as triggers for memories and emotions.

Where are you in the publishing process? Are you waiting to finish a series and then query? What route are you considering – traditional, small press, self?

I’m trying to prepare my first novel for querying, which is daunting. I went to the National Writer’s Conference in Birmingham (UK) last month, thinking I’d be relegated to the starry-eyed amateur chair, and instead was encouraged to submit to an agent really as soon as I could. I ought to send it to a couple of beta-readers, though it has been through my husband a few times, but part of me thinks I should just send the current draft when it’s done, hopefully by September.

I am drawn to traditional publishing. I thought about self-publishing, but it doesn’t really interest me, at least, not yet. I also have discovered I don’t like to read on-line, it’s hard on my eyes and I tend to skim, which is a pity with fiction. I want hard copy, and if I’m honest, I’d like my WIP series to be in graphic novel form at some point. I’m going to try and query the first in the series, whilst I’m finishing the second.

Do you think your academic presence will help or hinder publication of your books? Or are you considering a pen name?

I’m considering a pen name. One of my friends, a Romanist, who is a pretty successful fiction and screenwriter was toasted over the academic coals for publishing a children’s book about a female Gladiatrix under her own name. It would give people a chance to spell my name right! I think I would worry that people might be: a) offended because I am writing in some particular events/people into some of the narratives and it might be obvious if they knew my name, and/or b) I would get criticism for my louche approach to 19th century evolutionary theory. Hah!

Not content with one series, Helen is also writing the adventures of the Duchess of Sedgely, Alice Isadore (Izzy) Wildsmith, who disguises herself as a man and joins the Union Army to follow her older brother into battle. There’s also a novella about James Harris’ time as a Sheriff in Eastern California before he came to London, a tie-in to her Lyster Clemens series.