Tuesday, November 8, 2011

My Tortuous Road to Publication

I’m not sure exactly when I had the idea of writing a fantasy novel, though it must have been sometime after July 1977, because that’s when I bought and read Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara.

It wasn’t the story that inspired me, though. I’d read a huge amount of fantasy by then and found the plot to be too close to The Lord of the Rings. My inspiration was the map – but not in a good way.

The map in The Sword of Shannara so irritated me (because it seemed so clichéd, and so wrong) that I sat down on the spot and began to create my own, based on what I believed a real fantasy world should look like. Here’s a small, early version, done in 1978.

This soon became an obsession. At a time when I was supposed to be writing my thesis, I redrew the maps in greater and greater detail, until they were the size of house doors, then began to work out 10,000 years of history (as one does), the politics and economies of some of the countries therein, the peoples and ecosystems.

And then, snatches of characters, many of whom would appear in The View from the Mirror a decade later – Mendark, Shuthdar and the Golden Flute, Yggur, Faelamor, Kandor (who became Rulke), Kyllian the bard, who became Llian the master chronicler, Karan, my favourite character, and Yfanna, who became Maigraith.

Finally, on June 25, 1979, on a train in Finland, I wrote the first snatch of the story – Kyllian leaving Chanthed for the mountain inn at Tullin. Not very good, is it? But at the time it wasn't intended as part of a novel. It was just a moment that occurred to me.

What with finishing my thesis, taking a demanding consulting job, looking after little children and renovating a lovely but decrepit Victorian house in Sydney, 8 years went by before I had the time to formally begin writing – in longhand. It was September 1987 and I figured if I wrote 3 pages a day, I’d have a first draft done by Christmas.

By the time I was halfway through the story, then called The Mirror of Aachan, I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life writing stories. I finished the first draft 5 days early but, to my astonishment, the story ended on a cliff-hanger with possibilities exploding out in all directions.

A month later I’d worked out that there would be four books to the story, now called The View from the Mirror, their titles and, in some detail, what would happen in each book. I did several more drafts of the first book then, in 1989, looked around for a publisher.

At the time, no Australian publishers were publishing science fiction or fantasy for the adult market – see my post on the Golden Age of Aussie Publishing,http://ianirvine.blogspot.com/2011/10/golden-age-of-publishing.html.

But I probably wouldn’t have sent it there anyway – I’d decided to try Unwin Hyman, in London, publishers of The Lord of the Rings and a number of other great fantasy novels. They knocked it back, but very kindly, saying that they’d be happy to see a revised version, or anything else I cared to send them. However when I sent a much revised version, months later, they had just been taken over by Harper Collins, who had closed their list.

Various other disappointments followed from the UK and US, sometimes after agonisingly long times – one NY publisher took 13 months to respond. I never sent the same manuscript out twice – I always revised it several more times, and kept working on the other three volumes of the story.

In the early 90s, Australian publishers, particularly Pan Macmillan, began publishing speculative fiction. By this time my story was complete – I’d done about 18 tough drafts of A Shadow on the Glass and even 4 or 5 of the final book, The Way Between the Worlds.

Unfortunately, by the time my manuscript of A Shadow on the Glass arrived, Pan had been burned by a number of failures and were pulling back. They wrote me a nice but painful rejection letter, to the effect that, ‘We agonised about whether to publish your book, but decided not to.’

However they also did me a favour by suggesting I commission Dr Van Ikin, the long-time speculative fiction reviewer for the Sydney Morning Herald, to assess the manuscript and provide suggestions for improvement. I did so, followed Van’s many suggestions to the letter and when he looked at the revised version he said, 'You've got it! Send it out.'

By this time (January 1996) Harper Collins had had a big success with Sara Douglass’s Battleaxe, so I sent the mss to them, along with a copy of Van Ikin’s effusive letter. They rejected it, saying they’d be willing to consider a revised version. They also included comments from an unnamed external reviewer who thoroughly disagreed with Van’s assessment, and made a series of what I considered to be ill-informed critical comments about the book.

I didn’t bother to send them a revised version; instead I looked for another publisher. My father-in-law, John Rummery, a former English lecturer who had enjoyed the story, contacted a friend and colleague, John Cohen. John Cohen has an encyclopaedic knowledge of fantasy and for many years had been the editor of Reading Time, the book review journal of the Children’s Book Council of Australia (and he still is).

John loved the book and contacted Nancy Mortimer, then the education publisher at Penguin Australia, who asked to see it. In May 1996 I sent her the huge manuscripts of the first two books – a cardboard box full of paper. After looking the manuscripts over, Nancy agreed and gave them to Kay Ronai, a vastly experienced editor who had also edited some fantasy authors, asking for a book report. Kay loved the story and recommended that Penguin publish it. However she didn’t think they would, because Penguin hadn’t published fantasy for the adult market before, and they would have to commit to 4 very large books.

Kay’s report went to Erica Irving, then the publisher for the Children and Young Adults Department at Penguin. Erica wasn’t sure, and asked Isobelle Carmody, one of their star authors who wrote fantasy for younger readers, to take a look. Isobelle read the first book and said, ‘If you don’t publish this, someone else will.’

That’s how I came to be published.

I signed a contract with Penguin in October 1996 and the four books were published between February 1998 and September 1999. Only 11 years after I started writing, and 9 years after I began sending manuscripts.

The View from the Mirror is still in print in Australia 13 years later, incidentally. And in the UK.


  1. Very cute picture, Ian. What a sweetheart.

  2. I loved the long hair era, Marianne. And the Uncle Scrooge era.