Malcolm R. Campbell, my guest today, worked as a college journalism instructor, corporate communications director, technical writer and grant writer before publishing The Sun Singer in 2004. Malcolm says:
Writers’ journeys are filled with highs, lows and limbos, and down at the what’s-my-next-word level the path often looks like a mess. Joseph Campbell suggested that our lives often appear disorganized when viewed close up. Yet when the point of view is pulled back far enough, the route from here to there and back again stands out as perfect and well orchestrated.
I wrote my fantasy adventure novel “The Sun Singer” in 1983 because there was a story inside my head that I thought I ought to tell. A young man suddenly becomes psychic when he visits a bronze statue of Apollo. At first, it’s fun. Then he sees a tragedy and his gift is immediately tarnished and he tries to ignore it until he ends up in a mysterious alternative universe in the western mountains. He needs the gift to survive and to complete a mission his avatar grandfather couldn’t complete.
When I found an agent who liked the novel, that was definitely a “high.” While she thought literary fiction with a teenaged protagonist would be a challenge to market, she liked the story and settings and wanted to try Within a month, I withdrew the novel when she told me one of her other clients books suddenly became a bestseller. That meant my novel would sit on her shelf for potentially a year before she could actively work with it. This was definitely a “low.”
The low got lower when the manuscript was rejected by about 100 publishers, many of whom liked the book but said that nobody could successfully sell a literary novel to teens or a teenager’s story to adults. This was pre-Harry Potter! They wouldn’t touch the book unless I added ten years to the character’s life. This began a 20-year period of limbo when “The Sun Singer” sat at the bottom of the sock drawer forgotten until I self-published it in 2004.
The agent did me a favor. She saw the novel in a pre-PC era. The book was a paper manuscript typed with an electric typewriter. When I took it out of the sock drawer in 2004, I had to scan it into a file with an OCR program. What a mess. In the process, I fine-tuned the book a great deal. It became a much better story.
I suspect most writers can tell similar stories. Manuscripts that look hot, then look cold. Stories buried in the back of a file cabinet that suddenly come to life years later.
My upcoming novel, “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire” is quite a different story. I had been trying to market a companion book to “The Sun Singer” for over a year when a publisher told me that in today’s market, no publisher was going to take a risk on a 240,000-word, push-the-envelope literary novel by an unknown.
Intended or not, I heard a challenge in those words: do something to become known. That meant putting another manuscript in the sock drawer and writing a much shorter book for a mainstream audience. I wrote the first draft straight through without stopping. The story seemed to tell itself because it was sitting right under my nose. My alter ego “Jock Stewart,” a hard-boiled 1940s-style reporter, had been running a blog called Morning Satirical News with exactly the style and focus I needed.
After taking 20 years to publish “The Sun Singer” and 10 years to write the companion book, writing a book without all the angst of creation was a very empowering experience. It represented a jog in my writer’s journey that I had never foreseen. I’m still rather stunned by what’s happened. I have a feeling, though, that one day I’ll stand back and see everything from another perspective and feel that what happened had to happen as though the trail was always clearly marked on an old map I’d forgotten about.