Let me tell you a story.
In the late 1970s I wrote a book called JOURNEY and offered it on chapter and outline to Pocket Books, a subsidiary of Simon & Schuster. They liked it so much they offered me a three-book contract, and I snapped it up. The second book, DANGEROUS GAMES, was a joy to write but a third book in the series simply would not come to me; the previous two books, their characters, worlds, politics, and cultures, had said all they wanted to say. Instead I turned to a project which had been lurking in my mind for some time: a story based on a culture where religion, although one existed, lacked the power over society that, for example, the Catholic Church held over medieval and renaissance Europe. What might have happened, I wondered, if scientific curiosity, invention, medicine etc. had not been forced to conform to religious doctrine? What if the shape of society had been allowed to develop away from the strictly feudal? What if no constraints existed on what men and women could do, think, undertake?
A story gradually coalesced, but didn’t really take shape until the character of Lyeth Rider, sworn to the service of a dying tyrant, solidified. That’s the way it usually works with my writing – without a character or characters, there is no story to tell. With Lyeth firmly in my mind, I started to work.
While I was creating the story my then-editor at Pocket Books moved on. I turned the draft of THE SWORD OF WINTER over to the new sf/fantasy editor. I was not delighted with the draft, knew that it didn’t really encompass my vision for it, and hoped the new editor could help me make it better.
I had reason for hope. The man came trailing streamers of glory: the editor who championed writers just enough off-beat to be literary and turned them into revered figures within the field; the editor who, with others, started a publication devoted to serious criticism of sf/fantasy; the editor who was a popular figure at conventions; the editor referred to, not entirely in jest, as the Maxwell Perkins of science fiction. Who better, I thought, to take my draft and help me deepen the book, bring out the history I had created, solidify my protagonist even more, explore the idea of science and industry allowed to develop without being stifled? I explained the speculation behind this imaginary land of Cherek and eagerly waited for his response.
The MP of SF may have skimmed the book, but didn’t dive any deeper. His comments were based solely on what he thought he could get the sales force to accept, and he said so. (I shouldn’t have been surprised. Earlier I mentioned to the MP of SF that a short story of mine was being taught in an academic science fiction class. He said that was a waste of time and the professor would be better off teaching something else. I asked if he had ever read anything of mine, and he said he had not. It felt rather like being marched off to the gallows without benefit of trial.)
Listen, science fiction and fantasy both rely on invented or extrapolated worlds that are true to themselves. Space ships are not powered by wishes, characters in a medieval-type culture cannot suddenly pull out semi-automatic weapons and let fly. It is considered cheating, in the field, to describe a thing that looks like a horse, acts like a horse, eats like a horse, and shit likes a horse, and claim that it is an alien creature by calling it a “smearf.”
He wanted me to put smearfs in the book, in order to make it science fiction. I declined and explained to him the basis for the society I had created. Apparently he didn’t care, because he then wanted me to put two moons in the sky. Again, I declined (two moons would necessarily have an effect on tides, inter alia). Then he insisted that, in order to firmly seat the book as a fantasy, I put magic into it. Magic had no place in the world I had created, but by now the publisher was threatening to make me repay the advance against royalties and like any free-lancer worth her ink I had already spent it. So I wrote some quasi-magic into the book but every time it happened, my characters said to each other, “Yeah, I don’t know what I saw — I must have been really drunk,” and move on. I did invent a wacky astrology in which almost no one in the book believed but for which the talented Michaela Roessner created a chart.
The worst insult was what I was forced do to my characters. Lyeth rescues, and is in turn rescued by, a boy and over the course of the novel she comes to love and cherish him, so that a threat to his life is what drives the book’s conclusion. That was not enough for the editor, who insisted that I turn the boy into a “hidden prince” – you know, that cliched figure who suddenly and with no grounding is revealed to be The Most Important Person, The Answer to All the Questions, end of story. By this time it was more than obvious that the editor had no respect for my work and refused to devote any of his precious and much-lauded editorial talent on it. Harried and almost at my wit’s end, I shoehorned a prince into the book, the editor accepted it, and the book was published at the precise moment that the publisher’s sf/fantasy line imploded. THE SWORD OF WINTER came out in boards and then in paperback and was dropped, unheralded and without promotion, into mainstream publishing’s great sewer, where it sank without a trace. Two French editions followed in time but these sales were in no way due to Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster, or the editor and his streams of glory.
The title, by the way, was another effort to turn the book into standard fantasy. My original title was simply CHEREK, the name of the land in which the story takes place.
I wrote only two novels after this fiasco, a survivalist novel on my agent’s behest, and a sarcastic murder mystery, which came out in 1993. Frankly, I didn’t have the heart to do long-form sf or fantasy again.
In due time rights to all my books reverted to me and I entered into an agreement with a POD (print-on-demand) and eBook publisher to bring them out again, with two exceptions: the survivalist novel (which I think was a sloppy job) and THE SWORD OF WINTER, because I was ashamed of what had been done, what I had had to do, to the book. And so matters rested until, thirty years later, I thought to turn the book into what I had always wanted it to be.
Among the first things I did was to change many of the names, as a ploy to break my mind away from the original story and, to be honest, away from my lingering anger over what had been done to the novel. You’ll have noticed that. I scrubbed out any vestige of magic, turned the Hidden Prince back into a boy, and added characters to flesh out motivations and desired goals. The streams of glory editor had no part in this new novel, and that’s how I wanted it. I can no longer remember how many drafts I wrote, but I can remember, vividly, how the book improved.
No editor, from the major publishing houses to the recent crop of small presses, would touch it; it appears that in those thirty years, the genre’s editors’ tastes have shifted to a place that I couldn’t, and did not wish to, reach. At long last Philip Harbottle, an editor in London, and the digital-first publisher Endeavour Venture agreed to take on MAPPING WINTER and its sequel, THE RIVER SOUTH (which should be out next year). The sequel is entirely new.
I’m pleased with this version of the book, just as I’m pleased with the way it deals with religion and the way it shows technology pushing a land into the future.
Did I succeed? Well, I’m the writer and, as was famously said once to Isaac Asimov, just because you write a book doesn’t mean you know anything about it.
Talk to me.