Writing Journeys – James Barclay
I’m very happy to have James on the blog series. Actor, author and gentleman, James Barclay has been writing fantasy for a long time. He’s the author of the two Raven trilogies: Chronicles of The Raven and Legends of The Raven, and the epic fantasy duology, The Ascendants of Estorea. More recently James has moved into a military-fantasy come sci-fi splice of a book with Heart of Granite. I read it last summer and thought it was insanely entertaining – think of that space battle from Rogue One but with dragons. So here is James’ post, kicking off the second wave of posts in our Writing Journey series.
I’ve been on this journey since I was eleven. Actually, it probably began earlier than that but eleven is the age at which I first knew I wanted to be an author and spent heaps of spare time tapping away on a typewriter. Must’ve driven my parents bonkers, all that tap-tap-tapping, but they never complained. Suffice to say I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing stories.
They were about anything and everything…birds, kayaking, aliens, holidays, walking…and there’s loads more but I’m casting my colander of a mind back forty years now.
I was thirteen or so when I started writing fantasy and sci-fi with serious intent. My brother had fed me books by Tolkien, Aldiss, Clarke, Moorcock, Herbert and a host of others since I was eight and there’s a possibility I was influenced by this deluge. I still remember the wonder of reading about other worlds, far futures, great heroes and desperate acts of valour.
A pivotal moment occurred when I was fifteen. I’d chosen to write a novella for my Duke of Edinburgh’s silver award ‘interest’ section and I was being mentored by an English teacher at my school named Stuart Widd. A wonderful man – encouraging, open-minded and able to impart belief effortlessly. The story I was writing was as naïve and derivative as you might expect but he just let me run with it and exercise my own creativity within the boundaries I’d set myself. He left me free to learn about my approach to writing, to develop it free of strictures other than those I imposed on myself.
Concurrently, I’d written a homework story for my current English teacher. It was a sci-fi short about a world covered in snow where the predators were beneath your feet. When it came back, ‘see me about this sort of writing’ was writ large upon it. So I did see him and in the rather curt conversation he said, in summary: ‘Go read some Kafka and forget writing this sort of rubbish.’
Think about that for a moment. An English teacher reacting to an original piece of writing by one of his students says to that student, because he doesn’t like the genre it’s written in: what you’ve written is worthless. Rather than encourage and direct, develop my knowledge, he chose to close it down, or try to. Bob Allen, you’re a twat.
I was proud of that story. It was good and I knew it, and the negative reaction floored me. I was fifteen and impressionable, don’t forget. I might have walked away from it all then and there but I was lucky – I had Stuart Widd in my corner and his reaction to the story and to Allen’s comments was wonderful. He sat me down and we talked about opinions, criticism and how a writer has to walk their own path. I can’t remember his exact words but the sentiment has always stayed with me:
‘You can only write the story you are moved to write, not the one someone else thinks you should.’
It’s a worthy mantra but the other thing I took from it all was the strength never to give up and rise above such directionless negativity. To never stop believing. As I said, I’d wanted to be an author since I was eleven but on that day the desire burned eternal. And yes, I really, really wanted to succeed so I could stuff my novel under Allen’s nose and yell: ‘SEE! SEE YOU BASTARD?’ I never did, though… dignity and all that. But more than that I wanted to prove to myself I was good enough, that all the effort I’d already poured in and all that was to come was worth it.
And you can argue all you like that being published shouldn’t be the ultimate goal of writing but, if we’re honest, it is. Because it’s vindication and it’s recognition and it’s a wonderful feeling.
It drove me to write, to improve and develop and take those tiny steps towards that ultimate goal. And I wrote the stories I wanted to write, the ones I would have loved to have read. I put my righteous blinkers on, so I did.
By the way, getting published (and oh, boy but it took me AGES to get published) wasn’t any sort of arrival or end to the journey. Tis a cliché but there is no end to a writer’s journey, just a series of stopovers on an eternal tour.
My latest stopover is Heart of Granite. It represents a major departure after twelve fantasy novels but I’ll direct you back to only writing the story you are moved to write and this one happened not to be heroic or epic fantasy. It was a liberating experience and I had the benefit of total support from my publisher. Throwing off the shackles of fantasy was incredibly refreshing and I’ve scarcely enjoyed a drafting experience more.
Look, I know there are dragons in it (even if they are bio-engineered dragons – drakes, actually – grown in tanks as weapons of war on Earth) so say I haven’t gone all that far if you like but for someone who had until then exclusively written in pseudo medieval or Roman worlds, it was a great step into potential chaos.
There were moments of doubt and moments of staring into space wondering what the hell I thought I was doing. I wrote myself into corners and could have done with a good old spell book or dimension opening demon or something to get myself out.
But when the problems were ironed out, the narrative clean and the plot organised, I could relax into my new world with its unfettered lexicon, its technology (that’ll be the new spell book, then) and its characters who would fit into any genre (well, of course they would, they’re characters) and had an absolute blast. It was a very happy place in which to write and I crave more.
Not being afraid to step outside your comfort zone and just write is something I recommend to everyone. It’ll freshen your mind, put a bounce in your step and energise your writing. And then you can go back to your familiar path or head off at a total tangent.
The great thing is, it’s up to you, and only you.
James Barclay, January 2017
Thank you, James, for kicking off round 2! Come back tomorrow everyone for Steven Kelliher, author of Valley of Embers. Below is a rough order in which we’ll hear from our remaining guests.
C. L. Murray
Michael R. Fletcher
fantasy authors, james barclay, writing jouurneys