(This is part 0 of a 12-part series of author commentaries on the Alex Verus books. The master post with links to all the parts is here.)
In the late summer of 2009, I returned home to London. I’d just finished a six-month trip working as a schoolteacher in Anhui, China, and I was about to start a law conversion course that would end, after two years, with me qualifying as a UK solicitor. I wasn’t writing any novels, and I wasn’t planning to. I’d sent off my last book to my agent before going to China, had heard nothing back in response, and had more or less forgotten about it – by this point my career as an author was dead in the water, my only income was coming from my teaching work, and I was focused on making a career change. I’d decided somewhere around the end of 2008 that I should face facts and accept that I wasn’t going to make it as a writer. It was time to get a steady job so that I could support myself and my family.
At which point I got a call from my agent telling me that a senior editor called Darren Nash from Orbit had read my most recent book and would like to meet me.
The meeting with Darren Nash was friendly, though his feedback was mixed. Darren liked the divination magic of the main character and he liked Luna’s curse, but he didn’t think that setting the story half in London and half in a fantasy world worked very well. He suggested that I focus on just one world, rather than two – maybe consider rewriting Fated so as to make it an urban fantasy novel, instead?
At which point I should mention that Fated didn’t start off as an urban fantasy at all.
The origins of Fated go all the way back to the year 2000, and the second novel I ever wrote. It was a children’s fantasy; more specifically, a portal fantasy, one where the protagonists travelled to another world where they developed their magical powers. I wrote three other children’s books in the same setting over the 2000s, and they were mostly set in the same otherworld – a fantastic, wondrous place of natural beauty and magical creatures. So when I (for some reason) decided to make the jump to adult fantasy and wrote the first Alex Verus novel in 2008, that was the setting I used. Alex had his shop and his flat, but he spent most of his time travelling to and having adventures in this vast, magical, sparsely populated wilderness.
Darren Nash suggested that instead of splitting the focus of the book between two worlds, I should pick just one. Either make Alex originate from the fantasy world, and centre the story around that. Or have Alex grounded much more strongly in this world, and set the majority of the scenes in London instead. On the whole, he thought that the second option was better – he thought the Camden atmosphere was good, and the scenes in the Arcana Emporium were funny, and that I could do more with that, rather than making Alex’s shop an afterthought. This would make the book fit more into the “urban fantasy” subgenre, which was still relatively new and popular back in 2009.
I listened, thought about it, and decided that his points made sense. I’d rewrite the book.
There was, however, a catch. Darren, being the up-front type, explained to me that if I kept the book as it was, they wouldn’t publish it. However, even if I rewrote it along exactly the lines that we’d agreed, they STILL might not publish it. It was quite possible that I could do months of work rewriting the book to their specifications, and they’d just reject it all over again.
On the other hand, “we’ll reject your book if we don’t like it” wasn’t actually any different from the position I was in already. And I’d been impressed with Darren Nash – he seemed perceptive and intelligent. I decided to trust him.
So as I started my path towards becoming a lawyer, I took on an additional job. During the day I attended lectures and workshops at my college in Holborn, learning about contract law and criminal law and land and equities and trusts. And in the evenings, whenever my preparation for the next day was done and I had a spare couple of hours, I’d chip away at the task of rewriting Fated.