And it took me a very long time.
This is going to be a slightly personal post.
To be honest, I have ‘finished’ writing this book four times now. The original edition I wrote in 30 day sprint — a thirty-five thousand word novella for Tor.com Publishing’s 2015 submissions window. It was… not very good.
I mean, it was fine, but I was five years younger and that definitely showed in my writing. Not so much in the words themselves or even in the concepts, but in my preoccupations. I lacked clarity in what I was trying to say, and I shied away from tackling the truly tough and ugly questions implicit in my worldbuilding.
To no one’s surprise, Tor.com rejected that novella.
I decided I would take another shot at the project. When in doubt, I tend to make my stories longer. And so, when I received a scholarship to study Creative Writing at UCT, I brought a fleshed-out version of Star Eater with me. Over the next three years, I redrafted and recomposed the story into something a little better, a little sharper, a little braver. The MA program did not suit me, did not seem to suit any of us — to date, only three of the class of twelve have graduated.
I grew very self-conscious while writing, to the degree that I was persistently paralyzed by self-doubt. It felt hopeless, pointless, too ambitious, too dark, too flippant. For every paragraph I wrote, I found new things to hate in the pages preceding it. I had always been a fast writer, and yet now I could barely put out three hundred words a day. My confidence was in tatters.
Admittedly, it wasn’t all the book’s fault. During that period, my home life got complicated as my parents divorced. The aftermath of the 2016 US elections also seemed to break something fundamental in my psyche. While the state of the world slid toward disaster, here I was, still trying to finish the same damn fantasy novel.
In August 2018, I handed Star Eater in to the university. Freedom at last! I wasn’t fully satisfied with the plotting and was aware that I had (as usual) rushed the ending, but I felt good. I merrily sent off a tweet about completing a book, which caught the notice of my editor. She later asked about it during a Hangouts meeting, and I told her the book was about matriarchal cannibals. She said that was “very much Tor.com’s brand” (fancy that, it was originally written for them) and came back to me a few months later with a request to see the first three chapters.
So far, so dreamy. Then I received the examiners’ reports from UCT.
This was nearly a year after I had submitted the manuscript. One examiner thought it was pretty good, and wanted to award me a distinction. The other tried to fail me.
That would have been bad enough, but I also received the report itself, in which Examiner 2 went into loving detail about exactly how much they hated it.
They accused me of plagiarizing two books I had never heard of, based on the fact that my protagonist was named Elfreda and another book had a character named Frey. They said that I had too many (?) themes and genres and subplots, while themselves using these terms as interchangeable synonyms. They gave me credit for skillful language, but only on pages 70 and 71 of the manuscript. Finally, they concluded that the novel “does not make for entertaining or interesting reading.”
I was crushed. I was mad. But writers aren’t supposed to talk about these feelings. We are supposed to graciously accept any criticism thrown at us, or risk sounding petty, bitter and self-involved.
The report was overruled by a third examiner, and I received my distinction. What’s good, Examiner 2?
Even so, their words extinguished my fleeting confidence and their criticisms lingered with me while I tried to revise the novel yet again.
Thus when Tor.com offered me a book deal for Star Eater based on the first four chapters, my response was to panic. Because they had NOT yet read the whole book. They didn’t know I was actually a fake, and that the book was a plagiarised, over-themed, uninteresting disaster containing some passable language exclusively on pages 70-71.
And if I had my way, they were never going to find that out.
For that reason, my poor editor only received the full manuscript in early December, with the assurance that it was “NOT REALLY DONE”. Then I deleted the last act and rewrote it, sending her an “ACTUALLY DONE THIS TIME” version last Tuesday.
And I am. Actually done, that is.
For the first time, I don’t have any plot points that feel strained in my mind, or characters who aren’t quite consistent. Star Eater is finished to the best of my abilities as they currently stand. Maybe one day, I’ll be capable of telling this story better. But for now, it’s enough.
For all that writing this novel has been difficult, I feel a little sad to come to the end of it. I can only hope that readers will enjoy it. There’s a piece of my heart wrapped up inside the pages.
Now onto something new. Something that does not involve any cannibalism whatsoever.