What I Learned from the Novel I Wrote in a Week (Part One)

Hello everyone. I’ve been quiet on here, despite promising that I’d blog monthly. On the upside, I presented a paper on The Curse in Early Modern Life at the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle. I would put it up here, but it’s going to be part of a fantastic book of conference proceedings published by the Museum itself, so watch this space!

Another reason I’ve been quiet is because I’ve been in the process of getting my first full length novel out in association with The Other Side Books. It’s called A Dark Neon Dying:

On a distant planet, in the city of New Paris, an ancient evil is stirring. After a resurgence at the end of the twentieth century, magic has grown together with sciences so advanced as to seem magical themselves: dimensional folding, advanced cybernetics, nanotechnology.

Renard LeBlanc, an aging narcissist and former assassin, has been forced to temporarily relinquish his happy ending. After four years on the paradise world of Gethsemane, he must ply his old trade in order to fend off crushing tax bills.

Marie Ducoult is a broken woman. Shot and mistaken for dead, a seemingly incurable nanophague has left her blind and disfigured. She spends her days at the Café Balconette, paralysed by post-traumatic stress; her surrogate senses hampered by a faulty facial prosthetic.

Together, they must face their past, their former friends, and the graceful, deadly court of the fairies.

This is the novel that followed me through five computers (one of which died very suddenly, almost ending the story there and then), marriage, disability, and very real-life, personal redemption. This is also the novel I tried to forget about; the novel that left me convinced that I was a bad writer; that I would never write good fiction; that even if I did, I wasn’t the right sort of person to work with the publishing industry.

This novel’s success and failure taught me a lot about myself, and a lot about writing. So, for the next week-and-a-bit I thought it might be interesting to share the things I learned


A Chance Encounter

As the title says, I wrote this novel in a week.

2004-ish, and I was in a fairly bad place. I’d dropped out of university once. I’d had a plan, which had failed, but I’d immediately moved on to the next plan. It sounds like a healthy way to deal with failure, but it really wasn’t. I cycled between making the same two catastrophic sets of mistakes without learning anything.

By 2004, I’d borrowed money from people who loved me, moved to London to go back to university, learned nothing, changed nothing, and dropped out again.

I say, ‘dropped out’: it would later emerge that I was suffering from acute anxiety disorder and bouts of depression. I didn’t know this at the time. It shouldn’t have surprised me, because it’s almost the exact illness my father had. Still, I didn’t notice.

By 2004, I was heavily in debt and I’d run out of plans. I knew I wanted to be a writer, that was it. I started submitting things to magazines. It didn’t go well. I have a natural length when it comes to fiction. It’s one of the reasons I’m not great on Twitter.

Looking back, I got a couple of good rejections. Encouraging ones. That’s the problem with anxiety-depression and the ghosts of a lifetime of bullying: they don’t leave you with the tools to deal with constructive criticism.

By sheer good luck, instead of ending up homeless I got a job as one of the two people running a small bookshop. Someone rejected a longish short story I wrote, saying it felt more like the start of novel than a short story. I don’t know why – possibly it just came on a day of unusually high self-esteem and good mental health – but it excited me rather than sending me into a tailspin, and I decided to write the story into a book.

I told all this to a regular I sometimes chatted with. She got the wrong end of the stick: she thought I’d already written the novel. It’s possible that I let her get that impression deliberately, since those were the days when I thought the cure to hating myself was to talk about how awesome I was. Either way, she told her husband I had a novel. He was a literary agent. He asked to see the novel I hadn’t yet written.

It felt like the single biggest chance I’d ever had. I told him yes, arranged a week off and wrote for about sixteen hours a day. I took a longish short story and a novelette I’d created in the same setting, and I wrote them into a 100,000 word novel.

However, I still hadn’t learned anything. I made the same mistakes: the novel didn’t get published, and I parted on bad terms with the agent.

Despite that, I didn’t regret taking the week out to write Dark Neon – even when I thought it was as piece of crap sitting in a file on my hard drive.

And that’s the first thing I learned: doing has a value above whether you succeed or not. I can honestly say that even if Dark Neon had never seen the light of day, I was proud that I gave that man something to hold in his hand on the day I’d said I would.


A Dark Neon Dying is available in ebook format directly from The Other Side Books, and will soon be available for direct download from Amazon (although the direct edition will always be cheaper, and DRM-free.) A print edition is scheduled for later this year.

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2 thoughts on “What I Learned from the Novel I Wrote in a Week (Part One)”

  1. Just ordered a copy. Congratulations, dear James! You are a talented researcher and an engaging writer, I always enjoy your blog posts. It’s good that you have shared your story with the world, that in itself takes courage for any person with a modicum of integrity. Be blessed in all your pursuits.

    1. Thank you, Myroslava!
      It’s a very personal book: the character of Marie particularly is very close to me in terms of how I felt losing control over my life, and realising that I suffered not only mental but physical chronic health problems as well.

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