Winter’s Light

by M.J. Hearle

Winter’s Light has a release date.

In May 2012, the sequel to Winter’s Shadow will be gracing bookstore shelves all across Australia. That’s nearly a full year after the first novel was published. Not a bad turn-around from conception to publication, all things considered. Especially when you look at the output of an author like old George R. R. Martin. 5 years between books? C’mon man, what are you doing? Sure, I’m not equating my little paranormal series with something as complex and rich as A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE but five years!? That’s a helluva lot of procrastination right there. 

Then again, I can see how you could spend five years writing a book. Especially, if you had the luxury of dictating your own deadline. It’s rare to read over your work and not find sentences in need of tidying up or having new narrative ideas occur to you. Unfortunately, most jobbing authors don’t have the luxury to indulge these impulses. A deadline’s a deadline and miss it at your own cost.

The first draft of Winter’s Light was due in April of this year and, of course, I missed it. Luckily, I have an incredibly patient publisher so was able to get this deadline pushed back to June. Feeling no small amount of guilt over missing the first, I certainly wasn’t going to miss the second deadline so made it my business to finish the draft by that date.

I made it. Just.

Since, then I’ve received my publishers notes and written another draft and surprisingly it looks like the lion’s share of my job is completed – at least as far as the actual writing goes. I use the word ‘surprisingly’ because Winter’s Shadow needed at least three or four solid drafts to get to this point. Why has the process been much smoother with Winter’s Light? Beats me. I have some theories but nothing concrete. It certainly shouldn’t have been easier to write given the change in my life circumstances between the writing of the two books.

The majority of Winter’s Shadow was written during one of the happiest and most relaxed periods of my entire life. This period began just as I returned to Sydney after spending three years working as a graphic designer in London. I had money saved, comfortable accommodation in a trendy inner-city spot thanks to my generous parents, and nothing but time on my hands. I had no agent, no publisher, no deadline – just a story idea that I thought would make a good book and the nerve to give it a try.

There were no pressing concerns – financial or otherwise. I could just write, which is what I did. Albeit in fits and starts. I am not the most disciplined person in the world, and so I’d be lying to say that I made the most efficient use of my time. The reality is the first draft could have been written in two months as opposed to the four or five it took, if I hadn’t wasted hours at a time watching television or reading or just goofing off. If I had some kind of incentive to get the book finished by a set date. A deadline.

So, if a deadline is the all important factor for completing a project then why did I miss the one in April this year? The answer’s easy. ‘Life’ got in the way. Winter’s Shadow was written in a safe bubble – a bubble that had well and truly burst by the time Winter’s Light came around.

In September last year, just after I signed with Pan Macmillan and begun the editing process on Winter’s Shadow, I was kicked out of my house. Kicked out is probably too strong a word, as my parents, who owned the house my girlfriend and I were staying in, would never in a million years boot us out onto the street. My younger sister and her boyfriend were moving to Sydney and they needed a place to stay. It was too small for us to share, so I did the big brotherly thing and moved out. Nothing free lasts forever.

Don’t worry, I wasn’t homeless. My girlfriend’s mother offered us a room at her house so we shifted from one cheap accommodation to another, again benefiting from our family’s generosity. Our new room was comfortable but there was no writing space for me to work in save for the bedroom which wasn’t ideal. It’s hard enough to write at the best of times, let alone when you have the temptation of your partner sitting in bed behind you watching Game of Thrones. I’ve mentioned before discipline is not one of my virtues.

To make matters worse, I was no longer lucky enough to be unemployed. My bank balance had taken a significant beating during my sabbatical from the nine to five grind and it needed bolstering. I had to go back to work – something which turned out to be harder than I thought. My graphic design skills, never strong to begin with, had atrophied during my time off, so much so that I actually was fired from one of my first jobs.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever been fired before but it is not a pleasant feeling. Especially being fired for incompetence. To say my confidence took a hit would be an understatement. I was shattered by the experience and found it much harder to chase potential jobs as a result.

Eventually, I did manage to get a job in an advertising agency, not as a designer but as a Creative Artworker (which is similar to a designer, though more technical and less conceptual) so I my income situation was solved but this created another problem. My new job was (is) quite demanding and stressful. When I began working, it was during one of the busiest times of the year so there were quite a few late nights. As nights were the only time left available to me to start writing Winter’s Light you might see how this was a problem.

What about weekends, you ask? If I couldn’t write during the week then surely I could write during the weekends. Well, yes and no. I did manage to squeeze the odd hour in here and there but my weekends were not always mine to do with as I pleased. Living with your parents isn’t the most ideal situation for a thirty year-old and an almost thirty year-old, so naturally my girlfriend and I wanted to move out. Not only move out, but preferably buy our own place.

This was a goal my girlfriend had put on a hold while I wrote the first book, so now I was gainfully employed again I owed it to her, and to myself, to realise it. As you can imagine, buying a house is not something you can just do. It takes research and more importantly time. My girlfriend, saint that she is, took most of the responsibility in this task but there were still viewings I needed to attend, real estate agents to meet, and this could only be done – yep, you guess it – on the weekend.

As the months ticked by and my first deadline approached like a train barreling down the tracks, it became clear to me that I wasn’t going to make it. Of course my situation wasn’t nearly as intense as many writers have faced in the past – as many of you reading this might be facing right now – but it was intense enough. I just count myself lucky there were no kids involved otherwise there’s a good chance the book probably wouldn’t be written at all. I tip my hat to parents everywhere who manage to juggle a job, kids and write at the same time. From my perspective, it appears an almost Herculean task.

Being time poor and uber-stressed wouldn’t have posed such a problem if I had strong story outline to work off. Unfortunately, I didn’t. When I was first signed to a two book deal with Pan Macmillan I pitched the publisher a broad idea for the sequel to Winter’s Shadow. The book ends in a place where a sequel certainly is possible, but it’s not like there were story threads left hanging that suggested a natural direction. I had an idea where Winter’s adventures would take her but that’s all it was – an idea. Lots of people have ideas and they don’t necessarily translate into books.

Adding to my headaches, I didn’t have a paradigm to follow for the sequel. As a few less than kind reviews have pointed out Winter’s Shadow owes a debt to existing Paranormal YA literature – specifically the romance angle of the story. I’ve explained before this was not entirely without design. I’m a firm proponent of taking genre conventions and making them your own. Good artists borrow, Great artists steal etc. However, sitting down to write Winter’s Light I found myself without a touchpoint. There was no existing iconography I could re-shape, no narrative structures for me to give a fresh spin to. I had to be – gasp! – entirely original.

While this prospect should have been thrilling to a creative type such as myself, the ever looming deadline made it less so. It made it bloody terrifying actually.

So, with nothing but my own imagination and inspiration to draw upon, I wrote. There was no time for outlining, no time to meditate on character motivations or to layer in thematic concerns. I just had to push on ahead, one word after the other. I had a vague endpoint in mind and just trusted my characters would lead me there and you know what? They did. After two months I had a first draft and you know what else? It was pretty good. More so than Winter’s Shadow, Winter’s Light worked.

Over the past year my writing had improved. Not just grammatically – I can still be a klutz when it comes to commas – but narratively. I had a stronger sense when to begin a scene and when to end it. My dialogue read less tin-eared and my descriptive imagery less clichéd. More than anything the book felt more like me. By that, I mean without precedents to follow I was forced to turn inward for inspiration, look at my own life experience to enrich the story and I think it shows in the end result. The book is by no means an autobiography but there’s definitely more of me in there than there was in Winter’s Shadow.

Worried that I might be delusional about the story’s merits, I gave it to my girlfriend and parents – the first three people that read anything I write – and the consensus was unanimous – better than the first book! My agent agreed, requiring only one extra polishing draft before forwarding it onto the publisher.

At this stage, I was very nervous. After all my publisher had the power to tell me the draft was rubbish and to start again. Despite having the confidence of my agent and family, there was a part of me that still expected this reaction. No matter what I success I achieve, I suspect I’ll always be a little insecure about my writing. It’s just the way I’m programmed.

Mercifully, there was no reason to be worried. My publisher, with some small caveats, loved the draft. As with the first book, her notes were brilliant and helped fully realise the story’s potential. In October I completed another draft, taking these notes into consideration, and as of this post’s writing there shouldn’t be any more passes needed. I can hardly believe it. In total, Winter’s Light was completed in three drafts as opposed to Winter’s Shadow seven, and took approximately four months less writing time to finish, despite being a bigger book.

While my life was infinitely more hectic, the actual writing/editing process of Winter’s Light was surprisingly smooth. So much so that I can’t remember writing the book. It seemed to happen in a blink of an eye even though I’m sure I sweated over every word and story beat.

In any case, come May 2012 you’ll be able to decide for yourselves whether or not a book written from a peaceful place is better than one created out of chaos. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts. Until then, here’s a little teaser I quickly wrote for the book, which will no doubt be revised and re-written before publication. If you haven’t read Winter’s Shadow yet, then I suggest you skip ahead as there’s spoilers for the ending. For the rest of you, enjoy:

Is death really the end?

It’s a question Winter Adams can’t stop turning over in her mind. Not after what happened that night on Owl Mountain. When the darkness descended and took away her love. And then comes the vision, the answer she’s been waiting for:

No. There is still time.

Now, a journey must be taken, a truce will be formed with an old enemy, and a battle fought – not for herself, but for another. For Blake.

The darkness is gathering again and this time there is no one to protect her.

Winter will have to stand alone.

Sufficiently teased?

M. J.