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[GUEST POST] Nancy Springer (THE SILVER SUN) on How She Started Writing Fantasy

Photo by Bob O Lary

Photo by Bob O Lary

Nancy Springer has passed the fifty-book milestone, having written that many novels for adults, young adults and children, in genres including mythic fantasy, contemporary fiction, magical realism, horror, and mystery — although she did not realize she wrote mystery until she won the Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America two years in succession. DARK LIE, recently released from NAL, is her first venture into mass-market psychological suspense.

Born in Montclair, New Jersey, Nancy Springer moved with her family to Gettysburg, of Civil War fame, when she was thirteen. She spent the next forty-six years in Pennsylvania, raising two children (Jonathan, now 38, and Nora, 34), writing, horseback riding, fishing, and birdwatching. In 2007 she surprised her friends and herself by moving with her second husband to an isolated area of the Florida panhandle, where the birdwatching is spectacular and where, when fishing, she occasionally catches an alligator.

How a Certain Fantasy Writer Got Started

by Nancy Springer

Warning: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.

How I got started is not necessarily how anybody else should.

When I graduated from college in 1970, age twenty-one going on sixteen, I was already married, not knowing what else to do with me because I was an English Literature major. (“Would you like fries with that?”) By 1972 my husband was serving a year-long internship and I was unemployed for the duration. I was bored, directionless (barring housework; ugh), vegging in bed until noon and daydreaming about cowboys, outlaws, gypsies et al. But while giving an appearance of futility, I did have a deeply hidden, never-admitted ambition: to write the Great American Novel. However, nothing in my experience, my education or my reveries seemed to give me a handle on it.

Not until decades later, when I read the trenchant essays of Joanna Russ, did I understand what had been my problem. Here is how she begins her sardonic list of possible topics for women writers based on the English

Literature canon:

  1. Two strong women battle for supremacy in the early West.
  2. A young girl in Minnesota finds her womanhood by killing a bear.
  3. An English noblewoman, vacationing in Arcadia, falls in love with a beautiful, modest young shepherd. But duty calls; she must return to the court of Elizabeth I to wage war on Spain. Just in time the shepherd lad is revealed as the long-lost son of the Queen of a neighboring country; the lovers are united and our heroine carries off her husband-to-be-lad-in-waiting to the King of England.

And several more. I particularly like the one about a young man who unwisely puts success in business before personal fulfillment and ends up a neurotic, lonely eunuch, having neglected his masculinity. But satire aside, this list helped me understand, in retrospect, why I couldn’t figure out what to write: My college courses had given me nothing I, a woman, could use, except Jane Austen.

Really. She was the only female author we studied.

Again let me emphasize that this insight came later. At the time I muddled in mental murk with only instinct to guide me. I happened to read Fortune Made His Sword by Martha Rofheart, and it set me daydreaming about a prince named Hal. But my Hal bore no resemblance to the historical Henry V. He was a numinous (and luminous) imaginary being on horseback; I just wanted to write his adventures. But where. . .when. . . how. . . .

By creating an imaginary world for him, that was how. So no one could say I got it all wrong.

The first sentence I penned into my new spiral-bound notebook in August, 1972, as I recall: “A young man rode through the forest.” This is to show how lame I was as a writer, starting out. We all are.

I did not intend to write Tolkienesque fantasy, just heroism set in an invented world. I wasn’t trying to be a real writer, I told myself; this was just a hobby, like crocheting. But as I scribbled during every possible stolen moment in the next couple of years, and as the book well and truly cozened me into its spell, somehow magic crept in like vines, and subplots flourished like kudzu. I filled seven notebooks with bad handwriting. Not until I had started typing a final draft, however, did I admit I intended to submit The Book of Suns for publication.

Clueless, I sent a dozen letters at random to publishers whose addresses I found in the front matter of volumes on my bookshelf:

To whom it may concern:

Like a hen that has hatched a duck’s egg, I have produced something I have no idea what to do with. How does one go about having a book published?

This is utterly, totally the wrong way to start a query letter, but I didn’t know it WAS a query letter as I described the novel I didn’t know was a fantasy. Nor did I know how nearly miraculous it was when one editor responded, very informally, scrawling on my own letter and returning it to say she would have a look.

A few months later, back came the manuscript, rejected but including a three- page letter explaining why. My book was a bit too long. Actually, it was twice the length it should have been. It was inconsistent in style, and none of the styles were good, especially not the one using “thee” instead of “you.” It needed more action and tighter prose. Plus a great deal more. But the characters were appealing.

Now here is where I did something right. I phoned the editor and thanked her for her letter. I managed a few intelligent questions to clarify what I needed to do. I asked her whether she would be willing to look at a rewrite. She said yes.

Then I rewrote as fast I could.

Even though I did not yet know how editors tended to come and go like diet fads, I still sensed that I should waste no time. I rooted out the kudzu subplots but had the sense to save them for use in future books. I cut away fatty descriptions and added muscle to the action, using oldish English throughout – dreadful stuff, in hindsight, methinks, I dare say, alas and alack.

Then back to the typewriter I went, hitting each letter very hard to make two carbons. I developed exceptionally strong fingers, and somewhat stronger prose as finger fatigue encouraged me to leave out unnecessary words. Finally, I headed back to the post office to send another brown-paper bundle to Pocket Books.

This time, instead of a rejection letter, I got a phone call from my editor. The book was accepted! I was to be published! I was so excited that I didn’t even negotiate my advance – a big mistake, but I did not yet know or care. I was an author!

The book was still so bad that it came back to me for rewrites. And again, and again. The editor and her staff actually rewrote parts of it themselves to show me what a scene in a novel should resemble, and even in my ignorance I sensed that this was exceptional effort on their part. That very first editor of mine, whose name I shamefully cannot remember, went way above and beyond the call of duty in my case, then dropped out of publishing never to be heard from again. Maybe I was the death of her.

The Book of Suns was published in 1977, but Pocket Books released it as general fiction, not fantasy. It sold 35,000 copies. Not bad, but not good. A few years later, I re-re-re-re-rewrote it – THAT is when I focused on the mythic fantasy element – and it was republished as The Silver Sun, the title change being necessary because, as my new editor told me, “We don’t want booksellers saying, ‘Oh, no, not that turkey again.’”

Wise editor. With the rewrite, a different title and a wonderful Carl Lundgren cover, the erstwhile turkey sold over 200,000 copies. So I wrote another one, trying to make it better.

And that was how I got started.

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