I first had the idea for Hang Wire on my first trip to San Francisco. I fell in love with the place, as it reminds me a lot of Auckland, New Zealand, where I’m from. I knew I had to set a story there! Ted’s encounter with the exploding fortune cookie was actually based on something that really happened to me, although it was nothing quite as dramatic. We went out for dinner in Chinatown, we got fortune cookies at the end, and mine sort of burst open. Inside, instead of a single fortune, was a wedge of paper strips, all printed with the same thing: YOU ARE THE MASTER OF EVERY SITUATION. I thought this was pretty funny, and stuffed them all in my wallet as a reminder.
Then I wondered about the cookie, and what if it hadn’t just been a random fortune – what if it was a personal message? What if there was something else hidden inside a fortune cookie – and the wrong guy opened it? From there the idea just spiraled out. I had my San Francisco novel!
I have lots of favourite parts, and I’m especially fond of Joel Duvall’s little interludes. He was originally a minor character, but the more I wrote him, the more I liked him and the more his story expanded of its own accord. So his interludes, in which he travels across America over the span of more than 100 years, were unplanned, but so much fun to write.
I particularly like the sequence where Sara and Kara, two performers from the circus, follow Joel into the fairground, late one night. Then Kara has a fit and collapses – almost as if she’s possessed by some external force – and Sara has to run to Joel for help. Only he’s a little busy talking to his machines…
The fairground was moving. Joel bobbed his arms up and down, the rise and fall of a conductor directing his orchestra. As he swayed here and there, up and down, so the machines around him responded. The big dipper behind the carousel rocked, the movements of the sailing ship that swung like a giant pendulum matching the side-to-side motion of Joel. The lights on the Ferris wheel looming over everything on the other side flickered and buzzed, and the wheel rolled in either direction, all in time to Joel.
Sara’s eyes crawled around the ring of machines in horror. Each of them moved, twitching in time with one another and in time with their master. The lights were on full now, and they pulsed, almost organically, as power ebbed and flowed, ebbed and flowed. Far and near, far and near, as Joel swayed and swung his arms from side to side, side to side. In front of Joel, the carousel puffed like a steam train as the engine at its heart sprang to life, and it began to rotate, slowly at first, spinning about its axis as it should. In the machine’s hub was a pipe organ, surrounded by mechanical puppets and automaton musicians, and on top sat the monkey, as large as a small child. It’s red eyes were glowing, and the organ started to play, a drone, a tuneless wailing, a whistling of pipes that sank into Sara’s bones, the sound of stars falling, the sound of the endless cold of space.
Joel swayed and the carousel began to accelerate, faster and faster, around and around. Sara watched the painted horses and elephants and monsters whip around, their forms and lights blurring in the misty evening air. The discordant drones of the pipe organ formed a familiar fairground melody. But it was slow, somehow, and out of tune. As Sara watched she felt her heart beat and her head thump, in time to the music, in time to the pulsing lights.
The history came from the story: it was about San Francisco, and the earthquake history of the place was involved, so that was woven into the book – especially as the book features characters who have lived a rather long time, and has sequences spanning all of Twentieth Century. This made it pretty easy to do, because some of those characters were actually there when this stuff happened.
This also made the book fairly research-heavy. There was the history of San Francisco and it’s geology, for which I had a stack of reference sources. But there was also modern-day San Francisco – I’ve spent time there and it’s one of my favourite cities, but I’ve never lived there, so I had some locals I know on hand to check over the manuscript and key scenes. The book is fiction – fantasy, at that – but it was important to get the feel of the place right. There’s no Gretsch Street in the real San Francisco, for example, but the suburbs of Daly City are leafy and quiet!
I tend to write using multiple point-of-view characters. I suspect this is a little more common with British fiction, although I can’t say for sure. But it’s a useful tool to split a story into different plots, so long as you don’t spread it too thin.
The tenses was a deliberate choice – my standard writing form is third-person, past-tense, but for the scenes with the acrobat Highwire I wanted third-person, present-tense to get a very particular feel. Highwire is a bit of a mystery – he doesn’t even really know who he is himself, and he doesn’t remember much about his own past, not even how he arrived in San Francisco. He’s single-minded, trailing the Hang Wire Killer across the city, so I wanted him to be very much in the “now”. So his sequences are in present tense, because that’s the way he is.
The perspective shifts are fairly standard – so long as everything is clear and you don’t shift POV without signaling it first, readers can keep up. Shifting tenses is harder to do and requires careful editing, but again, so long as it’s delineated clearly and used sparingly.
Hang Wire is pretty plot-heavy, so mapping everything out – and making sure all the strands linked together the way they should at the end – was important. As I was rewriting from my original draft I stopped and re-outlined the book after every few chapters. No shortcuts, no quick fixes! Everything that happens in the story is linked, some in obvious ways, some in subtle ways.
That’s tricky to figure out! The first draft was written sometime around 2009, and most likely took about six months. Then I trunked it, and came back to it in about October 2012. The edit and rewrite was maybe another six months, although I was working on The Burning Dark as well, so I have a whole year of editing where it all blurs in one!
But there were two distinct phases, and essentially two distinct books – the draft from 2009, and the new book that finally managed to carved out of that draft around August 2013.
I’ve written since a young age, and have gone through various stages of writing lots or not writing at all. Around 2006ish I submitted a novel to a publishing house which had opened up to unsolicited subs, and I was rejected – rightly so – but that spurred me on to take writing seriously. So I guess that’s the beginning of my pseudo-professional timeline!
While I was working on a new book I joined Twitter, not to try and get a book deal or sell a book, but just because it seemed like a fun place to hang out. Eventually I met Lee Harris, the editor at Angry Robot, there, but again only because we share similar interests in books, comics, film, TV, etc. He knew I was writing something, because I would occasional blog about it, but he never asked and I never said anything. I met him at a few conventions and we hung out, and then about two years later I was passing by the Angry Robot office and asked if I could drop in. Over lunch, publishing director Marc Gascoigne asked what book I was working on, so I did a rambling, unprepared pitch, which I’m sure was awful, but he said it sounded interesting and that I should send the book in when it was done.
That was Empire State – by that point the third novel I had completed – and when it was done, I sent in it! They liked it, and bought it, along with Seven Wonders (the second book I’d written – the first is still locked in the trunk!). From there I got an agent, and then another book deal, and then new deals with Tor and Titan, and have reached that point where I’m a professional writer.
There’s no secret formula to getting published, unless you count writing a great book and having a dash of luck to be it. The Work, with a capital W, is all that matters, because without it you haven’t got anything. So that’s the primary consideration, always.
The second thing is the element of luck. When writers talk about luck, or how random the publishing industry seems, it all starts to sound a bit silly and impossible. But while it might be a matter of being at the right place at the right time, you can at least get to the right place by doing The Work. And then when the opportunity arises, you’ve got something ready to show. For me, that was that lunch in Nottingham – I’d worked hard to get to that point, and I had something to show them. I didn’t try to sell a book on Twitter. I didn’t even try to sell a book to Lee or Angry Robot, but after two years of hanging out online, they asked me.
There’s only two pieces of writing advice that are useful, really. The first one is to write a great book. The second one is to keep going.
“Write a great book” is an easy thing to say, but it’s actually true. And it’s not impossible, either, you just need to stick to the second piece of advice – keep going. Empire State was the first book I sold but the third I had written, because I knew that I had to work as hard as possible to get better as a writer – the more you write, the better you get. So if you want to get published, write a great book. The more you write, the better you’ll get, until eventually you’ll get picked up. It might take three months. It might take five years. Whatever the case, keep writing. And that’s not to say Empire State is a great book. I’m still searching for that, but I can say that Empire State is a hell of a lot better than the awful first novel I wrote. But I had to write that one in order to write the next one. And so on.
And really, keeping these two bits of advice in mind will serve you well throughout your whole career. A writer is rejected more than they are accepted. We get good reviews and we get bad reviews. There are obstacles, and distractions, and a tonne of paperwork. When things aren’t going the way you want, it would be very easy to just stop.
But you don’t. You keep going. You keep reaching for that great book. And, first and foremost, you keep working, no matter what.
The obvious answer is to use the book as a weapon – all of Shakespeare in a single volume is a fat book, and with a bit of luck this’ll be a fancy-schmancy leather bound edition too. So, book as weapon, no problem. In fact, with that flash leather cover it could also double as a shield. If there’s one situation I want The Complete Works of Shakespeare with me, this is it.