[This the first in a series of four posts concerning my soon to be published Twelve Planets collection, Caution: Contains Small Parts. No spoilers, I promise!]
I’ve decided to organise these posts in chronological order of when the stories themselves were actually written, which isn’t precisely the order in which they will appear in the collection. It makes more sense to me to do it this way, to tell the story of how the entire collection came into being. Which is possibly also the story of how and why I write fiction. Which isn’t something I generally talk a lot about in public. My fiction, that is. Other people’s fiction I can wax lyrical about for hours … but my own work? It feels a bit weird, possibly self-indulgent. But, if you’re happy to indulge me for a while, then let’s begin. With unicorns.
Way back in 2005, my friend and fellow author Andrew Macrae — who is coincidentally about to publish a mind-bending novel called Trucksong through TPP later this year — told me about a strange little idea for an anthology he and Keith Stevenson were planning to edit and publish together. Filtered through a spec fic lens and thematically concerned with ideas of masculinity, it was going to be called, quite simply, Cock. Interesting, I told him, once I stopped laughing. Andy thought I should submit something and I was keen to do so. I was also running on empty after spending the last year or so at the helm of the Continuum 3 convention — the one with Neil Gaiman, Poppy Brite and Robin Hobb as guests; it was kinda huge, logistically — and was trying to get my fledgling dayjob business back on track. I hadn’t written for a while.
But I had a vague idea about unicorns and their role in fantasy fiction and horns. What horns might symbolise and what purpose they would likely serve if unicorns were a real animal. I started writing, got about two scenes in and stopped dead. Literally, no words would come. I had no idea what the next scene should be, or what the shape of the story even looked like. My idea, I decided, was just a bit of wank. Which was, I guess, kinda appropriate. Anyway, I shelved the file under “Unfinished/Scrap” and forgot about it. The next year, cOck: adventures in masculinity was published by Coeur de Lion, the small press Andrew and Keith started, and launched at Continuum 4 amid a flurry of “hey, will you sign my cock” jokes. It’s a slim volume, but packs a mean punch — with no less than two Paul Haines’ stories contained within its glossy black covers — and I highly recommend it. Yeah, I kicked myself a little for not finishing that damn story but, what can you do? It didn’t want to be written.
Then. It didn’t want to be written then.
Fast forward a handful of years to early 2009. I’m at a writing retreat down on Phillip Island with some members of my crit group. I’m meant to be working on my current novel-in-progress, which will turn out to be Perfections, which will have a bumpy road to publication but which will eventually win a couple of awards, and which I will nevertheless be unable to look at without some small measure of resentment bubbling in my gullet. I don’t know any of that yet. All I know is that, after three days, I have had enough of the Stupid Stubborn Novel. It hates me. I’m pretty sure I hate it as well. At this point, if I was at home, I’d probably jump on the internet for a while, or do some Productive Procrastination with my business, or watch something, or pick up a book. But I’m on retreat. No internet, no business, no tv, no books. And everyone else is tapping busily away on their laptops. So I start to go through files on my laptop, opening old ones and skimming for salvage. There’s this file called “Horn”. Oh yeah, I think, the bit of unicorn wank. I start to read those old words, start to habitually tweak them a little, get to the end and … just keep going. By the end of the day, the last day of retreat, I have another two scenes down and a solid, luminous chart in my head of where the story is going and how it will probably get there.
I finish it that week, locking myself away each evening to eke out the words. As a writer, I’m slow, I’m careful. My first draft is edited and tweaked constantly as I progress and thus it’s also usually the next-to-final draft, apart from some polishing. I’ve never been a blurt-it-all-out-and-worry-about-making-it-pretty-later writer. (This will change. The speed, at least. Not the lack of blurting.)
Finally, after a gap of many years, the story called “Horn” is done. I’m very pleased. This is the work I should have submitted to cOck. Damn. I send it off to a Big Name Fantasy Market instead. About a week later, maybe more, Twelfth Planet Press announce they will be publishing an original novella by Peter Ball. It has a vicious, disturbing unicorn as a key plot point. It’s also called Horn. Double damn. Soon after this news, Big Name Fantasy Market offers my “Horn” a speedy rejection, something along the lines of liking the writing but not being interested in a story about a bestselling fantasy author. Fine, I think, IF THAT’S ALL YOU RECKON MY STORY IS ABOUT. (Oh yeah, I can do miffed prima donna with the best of them.) Anyway — triple damn. I shelve the story, deciding that the field might not be ready for two icky unicorn works under the same title in quick succession. Plus, maybe mine’s a bit of wank after all — it’s one of my stories where I attempt Interesting Things. Much later, I buy and read Peter Ball’s Horn. It’s great, a hardboiled fairy romp. It’s nothing like my story. Still. For some reason, although I submit it to my crit group for flensing, I don’t send it out again. I’m worried about the title. Change the title, I’m told, it doesn’t matter.
I don’t want to change the title. It does matter. The story remains unsubmitted.
In March 2010, Alisa Krasnostein of Twelfth Planet Press invites me to submit to this series she’s planning to publish. Twelve collections. Twelve Australian authors. Twelve Planets. It sounds fantastic. I have to be a part of it. But I don’t have the four pieces required to submit. (I’m slow, remember, I’m careful.) I have, however, literally just finished a new story with which I’m very pleased, and I have a novella hanging about which I think might be a little broken but not irreparable, and I have … “Horn”. Okay, why the hell not? As I say to Alisa, if anyone if going to publishing another violent unicorn story called “Horn”, then maybe it should be TPP. I send all three, promising a fourth in due course — ha! but we shall get to that in a later post — and the collection is accepted.
“So,” Alisa says to me a couple of years later while we’re finalising things for promotion on the website. “We’re really calling it ‘Horn’ then?”
“Yep,” I say. “I think we are.”
I like “Horn”. The title, and the story. It is about a bestselling fantasy author, though that’s the least interesting fact I can tell you. There’s unicorns (and violence and phallic symbols). There’s explorations of masculinity (and betrayal, and sacrifice, and loss.) If I had finished it back in 2005, it might have found a place in cOck but it wouldn’t have been this version of “Horn” because I couldn’t have written it then. I simply wasn’t good enough a writer to wrangle the words for what needed to be said. And now it fits so well within Caution: Contains Small Parts that I can’t imagine it elsewhere.
Occasionally, time really does make all the difference.