Some time ago, in a younger life that seems far, far away, I decided I wanted to write. I was going to write speculative fiction, like the sci-fi and fantasy books I’d spent so much of my younger life reading. I was going to be a PoC writing awesome speculative fiction that no one had seen before, away from the run-of-the mill elves, dwarves and what-not. And the very novelty of my work would gain accolades and applause.
Then I woke up.
The image above is a character from my first serious foray into writing, many, many moons ago–a Daughter of Sekhmet, a member of an order of women warriors, founded by a priestess during the time of the Mad King, who pledge their lives to a goddess of war and live by a rigid code of honor–like nuns with swords and retractable steel claws. They were one facet of this larger fantasy world I was building, a tale based greatly on the cultures and myths of ancient Egypt, Nubia and other nearby regions, but from a decidedly “unique” perspective, featuring a diverse cast, magic and retro-futurism, demons and gods, and the quest for some magical amulets. Sure would have made a lot more sense than Jaime Lannister playing the god Ra.
In my fantasy realm, the Daughters of Sekhmet–haughty, fierce and a bit on the zealous side–were by far my favorite creation. I liked them so much, I kept them a secret for years, known only to a few beta readers, fearful someone would latch onto the idea. Paranoia that your “grand story” is going to be stolen is of course now recognized as one of the signs of an amateur. But back then, amateur was the best word to describe me.
Instead of deciding to try my hand at short stories or the like, I jumped head first into writing a grand novel–like the guy who has never even run for city council with aspirations of being president. And man did I write. In copious amounts. With drafts and re-drafts. With character sketches. With tons of research to draw inspiration. Even made a trek to Egypt, sitting with a laptop in Luxor and writing up parts of my grand tale–only to accidentally lose everything after plugging it into a socket with the wrong adapter at a hotel in Aswan, allegedly the very one that inspired Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. (Made a repeat performance of this once at a hotel in Siem Reap–that time leaving me without lights. Bad luck I have with foreign circuits).
My drive was simple. I wanted to create a fantasy book with people of darker hue than Aragorn, in cultures that didn’t include horse lords and long swords. I didn’t want to supplant those texts; just really wanted to create something different. And I wanted it to be a grand epic, with characters readers could invest in and a world that seemed fully formed. Had nothing more than one creative writing class under my belt mind you, as my undergrad majors were history and anthropology. Never set foot in any writing course or workshop. And MFA? What was that? But I had ingested fantasy for years. And, through luck, I’d picked up many of the dynamics (and far too many of the tropes) through simple familiarity. I wasn’t the greatest writer in the world; but I was alright.
I wrote first one book. Then two. When my massive fantasy tome was completed, I sat back in satisfaction at what had been a several year effort. And then realized, I had not a clue what to do next. I knew zip, zilch, nada about the publishing world, and what it entailed. Self publishing wasn’t as big then (at least to my ears), and that just didn’t even seem a likely feat I’d accomplish, then on the verge of beginning grad school. So I went out and got one of those nifty Guide to Literary Agents, and tried to educate myself on how this whole publishing world worked. Which immediately gave me a massive headache. Why the hell didn’t anyone tell me this was so complicated?!? Agents. Query Letters. Publishers. Slushpiles. Ack! And what the heck was SFWA?!?
Lessons I learned quick. One, my precious idea wasn’t as unique as I thought. Turned out, every other person with a glint of Afrocentric glory or who had a thing for mummies as a kid had done some kinda Egypto-Nubian based fantasy story. My only saving grace was that, with slight exception, I found most of their works romanticized, tedious or poorly written–writers trying to “kick knowledge” rather than tell a good story. Two, writing a book and getting it published are two animals so unrelated they might as well exist on opposite ends of the biological spectrum. The publishing world was wholly unrelated to my world of plot formation, characters, pacing and sequences and I had no idea how to approach it. Third, I had not the slightest inkling how to get the attention of any agent or much less a publisher. This was way too hard. I needed a break, bad.
And I got one.
A friend of mine actually worked for a reputable agent, a WoC who had worked with some well-known authors, many of them academic and a few literary. Nothing genre, but there was the possibility she might be interested. Sparing me the pitch or the query, my friend gave my novel to a fellow editor. He ran through Book 1 in a weekend and demanded more. Devoured Book 2 in several more days. Was in love with the story, the characters as PoC, set in this very different fantasy realm, the magic, the mayhem, rah rah rah. He pushed it onto the agent and before I could exclaim “Great Caesar’s Contract,” THIS dude had an agent! And it was smooth sailing from there.
I was slapped with a few more bits of education, some of them downright embarrassing. The agent saw my two book novels and immediately informed me (as you would a small child): “your two books are of Biblical proportions and there’s no way in the nine planes of H E double Hockey Sticks that a never-published nobody like you is going to attract a publisher until you cut this down to something manageable.” Lengths for books? That was a thing? Who knew? But it was a welcome learning moment. Went and looked up proper lengths and two books become four, with the first at that magical “first time published” length. After some further edits and some hacking and cutting, that first book was ready to go out!
And face rejection.
Rejections that are disappointing because they seem so flat, it must be a rote template. Rejections that make you wince, because they hit at your raw spot. Rejections that make you a bit angry, because you can tell the reader never bothered to go past page five. Then again, made enough of my own mistakes–openings without that essential hook; beginnings that were too wordy; things that didn’t immediately move the plot. And I got another life lesson, something which I, a person who prided himself in being quite socially aware, should have well-known. Somehow, in all my studies and understandings of race and difference, I had placed my fantasy work above all that. Yes, I knew the genre was overly white; but that was because they hadn’t seen what I had to offer yet. My agent broke through my hubris–diversity in the genre I was heading into wasn’t rare because others hadn’t tried. My world setting, outside of the Eurocentric norm, was not going to be my guaranteed ticket in the door. In fact, it might just work to keep me out of it. And did I mention that the protagonist and most of the main characters in the book are women? WoC at that?
Finally though, I got a bite. As fate would have it, or the dynamics at work, a black imprint, a subsidiary of a larger publishing house, liked the tale. They wanted to do something in the speculative fiction market, as all the other black writers they had were focused on different topics. And at least two of them really liked my story. I was informed they were having a meeting to pitch it and they had high hopes. So did I. Was on cloud nine. This was finally going to happen. Wasn’t it?
You know how Kevin Dyson musta felt when he got tackled at the one back at Superbowl XXXIV? Yeah. That’s bout how I felt when the imprint got back to me, saying they hadn’t been able to get a unanimous vote. While everyone liked the story and the idea, they were clueless how to market something like this, especially as it was one book in a larger series. So. Damn. Close. But Don Cheadle said it best in this game of inches: no such thing as almost.
Back to the drawing board. And the rejections piled up. Well, not really piled. I don’t think there were really more than maybe six or so. But each one hurt. And after my recent defeat, was uncertain my agent was even pushing my story much any longer. Then suddenly, about a month later, she informs me she’s folding up the agency biz and moving on to work in some other related field–or that’s the story I was given. I’m released from my contract and that’s all she wrote.
After that, decided I’d had just about enough of this whole writing thing. I still worked on a few other projects. Little shorts here and there I piddled with and (would you believe) a whole other unrelated novel. But I didn’t do anything with them. And after a while, I just didn’t write at all. I took my grand novel, wrapped it up, and set it in a box. Would I return to it? Maybe. But for the moment, we needed a formal separation.
Then, some years later, sometime in 2009, I joined an online group of black science fiction writers, artists and creators. Wow. Was surprised to find so many people who looked like me doing so many different projects. Some of these ideas were interesting. Some were…not. Some were actually quite good. Finding a bit of inspiration, I decided to try writing again and posted it in blog form on the site, a lengthy short fantasy piece called Skin Magic. Indie author Milton Davis noticed it and brought it to the attention of the legendary Charles Saunders–which was all kinds of Holy F#$k! Both asked me to be part of an upcoming indie anthology of African-inspired fantasy called Griots. The book made some waves; got to be included among some new and established writers; and my story in particular received some slight praise.
Amazing how if you feed the egoist beast in a writer, it inspires them. So I started writing again after that. But this time, with much more humble aspirations. Instead of just going for novels, I began focusing on short stories. What was more, I began reading a lot of short stories. Took a few tries, and a bit of rejections, but I managed to get a few published–in pro and semipro markets. One more pro-market, and I’m at least SFWA worthy. (Yep, learned what that is.) Also took the time to join workshops, where people other than my friends can give feedback on my writing. Engaged in online writers forums and just read, and listened, and have been since soaking up all that I can. Haven’t made a big hit or anything with any of my short stories. But I’m writing, and that’s what’s important.
Mostly though, I got over myself. That I thought breaking into the biz would be a cakewalk seems laughable now. There are writers who have been seriously trying for years, decades. There are writers who have gone to all the right conferences and attended workshops and have accolades like Clarion under their belt, and still haven’t made it. I got a few rejections? There are writers with scores of rejections under their belt. And most of them are still pushing it. Some have bravely self-published (which ain’t easy-going either); others continue playing the mainstream publishing game, but they’re still at it. Because this sh*t ain’t easy.
And what about my grand fantasy tome?
Recently, I was brave enough to dust it off (it’s actually on a flash drive, but I’m trying to create dramatic effect here–work with me) and peruse its pages. I see things now that I know need changing, things that make me wince. Who after all writes the same way they did a decade ago? As is, the tale reads almost like an older YA fantasy. Do I still want it to have that feel? This Egypto-Nubian setting seems good, but kinda basic; is there a way to make this world building more complex? The most daunting task however is that it’s a portal fantasy. After hearing rumblings about agents and editors avoiding the well-known trope like the Phage, I’ve toyed with the idea of taking out the entire idea of portals–which would in many ways rewrite much of the tale, and certainly the characters. Decisions. Decisions.
What surprises me however is that I still like most of the story! I still like the characters. I still like the overall idea and plot. I still think it’s a tale people would like to read. I even think it’s possible, I could make it better! So sometime late last year, when the folks at 133Art decided to do a promo, taking on color commissions for a fraction of the usual cost, I chose to get a rendition of one of my favorite characters from my story–A Daughter of Sekhmet, a sister of the Red Mhwnt, complete with claws and that menacing look.
It wasn’t easy. I was very particular. And after a few fitful starts (see the varied forms of the commission below), artist Jason Reeves had to get on the phone with me to discuss precisely what I wanted. I finally settled on the sketch (bottom L) which got a color makeover by Luis Guerrero (bottom R). She’s not a perfect rendition of my writing. There are things I left out or changed from the books. The Daughters of Sekhmet wear face masks, have bloodstained lips, facial tattoos and (instead of the sexy two-piece number) wear tight fitting black body suits over which sits their armor. But still, it’s a damn good likeness, done in part as a reminder, of where I started out with this writing thing and where I still hope to go.
My education, continues.
Excerpt from original text:
“What is this?” a voice growled close by. “Little gazelles enter into the den of lionesses? It is not still too late to eat!”
Khiuata turned to find several tall women standing nearby, almost silhouettes in the night. As they came closer there was little doubt these were full sisters. The colorful tattoos on their faces were evidence enough, as were the silver teeth each bared in a snarl. Their forearms and hands were covered by golden metallic gloves she had heard referred to as “the claws of the goddess,” with talons that looked as if they could slice through steel, and certainly flesh. Red stains like blood smeared the womens’ lips and ran down their chins, only adding to their fierceness. As one, the girls reared back, huddling in fright as the menacing women stalked forward to stand before them, looking very much like terrible hunters.
“Ho! Daughters of the Goddess!” Takhat said, lowering into a deep bow. “These are not gazelles but cubs, come to enter the House of Sekhmet! Will you allow them entrance?”
“Cubs?” one of the fearsome looking women growled. “These are not cubs of the goddess! They are soft!”
“And fat!” a second woman sneered.
“And succulent!” yet another added, licking her red-stained lips with hunger.
Khiuata found she was trembling now. As were her companions. These terrible women were going to eat them; she was certain of it.”–excerpt, book 3, The Isles of Geb, Chapter 1.
The varied incarnations of The Daughter of Sekhmet. Fourth time’s the charm.