Out of the teenage ashes…

by Darren Shan

Like many would-be teenage authors, I decided to run before I could walk. Rather than dedicate myself entirely to working on short stories, so that I could take gradual steps and effectively hone my craft, I figured that writing a novel couldn’t be that hard! So, at the grand old age of 13 I set out to write a sequel to Lord of the Rings. When that didn’t work out, I began work on a book strongly inspired by the TV series V. And so on.

Having spoken to many young writers in the years since then, I’ve come to realize that this is fairly common behaviour. I’m sure we all know that we should be focusing on short stories and putting in lots of hard, unglamorous, behind-the-scenes work before even attempting a novel. But unbridled optimism is the birthright of children and teenagers the world over, so I think many of us throw knowledge out the window in the arrogant belief that I will be the one to break the mould! I will deliver a better book than Tolkien could ever write! And if not at 13, then surely at the ripe old veteran’s age of 14!!!

As ridiculous as my youthful ambitions now seem when looking back, I don’t consider the abandoned books complete failures. Because writing is all about learning. You have to make mistakes in order to learn from them and improve. And while my time probably would have been better utilized working on short stories all through my teens, I made the leap to actually finishing a novel far earlier than most authors – I was 17 when I completed a first draft of a book. And I was only 21 when I wrote the first draft of what would become my first published novel. If I hadn’t set the bar so high so early, maybe I wouldn’t have leapt as high as I did as swiftly as I did.

Also, at least one of those early, abandoned novels provided me with fodder for my latest published novel, City of the Snakes, the third in my City trilogy. When I was 15, I started a violent book about a vigilante in London. It was going to be a big, intricate twister of a novel, in which he discovered a secret sub-society pulling all sorts of dastardly strings. I only got a handful of chapters or so into the story before realizing I had bitten off more than I could chew and putting it aside. But I remembered it years later and used it as the broad basis for the third City book. I also recycled a particularly juicy scene involving rape with a dildo from the original, discarded draft – those sorts of scenes were common in my less thoughtful and more bloodthirsty teenage work!!

Thirteen years after putting aside the vigilante book, I began work on City of the Snakes in June 2000. The first draft took two months to write, but I didn’t I complete my final edit until November 2009, so the book took more than twenty-two years in total to complete!!!

City of the Snakes was the 30th book that I had written. (Unlike most authors, who learn by writing lots of unpublished short stories, I learnt my trade by writing lots of unpublished books.) I had been banging away at novels for about a dozen years by that point, and I’d come a hell of a long way. I was able to tell a far more involving story now, and also get to the heart of it much quicker than I could even just a few years earlier. Where Procession of the Dead and Hell’s Horizon (the first two books in the series) took several completely re-written drafts to pin down, the first draft of City of the Snakes didn’t differ hugely to the published book — it was just a case of fine-tuning what I’d created first time round, correcting a few flaws, polishing it up.

I think that City of the Snakes is the strongest of the City books. It takes the best elements of the first two books and combines them to create a heady, potent mix. I took the more fantastical features of the first book, merged them with the more strongly plotted and paced style of the second, and added plenty of dollops of new stuff too. Everything came together smoothly, neatly, diabolically. This is a book that never gives up and never slows down, a book where the characters are strongly drawn and the twists more surprising than ever before. Leftover questions from the earlier books are answered, showdowns are faced up to, destiny is decided. Of all the books in the series, this was the most enjoyable for me. Maybe the lesson here is that I should go back and cannibalize more of my abandoned teenage masterpieces! Now, where did I put that Lord of the Rings sequel…

Darren Shan is the bestselling author of many horror and fantasy books for teens and adults, including the Cirque du Freak and The City series. You can read an excerpt of the third book in The City series, City of the Snakes, now for free on Figment.com here. His website is http://www.darrenshan.com/.

15 thoughts on “Out of the teenage ashes…

  1. I hit out with my first novel at 12 or 13, something like ‘The Isle of Beautiful Danger’. I should honestly say my first unfinished novel because my hard-drive now has a grave yard of unfinished books, stacks of short stories, poetry and notes. Sometimes I guess writers who are still working towards their first published story fear they may become ‘that’ monster under the bridge, so hideous and unpublishable that they prevent themselves from writing from the heart or worse you write a really crap book and it haunts you forever! I just took a break from a book I had been working on for five years, it was time for it to go to book heaven for a while 🙂

  2. Oh gosh, I started trying to write a novel at six, haha. I didn’t actually finish one until I was thirteen… What is that? Seven years to finally complete something? Thank God I didn’t give up, though — I’m up to three, now, at seventeen, and in talks with a couple of literary agents about representing one of them. 🙂

  3. My first novel I started at 10, in fourth grade. It was quite… well, it was really bad. But I don’t regret starting with novels, either. They’re what I’m best at, and now I’m always looking for good plots. And, I continued “sequels” to that first novel up to the 17th book. There were few varations between the “novels” and some had absolutely no meaning, but now the basic ideas are coming together and I’m reusing them again. I don’t see a problem with starting with novels at a young age rather than short stories.

  4. I was one of those teenagers who took on a novel. I wrote my first a month after I turned 13. It is currently printed out and stashed under my bed, and I hope it will stay there forever. As bad as my first novel was, I have to disagree with the idea that working on short stories is the best way for an aspiring novelist to polish his or her craft, or that one must “[put in] hard, unglamorous, behind-the-scenes work” on short stories before proceeding to novels (which, I suppose, are now easy, glamorous, and open to public acclaim?). I didn’t write my first novel to be published, I wrote it simply to write, and I believe that that is all a teenaged writer should try to do. Whatever form they choose, there are no prerequisites.

    I have written one novel a year since I was 13, and although I have written both poems and short stories, neither would have come about without the thousands of words I managed to spew out in longer works. The teenaged years are not throwaway years. There is no law that restricts what may be written or what one may attempt. Such a stipulation would needlessly restrict the imaginations of young writers. So I say, there are no teenaged ashes. However you write, you build a foundation, and perhaps your best work.

  5. Oh lord, I tried to write my first novel when I was around seven or eight. It was a terrible copy of a Great Depression era Oliver Twist-esque play the fourth graders put on when I was in second grade (it wasn’t even much of a novel it was mostly doodles about the story and badly written chunks of dialogue with no quotation marks since I denied the existance of quotation marks and refused to believe they served a purpose). I didn’t actually try to write a “real book” until I was twelve and in the six years in between then and now there is quite the novel graveyard in my computer. As to finished works, I’ve never actually finished a manscript for a novel (I’ve finished plenty of other types of writing, just not novels) but I’ve gotten close. I have no intention of giving up though and I will finih a novel eventually!!!

  6. The only thing I can seem to write are novels. I get an idea and then more ideas just flow out of it, and if I attempted to put it in a short story I would get lost, and the story would seem rushed. Haha I’ll probably never really finish anything though 🙂

  7. Boy, do I identify with this article. Darren, you perfectly sum up what it is like to be an enthusiastic young writer.

    Myself, I began writing when I was 13. I had experimented a bit with poetry, but it wasn’t a wonderful fit. Then I discovered fanfiction.com. And thus, I became a writer. I love books (I mean, who doesn’t?) so I was thrilled when I found a place to publish my own inspired ideas. From there I transitioned into some original stuff. Like most teenagers, I jumped right to the novel. For some reason that I can’t fathom, I thought it was totally attainable. How wrong I was.

    But now, after reading a lot of Stephen King and some Flannery O’Connor, I have found a great interest in writing short stories. Mostly horror stories- as you can see, the authors I read aren’t too cheery. Add in the abundance of cop shows I watch, and you’ve got some disturbing/compelling ideas.

    Anyway, I loved this article. Now I’m going to get started on writing the first draft of a particular story I thought of the other day. It involves serial killing, mental impediments… Ah, hopefully I shall post it here on Figment! I aspire to make it as a writer… Determination is all you need, right? Well, grammar and spelling isn’t too bad to know either. 😉

  8. I’m just the same, trying to take on novels at a young age. I’ve never finished anything, and I pretty much don’t intent to publish anything any time soon, but I’ve got a few original pet projects that I hope (well, it’s really wishful thinking) might bloom into a real book.

    In other words, I’m still just as foolish for underestimating the difficulty of writing novels. XD

  9. Hi! This was really nice fir me to read. I am a teenager, and for the last couple of years I’ve been trying to write a novel. I have many unfinished novels sitting on the ‘shelves’.

  10. Hah! I don’t even remember how early I started on a book… Well more like a skeleton of a book. Maybe I should go back to that…

  11. As a teenage writer, I have to say… I was cocky like that when I started… But I have now defined what kind of writer I am at my age of 16…

    I will be sure to maybe read City of Snakes over the summer…

  12. Well, I think you are a bit mislead on how to “hone your craft”. It doesn’t matter what you start with, novel, novella, short story or other articles. What matters is the kind of practice and review you get. It is an writer’s artistic and creative right to write what they want. If somebody starts with a novel that isn’t too great, well then, try again. Short stories aren’t “practice novels” as they are a different form of authoring. Sure, maybe writing smaller things will help with larger things, but it works vise versa.

    • I don’t think he was getting at that. I think he meant that you could learn that way, just you didn’t get that point. In his ‘writing tips’ section on his website, he talks about that. Says to write whatever comes from the heart no matter what form it is. He says its the benefit of being a ‘unsigned’ writer, having the flexibility and lack of pressure to ‘only write one genre’.

  13. I am like the many people here. I started writing a novel when I was 11 (and I hope I never have to see it again!!!) with my friend and I didn’t finish it! Well that was the beginning of my writing career! I started to write other novels then moved on to poems and short stories! I love to write poems and find it easier to write a novel if you think your not really writing one… so in other words I think I’m writing a short story but everyone wants to read more so I end up writing a novel!!! I am working on four right now. I have a tendancy to bite off way more then I can chew and then never finish it!!! My advice from some experience is to have people comment! The more people who tell you they like your stuff the more likely you are to finish it!!! 😛 So people when you comment and tell people to finish their story, you are making it more likely they will!!! Hehe!!! 😀

    Jorden!!! 🙂

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