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/.