A long time ago in the early 90’s there was a role-playing campaign I ran at Reading University that went by the unprepossessing name of “Bugworld”. It was run using a horrible homegrown system constructed from an ungodly mangling of several rather better ones, but the players were good, and so it had a couple of solid outings amongst other mainstays like Rolemaster and Amber and Mekton (1).
Bugworld told the story of the insect-people of the Lowlands, under threat from the encroaching Wasp Empire. There was an artificer patron figure named Stenwold Maker and a Weaponsmaster named Tisamon. There was an occupied city of Myna, and a quest to rescue the female leader of the resistance from custody. There was a mysterious Box of Shadows and a face-changing thief who made off with it. There was even going to be a crazy half-moth artificer with a mechanical arm, but I never quite got to him into the campaign. The majority of the kinden and places found in Shadows of the Apt were there, at least in some form. Even the map I drew way back then eventually got cleaned up and handed to Tor so that a rather better artist could produce the one currently seen within the books.
So what happened between 1994 and 2008? After the end of the campaign, I put the insect kinden back in their box but never quite forgot them even as I worked on other projects. I kept updating the game – did a conversion to the OGL d20 system, and another for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, but never really had the chance to run the game again. But the world stuck in my mind.
And I was writing various other books with an eye to getting published, and the water that flowed under the bridge carried with it great sodden wodges of rejection slips, because that’s how it goes (2). Suffice to say that I’d already had several magnums opus (or whatever the plural is) knocked back even before I ran Bugworld, and there would be plenty more to come. The one thing I actually knew was that I wanted to write fantasy novels, and I wanted other people to read them. As ambitions go, I hit the halfway mark very quickly, but that last 50% turned out to be the real problem.
And eventually I decided there needed to be a Grand Project. None of this writing just volume 1 of the Trials of the Runespork and getting it out there to gather dust on the slush pile. That practice was obviously getting me nowhere, and my fevered little mind, after one too many circles in the goldfish bowl, decided that where I was going wrong was obviously a matter of scale. And so I told myself I would stake it all on one multi-volume roll of the dice, write a whole series, and if that didn’t get me anywhere I’d give up. Whether or not I’d have stuck with that last, I can’t say, but I was becoming bitterly demoralized about the whole business by then, so who knows?
Of course, for the Great Project I needed a Great Idea. I needed a setting that I could really pull out all the stops with. I had a few options, at that time – and those that lost out were also RPG-influenced, because when you design a world for an RPG you get to know it very well and it becomes a perfect playground for writing in. But it was the Bugworld that came through – the perfect combination (as I hoped) of the familiar and the strange. I dusted off the kinden (in fact I decided to name them kinden, probably – I don’t think they were called that in the original), and I resurrected bits and pieces of my old scenario plots, and I imported a handful of NPCs, including Stenwold, Tisamon, Drephos, Scylla and Kymene. And I changed the name to the initial working series title of “Insect Tribes” because even I realized that “Bugworld” was frankly not fit for purpose. And with all that done, I just sat down and wrote until I had what are now the first 4 books of the Shadows of the Apt complete – the entire initial plot arc. I did it because I knew that, if I submitted book 1 and it got rejected, I’d never finish the others. Looking back now it feels like some sort of Bohemian madness had gripped me, to be honest – it was a huge amount of work thrown at a single project with absolutely no guarantee of return.
The truly mad thing was, though, that somehow I got that part of the pitch exactly right. When I snagged an agent on the strength of Empire in Black and Gold (which was more than I’d ever snagged previously), the series was still a difficult sell (because, you know, insects(3)) and the publishing scene was fairly tightly battened down. The lists were pretty packed out, and there was very much no room at the genre inn. So did Tor UK want a new epic fantasy writer? The answer was no – they liked it, but they had no space in the publishing schedule, maybe come back next year, who knows? Did they want an epic fantasy writer who could deliver 4 books as quickly as they cared to publish them? That, apparently, was quite a different question.
The rest is bibliography.
(1)Yes, seriously, that’s what we were playing. It was an odd group.
(2)With 9 books behind me I suspect I harp on about the Long Hard Years in the Wilderness a bit much now. I may be published but, you know, I’m still street. Or something.
(3)My agent at one point tried claiming it was “like Spiderman.”