It’s five years since Blood River‘s journey began, from a notebook in the Borneo rainforest to Amazon Kindle ebook. It’s a roller-coaster tale of supernatural survival horror, and you can buy it here.
I’ve no idea how Blood River will fare with reviewers and readers, but it’s been an experiment from day one. It’s become my training wheels story, and I present it to the world as such. I wanted to see if I could write a novel, edit a novel, and learn how to submit it to agents and publishers.
If the agents didn’t bite, I’d self-publish it to learn about that. Someone, somewhere, might like my strange little tale of destruction.
Set on the tropical island of Borneo, Blood River’s journey began as an idle notion during an eco-tourism holiday with the Orangutan Foundation. In between volunteering my inexpert labour to help refurbish one of their research stations in the rainforest, I pondered ideas for the 2017 Nanowrimo writing challenge, due a few months later.
November spawned a monster
The summer programme was a wonderful three weeks, looked after by an excellent local team and volunteer coordinator. We were safe, the rainforest was beautiful and orangutan sightings were plentiful. All the same, I couldn’t help noticing that the jungle around us was full of potential threats, from snakes and crocs to illegal miners and loggers. What would happen if our hosts were less capable and a series of unfortunate events piled upon each other to cut off our only route home?
I returned home with a head full of dark ideas and cribbed a few planning ideas from Jeff VanderMeer’s excellent writing guide, Wonderbook. I would be my second crack at Nanowrimo; my first attempt had reached the word limit with no end in sight for the rambling tale.
This time I wanted to write a complete story of desperate people turning to desperate measures to survive. To increase the challenge, I was going to do it in an epistolary format so that every character would have their own voice and their accounts might not all agree.
The first draft of 55,000 words was a lot of fun to write and turned out far better than I’d hoped. In the spring I read it through and revised the first draft (some thoughts on the difference between editing and revising). I took Blood River to my first writing course, Novel Writing and Longer Works at City University, London, in summer 2018. The reception was decent, and I realised that just completing a novella was more than some of my fellow writers had achieved, or might achieve.
They were good writers and their feedback was invaluable, but it takes dedication to finish a novel (and time, and a little luck). I paid the tutor, author Martin Ouvry, for an editorial report. His feedback was positive, though there was plenty to improve.
Most of all, I realised the story had no single protagonist. The epistolary style was designed to show a group of people falling apart and to conceal the identities of the antagonists during the first act. It was an ensemble disaster movie, but it was almost impossible to describe in the language of pitches that agents expect.
The long way round, the wrong way round
Blood River’s journey took a twisting route from there. Instead of polishing my novella, I became obsessed with two goals: extending Blood River to novel length and focusing the story around a protagonist-antagonist axis.
The first goal required a significant rewrite of the apocalyptic climax. The second required considerable character development and revision. I had to reveal more about my characters and their motivations, while I ensured that readers wouldn’t know who survived. And at least for the first half of the story, I didn’t want to show who was behind the killings.
The first draft had no supernatural elements, and I introduced a new mystery that would provide a springboard into the extended narrative. I wrote 25,000 words during Nanowrimo 2018 and put the unfinished story to one side for a month-long trip to Colombia. I wasn’t writing but the story was never far from my thoughts, and I returned to the UK with good news and bad. Colombia would be a great location for another Nightmare Vacations tale, but the extended version wasn’t working.
The claustrophobic environment of the jungle station had sprawled into the mundane world beyond. The tone of the story had changed completely, and unless I revived key cast members from the first half, I’d have to start the second half building a new world. I archived my 25,000 words and began a new extension. This one stayed in the jungle, focussing on characters I could allow to survive the original novella.
Blood River went through further revisions with feedback from a spring 2019 critique group at London’s CityLit college. What I learned more than anything was that I wanted to improve my craft on a longer course.
I applied for the MA in Creative Writing: The First Novel, at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. Remarkably, it’s the only creative writing degree that ‘s dedicated to the novel form.
The MA began in autumn 2019, so I had the summer to complete a first draft of the novel-length Blood River. I extended the third act, adjusted the finale and sent my survivors deeper into the jungle. It comfortably broke through the 100,000-word barrier, but the darkness continued as my characters faced violence of a new kind.
I put Blood River aside as the MA began, returning in the spring of 2020 to polish it for beta readers. Blood River’s journey had begun a new stage.
How dark is too dark?
Somewhere along the way, I started to worry about the darkness and violence. Some of my concerns were structural — characters completed lurid, bloodstained diaries between acts of appalling violence. With or without the supernatural elements, it was unbelievable.
I was also getting uncomfortable with a story that I planned to publish under my own name. There are plenty of horror and erotica writers who use pen names and don’t share their work with friends and family. There are writers who tell their friends and family to deal with it, but that’s not me, either. I’d spent two years writing Blood River, and I wanted something to show for it.
The feedback from my beta readers came in over summer 2020, and it was better than I’d hoped. Their negatives aligned with things I thought were weak points, and I went into a final draft once my MA was complete. I pulled back on some of the more outrageous violence and disturbia, attempting to focus on characters.
The MA had provoked an analysis of the protagonist’s story and taught me a lot about structure. I’d also come up with an ending which felt like a satisfying conclusion.
I began querying Blood River with agents in autumn 2020, working through a long list in tranches of five every two or three months. I switched titles halfway through, querying The Girl Who Stole The Leopard’s Spots to see if it would have more impact. There was some positive feedback for both titles, but most agents only respond when they have something good to say. Around half of them never responded at all.
Blood River’s journey meets the Amazon
In the spring of 2022, I brought Blood River’s journey to an end. I wanted to focus on new projects and learn about self-publishing. I’d also decided that the longer version still didn’t work, so I pared it back to the original length.
The conclusion now is not a million miles away from the ending I wrote in 2017. I’m satisfied that this is how this story needs to be told. Blood River at 55,000 words is sharper, tighter and fitter than the 110,000 words I pitched to agents. I think it’s an enjoyable bit of fun, and I hope you enjoy it, too.
Most of all, I’ve learned a huge amount about creative writing, from the fun parts like crafting characters and choreographing action to the less fun parts like editing and rewriting. (Actually, I enjoy them, too). I’ve also learned a huge amount about the publishing industry, and what it expects from writers. When the next novel’s finished — and it won’t be a long wait — none of that will be a mystery.
Blood River is currently in the hands of advance reader copy (ARC) reviewers. I have no idea what they’ll think of it, but hopefully it will help me to sell a few copies. If I end up with a few beer tokens from the Jeff Bezos all-night bazaar, that will be a satisfying conclusion to my Blood River’s journey. At least I get to come home.