Today’s the day. Pencils sharpened, blank sheets of paper stacked, laptop dusted, interruptions cancelled, social media written out of reality, coffee hot.
Come on, inspiration, we’re all ready for you.
Any time now would be good.
[Hours pass. William sits motionless, fingers poised over the keyboard. Somebody hits the fast-forward button, and as the hours pass, we see William droop like an un-watered houseplant. As the sun sets and an unscheduled power-cut blankets the whole neighbourhood in darkness, William gets up from his laptop and shuffles off into the come-early night.
In his despair he’s left behind anything with which he could conceivably write. He roams the dark streets, muttering under his breath. Suddenly – at the furthest possible point of his walk, in pitch darkness – his eyes light up, bathing the street in the glow of inspiration.
“Yes!” he exclaims, searching his pockets for something, anything, with which to write down the idea that’s just come to him.
In the end, he kneels down and starts scratching at the pavement with his fingernails, shuffling backwards as the idea unfurls in front of him, line after line of idea that flows into him as the Muse whispers in his ear.]
It’s going to be – Yes! – a sprawling epic of many worlds and many dimensions, telling the stories of – Yes! I mean, seriously? – heroes, villains, lovers, haters, quite-likers, beautiful people, average-looking people with something about them, scribes, pharisees and dark-hearted schemers.
A fantasy novel, then?
There will be rings and amulets – Yes! Go with what comes! – and swords, and quests – oh, and at least one old guy, bearded, to start the whole thing off.
I’ll build my world with politics and economics, but with magic and dragons as well. There’ll be technology, but it will have evolved from clockwork and kettles – Yes! Go with it! You’ll lose it if you question it! – rather than electricity and c-prompts. People will ride around on horses.
Yes, that’s it, a fantasy novel.
[William races back to his laptop. Which tells him to wait while it installs urgent upgrades. He grabs a blank sheet of paper, snaps the first pencil in his haste, forces himself to calm down, and starts writing.]
If the beard and the long cloak printed with stars and sigils don’t tip you off, you’ll know my significant old guy by the hat. He’ll live in a mountain-top cave on a mountain top so remote that he has to pay extra for his online-shopping deliveries.
No, that’s not right. Dang! I had the tone of voice just right there. But there are no supermarkets in fantasy novels. Not in mine, anyway.
He lives in a cave on a mountain top so remote that the birds – the eagles? No, been done – have to deliver his groceries – have to deliver the ancient scrolls that he orders by some kind of magic from the library of the ancient monastery on the neighbouring mountain top.
Either that, or he has to wait for the weekly yak-train that brings his other supplies. He picks up his post once a month from the general stores down in the village.
No, he doesn’t. Rats! I’ve lost it.
Okay, relax, no pressure, deep breath, that’s it, screw that one up; now feed yet another sheet of blank A4 paper into this steampunk version of an upgraded laptop, and let’s start again.
“You are the chosen one!” shouted Edgalcius the Mage, his voice echoing around the peaks and crags of his mountain-top home.
“M-me?” said Pipsqueak, scrambling to his feet after the long climb, cringing even further into the extra thermal vest his mother had insisted he wear under his jerkin. “I’m just delivering your perishables.”
Pipsqueak had climbed two hundred feet up a vertical cliff face to reach the ledge outside the Mage’s cave. In a hurry. In two layers of thermal underwear beneath his typical peasant garb. He was feeling unsteady.
“Yes, the yak-train’s delayed and–”
“Hang on! Hang on!” Clambering into view came a young man, clad in silver armour, his long fair hair caught in a clasp at the nape of his neck, red-faced and puffing. “Sorry I’m late. Couldn’t get the horse past the rockfall.”
“Yes, the yak-train–” Pipsqueak began, but the young man was still talking.
“There was a whole train of yaks there as well. They couldn’t get past the rockfall either. I got past them and realised what the problem was. Had to climb. Hope I’m not late. Apparently, there’s a place in the village that takes in horses.” He stopped, and looked at Pipsqueak.
“A boarding stable,” said Pipsqueak, because that seemed expected of him. The young man nodded and then looked down at his armour, brushing at it and then leaning forward to inspect his knees.
“Excuse me,” said the Mage, in a tone that Pipsqueak hadn’t heard before. The Mage was the Mage, not a tetchy old man with a voice like that. He was in time to see the irritation that Edgalcius wiped from his face, and then the Mage was the Mage again.
“You,” said Edgalcius, drawing himself up to his full height and raising his staff into the air so that it caught the first sunlight of the day. He stood facing the young man, who was still inspecting his armour. “You!” Edgalcius repeated, more loudly. The young man looked up.
Pipsqueak could guess what came next. He unslung the pack from his shoulders and carried it across the ledge to the cave-mouth. He’d unpack the perishables into the cold store while the wizard went about his business with the bloke in silver.
“Not a scratch on it!” he heard the bloke say.
Typical, thought Pipsqueak. Just typical that I’d blunder into something like this. His six older brothers would laugh at him again. His father’s six older brothers would probably laugh at him too, all crammed together in the small hut complex that the family called home.
He’d ripped his leggings again, on that scramble up the last stretch of the mountain.
His father would smile kindly at him, as he always did, and ruffle his hair as though he forgave his seventh son yet another clumsiness. His mother would come to him later and tuck a small parcel into his hands. It would turn out to contain another pair of socks.
Despite himself, Pipsqueak was comforted. Inside the cave he stepped past the treasure chest and over the glowing sword lying on the floor, steadied the small brass lamp on the shelf that his shoulder brushed as he went by, narrowly avoided the helmet and breastplate stacked next to the mage’s desk, and unloaded the pack into the recess in the cave-wall that the mage had enchanted to remain cold.
As always, he looked around for the source of the illumination in the cave, and as always, he couldn’t find it. Pipsqueak stood briefly at the mage’s desk, looking down at the parchments unrolled there. His fingers traced an illuminated P that began a passage of illuminated handwriting that he could not read. The heading at the top of the page was printed in block capitals. “How to recognise the Chosen One,” Pipsqueak read out loud. He shook his head. Mage business indeed. Then he remembered himself and went back outside.
Edgalcius was still standing with his back to the cave-mouth. The ledge – did I mention this? – was deceptively spacious, 10m by 9m at its widest point (there are estate agents in my fantasy world), with shrubs in pots around the edge and a round pine garden table off to one side, with matching chairs.
“Me?” said the young man in silver, who was still standing where he’d first appeared, facing Edgalcius across the ledge. Pipsqueak was surprised to see that he looked embarrassed.
“I think there must have been some–” The young man looked at his wrist and then at the sundial, which I would have mentioned earlier if I’d thought of it. “I couldn’t possibly–” he faltered.
In the silence that followed, Pipsqueak tiptoed back to the point on the ledge at which he’d first scrambled up. He stood, stooped forward, making himself as silent and insignificant as he could manage, easing himself half-behind a ficus Benjamin (in a pot) that was almost as tall as he was.
He had been ordered by his eldest brother to reassure Edgalcius that the rest of his supplies would be arriving at the turning circle as usual shortly – there were men and women coming up from the village to clear the rockfall – but now was not the moment.
Pipsqueak could tell that something was wrong. The young man – oh, heck, let’s give him a name – Roland was saying, “I thought I was here because you wanted to give me something. I didn’t realise I might have to– Glad to help of course, but just at the moment, pressure of revision. And anyway, I’ve got Princess Eustacia’s party on Sat–”
Pipsqueak made himself very small. He could feel a dense heaviness in the air, like the build-up to a thunderstorm. But it had come all at once. The sky was – clear, but it felt black.
“You are–” Edgalcius stopped. The broken sentence echoed around the mountains. In the monastery on top of the adjoining mountain, a window slammed shut, like punctuation.
“She invited me specially,” said Roland, in a voice both apologetic and stubborn.
Lightning flashed out of a blue sky.
Edgalcius stared at Roland. Then at Pipsqueak. He muttered something under his breath.
Then he turned and glared up at me. “What are you looking at?” he demanded.
“Me?” [William snatches his hands back from the laptop.]
“Yes, you, sunshine. It’s not so easy, is it, writing fantasy? Oh, I know where you’re going with this, but have you thought it through?”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, I get it, I really do. Hero’s journey, right? But think about it. Roland’s got all the connections, the resources; his parents probably know everybody who could possibly buy him out of trouble. If he could even find trouble. But this little tyke.” Edgalcius gestures at Pipsqueak. “Really?”
“He doesn’t start with all the advantages, but that’s the point, isn’t it?”
“Yada, yada, and a hero has to be capable of spiritual growth, yeah, yeah, heard it all before. You wouldn’t believe how often I get people – and what kind of a name is Edgalcius, anyway?”
“I thought – I could call you – Ed?”
“Give me strength.”
“We could talk. You know, discuss progress. Just occasionally, as a kind of digression from–”
“You think you’re so original, don’t you? A fantasy novel with training wheels, just running along in the background. You’re going to work through all the stages of the hero’s journey, aren’t you?”
“Yes, just occasionally, not to interrupt – actually, to interrupt – my usual posts, and there was something on Facebook about saving the kitten. Nine stages, and – hold on.”
“Oh, not the picture! You don’t have to put in a picture every time!”
“I like to. Hang on, I’ll just–”
“Ouch! Okay, but you don’t have to start a separate, totally different post–”
Read something the other day about birth-rates. They’re rising in Africa, apparently, and falling in Europe. If large-scale migrations are going to be caused by global heating in future, it would be ironic if the indigenous Europeans vacated large tracts of “their” continent to make space for–
“Sorry. Force of habit. Stopped now.”
“[Expletive deleted] authors!”
“I prefer wri–”
“And now that you’ve started this clever-dick, post-modern, broken-fourth-wall tarradiddle of a shaggy-dog–”
“You started it! You broke the fourth wall!”
“And you could have deleted that! Now that you’ve got this far, mister must-have-a-picture-but-don’t-mind-tearing-the-fabric-of-reality, what are you going to tell them? Eh?”
Pipsqueak and Roland are staring up at the sky with matching expressions of – I don’t know, let’s call it existential dread – on their faces.
Luckily, there’s also an enchanted pool on Edgalcius’ ledge. About three feet across, full of deep, clear water, it reflects – well, the sky usually, but at other times, whatever Edgalcius wants to see in it. Right now, it’s reflecting me.
My head, and the wall behind me. Must do something about my background.
This is ridiculous. I’m video-conferencing with the characters in my fantasy novel.
But I do look a little bit like – Ed has the same idea.
“It’s a genie!” Edgalcius snaps at Pipsqueak and Roland. “Deal with it.”
“Pipsqueak!” I say. “You didn’t just brush against the shelf. You brushed against my lamp when you went to unload the perishables!”
Pipsqueak didn’t sign on for this. He’s sweating, although that may just be all the thermal underwear he’s wearing. He gets even more up-close and personal with the ficus Benjamin.
But I can see that he also relaxes, very slightly. A genie in a lamp makes sense to him in a way that an authorial intervention doesn’t.
“Oh genie,” says Edgalcius (and we both ignore the muffled “Hey!” from inside the cave), “Have you considered sending both of them together?”
I have, actually, but it’s also part of the story that Edgalcius has that idea. He realises that Pipsqueak is the chosen one, but recognises Roland’s qualities (stubbornness, social connections, rich parents and others that I haven’t invented yet) and decrees that the two of them should set off together.
“What, two heroes? That’s a bit cumbersome, surely?”
“You’re the one who wrote them. But think about it. Nice bit of contrast there. Class tensions. That one learns humility; the other one – spiritual growth, I suppose. You came to me, and that’s what I think.”
“Will you talk to them? I don’t think Roland wants to go.”
“Neither does the other one. They’ll both refuse at first because that’s how these stories always go. But this is what I do. Leave it to me.”
“Okay. I’ll just–”
“You go off and catch the end of that thing about migration. No, go on, that’s fine. We’ll thrash out the details later.”
So much for controlling our own destinies. As Pliny the Elder is widely supposed to have written, “Ex Africa semper aliquid novi,” although I’ve always understood that to be a reference to elephants, not to innovation, nor to migration, nor indeed to the “Western Civilisations” of the future.