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Spear Carriers: How I Accidentally Wrote My First Novel

In just a couple of days, Book View Café will release the ebook version of my novel The Sorcery Within. Back in 1985, it was the first novel of mine to be published. Getting to this new edition has been a long time coming, and I’m excited about it. The prose is freshly edited. The cover is just the sort of cover I have wanted all along, and is my own work, to boot. Most gratifying of all, I know the book is going to finally, finally, finally appear as it should, meaning as part of a trilogy. That last aspect couldn’t happen until now because the third volume didn’t exist. (Technically, the third volume still doesn’t exist, at least not as far as the reading public is concerned, but it will in just two more months.)

As I pored over the text one last time prior to completing my part of the process of publication, I found myself thinking of the time when The Sorcery Within didn’t exist in any form. By that I mean, not even as a proverbial glimmer in my eye. Because once upon a time, even though I had caught the writing bug and had been pounding away at my 1930s-built Underwood manual typewriter for a number of years, I thought of myself as a writer of short fiction.

At fifteen, sword-and-sorcery was a favorite genre of mine to read, and I got the crazy idea maybe I could create something along the lines of what I’d been experiencing. I began writing stories about a set of twin adventurers, a brother-sister pair named Alemar and Elenya. My dabbling continued. Some of the initial attempts were fragmentary. All of the material, at first, was of the sort of quality level that I could tell would not appeal to professional editors and publishers. Even after I got better at it and even after I succeeded in wrapping up a few complete pieces, I saw no point in trying to “go long.” Better to stick with short lengths. Better to do that, and hone my craft. It seemed wise, especially given how slow a writer I was (and still am). That is the way things were at age eighteen, nineteen, twenty. And that’s the way things still were by the time I reached twenty-three, though at least by then most of my output was science fiction or attempts at “literary” fiction, not sword-and-sorcery.

Then I read that Ace Books had contracted with Orson Scott Card to have him put together a gathering of stories about dragons. I realized I had a fragmentary piece that, if completed and if I wrote it at the level of quality I knew I was capable of, might fit that market. Fortunately the deadline was far enough into the future that I managed to complete the project, yielding a novelette that I duly submitted to Card. Who accepted it! My work came out in the autumn of 1980 in the anthology Dragons of Light. It was my professional debut as an author.

The Sorcery Within by Dave Smeds

Encouraged by that sale, I decided I had better stop neglecting Alemar and Elenya. The story I’d sold to Card was in their world, but the twins did not appear in it, it being a tale that had to do with one of their distant forebears. The last piece about the twins I’d worked on was still only in outline form. I had envisioned an adventure that took the two of them on a quest to an ancient, spell-infested citadel in a desert realm far from their home.

The ending was clear in my mind. I knew what the object of the quest would be. But I hadn’t written a word of what I had figured would be the natural opening scene, the twins’ arrival in the desert region.

Since I intended that adventure be a major ingredient, I figured why waste time getting to the action. A few sentences in, the twins are attacked. They defend themselves. And in the process, in self-defense, they each kill a man.

Theodore Sturgeon had a motto: “Ask the next question.” There I was. I had written most of the initial scene. A few hundred words. And had I ever stepped in it.

The problem was the dead men. They were what is know in fiction writing as “spear carriers.” You know, figures that appear in a scene like the Roman guards behind the emperor in a sword-and-sandals epic, or the enemy warriors mowed down by the heroes in a depiction of a battle in a Bronze Age setting. Their function is to either be wallpaper, or clay pigeons.

But I couldn’t shake the notion that these two particular so-far-unnamed opponents of Alemar and Elenya were guys who had personal histories, families who might miss them, roles to play in their own context but who now could no longer bring those endeavors to fruition. Their deaths mean consequences. Complications.

Within the hour, I knew I had a novel on my hands. I had imagined I was working on at most something of novelette length. I had pictured a short sequence in which my twins arrive in the desert, a somewhat longer sequence in which they get their bearings and deal with a few secondary obstacles, and then the main, climactic chunk during which they went through the adventure in the citadel that I had outlined two or three years earlier. That, I calculated, would take up no more than ten thousand words total. But now? My estimate increased to about one hundred thousand words. (And as it happened, that’s just what it could come to.)

Within that consequential hour, I had come up with the answer to what it was the spear carriers of that first scene represented. Their demise prompted my sibling protagonists to be absorbed, largely against their will, into the society of the nomads who frequent the desert. For the twins, the quest transformed and was no longer a matter of getting from Point A to Point B. They had to forge new identities. Including, in Elenya’s case, living as a man. Those developments led to many scenes. Many chapters. A novel.

Here I sit, contemplating how simple things might have been if I had just let a couple of spear carriers simply be spear carriers. The thing is, even now I really love working at short fiction lengths. I could have stuck with that. Instead I discovered not only could I write novels, but they’re fun to do, every so often.

(The desert-wanderer photograph upon which I based my cover artwork was created by Mirelanicoleta. Used by agreement via Dreamstime. Sahara photo at top is by Lerina Smeds.)



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