Two years ago, at the end of a 160 000-word journey, I held my breath, shaking all over with a strange mix of sorrow, longing, joy and disbelief, utterly unconvinced that this was actually happening, and typed the words “… For somewhere, a unicorn is impossibly happy.”
I had just finished Sparrowhawk, forty chapters of fantasy, adventure, horses and magic, which had taken my unconverted thirteen-year-old self almost a year to write. And in that moment as I pressed Ctrl+Home and updated the table of contents and watched forty chapter titles spray themselves across the white page, it seemed a most splendid accomplishment. Indeed, for the self I was then, it probably was; for the first time I had written something where both plot and characters were relatively fleshed out, and for the first time I had actually thought about Lord Jesus once or twice in the writing of it, letting my beloved Modena the Unicorn turn into an angel at the end of the story (implying that he had been an angel in disguise all along). But except for a few shy references to that sacred Babe as my characters celebrated Christmas, or the occasional mention of Modena’s Master, the King of the angels didn’t feature.
He didn’t just not feature; He probably wouldn’t have liked to even if He had. Lord Jesus would not have liked to be lumped into a story whose hero practiced sorcery and had a magic horse and a sidekick who was a faery and liked to make silver fire appear out of nowhere at odd occasions. In later drafts, after I met Jesus, I tried to fix it. Indeed, the outline of the third draft – which I never wrote – may even have been quite acceptable to Him. But I was too bogged down in what Sparrowhawk had been to fix what it was going to be.
Enter Flann Hildebrand: a thirty-nine-year-old, grumpy, crippled, sour, imaginary war veteran whom, to his disgust, I plonked into a story with a group of useless teenagers whom he was supposed to teach and mentor, just to see what happened. What happened was a further 116 000 words of a very slowly dragging story with a deplorable plot but, for me, decent characters and occasional moments of brilliance. Even a year later, I still think that Rhys was the best healer I ever wrote. He broke the old gentle-wise-educated-white-headed-old-man mould by being young, witty, and squeamish, having razor-sharp snark (well, as razor-sharp as I could write it) and occasionally blowing things up, usually by accident. It shied away from magic, and apart from the antagonists (usually wyverns), was fantasy mostly in the sense that it was set in a world that was entirely fictional.
I never finished it. But because there was certainly merit to the main character of Flann – who was an entirely new experience to me; I had never written a cynic before, however badly – I fleshed him out, made him more than twenty years younger and turned him into the protagonist and point-of-view character of Another Sword.
I had a butt-kicking, sword-wielding hero, his trusty steed, and a vague idea of his sidekicks (mostly based on the clueless teens of the old Sir Flann’s time). I also had an idea of the plot; I am not at all good at plots and this one was the typical hero-and-company-go-on-quest-and-fight-war-against-invading-creepies sort. Then, because I have a special horse named Skye who had a disease that was only special in its horribleness and was cured by an indescribably special God, I got on my knees and said, “I’ve written for myself and for others and for the sheer joy of it, Sir, but this one’s for You. Make it Yours.”
Jesus said (although not directly; I’m not quite good enough at listening for that yet), “Okay, Firn. Get your fingers on the keyboard and listen.”
As I said, I’m no good at listening. If I had been good at listening, I would have written my outline once and it would have been perfect. I wrote it four times, and it still wasn’t perfect; I wandered away from it in the story and that wasn’t perfect either. In fact, no matter how many times I revise it, it will never be perfect because the only perfect work is the work of Jesus, and as much as I try to write for Him, it will always be my fingers on the keyboard.
There were three things that I think Jesus quite liked about that outline (and the subsequent story). The first was Sir Flann’s sidekick, Demetrius. Demetrius had his faults; he was a total coward, for a start, and a pushover and always the victim. For a Crown Prince, this was not ideal. However, Demetrius had one thing that Flann didn’t, and that was faith. He was meek and gentle and had no trace of malice, and despite the thousand hard knocks that life had given him, he accepted them all as planned by God.
Demetrius became the role model of the story. Through the influence of events and other characters, he did grow and strengthen over time; but he served to temper Flann’s fury and became the guiding influence that led my lost hero to the pages of the Bible. And indeed, my hero was very lost. He was relatively sure that God existed, but completely sure that God detested mankind in general and himself in particular. The plot, themes, other characters all hang on Flann’s conversion and the magnificent change that only Jesus can work in a person, and for me the author and willing if clumsy instrument of the Lord’s desire, it has been a most wonderful ride.
I have never written so easily. The outline helped; I was never stuck wondering what would happen next. But it flowed. It was easy. It was fun. It was wonderful, and although it will look as clumsy as a one-legged duck trying to do somersaults across a tiled floor covered in soap, I love it now. I won’t love it in two months’ time when I start to revise. But maybe in two months’ time I will be able to listen better, and I will write it and write it until I know that I can’t do any better. And then it will be up to Lord Jesus.
This story, clumsy as it is, full of crutch words, combat scenes limping along like hobbled mules, sappy emotional scenes feeling like a cross between a bad kindergarten’s school play, setting barely existent, is unlike anything I’ve ever written before. I may have wrote it badly, and it may not be good enough, but I wrote it for my Lord Jesus in the desperate hope that He of all people would be able to make it good enough. And I have known no greater pleasure than to dedicate the time and effort and tears and tantrums that it takes to write a novel to my Friend Jesus. I can only pray that my crew of imaginary people, hanging onto swords and horses and Psalm 23, will eventually prove to spread the Word to someone. Anyone. Anywhere.
That’s what it’s all about, after all. Loving Him. Doing things for Him. Finding the inexpressible joy in Him, even in this flawed world where we see through a glass darkly.
What a splendid world is to come!
The opening of Another Sword, which I’m quite fond of (but will probably detest in a few months’ time):
It’s just past midnight at full moon and the shadows of the trees crowning the ridge fall like fangs across the grassland. Moonlight glints on bits, stirrups, the hilts of swords, flanks sleek with sweat; the riders are so close I can hear their horses’ breathing and see the whites of their eyes flash when they spot me.
I allow myself a tiny, satisfied snort. If they’d been Knights of the Lion, they’d have known I was here just from the reactions of their horses and I would be feathered with crossbow bolts. But they pay no attention to what their horses are telling them loud and clear, and Tariq and I, silent in our thicket, go unnoticed.
Well, at least idiots die quicker, even if there are twenty of them and one of me.
Words of wisdom would be much appreciated from the literary among my dear readers. For the Christians among you, I know that my hero sounds uncommonly smug, careless, hard-hearted and blunt for the main character of a story that’s supposed to glorify God. He’s supposed to. He’s supposed to be dreadful so that the change brought about by his conversion can be all the more dramatic. All the same, what do you think?