Sidekicks: The Summoning by Catherine Mays
It’s finally out. A book with a convoluted gestation period, even by my standards. But does the world really need another medieval vampire time travel menstruation romantic body horror erotic bondage novel?
As I’ve mentioned in my previous Sidekick posts, I use pseudonyms to publish work that doesn’t fit into the Robert Maas universe. But many of these works are important both to myself as a writer and to the complex interlocking workings of that Robert Maas universe. The Summoning, published under the name Catherine Mays, is absolutely central to so much of my work.
It’s one of the earliest novels I devised. As is often the case, I originally developed the story in screenplay format, even though it was never intended as a movie.
I began with a detailed scene-by-scene treatment, lacking only the dialog. Looking back on that first draft now, it’s amazing how close it is to the final novel. I already imagined it in every detail. I simply needed to write it.
In fact, the main difference is the title. The first draft was called The Mummers. I have no idea when on its long subsequent journey this changed.
A few years later I added outline dialog for each scene, and realized it was going to be a bigger job than I’d thought. Because the plot is so rich, leaping back and forth in time between two completely different sets of characters, I could no longer envision it as a movie. I began to imagine it as a two-episode TV mini-series. I broke the novel in half, right down the middle of its virtual spine.
This was a necessary process, just to get my head around the structure. But still I abandoned the novel as too daunting to write, and it languished in my archive for a very long time. Even though I designed a cover for it (yes, that’s my hand holding the shard of glass), I didn’t think I would ever write it.
Eventually late last year (2016) I wondered whether I could somehow condense The Summoning into a Penny Maez novel, which would mean writing it to the Penny Maez standard of 50,000 to 60,000 words. It definitely couldn’t be published under my own name, given its themes of magic/Fortean myth and time travel.
So I wrote the first section of the novel “Luke” as an experiment. In the treatment, that first section is just a brief teaser. It took me 8,000 words. So there was no way this could be a Penny Maez novel, and progress stalled again. I went off to write Fantastic Trips instead.
In early April this year, having finished Fantastic Trips and been sidetracked for a couple months creating paperback versions of my existing books, I was looking for my next project by riffling through my archive.
This became a housekeeping exercise. I decided to throw out for good a series of novels (some of which were outlines, some of which I had actually completely written) that no longer interested me, or which I didn’t think would ever make the grade.
At the same time, I noticed that Amazon UK was holding a literary competition (“Kindle Storyteller”) for new novels published before 19 May 2017, and I thought it would be a good way to cattle-prod myself into actually finishing or writing one of those old novels I’d had hanging around for so long.
But the 19 May deadline was fast approaching, and I had a week’s holiday with my family scheduled for Golden Week (1 to 7 May). Could I write anything in four or five weeks?
After vacillating for a further week, I decided to have another go at The Summoning, since it was the last of my novels set in the UK that I hadn’t written. I had the first 8,000 words. I imagined it would end up being about 90,000 words and so I plowed into it.
I finished the first draft two weeks and 85,000 words later on Sunday 30 April, the day before Golden Week, spent a few more days after Golden Week revising and formatting it, and published it as ebook and paperback on 10 May.
The Summoning is one of a group of early works that all feature female protagonists on the verge of a sexual awakening, the moment that fairytale suggests they are most vulnerable to the beast in the woods. As I wrote in my post about The Music Of The Rending Of The Night, another book in this cycle:
“Each of these stories is set against a mundane landscape, transformed through the perception of its protagonist into a world alien and threatening. Often they link to pagan mythology and English folk song. The women who tell these stories are generally abused girls of one kind or other who learn resilience, strength, and ultimately power, but do not gain physical freedom or redemption.”
Like others in the sequence, most notably Music, the triggering event in The Summoning is menarche. This is the point the tiger can no longer be tamed, but the monster from the id is waiting to fill the void.
Like The Billows, the protagonist Claire Knott falls under the thrall of a figure from folk song. There it was Long Lankin. Here it is Tam Lin. And like Constant she is drawn to the millpond up in the hills. (Arguably, The Summoning takes place in the same valley as Constant.) There’s even a strong link to my own novel Cheer Up Sleepy Gene.
As tribute to all those novels I had thrown away during my housekeeping, I gave the sections of The Summoning the titles of some of these fallen friends, and incorporated text quotes and ideas from them into my draft as a means of farewell:
The Horses, a quite different book about modernity intruding on a medieval village
Raising Angels, originally a companion piece to The Billows which involved Julia Whittaker’s father falling in with a dowser tracking strange nodes in English leylines
An Invented Language, a novel about growing up in the English countryside
and Kick The Clouds, which I mentioned I mapped out as catharsis over a broken love affair in my post Kicking Clouds.
Everything really is connected in the Robert Maas universe.
Can it win the Kindle Storyteller competition? No. It doesn’t stand a chance.
Firstly, the competition, whose byline is “Recognising literary excellence,” is actually a popularity contest. The shortlist, according to the FAQs, will be “compiled based on customer ratings.” The terms and conditions lay it out more baldly: “Each book will be rated based on the commercial viability of the book.” In other words, if it’s already selling, you’re in.
Only then will “an esteemed panel of judges” take a look. So if you’re an author who has already built up a loyal following since this is the 30th installment in your series of novellas about a womanizing wooden-legged singing cowboy — or for that matter if you’re a school kid who can galvanize all your class to review your book favorably — you’re almost bound to be shortlisted.
Ebooks do well in certain niche markets, regardless of how well they are written. I think that’s why the “esteemed panel” is involved. Otherwise the award would have to go to incest porn. That genre has rabid followers.
Secondly, the window is very short. The competition opened on 20 February and closes on 19 May, and “the shortlist will be announced in the beginning of June.” No time to build up a readership then, since first books by unknown authors gain traction by slow word of mouth.
Will enough people take a punt on an uncategorizable literary novel — and find time to read all 93,000 words of it, and then post a review and get other people interested in doing the same — in such a small period?
No, and here’s the thing. The competition is open to all books with “a minimum of 5,000 words” or “no less than 24 pages when in print format.” You can sell a 5,000 word story for next to nothing. Amazon themselves price their paperbacks in accordance with the number of pages, and my novel is 358 pages long.
So the competition encourages winners from short fiction that is sold cheaply or given away, regardless of its quality.
Kindle Storyteller may be a helpful boost to an unknown author in getting their novel a modicum of promotion, within the 3,000 or so entries the competition will attract. For me, it got The Summoning written, something I thought would never happen, and for that I’m thankful.