Friday, 22 April 2016

The Legend of Genghis Khan - ten years, three ebooks, one big headache for publishers

Book 3 of the Legend of Genghis Khan Blood Of Wolves is now published, taking my historical young adult project up to the Year of the Tiger 1206, when the young Temujin became 'Genghis' Khan of all the people who lived in felt tents on the Mongolian steppe.

Secret History of the Mongols:
Genghis for poets?
It has been an equally long author journey for me, starting in the hot summer of 2006, when I purchased my copy of The Secret History of the Mongols from a bookshop in Stroud and wrote the first words that would become Temujin's story, to 2016 when I finally stopped fiddling with the commas and published his blood brother Jamukha's side of the story as an ebook for Kindle.

Alexander the Great
(not Genghis!)
It seems right to publish this project as three novellas, since the original structure of the book fell naturally into three parts - Temujin's story, his wife Borta's story, and his blood brother Jamukha's story. But when I was writing their stories back in 2006 and 2007, Amazon had yet to open their Kindle Direct Publishing platform to UK authors (I'm not sure they had even opened it to US authors back then, so the idea of indie-publishing this project had never even crossed my mind). Since novella length fiction was difficult to sell in print, the most I hoped for was that my children's publisher Chicken House would stitch the three parts together and publish the project as a single long novel destined for the young adult section of the bookshops, in the same way that they published my quirky Alexander the Great novel I am the Great Horse. That might have worked in a kinder publishing climate, but my publisher was not really a young adult publisher and owing to changes in their American business wanted another middle grade project from me, so it never happened. I spent much of the next five years rewriting the book according to various comments from agents and editors who saw it along the way, trying to shape the original story into a format that would work better for their lists.


Genghis for girls?
Historical romance seemed the most promising place for my book on a publisher's list, and at one stage I had version purely told from Borta's point of view with very little of the original adventure or history, and none of the banter between the boys. But (maybe not surprisingly since she was originally only a third of the story), Borta did not prove strong enough on her own to carry the whole story as a romance. There might indeed be a historical romance buried somewhere in the Secret History of the Mongols, but it would be a different book, possibly more like Stephanie Thornton's The Tiger Queens. I would have needed to start again to make it work. That detour took me a couple years, and got me nowhere except an insight into what romance editors are looking for - which might prove useful in future, but proved worse than useless for my Genghis Khan!

Genghis for boys?

I then, at the suggestion of another editor, had a go at rewriting my story in a linear form, by chopping up my three characters' stories into small sections and stitching them back together, year by year, so that the historical adventure part of the plot unfolded in a more traditional way. Sounds easy, you might think. Except of course it wasn't easy. As I was doing this, I realised quite a lot of my story depends on the reader seeing more than one point of view, and revelations that worked in the original three viewpoint structure did not work so well in the linear structure. After some drastic trimming and much cutting and pasting, during which entire scenes got rewritten, the historical adventure worked on one level, but I ended up with a pale imitation of Conn Iggulden's adult historical novel Wolf of the Plains. The resulting book might have eventually found a place on a YA historical list, although it seems historical YA is just as tricky to publish these days as novellas... and if I'd set out to write a historical adventure in the first place, I'd have chosen the third person viewpoint and written a very different book.


Genghis for kids?
What about the fantasy angle, then? This was perhaps the most promising aspect to focus on, since I am known as a fantasy author for young readers from my award-winning Echorium Trilogy: Song Quest, Crystal Mask and Dark Quetzal. The fantasy behind Genghis Khan's story comes from his people's belief in shamanism and spirit animals, so maybe I could draw on that to make the books appeal to young readers? Or possibly make it into something more like this Children of the Lamp adventure? Well, maybe... except that would mean losing much of the original story by removing the love triangle and betrayal at its core in favour of making it more child friendly. There is fantasy in my plot, certainly - I can't imagine writing a book that does not include some element of magic or the supernatural -  but since the history of Genghis Khan is fairly well-documented, then these fantastic elements take a magical realist angle, which is part of the reason I chose first person viewpoints to tell my story.

I am fascinated by how different people can experience the same events in very different ways, according to their beliefs and how their minds work. In my interpretation of the history, Temujin is the most down to earth character, refusing to believe in anything he can't conquer or kill. Borta trains as a shaman and goes on spirit journeys with her pet deer, sending herself slightly crazy in the process, whereas the frustrated and confused Jamukha experiences spirit magic in the form of a silver-blue wolf that seems to be following him, but does not understand what he's doing until too late. Eventually, even Temujin is persuaded there are more things in Heaven than he has dreamt of on the steppe (sorry, Shakespeare!), which turns him into the conqueror we know as Genghis Khan. So yes, there is fantasy in the story, but not really the type of fantasy that appeals to younger readers more used to the magic wands and flying broomsticks of Harry Potter.

Fast forward to 2016. Since novellas are no longer taboo thanks to virtual bookshelves, have returned to my original structure, and you can now read all three parts as ebooks. I'd suggest starting with Book 1 Prince of Wolves and working your way through, but would be interested to know if the story also works the other way around.

You can read The Legend of Genghis Khan on your Kindle or Kindle app by clicking on the links below:

1. Prince of Wolves
3. Blood of Wolves
2. Bride of Wolves

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