Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Birth of Alex

Alex is the hero of my Angel series -- and as I've said in interviews, he's been in my head for a long time.

You see, I've always wanted to be a writer, though I didn't get serious about it until my early twenties. My first completed novel was a comedic fantasy romp loosely based on The Pied Piper of Hamelin, which (rightly) remained unpublished. It was that novel that almost all writers go through: the first, awful one that sits in a drawer forever.

After that, I wasn't sure what to write next -- until one day I saw the film Hans Christian Andersen with Danny Kaye. In it, the fictionalised Andersen is a shoemaker who lives with Peter, his young apprentice. The orphaned Peter is much more streetwise and realistic than the dreamy Andersen, and I just really liked the whole vibe between them: the friendship between the adult boy and the child-like man.

Suddenly an amazing idea came. This was my next novel -- a story showing this sort of friendship. It would be set in a medieval fantasy world. My apprentice would be named Alex, and he would formerly have been a thief, beaten and left for dead by his partners. He'd then be found by Griffin Candlemaker, who saves his life.

(Wow -- such a sense of nostalgia, typing that name. Griffin is a character who I loved dearly.)

New-story excitement bubbling through me, I made pages and pages of notes on a legal pad -- which for you Brits is an oversized pad of yellow paper. The ideas, the characters, the world, just poured out from my pen. Alex would be 14 at the story's start; it would span two years of his life.

Finally I was ready to start writing. Here's how the story opened:

"Are you dead? Answer me, boy, answer me, please -- are you dead or alive?"

The blackness that filled Alex's mind turned slowly to greyness. The voice kept talking, and talking, pressing with its question: are you alive or dead? Answer, answer me, please.

Bewildered by the insistence in the voice, Alex struggled to surface through the murky waters of his consciousness. He felt rough fingers brush his face, slap their way down the front of his jerkin -- Cully? he thought. And then memory flooded back, and he groaned. You win, Cully, you win -- I won't tell anyone, just don't hit me anymore. 

"You win," he mumbled, but there seemed to be something wrong with his lips. With his whole face, in fact. He licked his lips, tasted something salty on them, and struggled to speak again.

"Alive, then," said the voice. "Don't talk. You can talk later."

Alex groaned again, louder, as he felt himself being picked up and carried. Pain burst from every inch of his body. He tried to open his eyes and couldn't; he half-sobbed, and wondered where unconsciousness was now that he wanted it.

"I know," said the voice. "You're worried about being too heavy for me. Well, worry not, my friend; Griffin Candlemaker has carried a heavier load than you in his time." A pause in stride, and Alex felt himself being shifted in the man's arms. 

"Should have just slung you over my shoulder, I suppose," confided the voice, "but I suspect your ribs are a bit worse for wear. Hardly worth saving you just to puncture your lung for you. I'm sure you'll agree once you can talk again."

The pain overcame Alex, and he submitted to the swarming black. Afterwards, though, the thing he remembered was not the pain, but the honest relief in the man's voice when he realised that Alex was alive. 

Did you recognise the name 'Cully'? In Angel, he was a father figure to Alex. I named him Cully as a personal nod to this early incarnation of Alex...though as you may have gleaned, the Cully in this story was very different.

Anyway, Alex, now partially lame, is taken in by Griffin and must make a new life for himself; we see his eventual transformation from an angry young thief to a master carver who takes the name Alex Deftblade (the novel's title). He meets Jhia, a mysterious girl with long blonde hair, and falls in love with her -- but the real love story, if I can use the term loosely, was between Alex and Griffin: their growing friendship. 

To make a long story short (ho ho), Alex Deftblade got taken on by a publisher and my excitement knew no bounds. It even got to front-cover stage; a gorgeous one was painted by the amazing artist Les Edwards.

Right about now, you may be thinking, "Wait, this book got published? Where can I get it?"

Alas, you can't.

Although Alex Deftblade had good things going for it -- some not-terrible writing and characters that came to life -- it was also very flawed; the story didn't come together at all. Looking back now with more experience, I'm surprised that it got taken on, but I suppose my publishers were swayed by its potential. Sadly, potential isn't always enough. I undertook rewrite after rewrite -- sixteen drafts in all -- but the story never gelled to anyone's satisfaction. So the decision was made to put that novel aside and publish my next one instead: the very-different Child X.

OK, that was tough, I admit it. I loved my characters a lot -- especially my angry young thief. I felt as if I'd failed them.

Years passed. I wrote four middle-grade novels: all of them, like Child X, were firmly rooted in real life. Eventually I moved into series fiction for young readers. I wrote stories about a school for fairies; tiny magical cats; an underwater club for seahorses.

Through it all, Alex stayed in my mind. He refused to go away, in fact. And an idea started to grow: what if I ditched everything about Alex Deftblade except the characters, and put Alex in a contemporary setting?

Jhia -- by then renamed Willow -- became a teenage psychic who'd 'seen' something that put her in danger; Alex became the teenage hitman hired to kill her. Griffin, to my sorrow, had to be discarded: one of the issues with AD had always been that there wasn't room to develop the love story with Jhia. I had to decide whether I wanted to write a romance, or a story about friendship.

Well, you know the answer. (I'm a hopeless romantic. Sue me.) 

But if Alex was a real-life hitman, a happy ending wasn't too likely. I mean, hello...a murderer for a boyfriend? He'd have to die at the end, or at least go off to prison forever. Not the stuff romance is made of.

Enter the paranormal element. Bingo! If Alex was a killer of non-humans in order to save the world, I could keep the sexy 'assassin' vibe without so many moral quandaries. When I then got the idea about turning our conceptions of angels upside down, the story came together very quickly.

As I rethought Alex's backstory to fit all of this, an older, more thoughtful Alex emerged -- one who'd been raised to be a killer from a young age; who cared deeply about what he did but had also never felt as if he had a choice. Blunt, yet kind. Capable but not arrogant.

And afraid to ever love again until he met Willow -- and fell for the girl who was supposed to be his enemy.

So there you go. The genesis of Alex Kylar -- from those first tiny seeds of watching Hans Christian Andersen to the character who's in the Angel series today. My husband claims that he can't really see the two Alexs as the same character. Perhaps it's something only the author can tell. Their backstories and actions may be totally different...but their souls are the same.

In a cool postscript to Alex's story, my husband Googled 'Alex Deftblade' once and found the front cover art by Les Edwards for sale on his website. Guess where it is now? Framed and hanging over our bed.

I think things happen for a reason. I'm glad that Alex's story didn't get published as Alex Deftblade -- because then I never would have written Angel. And, to me, that's the Alex who was meant to be.
I still love these images, though: the world of the angry young thief who refused to leave my mind.

Thanks, Alex.



  1. I love your angel mam. Thank u for writing such a marvelous and heart touching story. I like seb's character very much. I always wanted willow and seb to fall in love but I am happy that seb now has Meghan

  2. This is so interesting to see how Alex was born, thank you so much for the advice you gave me on your UK tour in Manchester :)