A publishing horror story

A couple of posts ago I wrote about how I got my first novel, Taurus: Mirror Image (Horrorscopes), published. It was a lucky break for me, but behind it is a toe-curling tale of the harsh world of publishing – and a special manuscript that has never yet seen the light of day.

Hancox, summer 1992

It all started when Dave and I visited friends at their sprawling Tudor house, Hancox, in rural Sussex.

 The family had lived there for five generations. Its labyrinthine corridors contained penny-farthing bicycles, portraits of ancestors, Rembrandt sketches and wall-paintings of dragons. Croquet was played in a bumpy clearing with Hancox rules. The vast gardens were patrolled by peacocks and our bedroom contained a monkey skeleton and a chest of pinned moths. It was dying to go into a novel.

Shortly afterwards, Dave was contracted to write a title in a series called Horrorscopes. Twelve horror/romance titles, commissioned from a variety of authors and put out under a pseudonym. Dave outlined a plot for Taurus that crackled with dust and longing, got the go-ahead – and our Hancox story wrote itself.

When Dave handed it in, the editor rang. Yes, he’d stuck to the brief. Yes it more than lived up to its promise. But they needed rewrites.

Around the country, 11 other authors had been writing from Gemini to Aries – and their novels were all totally different from each other. Some were gore-fests, some were mysterious and psychological.

Marketing had now said what they wanted was a copycat of Point Horror.

Peacocks inspect the cars

Discussions got bitter. Yes, they had approved the plot, but now there was a new plan. To be helpful, they had a number of suggestions, including this: could Dave put a serial killer in?

Yes, they wanted a rewrite in a matter of weeks. No there was no extra money.

Insert whatever you think might have been said in the Morris household at this point. It was not romantic or subtle.

Dave pointed out to the editor that if you have a serial killer on the loose in a neighbourhood, everybody is gated. If nobody is allowed out on their own, you don’t have a story.

And the Hancox story did not deserve to be butchered. He told the publisher he’d give them a completely new one.

In fact, he already had another commission. So I was to write it.

We brainstormed a plot. They wanted gore. The title had to be Mirror Image, because they’d already designed the cover. It featured a girl looking in a mirror and seeing a laughing face – so we needed evil doppelgangers. It was like one of those improv games where you’re given a list of objects and told to make up a story.

The plot was approved and I had six weeks to write and revise, while doing a full-time job. I hardly slept, which probably added a frazzled, hallucinogenic quality to the prose. I killed the MC’s pet to provide the necessary gore and screaming, and therefore managed to keep the genuine plot more mysterious and psychological, and about a friendship. The editors loved it (which, given the evidence of their tastes, probably means you should never read it).

The Hancox story was called Florien. We’ve always been fond of it, and we’re delighted to announce it is now available as an iphone app, with illustrations by Frazer Payne, through Megara Entertainment. I’ve been dabbling with an expanded version. The original was a novella done quickly, but I always felt there was much more to explore. Anyway, it’s now one of my WIPs and maybe it will see the light of day soon too.

And for those of you who also love old houses, Hancox has also been immortalized in print this month in a history by our friend the novelist Charlotte Moore.

Have any of your stories been inspired by a special place?

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  1. #1 by Terry Odell on July 7, 2010 - 6:26 pm

    I’ve been talking about places inspiring writing at my blog today too. Right now, the move from Florida to Colorado has inspired all sorts of writing. I have to remind myself to write the story, not just regale readers with all I find fascinating about this new locale!

  2. #2 by Jemi Fraser on July 7, 2010 - 7:51 pm


    I’m surrounded by beautiful landscapes because I live in a gorgeous part of the world – small city surrounded by forests and hills. But… in my stories the settings are almost always big cities. Not sure why 🙂

  3. #3 by Dom Camus on July 7, 2010 - 9:20 pm

    Great entry! I’m not quite crazy enough to buy an iPhone just to read the story, but do say if it ever comes out anywhere less Appley.

  4. #4 by Roz Morris on July 7, 2010 - 9:32 pm

    @terry – what a coincidence – I’m heading to your blog now!
    @Jemi – perhaps your writing self is a city girl at heart.

  5. #5 by Roz Morris on July 7, 2010 - 9:32 pm

    @Dom – thanks, I sure will.

  6. #6 by Dave Morris on July 8, 2010 - 7:08 am

    Actually, for those without iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad, Florien is also available in an alternative format (what was it called? – oh yes, print) over on Lulu:

  7. #7 by Jonathan Moore on July 8, 2010 - 12:45 pm

    Frazer is supposed to have e-mailed me that artwork (he claims to have done so) but I’ve yet to see it. Must be lost in the ether somewhere.

  8. #8 by Dom Camus on July 8, 2010 - 8:45 pm

    Florien is also available in an alternative format (what was it called? – oh yes, print)

    Hurrah! 😀

  9. #9 by Cat Woods on July 8, 2010 - 10:41 pm

    What a tale!

    My first paid for short story was inspired by a dream. I woke up, wrote it and sent it off. The only rewrites were to add more romance–of the physical kind. Funny how things work out.

  10. #10 by Roz Morris on July 8, 2010 - 11:22 pm

    @Jonathan – trapped in the ether of a spooky house…. brrr
    @Cat – cool story – congratulations! Sounds like it was meant to be. I wish my dreams were writable. They’re usually far too disorganised and strange.

  11. #11 by Dave Morris on July 9, 2010 - 8:24 am

    I have used Thorp’s bookshop in Guildford in a horror story, the University Parks in Oxford in a fantasy adventure, the Sidney Sime Museum in Worplesdon in a comic, and Littlehampton in a whodunit.

    But I have to agree with Cat that the best places come not from real life but from dreams. There’s something about a really vivid dream that delivers up the quintessence of a place (whether half remembered or completely invented) and if you can remember that when you wake up then it can have more texture and impressionistic heft than a photographically accurate recollection of a real place.

  12. #12 by Jonathan Moore on July 9, 2010 - 9:03 am

    Oh yes, I completely ignored the question. Stories inspired by real places… Museums are always a good one, but Night at the Museum kind of sucked out the enthusiasm I had for a story I was working on. It was a different idea, but I can imagine people saying ‘oh, like the Ben Stiller film’ if I described what it was about.
    I think the main thing I’ll take from this post is to make a note of those small details when I see them – penny farthings in the corridors. It’s things like that, that I forget to include when trying to evoke how a place felt. I’d remember the portraits, maybe the wall paintings, but I’d forget the penny farthings, and then I’d wonder why the written version failed to convey how it felt at the time.
    Cheers Roz – more scrupulous note taking required.

  1. A publishing horror story « Internet Cafe Solution

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