Congratulations to Linda Andersen for winning a copy of Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling.
When I recently completed reading John Bemis' first book in the Clockwork Dark Trilogy, The Nine Pound Hammer, I considered reviewing it here. But then I found this excellent review and figured I couldn't do any better. Instead, John agreed to answer questions about how he created this award-winning middle grade steampunk fantasy. When I took a writing workshop with John last year at Table Rock I had seen some of his writing process. I asked him to share bits and pieces of that also.
CAROL: How did you get the ideas for The Nine Pound Hammer? How did your ideas evolve?
JOHN: The Nine Pound Hammer grew out of several other (now discarded) stories I had been writing. They were more traditional fantasies. But at a certain point, I began to reflect on “what was the story I really wanted to read,” not just the story I wanted to write. I’ve always been fascinated by Southern music and folklore. This interest led me to consider how I could create an epic fantasy based on our American mythology. So many other countries have their own national legends—King Arthur in England, the Trojan War in Greece, etc. How could I create something along these lines with American history and myth? This was my goal: to create an American fantasy epic.
Rather than focusing on character and plot, I often begin novels by listing words I find fascinating. Words that can ultimately become the set-pieces for the story. I call these my “magnetic nouns” because these are the things my imagination is drawn to.
As you can see here, I brainstormed all sorts of words that seemed to have that connection to American myth. Not all of these initial ideas made their way into the story. But creating a list primes my imagination for the next step in figuring out who the characters are, what their journeys will be, what arc the story will take.
I filled 4 notebooks exploring what I wanted the story to be. This, in a way, is my first-draft. The process for every book is different, but for The Nine Pound Hammer, I did a lot of pre-planning. Months and months of planning! Some pages were filled with questions and ideas about the characters.
Others were notes on settings or how the magic in the world worked or research on historical aspects. More notes were on what the larger story might be, which I often write as short summaries.
All of this allows a story to take shape in my imagination. Once my head was brimming with ideas and painfully impatient to begin, I began to outline the story using index cards.
I read through them, made changes, discarded, backtracked, tweaked, all with the goal of getting a complete draft of the story together in my head before I started the actual writing. Using the story outline on the index cards, I finally wrote a draft of the story. Even then there were many changes and revisions. I completed two drafts that I ultimately threw away only to start over before I finally had The Nine Pound Hammer the way I wanted it to be.
CAROL Have you always been interested in mythology?
JOHN Yes, I was fortunate to have an amazing 7th grade teacher named Mrs. Peacock who taught a unit on Greek Mythology. This started me down the rabbit hole to Norse myth and American Indian legends and even to Southern folklore like Richard Chase’s The Jack Tales (which I particularly adore!). And later as an adult, I read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero of a Thousand Faces which—like for so many other writers—completely changed my understanding of the role of myth in human culture and storytelling.
CAROL The Nine Pound Hammer was the book that snagged Josh Adams as your agent. What did he fall in love with in the story? Was Josh editorial or not?
JOHN I think what drew Josh to the story was that it was something different. He was excited about the whole notion of a fantasy epic set in this late 19th century American world of traveling carnivals and gunslingers, monstrous mechanical creatures and hoodoo magic. In general, he doesn’t suggest a lot of nitty-gritty editorial changes. Usually we discuss the idea for a book early into the writing process, and he gives guidance. He’s very good at looking at the “big picture” for a book. If there’s something not working, he’ll say so. He doesn’t sweat the details, since he knows my editor will help clean it up.
CAROL Can you talk more about the process of writing this story? I understand you had several rounds of revision. What part of that revision process stands out most in your mind. Feel free to share any of the drafts/revision you care to.
JOHN Before I began the agent hunt, I had my critique group give feedback on the story. They helped find the plot holes, the faulty logic, the boring sections, the confusing portions. Their feedback is invaluable. (This group includes Stephen Messer, J. J. Johnson, and Jennifer Harrod. Between us, we now have 10 books in print and more under contract, which I think says a lot about the power of a supportive critique group.)
Once The Nine Pound Hammer was acquired by Jim Thomas at Random House, we went through six months of intensive revisions, back and forth several times until we got the story polished up. While Jim had advice on so many aspects of the story, what stands out is how he helped to streamline the story. It’s easy to over-write a story, especially when you’ve done as much research as I had. Jim helped me get comfortable with that age-old advice to “kill your darlings.” If something wasn’t serving the larger story, it had to go. If a scene was interesting but didn’t move the story forward, it had to go. He often had suggestions such as: “Remove a trouble spot entirely to discover what, or how much, is truly necessary.”
We writers are often quite loathe to take out parts of our story we worked so hard creating, even when we hear that pesky voice in the back of our heads saying it needs to go. As Jim put it in his first editorial letter: “Cut in service of diminishing the background noise so that the elegant notes can ring out clear and true.” Perfect advice!
CAROL Did you see this as part of a trilogy, or was that something you, Josh, or your editor conceived of after you wrote it?
JOHN I always imagined this would be a trilogy. I love the tradition of fantasy trilogies. Three books allow you to dig deep into the world and build a more riveting story arc. And I had so many more ideas for the characters and the world than I could fit in one book. Writing more than three, in my opinion, risks growing tiresome for the reader.
CAROL What has your readers responses been? Do you think your audience is equally girls and boys? How about teachers? Are they using it in the classroom? (I’ll link to your classroom resource on your website.)
I’ve been thrilled by the Clockwork Dark trilogy’s reception! Teachers love it for the classroom connections, which is why I think The Nine Pound Hammer has been on the NC Battle of the Books list twice. But I’m particularly excited by all the letters, emails, and drawings I receive from kids, who each seem to have a different character they love most. The readership seems equally boys and girls. I was worried when I first saw the cover for The Nine Pound Hammer since a guy with a hammer on a train screams “boy book!” I have a daughter and I wanted this book to appeal to girls as much as boys. Fortunately, girl readers aren’t bothered by the cover. While boys might not pick up a book that looks like a “girl book,” girls have better judgment. Thank goodness!
If you would like to win my gently-read autographed copy of The Nine Pound Hammer, please leave me a comment by 6PM September 11th. If you are new to my blog, please leave me your email address. For every way you share this on social media, I'll enter your name for an extra chance.
Here is more information on John:
John Claude Bemis' first novel in his Clockwork Dark trilogy, The Nine Pound Hammer, was selected as a New York Public Library Best Children’s Book for Reading and Sharing. His trilogy continues with The Wolf Tree and The White City and has been described as “original and fresh” and “a unique way of creating fantasy.” His novel, The Prince Who Fell from the Sky, was an Amazon Editor’s Pick for Best Book for Summer Reading. John is also the author of the picture book Flora and the Runaway Rooster, which he wrote for Heifer International. His forthcoming novel, Out of Abaton: The Wooden Prince, is a fantasy reimagining of the Pinocchio story.
John is the recipient of the Excellence in Teaching Award from UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Education and served as the 2013 Piedmont Laureate for Children’s Literature. He lives with his wife and daughter in Hillsborough, NC.