Something has changed about my Steam Highwayman project. For several years, it was an idea in my head that I occasionally mentioned to my brother or sister, or toyed with on my laptop. Then I saw other people standing up and making a success out of their writing, using their brains and passion to push something from their imagination into reality. 80 Days, by Inkle, wasn’t a commission. Nobody asked for it or told Jon Ingold, Joe Humfrey and Meg Jayanth to write it: they chose to and made it work.
So in September 2016 I changed my attitude about my writing: I was unlikely ever to meet a patron who would sponsor me in comfort and style to create something with the perfect brief, giving me creative control but enough direction to get going. I had to make it work.
I chose to work on Steam Highwayman because, unlike my efforts in writing novels, I had good example for a printed, multi-volume gamebook in Morris and Thomson’s Fabled Lands. I also believed that I could produce something with a limited, defined scale of success. I recognised that, despite my inherent need to develop and surpass any model, I needed to choose a ceiling to bump up against.
So I began writing, first using Twine to create something that could be made available to modern readers on their phones, but soon changed to focus on producing something I have a much stronger understanding of: a printed book.
And then at Christmas 2016 I had to defend my decision to my dad.
It was great: he grilled me in front of my family and my wife and I had enough answers. Not every answer, but enough. He was a self-employed multi-discipline artist/manager/technician at an architect for a quarter century and knows a thing or two about breaking ground, managing yourself and finishing projects. And about making it happen.
I think that was the beginning of the buzz. When I began to see that Steam Highwayman, if successful, would become much bigger than I could imagine – that people would discuss it without me being directly involved in the discussion – that it would be strong enough for me to not have to defend it or explain it.
So now it has all changed. This weekend I promoted the project with a live reading at a Steampunk event in Surrey. Before the end of the afternoon, there were several dozen people talking to each other about this character, the Steam Highwayman. THE Steam Highwayman – as if he or she had an independent existence. At one exciting moment, I was introduced as the Steam Highwayman, but when I demurred and asked ‘Who is the Steam Highwayman?’ I was met with the ringing reply, as my friend pointed to those around, ‘You are the Steam Highwayman!’
Last night I dreamed I was travelling along a dusty road and, stopping to refuel at a petrol station, overheard two strangers discussing what they had been reading. You guessed it: in my dreams, unconnected randomers are discussing Steam Highwayman.
Then in the last few days I’ve been privileged to have the support of several volunteer proof-readers, a few of whom are close friends or family, but more are people I would have never known before pushing this idea into reality. And then there’s Ben, who has been so inspiring to work with as an illustrator. Somewhere out there tonight, in the US, the UK and New Zealand, there are people reading extracts of the adventures of the Steam Highwayman – an invented character in an invented world that had no previous existence until I began to share it. Elsewhere there is a man who is devoting his time to visualising a story that is entirely made-up – but he wants to get it right and do it justice.
I’m a little bit mind-blown.