Mark Sebanc’s story behind the story of “The Stoneholding”

I was born and raised in Toronto, at the high water mark of the baby boom, the eldest of five children. My parents were refugees from war-ravaged Europe, from the small country of Slovenia. Apparently I didn’t speak a word of English until I entered kindergarten at the tender age of five or six. I say “apparently” because I hardly remember the experience of first going to school from a unilingual home environment. It was such a seamless transition and occurred so early in my life that I all I remember is being at school and taking to the English language in a profound, visceral way, like a fish to water. I can’t recall the time when I did not love the shape and texture of words, their evocative power, on a deep level, with an inner, instinctive knowledge and appreciation. Of course, I quickly became an avid reader, although my reading was largely self-directed. The multi-coloured Andrew Lang fairy books were a key element in the nurturing of my imagination. I devoured them, as I did the Robin Hood and Arthurian legends as rendered by Howard Pyle. I found any sort of history or historical fiction dealing with pre-modern times, especially the middle ages, to be hauntingly evocative. Then, when I was a teenager, the richness and depth of The Lord of the Rings utterly transformed the landscape of my imagination. Steeped in what he called “northernness”, charged with a stirring, archetypal power, Tolkien’s world touched a deep emotional chord and caused the first stirrings of a desire to sub-create.

Mark Sebanc in his study.
Mark Sebanc in his study.

After receiving my B.A. and M.A. in Classics (Latin and Greek) from the University of Toronto in the late 1970’s, I lived in Montreal for a couple of years, pursuing further studies. After that, I returned to Toronto and took another Master’s degree, this time in Library Science, again from the University of Toronto. At that point I got married to Joanne and worked as an archivist/librarian in one of Toronto’s school boards for five years. Then, in 1988, my wife and I made a big break from urban life. We cashed out and left the city behind, settling with our children on a backwoods farm here in the upper Ottawa Valley of Ontario, a good 20 minutes from the nearest small town, deep in the bush. Our old farmhouse is a full half mile off a dirt road. It was a radical move, one that was precipitated by several factors. From my reading of writers like G.K. Chesterton, Wendell Berry, and back-to-the-landers Helen and Scott Nearing, Joanne and I became convinced that an agrarian lifestyle was better suited to raising children and family life. My having fallen in love with Tolkien’s universe must have had something to do with it as well, since The Lord of the Rings is set essentially in a rural, quasi-mediaeval world. On top of that, and not least importantly, I’d had enough of the 9 to 5 and wanted to embark on a new career as a writer.

In fact, it was in the late 1980’s that I began to sketch out the ideas and do the research for a series of fantasy novels inspired not only by the transcendently relevant work of Tolkien, but by the narrative tradition established and consummated by the great English exponents of the novel of adventure, writers like Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Morris, Rider Haggard, and John Buchan. Among their modern heirs I would include the sublimely gifted Bernard Cornwell and others, writers like Conn Iggulden, storytellers in the grand tradition. Ironically enough, contemporary fantasists are not among my primary influences, and I don’t read as much fantasy as I do other genres. Actually my co-author Jim Anderson and I have decided to eschew a sense of the gratuitously magical and to tilt our work in the direction of legend. We feel that this aids in the suspension of disbelief and serves to attract a wider audience of readers. We’ve already seen how this has in fact happened with The Stoneholding. The book, we’ve found, has a broad appeal that cuts across the artificial boundaries of genre.

Over the years, I began work on the first book of the series in fits and starts. At the same time, I managed to cobble together a living as an editor/translator. Meanwhile, our family was growing and I experienced first hand as a raw greenhorn the joys and trials of homesteading on a backwoods farm. Joanne and I and the kids came to acquire skills we never thought we’d need when we lived in the big city. We learned to heat with wood, to garden and put food by, for example, as well as keeping chickens and milk goats.

In the late 1990s I was delighted when I managed to get myself signed by a top-flight New York literary agent, a former editor, with more than one famous author in her stable. I’ll never forget the time she phoned to tell me how much she liked my work and that I was a “beautiful writer”. As a result, she shopped my manuscript around to a handful of the big mainstream publishers in New York, but to my dismay drew a blank with this first round of submissions. Then, in the autumn of 1999, she left the agency she was working for and struck out on her own. At this point she let me go, too busy putting out her new shingle to expend the energy required to launch my fledgling career as a writer or to give me the advice I needed in terms of artistic growth and marketability.

For a while after this, I bided my time, caught up in other more mundane literary endeavours in an effort to keep the wolf from the door. At length, in 2001, with the ascendancy of Harry Potter to the highest ranks of bestsellerdom and the growing excitement over the imminent release of the first installment of the Lord of the Rings movie, I decided I should try to get my career back on track by signing on with a new agent. As a result, by trolling the internet, I found the incomparable Joe Durepos in Chicago, who was instrumental in raising my efforts to a whole new plateau. He helped me to see the flaws in my work (it was dreadfully and embarrassingly overwritten) and what I needed to do to make it bestseller material. At his instigation, I spent months doing what I thought was a ruthlessly thorough rewrite of my manuscript. The book’s title at that stage was Snare of the Fowler. To give the novel heightened narrative urgency and excitement, I added, for example, a fast-moving cinematic opening section of about 20,000 words (the basis for what is now the Prologue of The Stoneholding), while trimming descriptive parts that were clearly over the top.

In March of 2002, just after I had finished the revision and before I had signed any kind of legal document, Joe dissolved his agency to take on a new job as Senior Acquisitions Editor at Loyola Press in Chicago. Nonetheless, assuring me that, “I think your book is a mainstream fantasy for a general audience with bestseller potential,” he recommended me to a well-known agent of his acquaintance who promptly added me to his stable of writers and immediately shopped the manuscript to a prominent New York publishing house in an exclusive submission–a concession to this publisher’s status as a major player.

Within a month, in late June of 2002, this publisher passed on the manuscript, but in a spectacularly positive way. The publisher’s Senior Editor wrote a three-page “how to fix it” critique of Snare, wherein he made several recommendations. One of these was that I should undertake a line by line revision. At first, I wasn’t sure how seriously to take these suggestions. Part of me wanted to dismiss them as just one editor’s opinion. To tell the truth, I was utterly sick of the long, seemingly endless process of working and reworking my manuscript. Then, as I checked around with industry professionals, I was told that I would be an utter fool not to take the critique very seriously to heart. I learned, in fact, that I had been graced with a windfall of superb advice, something that very few beginning authors ever get. The more common response from most editors is a form rejection letter. One woman, fairly well-known, who has written several books on various aspects of publishing, told me she was astonished by the letter I’d received, that never in her 25 years in the business had she seen such a positive and carefully wrought rejection letter from a major editor. When she sensed my uncertainty about implementing the editor’s suggestions, in a rhetorical vein she asked me something like, “Are you crazy, Mark, or have you just temporarily lost your senses? Do you realize that most writers would give their eyeteeth to be in your situation!”

Jim Anderson
Jim Anderson

That’s when Jim Anderson came into the picture. At that time he was a neighbor here in the Upper Ottawa Valley of Ontario and had taught a couple of my daughters. Because of this I had a strong sense of Jim’s truly exceptional talents and abilities, and so I approached him about helping me edit Snare in light of this astonishing editorial critique. While he began as my editor, his input became so substantial, such a brilliant enhancement and reconstruction of my work, that in the end he became my much-valued co-author. Our collaboration has proved to be an incalculable blessing, since as writers we provide the perfect balance to one another’s strengths and weaknesses. The resulting work is remarkably seamless. In fact, most readers can’t tell where Jim’s contribution ends and mine begins.

So with Jim’s increasingly significant help I undertook the second major revision, entitling it The Holding. It was resubmitted to the above-mentioned Senior Editor in mid-November of 2002. In February of 2003 he sent my agent an email applauding my revisions and my ambitiousness as a writer and excusing his tardiness in responding by pleading the pressures arising from his involvement with a Hollywood tie-in project. Asking for an emailed copy of my outlines, he promised to get back to us by the end of the week, once his “ducks were lined up”, as he put it. A deal seemed imminent, and we were thrilled. He was also interested in learning from me what my target audience was. I replied that, like Tolkien, I wanted to span the age categories. Well, “the end of the week” became weeks, punctuated by hopeful exchanges every now and again between him and my agent, in which the former would ask to be given a bit more time to gather together his notes on The Holding. Finally in December of 2003 he passed on the manuscript on the basis of his uncertainty whether its target audience was Adult or Young Adult.

stoneholdingshp
The Stoneholding, Stoneharp Press edition, October 2004 with cover art by Ted Nasmith.

In the meantime my agent submitted to a round of major publishers, all of whom ended up passing. Even as all this was happening, Jim and I discovered a great book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. This highly practical book, which we would recommend as an indispensable reference to any aspiring novelist, prompted us to give our manuscript yet another massive revision.

Soon thereafter, tired of the endless round with agents and publishers, Jim and I decided to self-publish The Stoneholding, incorporating all the quite significant changes we had made as a result of our reading Browne and King. A big point in our favour was that our friend Ted Nasmith, internationally renowned Tolkien illustrator, had agreed to do the cover art. Jim was now formally my business partner and co-author, and so we chose the pen name Mark James. The book was published in October 2004 under our own imprint Stoneharp Press with Ted’s original cover art and maps drawn by Jim. The maps in the new Baen edition are by Jim as well, a tribute to his superior draughtsmanship.

November 2005 signing at Books of Wonder in Manhattan. Mark & Jim are seen here with Peter Glassman, the store owner.
November 2005 signing at Books of Wonder in Manhattan. Mark & Jim are seen here with Peter Glassman, the store owner.

In November 2005, we got invited to Peter Glassman’s famous Books of Wonder bookstore in Manhattan, where we had a joint book signing with Tamora Pierce, J.V. Hart and Rick Riordan (One of Rick’s books, The Lightning Thief, has been made into a movie by Christopher Columbus, due for release early in 2010). As part of our signing engagement there, Peter did a limited edition run of 250 hardcover (100 of which were reserved for the authors’ private use) and 150 trade paperback books.

The Stoneholding -- Book One of the Legacy of the Stone Harp series, Baen Books, September 2009
The Stoneholding – Book One of the Legacy of the Stone Harp series, Baen Books, September 2009

Then I contacted Joe Durepos for advice. Joe referred us to his friend Peter Rubie, and we signed with him in spring of 2006. Jim and I have been very, very pleased with Peter, who is editorially astute as well as having a congenial personality. Unlike many agents, he comes across as being more than just a widget salesman. It was he who hooked us up with Baen Books, initiating what we hope will be a long and fruitful relationship.

2 Comments »

  • Genevieve

    I was delighted to finally get to read Darkling Fields of Arvon – I’ve been waiting three years to find out what happened next! :) I thoroughly enjoyed it, and now just have to wait impatiently for the next book. :)

    A couple of questions:
    – When IS the next book coming out? And are you planning to make this a trilogy, or might there be more??
    – Was the Stoneholding revised at all for the new Baen Books edition? Wasn’t sure if I should try to reread it in the new version, of if it’s pretty much the same.
    – Just out of curiosity, why did you change the cover for the Stoneholding? The original cover was luminously amazing!

    Thanks for writing such fabulously enjoyable books! Can’t wait for the next one!

    July 8, 2010 >> 12:40 am

  • Jim Anderson

    Very glad to know that you have enjoyed “Darkling Fields of Arvon”. I am afraid, however, that you will have to be patient and wait for the next book in the series. Mark and I intend the Legacy of the Stone Harp series to be a tetralogy. “The Stoneholding” was revised and re-edited for the Baen edition, but the story remains the same (though I would still encourage you to by a copy!). The folks at Baen were very fortunate to get Todd Lockwood — one of the best artists in the fantasy genre — to get to do the cover art for the Baen edition of “The Stoneholding” and subsequent titles in the series. I also liked Ted Nasmith’s cover for the self-published edition (Stoneharp Press, 2004), but in the world of fantasy book cover art — landscapes don’t do that well. Here’s hoping the Stoneharp edition becomes a collector’s item!

    Thanks again for your enthusiasm.

    Briacoil!

    July 8, 2010 >> 11:40 pm

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