The Big Idea: Stark Holborn

Thinking about the potential change your choices carry can be paralyzing in the decision-making process. Such is the case in author Stark Holborn’s newest novel, Hel’s Eight, and in Stark’s own journey for writing it. Follow along in the Big Idea to see how overcoming this led Stark to the writing of this novel.


When I think about this novel, I’m haunted by the ghosts of all the books it could have been. I’m the only person who can see them, though I sometimes wonder whether readers might sense their presence in chapter transitions or lines of dialogue; the places where the papering over between drafts is thinnest.

This is a book that – at times – I thought would never happen. During the worst moments I considered giving up and handing back the (modest, but necessary to my livelihood) advance to my publisher. 

It’s like John says in the guidelines for these posts: ideas are easy, writing is hard. And I had ideas; a great, jumbled pile of them. Ideas for conversations and fight scenes, locations and worldbuilding trinkets. What I couldn’t seem to do was choose a path, the path the novel should take.  

The great irony is that this is a book all about chance and choices; about being cognisant of the way reality can branch every time we make a decision, without allowing ourselves to become paralysed by it. My main character, Ten, (her name is her prison sentence) is haunted by a choice she made in her past, so much so that she becomes a conduit for the novel’s “aliens”: incorporeal beings known as the Ifs who are drawn to moments of doubt, and feed on the energy of potential worlds. 

Even here, I hesitate to call them aliens. Some people on Factus – the desert moon where the novel is set – see them as demons, or gods, or manifestations of fate. Some say they don’t exist at all and are simply the children of an idle brain and an oxygen starved mind. 

But real or not, when under the influence of the Ifs, Ten can sense the presence of countless possible worlds in every choice she makes. She’s driven by her own guilt and trapped by it, carrying a tally of lives she will never be able atone for; trying to walk a road of redemption and stumbling off into chaos. 

Another theme of the novel is how decision making becomes harder under duress. I’ve been writing full time for nearly ten years now. Seven published novels and two novellas and I am chagrined to find that – for me – the process hasn’t become easier. Where I might once have plunged in unquestioningly, now I question everything. The old catch-22: I know enough to know I know nothing. 

So, when it came to writing Hel’s Eight I pulled together my glittering collection of ideas and tried to weave them together into a novel. It didn’t work. It had no core, was all threads and no pattern. I took my (patient) editors’ notes and tried again. I lost count of how many paths I started down, how many versions of this manuscript I began and ditched. The plot varied wildly. Characters came and went. I wrote and deleted tens of thousands of words and pulled together a draft that… didn’t work again. 

By now, I was close to panic. We had a cover, we had a publication date, and I’d yet to hand in a decent manuscript. I felt lost, knowing I had to act but unable to see my way through the mess of possible paths to find the right road. 

In the end, the answer was simple. Like Ten, to go forwards I had to look back. 

Back past all the failed attempts and fears and doubts: I retraced my steps to the moment when I first sat down to write Ten Low – a book I wrote purely for me, driven by anger and defiance in a rush of creative freedom. 

I went back to my old notes. I repeated the process that gave me the G’hals, the Augur, the Pit, the Air Line Road and came up with new characters, new places, new weird and twisted elements of world building that brought an almost visceral delight. I remembered why I loved it, and then it finally happened: I saw the shape of the novel, the road Ten had to walk. I disentangled myself from obsessing over everything the book could be, and focused on what it had been since the beginning. 

Some of the ideas remained, set-dressing as the plot sped towards its conclusion, gathering up threads as it went. The choices I had to make felt clear now. Inevitable. Driven almost purely by character. Ten had an arc that I had been ignoring; she had set out on a road at the start of Ten Low and hadn’t reached its end. In many ways, it was a simple path. A promise made and not fulfilled. And in the end I skidded under the deadline in a cloud of relief and elation with a draft that I knew worked. 

It’s taken me a while, but I can say I’m proud of this novel. I’ve done what I set out to: woven together those story threads into a cohesive, satisfying whole and created a vivid world for readers to lose themselves in. 

Of course, I still see the ghosts of the novels it could have been. But ultimately, I’m happy that this book exists, despite – and because of – the choices I made. 

Hel’s Eight: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s|Titan Books

Visit the author’s website. Follow Stark on Twitter.

2 Comments on “The Big Idea: Stark Holborn”

  1. Have you ever read Jorge Luis Borges short story “The Garden of Forking Paths” [Sometimes called the garden of bifrucating paths]

  2. Oh, yes please, and thank you. TBR!

    TBH, I’ve still to read Ten Low, which I obtained at BristolCon, but I’m well up for these tales. Love the premise!

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