I was interested to read the first review on Amazon.fr, which signed off as follows:
"Seul regret: j'aurais préféré un récit à la 1ère personne"Why that's interesting is that, after having hatched the idea for the Dark Lord series, Jamie and I spent quite a while trying to decide on the best way to tell it.
The first thing we'd written was that catchphrase, "I will tell you all my secrets. But then I'll have to kill you." And that wasn't even necessarily intended to go into the book; it was just a mnemonic for us to remember this one among the many ideas we were coming up with that day.
Having begun with a first person viewpoint, we began feeling around for a voice. I tried two versions of the opening. First narrated by Dirk:
I have found this device and will use it to record what the mortals of this world call my blog.
Blog. I like the word. It has a brutal sound. When I return to my realm, I will have a thousand slaves flayed and on their skins, in the violet blood of the last of the ice dragons, I shall inscribe my Great Blog. My Blog of Final Conquest.
When I get home.
I have been trying to remember what happened. I was falling, falling. But before that. This brain – like the warm, pink, pudgy fingers I must write with – is unequal to the task of containing my dark soul. I must struggle with it and subjugate it. If I am ever to find my way back, I must rise above the petty limitations that have been set upon me. I must make myself remember.
Gargon had unleashed the catapults. Their taut cords made the ground shake as the skies darkened with roiling, smoke-trailing, spark-splashing balls of blue fire. I watched the faces of the White Riders, too close-packed to turn their horses before the barrage rained upon them. Under the steel visors, those grim-set mouths went slack. They knew that death was flying to consume them.
Ah, such a glorious day.
It was all going so well. I see the battlefield as in a mist, a blood-red mist. We were beating them back. Those impudent fools who had marched to the very heart of my kingdom, there in the shadow of Mount Dread, in the wan light cast by the dark moon of sorrows, they saw the powers at my command and their hearts were icy with fear.
But then I caught sight of that meddling wizard, Hasdraban the Pure. Across a sea of battling troops our eyes locked. I began the incantation of the ninth demise. He held something – a crystal. It shone with power. I had spoken the sixth of the nine syllables that would crack his old veins and spill his blood like dust upon the wind.
Hasdraban said one word. The crystal blazed with light. And I was falling…
This sequence actually did make it in modified form into the finished work, but it wasn't right. In a way, telling the story from Dirk's point of view was over-egging the pudding. Also, it made it very hard to get the distance required for comedy. A technique that works brilliantly in The Diary of a Nobody is less effective when the reader doesn't have any way of knowing if the narrator is unreliable, crazy, or a genuine dark lord.
So then I had another stab at it, this time using Dirk's foster brother Christopher as the narrator. I think the idea now was probably to have several different first-person narrators giving us their take on Dirk's story:
"I will tell you all my secrets. But then of course I'm going to have to kill you...”
Those were the first words that Dirk had said to me personally in the whole time he’d been under our roof. It’s not like I hadn’t wanted to make friends, but after being ignored all day I think he could’ve opened with something more chatty, like, “Do you know the cheat codes for Halo 3?” or “What’s with that dork who’s lead singer in Travis?” Threatening to kill someone, even in fun, is a bit weird when you’ve never even spoken to them before.
I stared at the bar of street-light on the ceiling. Dirk was a black silhouette in the spare bed on the other side of the room. I decided it’d only make me look soft if I asked him what secrets he was talking about. Looking soft is a bit of a specialty of mine, to be honest. But I’m working on it.
“Whatever,” I said.
The alarm clock beside the bed ticked out a minute in the darkness. I couldn’t even hear Dirk breathing. There, I thought, that’s told you.
“I am trying to decide,” he said at last, “whether you have passed out, overwhelmed by mind-numbing terror of what I might tell you, or whether mere subservience has struck you dumb.”
“I am waiting.”
I saw him rise on his elbow, eyes boring through the darkness of the bedroom at me. Outlined by his shadow, he looked bigger, although I knew that if anything he was shorter than me and kind of on the skinny side. No reason for me to feel intimidated, especially not in my own home, in my own bedroom. But there you go. It’s like I said. Soft.
“You were about to say something,” Dirk went on. “You got as far as the first word and then you stopped.”
“I said whatever. As in: whatever. Now why don’t we get some sleep. It’s all right for you, but I’ve got school tomorrow.”
“Whatever what?” I caught just a flash of a smile in the darkness. It was a trick of the light, of course, but his teeth looked sharp as needles.
“Whatever. That’s all. Nothing else. Just – whatever.”
Dirk lay back with a chuckle. He seemed to be talking to himself. “Just whatever. No more than that. Whatever! I like it.” He turned to me again. “I thought you only had the makings of a lickspittle – “
“Now steady on!” I didn’t know what a lickspittle was, but it certainly didn’t sound like a compliment. In fact it sounded like you might have to lick spit, which was verging on an outright insult. I would have got up and thumped him right then, if I hadn’t been a little bit afraid of him.
Now, don’t think that’s me being soft again. I may be easy for other people to push around, but I don’t flinch from getting into a scrap, even if the other bloke is bigger. I’m not a coward. The thing is, small as he was, almost everybody was a little bit afraid of Dirk.
You’ll see. Later, you’ll see.
“I thought you had the makings of a lickspittle,” he repeated, “but now I see you have spirit. Stripped of the stultifying blanket of civilization – “ and here he kicked back his duvet for emphasis – “I think you could be rude, opinionated and badly behaved. I like that.”
“Er, thank you. I think.”
“You will be my henchman in this benighted world, Christopher.”
“Call me Chris, mate, everybody d- “
“I shall call you Christopher,” he announced, turning over to go to sleep. “And you shall call me – “
If you've read the Dark Lord books, you'll know we didn't go with either of these styles. And you probably don't need to have read the books to see that neither approach above was bringing out the comedy inherent in the concept. Well, that's okay. When you're developing an idea you try things on for size. Different viewpoints, different voices, past or present tense.
Luckily Jamie then took the plunge (that's a pun if you've read the first line) and wrote the opening chapter, dropping us in medias res and using the close third person viewpoint often described as free indirect. After that there was no debate. It was obviously the best and funniest way to handle the series, and Jamie got the writing gig - which incidentally skewed the book younger than I was envisaging, and just as well too. It wouldn't have won the Roald Dahl Funny Prize (yeah, sorry, but that is what they call it) as a darkly dry-humoured novel for teenagers - although, ironically, a little of the early-stage concept of it as a book for older middle-graders survived in the series's UK title, Dark Lord: The Teenage Years.
By jumping right out of the YA bracket, Jamie found a simple, fun style that appeals to kids and adults, and thus a series that can be read by mums and dads to their children. Which makes the Dark Lord books - and all of Jamie's fiction, come to that - pretty handy if you're stuck for a Christmas present. Mwo ho ho.