Thursday, August 2, 2018

Guest Post by Sonya Kudei: An unexpected journey – from abandoned graphic novel to short story to debut novel


The initial idea for my novel Black Queen, White City was so complicated, yet at the same time kind of fuzzy, that I first had to reduce it to a 2,000-word short story to be able to even begin writing it.

Let me explain.

I first had the idea for a part-Gothic part-Tolkienesque story set in Zagreb (the “White City” of folklore) about ten years ago. At this stage, however, the story was meant to be presented in the form of a graphic novel (I keep see-sawing from being a writer to being an artist, and back then I was firmly in my artist mode). It was probably because of this that the initial idea for the story came to me in images – a medieval horseman riding through the historic Stone Gate on a moonlit night, a medieval monk in a creepy moonlit courtyard, a sinister figure looming in the doorway of a medieval tower. (Did I mention that this version of the story was entirely medieval?)

Anyway, I immediately set to work sketching out page layouts, character designs, and picture compositions as well as writing the beginnings of what was supposed to be a graphic novel script. However, as I sketched, new ideas kept coming, and my limited sketching abilities could barely keep up with the demands set upon them by the ever-expanding story. 

In the end, I realized that writing, drawing and inking even half of the story would take me about … well, approximately 10,000 years. Also, the story itself never managed to progress beyond hazy. It was as if it could never fully emerge from the medieval gloom it was immersed in. And so I packed up my notes and sketchbooks, put them on a shelf where I keep things such as old comic books and tourist maps of cities I’ve visited, and pretty much forgot about the whole thing for a few years.

But the urge to write something high-concept and vaguely Gothic about Zagreb wouldn’t go away. Although, the next time this idea resurfaced, you would have been hard-pressed to call it high-concept. Because it was just a 2,000-word short story I wrote over a long weekend. The story, featuring a girl called Stella and her terrifying teacher, was based on some recollections of my former elementary school in east Zagreb.

Despite its simplicity and the low word-count, the substance of the short story was surprisingly potent, and it made me remember some other weird things about my old school – a creepy basement at the far end of the ground floor corridor, a dramatic auditorium at the top of a tower and, last but not least, hanging out with a group of classmates and playing a bizarre game called “Black-Queen-One-Two-Three” in a dark corner of our school playground. 

Black Queen
At the same time, the “Black Queen” part of the game made me remember my abandoned idea for a medieval Zagreb graphic novel, and I realized that these two apparently different ideas were actually the same thing. And the rest, as they say, is history. Or at least it’s a slightly madcap 100,000-word novel featuring magic trams, demonic ravens, belligerent egg-sellers, jaded small dogs, seductive snake-women, medieval fortresses and sadistic primary school teachers.

If there’s a lesson in all this, I suppose it’s “keep working with your seed of an idea in whichever medium or format until it starts to sprout.” Because it’s the substance that matters, not the format.


Born in Zagreb in 1981, Sonya Kudei has been writing fiction since she was about six. Once (or maybe twice) in the mid or late ‘90s, she was awarded first prize in the junior short story competition at the annual Zagreb SciFi convention. Although her memory of the stories has subsequently become a bit vague, she is fairly certain they featured either radioactive aliens or giant killer plants or possibly both.

She studied English Language and Literature (BA) and Cognitive Linguistics (MA) as well as dabbling with classical studies, Germanic languages, philosophy and art history, among other things. She has worked as a graphic/web designer, illustrator, journalist, subtitle translator, editor, teacher, product manager and (very briefly) tourist guide in Venice. In addition, she was a web developer in London for over five years.


Sonya is also a painter, with a penchant for Early Renaissance art, and a keen practitioner of obscure 15th-century painting techniques, some of which involve eggs. Occasionally she draws comics.


Currently based in St Albans, England, she has been living in the UK for over ten years.


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