Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Story About Stories (Part 2)

So when last we left off, I had decided to table a book I'd spent seven years of my life working on.

Though artistically, I made the right decision, at the time I couldn't help but feeling a bit of despair as well. See, a few years earlier, I promised myself that by the time I was 33, (the infamous Jesus/apotheosis year) I would have a working draft of at least one book written. I had planned on that book being The Constable of Bridge. 

Now, I'm 33, soon to turn 34 in June, and I effectively hit reset on this goal.

Only, there was this other story I'd started working on right after I'd moved to Seattle...

It was a story about the danger of wishes and the difference between getting what you want and what you need. It also was about work, heists, and, of course, magic. (I don't want to give to much of the premise away, because hey! I may get this thing published.)

When I'd ride the bus in to work every morning, I found myself writing the story by hand in the leather journal I take everywhere. It was great fun; it helped me get through some rough days. Most importantly, it made me remember why I loved telling stories.

Right now, I'm calling it Granters.

Every morning, I wrote in that leather journal, packed in with people on either side of me on the bus, until one day I actually finished. Then I typed it up on my computer, and it clocked in at around 17,000 words. Too long for a short story, and not long enough for a book. And there were precious few places that bought 17K novellas.

Yet the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if I could turn it into book. I knew there were other parts of the story, bits I'd cut or ignored, waiting in my subconscious, ready to be uncovered and typed out on to the screen.

But before I could commit, I submitted the first 5,000 words of Granters to my critique group, and for the first time ever, got near-unanimous praise. Thus encouraged, I began to try and turn Granters into a book.

This was back in January. I made the effort to get up early in the morning and write at least 500 words, if not 1,000, or write the equivalent amount in the evening before bed. If I got stuck, I would brainstorm and outline ideas. If I started to procrastinate, I would throw out whatever was distracting me. Miraculously, or maybe it's because I don't have as many friends out here in Seattle, I stuck with my writing schedule. For me, the results were dramatic.  New ideas and character developments came to me all the time. The story, already fun, began to crackle with life. The words flowed, and for the first time in years, I felt content.

Now, in the middle of May, I'm happy to say that I've finished the first draft of an 85K book that I think has some real potential. And though I've run several marathons, I've never been so happy in my life to have a finished a race. It's honestly been one of the most rewarding ones of my life.

Right now, I've been starting my first read-thru and beginning some continuity edit, and after that I'm sending it to a few first readers, but once that's done, I'm going to submit it to a few agents.

More than ever, I really do believe creating art--whether it be telling stories, painting pictures, or playing music, has much more in common with sports than we think. Practice is of the utmost importance. Only when you're regularly making time to flex those muscles (literal or figurative), do you see improvement.

So take that, apotheosis year. I finished. And I can't wait to start on the next one. I already have a few ideas about that, in fact...

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A Story About Stories (Part 1)

I meant to write this weeks ago, but I have the misfortune to be an amazing procrastinator and somewhat terrible at online self-promotion--a combination guaranteed to bring me fame and fortune in the publishing business, I'm sure.

Back at the end of March, my story "Jack Twice-Caught and the Pusherman" was published on the excellent T. Gene Davis's Speculative Blog Free Science Fiction. It will be included in his annual book anthology later this year. I'm beyond excited for this, because I never believed this odd little story would ever find a home.

Some friends have asked what kind of story "Jack Twice Caught and the Pusherman" is. If I don't feel like explaining, I just say "fantasy." If I have a little more time, I say "fantasy/mystery" or maybe even "fantasy/mystery/folktale."

If I feel like being talkative, or maybe have had a few beers, I'll blurt out, "It's a fantasy/mystery/folktale-set-in-a-Purgatory-like-town-that-is-the-interdimensional-nexus-to-all-planes-of-existence-in-the-multiverse."

For those who are genre savvy, I say it's New Weird.

The story was original part of a part of a chapter I wrote in my book The Constable of Bridge.  In it, the protagonist Ben Culhane, newly caught in the strange city of Bridge, wanders into a pub called The Angler's Rest and listens to a bard tell the story of the Pusherman--which is one of the Bridge's oldest folk legends. After I finished that chapter (this is, oh, perhaps four years ago), I thought the folktale might make a solid little short story on its own.

And here's the reason I was reluctant to write this entry for my blog. I quit working on The Constable of Bridge last December 2014. This was not a decision made lightly, but it was the right one. I'd been working on that damn thing since 2007. I've written and re-written over 200,000 words of that book. It was time to take a break.

The funny thing is, even if I never get it published, I don't have any regrets. Bridge (which is a very appropriate name, now that I think about it) was my learning novel. And I learned so much from it. I learned that it's OK to outline (despite what Stephen King recommends in On Writing). I learned that you need know what your story is about before you start. I learned that you need to pace yourself, that a novel can't be just high notes, nor can it only contain action and snappy dialog. That there is such a thing as tone and pacing and characters. That the cast of characters should probably not all be white dudes.

Each time I learned a new lesson, I would go back and re-write the whole bloody thing. I justified this to myself by saying that's what Tolkien did. Hell, more recently that's what Patrick Rothfuss did. And that became a problem, because as I was working on Bridge, I kept reading and watching other things, and slowly began to put all those new things I loved into the book as well, causing it to become over-bloated.  Let me give you some examples that may or may not have happened:

"Ohh, the magic in Avatar: The Last Airbender is so cool! I should devise a system of magic for the people in Bridge like that!"

"Ohh, this cyberpunk novel Altered Carbon is amazeballs! What if all of Ben's flashback chapters have him as a police detective of Chicago 500 years in the future instead of contemporary Chicago?!"

(Yes, I almost wrote a book that is 50% flashback chapters--flashbacks that actually occur 500 years in our future. Try to wrap your head around that one.)

"Ooooohh, werewolves are badass! I should throw that in there! And a Wolverine-type character!"

"And an endless Library! Like in Borges! But with living books like in Discworld!"

"What about with the Cuchulain myth? That's gotta go in."

"And angels and demons! And a plot to poison God himself!"


Ahem. So, perhaps you can see why I decided to shelve it for a bit?

The Constable of Bridge became my excuse to stay in writer limbo. It was so easy to say, "Oh, yes, I've been working on a novel for so-and-so years, but it takes time, you see. It's art. It's craft. That's why you haven't seen it yet."

All of that was true: when I was actually working on it. Of course, during the last seven years, I was writing pathetically little for months at a time. For you see, not only had this book become my dumping ground for every cool little tidbit, trick, and neat bit of story I stumbled across, it also became my crutch, a huge, hollering goblin of insecurity, bloated with little darlings I refused to let go off.

It was no longer fun. It was no longer working.

It all came to a head last December. I was writing a scene that I'd long planned for, this great revelatory moment where the hero finally shows some of his powers and really lets loose. Think of when Bruce Banner finally Hulks out or Neo is able to beat Agent Smith.

I wrote it, and I just didn't care.

At this point, I should probably let you know that a voice in my head is screaming, Pat, you MORON! Why are you telling folks your published story is taken from a book you gave up on? Give them some happy crappy fluff about creative joy and move one. It's urging me to be cautious and not talk about these things in public. That part of me is a bit of a coward. I've decided it's better to be open about these things than to pretend that everything in the creative life is "no worries, man, pura vida" all the time. Because it isn't. Some days, it can be magical, but some days are damn hard.

And to be honest, this story about a story within a story doesn't necessarily have a bad ending. I'm not giving up on Bridge forever.  There is some really good stuff in there. Scenes I absolutely love.  A plot that, with some cuts and changes, might really rock. The town that sits between all worlds is still waiting for me, and it has a lots of tales to tell. That is one of the glorious things about computers. When we shelve a project, its still there waiting for us when we want to pick it back up. And one day, I will pick it back up...

Meanwhile, even the elements that need to be cut, well, they're not going away, either. They'll just show up in stories of their own.

Kind of like "Jack Twice-Caught and the Pusherman," in fact.

(To Be Continued...)