Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Post Partum

     Here I am again, having completed (at long last) the novel-in-progress and waiting for my test reader and cover artist to report back. It’s a difficult period in any novelist’s life: he can’t go forward while his thoughts are wrapped around the book he just finished, and he can’t go backward with the revisions he’s already thought of until the others involved have registered their various contributions. That’s me, just now, on this 29th of September in the Year of Our Lord 2020...and dear Lord, what a year it’s been.

     So, as I’m at a low ebb, here are a few semi-connected thoughts about the adventure just behind me: what I set out to do, what I wound up doing instead, and what I’ve learned from it.

     Back in the mid-Nineties, when I first decided to try my hand at a story of novel length, I had a clean sheet of paper before me: no obligatory setting, no required characters, no mandatory theme, and no prescribed genre. I was free to imagine, and to concoct, in whatever way I pleased, for my idiom was as yet undefined.

     As a reader my favorite genres have always been the speculative ones: science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I was confident that they would be the ones my stories would occupy, as well. But much to my surprise, I didn’t start out that way.

     The first requirement of any storyteller is a mating between characters and crises: people upon whom to impose problems they must solve, or at least cope with. I developed a bunch of attractive character sketches almost by accident – I still wonder from time to time where those fictional figures really came from – and immediately found ways to cast them into conflict with one another.

     But characters don’t struggle with their problems and one another in some sort of white space separate from all else; at least, mine don’t. They need a place to be. I had to pick a place, or conceive of one, that would provide a suitable stage on which to act out their destinies. Thus was born Onteora County, New York: that fabled land of heroes and geniuses who sniff at the merely difficult and sneer at the all but impossible. Nestled safely within the part of New York State that virtually no one who doesn’t live there is familiar with, it has proved a fertile field in which to plant the improbable figures I like to write about.

     Fertile...and damned near inescapable. Of the sixteen full-length novels I’ve written to date, only four have stayed completely outside Onteora County: three far-future science fiction novels and one magic-based high fantasy. The others have wound up there regardless of where they started or where I wanted to put them. Worse, the characters from my other Onteora Canon novels keep insinuating themselves into my new fictions. I’ve been unable to keep them out without killing them off...and in some cases even that expedient failed me.

     A recent short story of mine, “Sweet Things,” starts in Hamilton (a real place) and swiftly moves to Onteora. Because the readers of Liberty’s Torch praised it fulsomely, I started to toy with the possibility of developing a novel from it. My short romance Love in the Time of Cinema had proved popular, so I adopted the general approach I took in that novel for the new one, which I’ve titled Love in the Time of Capitalism.

     And by jingo, it happened again! Characters from just about every other Onteora Canon novel started insisting that they belonged in this new one. I managed to fit a few new faces into the tale, but the “old Onteora crew” is there in force. Hopefully the reader will find their contributions to be positive ones.

     I intended Love in the Time of Capitalism to be a romance / love story. Yes, that element is present, but it’s not alone. There’s music. There’s technology. There’s political intrigue. There’s even a spot of warfare. It’s a stew of many ingredients...possibly too many.

     While my lovers Gail and Evan are involved in all of it, I strained throughout the composition to keep their deep involvement with one another at the heart of the tale. Still, rather than a feel-good romance of the sort I’d initially envisioned, it seems I’ve produced a hybrid of about four different genres: romance, musical fantasy, near-future science fiction, and political thriller.

     I don’t feel an urge to go back and “straighten it out.” I plan to publish it essentially as it is. There are a few elements I’ve decided need buttressing, but not to the extent of “de-hybridizing” the book as it stands. I look forward to hearing what its readers will think of it.

     The remarkable thing about novelism (hey, if journalists practice journalism, why can’t novelists practice novelism?) is how little of one’s initial plan actually “survives contact with the enemy” – i.e., the actual construction of the story. My initial plan, whether expressed as an outline or a detailed synopsis, turns out to be mostly a way to recognize how little I really knew about my characters and their trials when I set out. It’s been that way through sixteen novels, and probably will remain so through however many more I produce. The other novelists with whom I occasionally swap thoughts report essentially the same experiences.

     However, that’s not a reason not to produce the initial outline / synopsis. If it weren’t for that planning document, I don’t think I could get started, much less produce something coherent. I think this has some connection to Mike Gancarz’s sermon about the Three Systems of Man, which he first related in his little book The UNIX Philosophy. My copy, alas, seems to have migrated to other hands.

     I have at least a few days of nervousness before me, wondering what my test readers will have to say about the book, and wondering what my cover artist, the estimable Cat Leonard of Adelaide, South Australia, will come up with for a front cover image. I’d like to be able to think about the next book, but I’m too close to this one to think of anything else. That condition will persist until the thing is burnished, proofread, equipped with a cover and released.

     I can’t help but wonder how many more books I have in me. I’m old, and not in the best of health. But storytelling is an addiction, a tough one to shake. And I imagine that those damned Onteora characters, settings, and institutions will continue to have their way with me. At least, they have so far.


Manu said...

...is how little of one’s initial plan actually “survives contact with the enemy”

I certainly understand that. There's a story I've been working on, off and on, for about 11 years. It's finally almost done, only a chapter and a half remain (and both are strongly outlined). Looking back, it's amazing how much things changed over time from the original plan.

Clayton Barnett said...

This provoked a little rant on my part. An excellent post, sir. Very glad I fell across your website.


Linda Fox said...

As I remember, so have other novelists. You're in good company.


Francis W. Porretto said...

(chuckle) Well, yes, Linda. Stephen King had Castle Rock, Maine, and Scott Turow had Kindle County, Illinois, and Margaret Truman had the District of Columbia -- whoever could have imagined such an unrealistic place? -- and Tolkien had Middle Earth, and...

That having been said, I doubt I'd even be permitted into the building where their fictional licenses were issued. I have to get by on a far lesser gift. But I've relaxed to it. Perspective is all, don't y'know.