Friday, April 21, 2006

Expanding Universe

I started writing almost 19 years ago. I was working at a gas station in the industrial wasteland between suburban Lakewood and downtown Denver, Colorado.

Now, the preceding is almost true. I started writing when I was eleven years old. I wanted to be a movie director, but eight-millimeter film only took me so far. Flying lego spaceships on fishing wire in front of a blackboard constituted special effects. Story was centered around laser battles, characters were one and a half inches high, and dialog consisted of my high-pitched voice acting like a fighter jock.

One of my stories was about a lego spaceship I had built that, in my imagination, traveled in time. Much of the imagery of that story revolved around things I was borrowing from science-fiction stories that were in vogue at the time. Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 (the book, not so much the movie) was on my mind. The film Time Bandits was also. I think I had recently watched Tron, too.

At any rate, I created an ensemble of characters and a situation that seemed otherworldly enough, and it stuck with me.

Seven years passed and I was an adult, theoretically. I had started a more mature sequel related to the story I'd written, which I'd called A Question of Time and I'd tried to flesh out the world in which it lived. I had then lost a 115-page draft of that story. That was at about age 14. I didn't ever forget that experience. It was absolutely devestating.

So finally there I was in the gas station, by myself, working the graveyard shift. I was reading Tolkien at the time and musing on the importance of the map to his story. I was also at the time planning a rather dramatic move in my own life, to join a rock band my high school friend had started up at his college in Kentucky. I don't recall clearly why I decided I wanted to try my hand at a fantasy story, but I remember the importance of the map, the importance of getting the locations down, and some kind of linear thread to the story based on that map.

I didn't write a strictly traditional fantasy, however. I instead took a thread out of my original science-fiction novel, and set the story in the medieval past of my time-travel story's alien race. This meant that I had the freedom to invent cultural details based around my characters' physiology and this opened a really enjoyable dimension. I imagined that the species of my story had a lifetime of self-replenishing teeth, leading to the custom of exchanging and hoarding these pieces of their bodies as part of the customs of greeting and friendship. I also gave them seven fingers on each hand, and a number of other attributes. Also taking a lead from Tolkien, I spent quite a bit of time on the language of the story in order to generate the character and place names, though I had zero training and basically winged it.

The end result was, originally, a 269-page opus. Another unusual decision I made was to start writing in the middle of the action of the story and work my way back later on once I understood my characters better. I was writing the original draft by hand and this meant a lot of extra work but I have always believed that this tactic paid off. I ended up with about 190-some handwritten pages (the number 198 sticks in my mind for some reason) when I switched to a typewriter.

I remember very clearly the sense of potential that came over me the night before I knew it would be finished. I looked up at the stack of manuscript by my bed, and I had this image of it being a whole, completed thing. The feeling I got was indescribable. I had created something.

This is getting to be a long blog entry. The book sat in a drawer for a few months after I finished it while I worked on other things. I then took the book to a creative writing class in Louisville, just a block or so from where I work today and turned it in to the wonderful Lee Pennington, chapter by chapter, as my writing assignment. His encouragement was tremendous, and I renamed the novel at the same time.

Now, my memory is a little fuzzy here, but I think there was one more rewrite of the book wherein it blossomed from whatever it was to almost 440 pages of text, not including the exhaustive index.

The final effort I titled The Hand of Six and I started hunting for an agent to help me publish it. That didn't work out so well, as I managed to encounter what appears to have been a semi-opportunistic shark who charged me a reading fee to do nothing. I was, after all, 19 years old. I don't think my agent-to-be ever took me seriously as anything other than a mark.

This experience unfortunately turned me off of the whole concept for awhile. I had started a second novel, which turned out to be The Worldwrights. In the interim I joined another band and in a lot of ways I felt I had grown beyond the origins of my little fantasy story. For one reason or another I chose to put The Hand Of Six into a drawer from which it did not emerge for another 16 years.

I recently took that book out of its box, yellowing pages and all, and started to read it again. Though it is a story written by a young man, and an insecure author, I was surprised to find that I liked it, believed in it, and found a clear line of story going through it that was working. I've not yet listed it as one of my "works" on my webpage, and that's partly because I'm out of room in the layout. It's also because my copy starts on page 13. I have copies at my parents' house and I'm hoping to get them to fax me the first 12 pages so I can start typing it into a word-processor.

This book ties in very vaguely with the re-written A Question of Time, which is also a completed manuscript and is currently hiding out behind my LCD monitor where I periodically take it out to type it in.

I took a ten year hiatus from my attempts to reach an audience. For one reason or another I decided I didn't have either the time or the ability to drive myself into a hostile wind of rejection and criticism, that it would require to get my name on a publisher's imprint. I also felt like I had lost the ability to write, and though at the time I had nearly a thousand pages of completed manuscript in my canon as a demonstration that I at least had the desire to write, I found that writing only meant something to me as something I was doing, not as something I had done.

When I ended my self-imposed silence, I found that far from becoming rusty, I had actually grown. Because all the time I wasn't writing, I was still thinking. I was reading, I was growing, I was maturing. I wrote with a clarity at 36 that I could never have imagined having at 19.

Going over The Worldwrights with this new clarity I found a lot of things I could change. Slowly and tentatively I re-worked what I believed was my strongest story with the intent of self-publishing. There were plenty of outlets for such a venture, and I had something at 36 that I'd never imagined having at 19 -- money. Not much, and certainly not enough for some of the outfits I have run across, but it was within the realm of the possible. Then I discovered Lulu.

Lulu is a trip. It's the ultimate and logical result of the application of technology to the publishing venture. Books from Lulu cost more than books from a mass-producer, but there's no barrier to entry. Print-on-demand is here to stay.

There are a lot of things I could say about what it means to start as a POD author, but I think I'll save those for another time.

But I have discovered that in all the years I've been writing, with the many discouragements I've encountered, nothing compares to being able to put my printed, bound, and illustrated novel into someone's hands. The response I get is beyond description. I started with the goal to sell one book. After I sold that one, it was less than two weeks before I reached ten. I'm now at 21. I've decided my goals will be exponential. 100 books is my next milestone. What's surreal about this experience is imagining that my universe is expanding. I've held these things inside me for so long, and now these words, these characters of mine that I have grown to dream of and live with almost as if they are part of my family, are now in other people's heads, and hopefully in other people's dreams and lives. Writing is an intensely personal experience for me, and I imagine it must be so for others. My hope is that I can inspire in others the passion for these ideas that I have myself felt.


Blogger Laurie said...

I have finished reading your book. I loved it, it was very good. It kept me wanting to read more even when I had to set it down to sleep and other things life had to bring. I can't wait to read the next book you have to offer. Thank you for sharing your words.

25/4/06 9:07 PM  

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