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May 18, 2017

Going Forward by Going Backward

Well, I had another post planned for today, but…you know what?  Change of plans.  I’ve had novels on the brain recently, and my MO for posting stuff here is that I go with whatever has the biggest mindshare at the moment.  So let’s talk novels.  Specifically, my novel.  That’s what you guys want to read, right?

*crickets chirping*

Would it ease the sting if I also talked about video games?

*crickets chirping*

Let’s just get through this.  And also, let’s pretend I’m not just writing this because of technical difficulties that chose to kick me in the teeth at the worst possible moments.  Because if we can, then that’d be swell.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read this blog for more than a picosecond, but it’s pretty much my dream -- if not my mission in life -- to become a writer.  I guess I already am, technically, but I’ve thrown out the phrase “writing hero” all too many times before.  And yeah, that’s what I aspire towards.  Pushing a novel into the world like a crusty pirate forced to walk the plank would be an honor, and certainly a privilege.  Have I got what it takes to fulfill my dreams?  In terms of sheer effort, willpower, and endurance…probably.

It takes more than effort, though.  This is where I’d say “it takes talent, too”, but in a world where a moldy, quasi-sentient orange can ascend to the highest seat of governmental power despite being unable to string together a coherent paragraph, I’m not so sure anymore.  Maybe it’s all about luck?  Connections?  Good marketing?  I mean, there are a ton of games out there that have succeeded based on the strength of their brand or advertising.  We’ll see if they stand the test of time, though -- but given that AAA games have a habit of withering on the vine after that initial marketing blitz (and even during it), I have my doubts that they’re all setting the world on fire.  One of these years, Ubisoft is going to make an IP that justifies sequels based on the merit of the original game, not just because it sold really well via pre-release hype-mongering.

So I’m two full paragraphs in, and what have I accomplished?  Dumping on game companies, dumping on the government…I’m off to a rollicking good start.

In any case, novels.  I’ve said as much before, but I’ve got a fair number of them on tap.  Because I’m me, though, it wasn’t enough to write one manuscript; I had to go way over the limit and turn one novel into seven.  Back then, I couldn’t load the full file without making Microsoft Word crash.  So slicing it up seemed like the natural course of action, and there were some surprisingly natural stopping points at each section of the story.  So I finished it up, with all of the revising and editing my brain and body would allow.  “All right!  Time to get published!” I thought.

NOPE.  I couldn’t get anyone to bite.  Sure, I sent out the emails, samples, and query letters needed, but no one seemed interested in the story.  To be more precise, no one seemed interested in the first part of the story -- and if that first part couldn’t garner interest, the other six were worthless.  So yeah, that was a great way to spend off-and-on years of my life: writing five hundred thousand words, only to have the door slammed in my face at 300 miles per hour.  Incidentally, my nose is now a fine powder that I keep in my top drawer for good luck.

Well, possibly.  Who can be sure?

So the original version of the story got trashed.  Figuratively speaking; I still have digital copies of all my stuff, and I’m pretty sure an even rougher version of those copies exists somewhere online.  Either way, I started over.  I kept the same basic plot, of course, but revamped pretty much every single element possible.  Updated characters, updated setting, updated enemies, updated themes; it all made for a denser story, made possible because I expanded upon stuff that got glossed over in the original version.  The end result?  I’ve got another half a million words in manuscripts locked and loaded.  I’ve had them for a while.  And a while back, I went “All right!  Time to get published!”

DOUBLE NOPE.  More rejections came in, assuming that I didn’t receive silence in their stead.  Fortunately, I did make progress in a surprising way: I know that the general premise of the story is one that people are interested in, and I know that I can make a query letter that can potentially sell to agents and/or publishing houses.  Theoretically, it’s just a matter of finding someone who’s A) interested enough to give my stuff a look, or B) so entranced by the concept or my offering that they can’t turn away.  Theoretically, if I just put in the work, then I’ll find someone out there who’ll welcome me into the writing world -- the proverbial winner’s circle.

So naturally I decided to do the smart thing and trash my story.

Nah, just kidding.  I don’t have it in me to trash the story again.  Part of the reason is that said story (in its entirety) has been a part of me for more years than you could ever guess, and I don’t want to get rid of something that might as well carry a decent-sized chunk of my soul.  I’ll edit it, sure.  But not erase it.  And that’s because of the other reason: some of the stuff in it is legitimately good.  Or at least, I think it’s good.  And think about what that means, coming from me.  Yeah, it’s the height of hubris to say something you made is good, but remember: I’m the guy who’s constantly downplayed his talents and questioned his general status as a human being.  What does it say when I declare something I created is finally, finally passable?

I hope that people get to read the chapters I wrote someday, because I can think of several standouts -- i.e. things that I personally enjoy reading even when taken out of context.  But in order to do that, I need to get Story #1 out the door first.  And from what I can gather, Story #1 needs to be a standout.  Maybe not something that has to make people stand up and cheer, but at the very least something that can stand alone in case the whole “multi-novel series” thing doesn’t work out.  We ARE talking about a business after all, not just an artistic dumping ground.  I wouldn’t blame anyone for wanting to avoid pulling the trigger and putting a bullet through their wallets. 

Was Story #1 strong enough to stand on its own merits?  Originally, I thought that the answer was yes.  But the fact that I’m sitting here writing this post instead of moving on to the droves of other stories I’ve got planned has to stand for something.  What it tells me, overwhelmingly, is that I couldn’t just resubmit and resubmit and resubmit, and fail and fail and fail.  Would I have found a willing audience eventually?  Sure.  But what was it that Vaas alluded to once upon a time?  The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.  (A lesson promptly and thoroughly ignored by Ubisoft, by way of Assassin’s Creed.)

So I thought, and I thought, and I thought.  What was I missing?  What could I do?  Could I re-re-re-re-re-re-revise the first entry to make it more of a standalone story?  Could I enhance it to the point where no one would be able to resist?  Sure.  I probably could.  But I didn’t want to; it would’ve just been me banging my head against the wall until I succeeded, and I wasn’t too keen on having a skull indistinguishable from a jar of strawberry jam.  Still, that was one key option: soldier on with Story #1 -- the first of six -- and hope for the best.  The other option?  Put everything on the shelf and start an entirely new, one-shot tale.  And to be clear, I almost did.  But I took a third option, because I realized something important.

The story started and finished within six entries.  The problem -- and the solution I have now -- is that it needed to be seven.

Originally, the story started on a rainy Saturday afternoon in mid-October.  It would have followed the main character on his quest to uncover the mysteries and maladies plaguing his home, New Line City (AKA the “city of broken dreams”).  And likewise, that quest would involve him having a close encounter with a dimension-hopping serial killer -- which in turn would spark a pursuit and catalyst for a much direr quest.  That’s all still in place.  It’s not changing.

But with this new beginning, I’m going forward by going backward.  The clock’s been dialed back; now it’s the day before -- not even a full 24 hours -- and our hero’s journey starts with him doing extensive research on the killer.  Unfortunately, he ends up getting the attention of the wrong crowd -- troublemakers who see the killer as a sort of idol.  It’s not long before things go belly-up, with deaths before the first chapter’s end and, more pressingly, the complete cessation of time’s flow.  Those who want to make their ZA WARUDO jokes of choice, feel free to do so now.

In the interest of time (ha), I’ll go ahead and spare you a full rundown of what happens.  I can say, however, that this is pretty much going to be the new Story #1, and the lead-in to whatever else will hopefully follow.  It’s presented some interesting challenges, though; I have to keep the new themes consistent with the old ones, justify plot elements for both the old and new, and more.  Critically, I have to make the characters here have an arc without having them develop too far, or else it’ll dampen their growth throughout the other six installments.  I’m managing, though.  The stuff that happens in this new part is a departure that puts the main characters through the proverbial wringer.  It’ll change them, but in a way that sets them up for future development.

Obviously, I still have a ways to go.  From what I can gather, I need a bare minimum of 80,000 words in order to launch anything (and that’s what I was shooting for at first).  If I remember right, the file I have now is sitting at about 78,000 words.  Not bad, considering that I started in January -- on the 17th, specifically.  (Thanks, right-click Properties!)  How big will the final file be, though?  Hard to say, especially since it’s guaranteed that I’ll be paring stuff down.  For now, Mission 1 is to write down everything I can, and cut later as needed.  I don’t foresee this one project turning into another 500K monster, but I’d wager that -- before editing -- it’ll be 110K.

I could be wrong, though.  I’m probably wrong.  I hope I’m wrong, because the less I have to edit, the more justification I’ll have for getting back to NieR: Automata.  It’ll be a reward.  Preferably not of the eternal variety.

It really is something, though.  I thought I had the story locked, loaded, and ready to fire a little over six months ago.  If you had talked to me back then, the idea of doing a story before the story -- a quasi-prequel of sorts -- would have led to me slapping you in the face.  But here I am, starting fresh without really starting fresh.  Well, if this thing takes off then the other six stories are going to need some cataclysmic edits (one character was introduced way earlier, and there’ll be a lot that needs explaining vis a vis the inaction of certain parties), but it’s not an impossible situation.  If anything, it’s a beneficial one. 

The world of fiction is no stranger to prequels.  Anyone who’s kept a pulse on Hollywood trends over the past few years is all too wary of that unpleasant truth, though to be fair it’s not limited to the big screen.  Curiously, Tales of Berseria decided that, instead of continuing with the groundwork laid by its predecessor Tales of Zestiria, it would jump back by several centuries and essentially show “how we got here”.  The devs didn’t have to -- and maybe they shouldn’t have, given that Zestiria has a contested reputation -- but as far as I’m concerned, it ended up being a great move.  Berseria managed to stand on its own merits and retroactively enhance Zestiria, while being advanced in turn.  An intimate understanding of groundwork and previous efforts allowed the team to make something far stronger than anyone would expect.

It’s basically cheating, yeah, but whatever.  They’ll gladly cheat to win -- and I guess I’m doing the same.

I don’t want to just sit in my room and tick away at my keyboard forever.  I want to get my stories out there.  I want to have my effort be rewarded.  I want to validate my dreams, my faith, and my very existence.  I want to win.  And sure, maybe I could’ve won if I just kept pushing those original seven stories.  Maybe I could’ve won if I just kept pushing those revamped six.  But in case it wasn’t obvious, I’m the sort of guy who, instead of exerting a minimal amount of effort to quickly solve an arisen problem, will exert an insane amount of effort to hopefully solve an arisen problem.  I’d sooner climb a mountain than go around it.  So on one hand, it’s more than a little frustrating to know that I’m technically back at square one, by way of me going from having a manuscript ready to -- if I were to start sending out emails -- going “okay, I don’t have any proof yet, but this story’s super awesome and you should give me fame, money, and blueberry muffins for it”.

But whatever.  If I have to struggle, then I’ll struggle.  And presumably, once this is finished?  Pushing it out there will be less of a struggle than bumbling around with those other six stories and hoping for the best.  It’ll have the feel of a one-shot, but the door will absolutely be open for everything else I have ready.  And beyond that?  Every shut door and every failure makes me a better writer -- makes me think about why I screwed up this time, and what I can do to build upon it.

Staying set in my ways isn’t going to help me in the long run, or the short run.  I need an evolution, and going backward seems like a surefire way to do it.  There is the phrase “kill your darlings” floating around in the writing world, after all.  So nothing is sacred.  Anything can change.  And with any luck?  This one new story is going to be the clincher -- the key to the future I’ve wanted since I was 11 years old.

So let’s see how far forward I can go.

Thanks for reading.  And as a friendly reminder, fuck technical difficulties.

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