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So About That Novel I’ve Been Writing…

Having finished a draft I finally feel is, well, finished (in its way), I guess this is as good a time as any to jot down some thoughts on the project so far. 

Those not interested in a look at the fumbling, stumbling, and very difficult process it took me to get to the end of my first possibly-decent novel draft ought to skip this post.  

  1. The book looks like a 1700s fantasy novel. It’s actually science fiction, but that’s not really made clear(er) till later on, and it’s only much later on that some people would catch on, since after all, this is people in the 1700s grappling with a science-fictional scenario. Their science (especially when it comes to biology and chemistry) is basically our fantasy these days.
  2. How this affects the book’s marketability, I have no idea. I figured I’d burn that bridge when I came to it. Or let someone else worry about it. Maybe that’s dumb? Maybe it’s wise? You tell me. I know that I feel a little more inclined to consider marketability for future projects. I wouldn’t write a symphony for a thousand-piece orchestra, because I know I’d never live to see it performed. So why write a book without considering whether it’s publishable—which is to say, without putting thought to whether it would be saleable? Not that this should dictate everything—you can second guess yourself into not writing at all, after all—but it should at least be a consideration on some level.
  3. It started out as a novelette I drafted in mid-2013, after I read two books: Jessica Warner’s Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason and Gin: The Much Lamented Death of Madam Geneva by Patrick Dillon. The people I showed it to at the time enjoyed it and when I said I was thinking of expanding it, agreed it was a good idea, though they urged me to keep it set in London, instead of sending the story’s then-sole protagonist abroad as I’d been thinking to do. 
  4. In the original version of the story, the character Thomas was the sole protagonist. Eunice Todd (now another protagonist) was revealed to be a secret antagonist about halfway through, and stayed that way till the end. (The other major characters of the current version of the book—”One-Eyed” Jack and Isabella—weren’t even in that original version, and neither was any of the backstory. It was really just Boy Alchemist Meets Girl Alchemist, Boy Alchemist Discovers Girl Alchemist is a Spy, Boy Alchemist Defeats Girl Alchemist. 
  5. I turned to other projects for most of the remainder of 2013, while thinking the project over and recovering from an unpleasant personal experience—not coincidentally, the same people I’d shown the draft to, and who are no longer in my life. The trace of that experience—or, rather, impressions of the people involved in it—remain pretty clear in the story, but I won’t elaborate beyond saying that if you feel as if you have just barely escaped from Innsmouth, then it’s time to take an exacto knife to the list of people you’re willing to interact with.  
  6. I didn’t return to it till late in 2013, and from then until the beginning of summer 2014, I worked on the backstory as well as reading and researching. In summer 2014, I’d drafted about ~70,000 words of a book featuring Thomas and Eunice alone as the primary protaognists. Then I hit a wall. 
  7. Instead of stopping to outline and think things over, I decided what I needed was to know their backstory: I needed to know how they’d known one another during childhood, what had happened to separate them, and how they’d come together again. So I wrote 100,000 words that summer, as part of the write-a-thon, thinking, “Hey, why not make this a series: the childhood (1720) story can either be flashbacks, intercut between the present-day (1736) stuff, or it can be a prequel later on, or even the first novel of a series. Note: I had no strong aspiration to write a series at the time, but I know the publishing world likes them, and if I came up with enough material for a very long novel, I wouldn’t be opposed to chopping it up into separate books anyway. 
  8. By the end of it, I was happy with the material I generated—and the voice, which was a bit more Georgian-era-flavored, Defoe-esque than what I’ve ended up with in my latest draft, because I feel like it was a little too archaic as written. (I decided to strike a balance: dialogue should feel like it’s being spoken three centuries ago, but the narration should essentially be in formal 21st century English, with the odd anachronism and of course early Georgian nouns for objects in the story. That balance may shift further, I don’t know.)
  9. Throughout this time, I did piles of research, which was challenging. How much research? Well, here’s the books I found (and am still finding, or in a few cases am now reading and belatedly finding) useful:
    • Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason by Jessica Warner
    • Gin: The Much-Lamented Death of Madam Geneva by Patrick Dillon
    • The Brewing Industry in England: 1700-1830, Peter Mathias
    • Dr. Johnson’s “Own Dear Master”: The Life of Henry Thrale Lee Morgan
    • Felix Calvert & Company: A Capital Brewing Family Patricia Richardson
    • English hops; a history of cultivation and preparation for the market from the earliest times (1919) by George Clinch
    • The Riches of a Hop-Garden Explained (1726) by Richard Bradley
    • A Vade Mecum for Malt-Worms, Or A Guide to Good Fellows (1720), Anonymous
    • A Tour through the Eastern Counties of England by Daniel Defoe (1722)
    • The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science by Philip Ball
    • Encyclopedia of Folk Medicine: Old World and New World Traditions by Gabrielle Hatfield
    • Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution by Bruce T. Moran
    • Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature by William R. Newman
    • The Cunning Man’s Handbook: The Practice of English Folk Magic, 1550-1900 by Jim Baker
    • The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox by Jennifer Lee Carrell
    • The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World by Steven Johnson 1
    • The Georgian Underworld: A Study of Criminal Subcultures in Eighteenth-Century England by Rictor Norton
    • The Thieves’ Opera: The Remarkable Lives of Jonathan Wild, Thief-Taker, and Jack Sheppard, House-Breaker by Lucy Moore
    • Cant: A Gentleman’s Guide to the Language of Rogues in Georgian London by Stephen Hart
    • The Female Husband by Henry Fielding
    • Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World by Leo Damrosch
    • Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650-1850 by Dianne Dugaw
    • The London Mob: Violence and Disorder in an Eighteenth-Century City by Robert Shoemaker
    • Commonplace Books and Reading in Georgian England by David Allan
  10. I also read fiction from the era, though not as much of it. Books I didn’t finish included Fielding’s Shamela (which simply bored me) and John Cleland’s Fanny Hill (which was too much of a slog). I did finish (and enjoy) Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Laurence Sterne’s A Political Romance and John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, as well as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, a book I was amazed to discover had grown much more fascinating over the years. Er, heh. I also took a dive into Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and enjoyed what I did read but set it aside before I got very far, basically because I focused on writing instead of spending all day reading it. (Tristram Shandy seems to me a book of the sort to demand that kind of attention.) For all these books, I must say, my Kindle ebook reader, which I picked up in Saigon, was truly invaluable: everything I wanted to read (and much more) was all available on Project Gutenberg and other similar sites. Though it was okay, I started but didn’t finish William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard. (It grabbed by interest, but didn’t hold it, maybe because I already knew a lot of the story from the Lucy Moore book.) 
  11. I also read Greg Bear’s Blood Music and Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse and John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps and many other novels involving espionage and/or posthuman transformation. Also relevant, because as I said, it’s a science fiction novel. The Aldiss is only tangentially so, while the Bear was more directly relevant… so I put it off till I’d read the whole thing. Most of the fiction I read during this period had nothing to do with the subject of my novel, for obvious reasons.  
  12. I’ll be honest: 2015 was kind of a bust when it comes to creative work. I did do writing, but it was the frantic, anxious scribbling of a man worried about the impending responsibilities of fatherhood. And then, after our son was born, I was working on an RPG-writing project with a deadline, which took until the new year to really finish. (And until this year to truly be done with the text, because of proofreading, rewriting, and more.)
  13. Sometime in 2016, I began work on the novel again—I guess sometime in the summer. I… generated material, I suppose. But I also flailed around a bit, struggling with structure and not really getting anywhere. I was looking at the novel drafts I had as if they were puzzles, with the pieces somewhat jumbled and needing to just be put together properly.
  14. Also, summer 2016 I got very little writing done, because we were traveling. That was good in many ways, but also hard for me. My friends who saw me that summer at WorldCon could see I was struggling, and to be honest I was thinking of just abandoning the book. 
  15. At the beginning of April 2017, I decided I would do the thing I’d tried so many times to do: I’d write a new outline. This time, I gave myself permission to put whatever I thought belonged in it, even if it meant the book would grow beyond the scope I’d originally expected.
  16. It did. If I’d been writing your typical 80-100,000 word novel, I’d have finished the draft by June or July at the latest. I plan on writing a couple of those in the next year instead, because now a novel of that length feels like… well, like a long novella.  
  17. I did the final tidying-up on this draft on 15 November, and within a week I’d sent it out to a number of first readers. Yes, whom I warned about the length. I was surprised and gratified at how many were willing to look at it anyway. 
  18. The day after I sent it out, some flaws jumped out at me. I’m resisting the urge to go and fix them now and instead am just taking notes, since surely the flaws of which I’m not now (and will not later be) aware shall surely jump out at others, whom I trust duly to inform me. This is somewhat terrifying, of course: it’s hard not to keep wondering if one is a fake, a sham, just lacking “what it takes” to be a novelist. (Reading a few prominently-published but painfully-flawed novels from the past year will, I’m sure, be some remedy to this, but perhaps not enough: just because someone else’s book is bad doesn’t mean mine is good, after all.) But I’ve been through enough of that with short fiction not to let it make me get to anxious. 
  19. The one thing that terrifies me even more than the prospect of my first readers saying, “This is bad,” is the prospect of them telling me “This is good, but…” with the but essentially being that the story needs to be finished—that what I was considering for a possible second book and maybe third in the series, should actually just be written continuously to the first 200,000 words. Write it like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel or Cryptonomicon. That’s almost as scary as the other thing I am terrified of, which is being told it’s good but can I cut 100,000 words from it. (I’m fairly sure I can’t.)
  20. I fear this because I also wonder if that’s not how the story needs to get written. There’s more—and weirder—stuff up ahead in the timeline, and after all, the reason I didn’t consider the 1720 timeline worthy of a novel on its own (despite the endearing child protagonists) was the fact that there’s almost no weird, SFnal stuff in that chunk of the story. The weird only starts to really show through by 50,000 words into this book, and only starts to really come into its first blooming at around 120,000 words. But the ending suggests much weirder to come, and… maybe that much weirder is where the story really takes off. Maybe all this stuff is just… memories and flashbacks and interstitial material to that timeline, to what happens between 1737 and 1742.
  21. Honestly, just the prospect of feedback being bound to come in troubles me deeply. It gives me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Even if I read good-but-flawed novels, or bad ones, this haunts me. Not that I’m not willing to try it, but… it feels like a Herculean task. I feel like I’d need to get in shape first. 
  22. I’m out of shape. Yes, partly because I neglected exercise to put more time into the book. I know. 
  23. I did not set out to write a novel that length. I like short, 60-70,000 word novels, you know? Then again, I can easily think of long novels (at least as long as this one) that I’ve loved. So, eh. 
  24. I’ve been off-and-on sick since I finished the draft. Is it because my son is in day-care and bringing things home? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just that I’m finally relaxing a little. I always get sick when I suddenly relax after finishing something big.  
  25. I have a cute idea about writing a whole novel draft while I wait for the feedback on this thing. After all, it’s a smidge over 200,000 words. It’s going to take time. Maybe enough time for me to write a whole ‘nother book while I wait. That’d be productivity, wouldn’t it? But I’ve been sick—probably the alleviation of stress, the exhaustion at all the long hours, and the happiness having more time to spend with my wife and son. 
  26. Also, I’m not sure which of the potential novels to write next. After writing one whole book without a thought for its potential market, I am ready to try, uh, planning ahead for the next one, and considering that. What’s the elevator pitch? Sometimes elevator pitches are a good, powerful thing. I also have a couple of RPG-writing projects I’m working on that will need some attention—they’ve been neglected, one that’s almost finished and another that I’m co-writing that a very patient (and perhaps similarly distracted) coauthor.
  27. I am enjoying just reading books (including fiction! and RPG rulebooks! and a novel I’m reading for a review!) and watching movies and TV a bit. But I know I won’t be slacking off much longer. I’ll start going nuts if I’m not working on something, that much I know about myself. 
  28. I’m pretty sure the next thing I write is going to be some kind of Transreal thing, as Rudy Rucker calls the technique. Take your life. Weird it up. Maybe not… my life. But stuff that I’m anxious about. Something about the expatriate experience, the experience of returning home, I’m not sure. There’s a few contenders for The Next Thing. 
  29. Maybe I’ll try post a little more often here. And not just RPG-related stuff. I have neglected this blog, but then, everyone’s neglecting their blogs, aren’t they? Not quite, but…  
  30. If I don’t post more here, well… assume I’m working hard on the next book. Or pissing time down into Zuckerberg’s monstrosity. Or, you know, playing Thomas the Tank Engine with a wonderful little boy, or working on a script for my wife, who’s finally looking at making a movie in this absurd, grungy little town we’re in, like I’ve unsubtly hinted she should pretty much since we moved here. Either way, it’s all good.  

  1. Yes, it’s about Victorian London, but a lot of the ideas tossed out by the discovery central to this book were dominant theory in the early 1700s as well.

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