Friday, April 1, 2011

A Work In Progress

March 28th, 2011. 11:47 PM. ("A red letter date", as Dr. Emmit Brown would call it, but just for me, not science.) It'll be a moment in time forever etched into the stone of my memory.  The last one awake in an house that finds quiet only in the rarest moments, I finished the first draft of the novel I have been working on for more than ten years. As it stands at this time, the draft sports 90,023 words spread over 409 pages. While the novel isn't "done", after years of a rather tepid incubation, the first incarnation of the story has finally been born.

I can trace the origins of the story to a character I'd doodle during Sister Emy's geometry class, sophomore year at LaSalle. We're talking 1996, people. (Aside: Math wasn't my best subject.) Throughout my high school years and well into college, I was into comic books. (X-Men titles were prominent among my collection, but sadly the hobby grew too expensive to maintain.) My friend Greg and I would regularly plan our own comics, even attempting a short-lived Transformers revival circa 1998. (We got about as far as penciling a cover for issue #1, but to this day, I'm convinced we could've done a better job with the franchise than Michael Bay.) It was this love for visual storytelling that drew me to comics (no pun intended) and the influence of my father that brought me to science fiction and fantasy.

When you think about it, writing is as much a visual medium as drawing, painting, or film. Joseph Conrad famously said: "Make the Reader See." That might be the highest commandment for a writer. If you can't paint the picture of your story in the reader's mind, then you are failing as a writer. So for me, the stories that evolve in my mind always start as a day-dream or a drawing. It's the image that sparks the ember for me, and the flame of the novel I've been drafting for so long, while nearly dying on occasion, never quite extinguished. I guess the fact that the story refused to die for me might be a good thing, but it also kept me from truly developing any other works.

The story evolved from more of a comic book into a straight fiction piece. I felt more comfortable crafting my story that way, and I began building different characters. Originally, the story was far more sci-fi than it is at present. It was set on another, earth-like world, with (because of my affinity for X-Men and Dramatis Personae of that ilk) the characters all had special powers. It wasn't until I began taking courses in the creative writing department at FIU that I truly learned what it took to build a well-crafted story. (My ability to write a well-crafted story is as yet to be judged. We'll see.) While my positive experiences at FIU were few and far between, two teachers in the creative writing department, John Dufrense and Les Staniford, and their classes, Narrative Techniques and Writing Fiction, were integral in my development as a writer.

After a still-born disaster I titled "Guardians" (a medieval fantasy replete with cliché and dragons), John Dufrense pointed me toward Joseph Campbell and his work The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Dufrense told me if I wanted to successfully write a story like that, I needed to read Campbell and use his ideas on plot. I had first heard of Campbell in high school, in my unforgettable 8-person senior English class with Ms. Ana Garcia. Once I was able to digest Campbell's "Hero's Journey", I moved closer seizing the sword pen that would help me be a great story-crafter. During my time taking creative writing classes, I tried to turn away from clichéd concepts and it wasn't until I landed in a World Religions class at FIU that the story idea evolved again.

I have always been fascinated with angels, and, at present, I have a short story in the works where the main character's guardian angel happens to be an angel of death. That idea branched from the novel I've managed to finally draft. The novel idea evolved from sci-fi, special-powered characters in made-up world X, to a present-day modern fantasy, set on Earth, where angels, demons and mythological deities were a hidden but major part of human life. The main characters (there was a whole throng of characters originally, all based on friends and co-workers) were descendants of angels and, as such, had more power than plain ol' humans (I couldn't leave the special abilities out completely). As I learned more about different world religions, and continued research into different mythologies beyond the classic Greco-Roman and Egyptian pantheons, I struggled to marry the concepts together. The opening scene of that novella (called a novella because a draft managed to reach 90-plus pages) involved Michael the Archangel sitting in a church discussing the story's main character (at that point named Trey Kinkade) with a god from the Hindu pantheon. (The main character's name has been Trey Kinkade, Jason something, Michael something, then, and currently, Adam Anderson.)

My journal for the novel.
If I finally grasped the concept of Plot in John Dufrense's Narrative Technique class, then it was during Les Staniford's Writing Fiction classes that Character became clear. Once a pair of short story-versions of my novel idea fell resoundingly flat in the writers' workshops, I realized I had too many characters. Everyone was on the chopping block, including the main character's brother, best friend, and the angels. I axed the connection to Christian religion, and focused completely on Mythology. I still wanted to have the characters sport some special abilities, so they became bastard children of the gods (and goddesses). I spent far more time developing character back story and motivation, then restarted the process of building the plot using Campbell's Hero's Journey as a foundation.


The receipt. If you look hard,
you can see the purchase date is 8/01/2001.

Eventually, I graduated. I considered an MFA in Creative Writing, but a two year bout with unspeakable stupidity left my GPA in shambles. I would have to helm the story solo. Life got in the way. Jobs at Starbucks (invaluable for the access to caffeine) and Borders (invaluable for the readily available research) helped me push the story forward. While at Borders, I purchased a lined journal to help me keep the ideas together and portable. The journal became a mainstay in my bag, toted along side my insulin and blood sugar machine. I would regularly scribble notes and scenes during Tens and Thirties at Starbucks and my Lunch breaks at Borders. If Darcy wasn't prowling the bookcases, the journal would follow me to the Café, where, once it was situated behind the Tea tins atop the pastry case, I could work and still keep an eye on the tables. The store manager, Darcy, made me tape the receipt for the journal to the inside cover, a move requested at the behest of the Loss Prevention supervisor.

Random page from the journal. All sorts
of scribbles and notes.
The journal for the novel, adorned with a Mythos beer label (brought to me by my close friend JC) because "Mythos" is the title of the novel, is loaded with notes, scenes, outlines, drawings, and research for the story. (Aside: Mythos is a Greek lager that's pretty tasty. I've only found it at Zeke's on Lincoln Road.)  I plan to keep it because it really shows evolution of the story over the last ten years; some good, others not so. It also holds many of the ideas that I've had to continue the storyline. In a perfect world, "Mythos" becomes a franchise with a regular installment of novels.

Teaching has also had a great impact on my writing. Helping students read and understand great literature like Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Macbeth, among others, provided me insight to the writer's craft as well. Teaching entire units on archetypes and Campbell's Hero's Journey (while mostly an excuse to show "The Matrix" in class) helped me completely appreciate and comprehend how the construction of Plot and Character is a process. Everything I did in the classroom, both in my English classes and Creative Writing classes, made me a better writer and helped me develop my novel.

The premise for "Mythos" isn't original. Homer, and more recently Rick Riordan, beat me to the punch. I remember reading about Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and feeling my stomach sink. It was my premise, minus all the other pantheons, but the target audience was a little younger. Despite my odious predisposition, I enjoyed the series for what is was. (Harry Potter with Greek gods instead of magic.) I toyed with trashing my concept, frustrated that my idea was out there already, but truly unique and new ideas in the world of entertainment are few and far between. I mean, look at Avatar, it was heralded as a masterpiece, but at it's core, it's just the 3D baby of Pocahontas and "FernGully: The Last Rainforest". So I plugged along with my story, careful to keep Riordan's plots at arm's length, lest I deemed a plagiarist.

I love my story. Finishing the first draft has lifted a weight from my shoulders. As I write this, I'm already knee-deep in the revision process, cleaning up the prose, sharpening character voice, filling whatever plot holes I come across. Soon, I'll print out a few copies and ask some trusted, knowledgable, red-penned parties to have at it before I start the long, arduous process of seeking an agent. That's something I've done before, unsuccessfully I might add, and I don't look forward to it again. If my journey for an agent is fruitless, I'll go the small publishing company route. (Major publishing companies no longer accept unsolicited material. You have to have an agent in order to approach places like Random House, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster.) In the end, if I don't land an agent or am not picked up by a small publishing company, I will self-publish the novel. But that's the last resort.

I want the story to be picked up by a company because they think it's good. I don't care if it becomes a best-seller, because that's not why I'm doing it. I want people to enjoy it. Escape with it. But most of all, I want to see it on a shelf in Barnes & Noble. Only then, will my work in progress be finished.

3 comments:

  1. Reading this post, I can't help but feel that you are going through your own Hero journey. You have faced your trials and adversities but are still persevering. Now you face your final challenges, revision, and more importantly, publishing. I like the direction you are taking with the novel. It sounds like something I would love to read.

    I love to hear about how your professors impacted you, I hope that you realize you have made the similar effect on many of your own students.

    I think you will succeed in this journey. I read your first chapter and loved it.

    I'll be dropping by La Salle sometime in the near future. I will be sure to drop by and hear about your progress. Till then, I wish you the best in this adventure.

    - Gabriel Penaloza

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  2. I have always thought of you as a natural writer! I can't wait to read the entire book.
    As a reader, one of the most important aspects of reading a good book for me is to be able to see the story in my head as I am reading!
    You can do that--a gift few writers have--share it with others!

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  3. One of my favorite quotes is when Dumbledore tells Harry "The time has come to choose between what's right and what's easy". Your long journey and hard work will pay off ----

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