A New Book and Going Backwards

Hello, everyone! It’s been a long, long while since I wrote on here; since February 2017, to be exact. Recent events have both made me a) want to get to writing more posts, indeed almost require it, and b) compel me to justify my absence from my own website. In doing so, I found that I had written a post touching on some of these ideas earlier that I hadn’t even remembered. (Winter 2017 was long and tough.) I deleted it and have restated the ideas in a clearer and fuller way.

Let’s get to A first.

A New Book

The key development in my literary career right now is that, after seven years in the making which coincidentally encompassed seven drafts, Form of a Question will be released at the end of 2018. (Read more about it here!) If you can’t believe it, especially if you and I have ever met in person, well I can’t either.

FormOfAQuestion_OGN_HC_PROMO

Knowing this day would one day come and having it be set-in-stone coming upon me were two completely different things. The first write-ups say a lot, but I will tell you that even though this is technically “my” story it would not have come into being, or would be as great as I believe it will be, without a team beyond measure. It’s a broken record by now hearing me talk about Rebecca Taylor, who made me one hundred times the writer I was, but after Tay departed Boom! two other extraordinary editors, Whitney Leopard and Cameron Chittock, shepherded FOAQ through its final stages with brilliant commitment, and Sierra Hahn, our executive editor, became one of the best and staunchest supporters I’ve ever found.

But most of all, I cannot wait for the world to see Kate Kasenow’s art. I will tell you all right now that Kate’s journey to get here was a road long and winding enough for Paul McCartney to write two songs about. She overcame a lot of difficulties. But the final result is art I’ve never seen the likes of before. The cover—one I specifically asked to look like a Criterion Collection design—is a mere taste of what is to come, but Kate’s creations fill every page with complexity and emotion that redefine “magical realism.” I am biased, yes, but I expected greatness from Kate and I got something beyond greatness. Comics will not know what hit them, and Kate’s students at Savannah College of Art and Design are some of the most fortunate people there are to get to learn from her.

And I have to point out the pitch-perfect colors of Laura Langston, the flawless inking of Jenna Ayoub and Ilaria Catalani, and the crystal clear lettering of Deron Bennett. This is a team anyone in comics should want.

And as an aside, about four years ago I pitched a couple ideas to Boom! that are still simmering. One of the main ones was a horror story, a genre Tay had long insisted I could turn my hand to and do it well. I thought of that horror story, which I had structured in four 24-page issues, two months back when I realized I had not written in comics format in a long time. Now, I decided, I had to return and see if I still had it. I don’t know if I’ve ever written anything so fast in my life. The accumulation of lessons I’ve learned from Tay, Whitney, Cam, and Sierra, the experience of working with Kate and Sara Woolley, the wisdom gleaned from the Bogdanoves and Simonsons; it resulted in tight, lean pages packed with story, clever dialogue, and the right kind of spellbinding imagery—including a terseness that’s rare in some of my work. I think I finally know how to give an artist all the room they need, which is every bit of it, while remaining true to my own voice. This is a lesson that only comes with experience.

As to why I had not written in comics format for so long, we turn to B.

I wrote a novel. I’ve written novels before but this is the first one I believe is both readably original and genuinely good. And I did it by working backwards.

This novel, The Wrong Foot, which is all I will say about it for now, began life as a comics project which never got past the outline and some marvelous preliminary art before the collaborative arrangement fell through. The problem was the story was too good to abandon. Among many possibilities, I decided to make it a screenplay, keeping my partners’ names on it (as they will be on the novel should it be published).

I don’t know if the screenplay was any good, but my friends who write themselves had increasing praise for it as we cut the work to the bone. The final draft came in at 109 pages, the shortest project of its kind I’d ever produced, and still one rich in character, story, and theme. Again, I don’t know how good it was, but it worked.

I spent a year entering The Wrong Foot into competitions and met with an independent producer, but nothing came of the latter and the screenplay got nowhere in the former. Since FOAQ was also in a bit of a holding pattern for reasons beyond Kate and I’s control, this was a frustrating time for me for me in terms of stories I did not wish to let go. Then, in the summer of 2016, an idea hit me. I had once brainstormed making The Wrong Foot a novel with illustrations, along the lines of Vanity Fair. What if, I thought, I turned the screenplay into a novel?

marathonbottomquote

Don’t be exactly like him.

There’s a precedent for such a plan that runs backwards to how things usually go. Erich Segal wrote Love Story as a screenplay first, then wrote a novel while he and Paramount worked out production details. Paramount had the idea that a novel might generate buzz for a film. The book became a best-seller, and the film became the #1 hit of 1970 despite being very bad. The whole “film-to-novel” plan, though, was one of the two great things Erich Segal did in his life. (The other was co-writing Yellow Submarine.)

Because I offer this to my fellow writers: if you have an idea for a novel, writing it as a screenplay first is a great idea. It’s time-consuming, yes, but I’ve never written anything worthwhile that didn’t take time and this order has some clear advantages I learned by doing.

First, screenplays, even the most artistic ones, have to be written in a format that demands airtight structure. You only have 120 pages max to write a script producers and distributors will look at, so you need to have a method for hitting all your beats and fast. In transferring the script to prose, you’ll enter your novel with a story in place that will leave little room for digression and fat, and if you want to try anything interesting, such an experiment would succeed due to excellent planning.

To explain “something interesting:” this is the third time I’ve written a novel but the first time I’ve gone beyond a first draft. My earlier works were marked by multiple narrative levels, with the first going out of sequence for no good reason and the second featuring a midway tonal shift from slice-of-life impressionistic ramble to murder mystery with Greek Epic overtones.

I’m a pretentious bastard, sometimes.

With The Wrong Foot, although the story plays with time a bit, the intriguing parts lie in a series of revelations that power the last third. It was laying the careful groundwork for building up to these surprises over a limited authorial space so they didn’t come out of nowhere but felt organic to plot and character, not narrative gimmickry, that gave everything interest. Focusing on how to hit every necessary point gave the story the best structure it needed…

And served the second advantage of keeping it SHORT. Both my first two novels ran well over 150,000 words and were full of digressions and esoteric material. Keeping to a structure and only expanding on the material enough to reveal more of the characters’ inner thoughts, The Wrong Foot clocked in at 85,000 words. This made it much less of a daunting task for my beta readers and much more likely an agent would read it. I also knew exactly what information I wanted to convey that the screenplay sometimes only hinted at, thus keeping me from getting tangential. (If you ever want to hear about embarrassing tangents, I might share a list of some of my worst one time.)

Third and last, when I look back over my previous stories, there was very little in the way of a theme. They were vague maturation plots with nothing too cogent to say about life except taking chances (which FOAQ deals with better) and general dismissiveness about certain modern cultural elements. The Wrong Foot was a story that from the beginning had a clear point I wanted to make—indeed, doing so helped me understand things about myself I’d never come to terms with before—and I wrote the screenplay with an imperative to make every part serve the theme and further the main three characters’ goals. I don’t know if it’s possible for me to write a more meaningful story until I try again, and that came from starting in a way where I could not waste a scene.

lane-adayforhenryjames-882

Don’t be exactly like him.

So that’s what I’ve been up to: four drafts of writing, rewriting, avoiding the curse of having rooms full of Andrew Rostans talking, and stomping out my tendency to be overly literary and sound too much like Henry James. (The last point came from JJ Ranvier, a close friend and a brilliant writer: listen to her The After Disaster Broadcast to hear outstanding and concise storytelling).

That took a long while. So does writing query letters to agents, a process I underwent only after heavy research. And the first round didn’t fully work so it’s time to commence the second, which may be the perfect words to end this post with: tenacity kept me going through the FOAQ development and it’s going to help me find a home for The Wrong Foot, and it’s why I believe one day I will write full-time. Like my sense for storytelling and conciseness, I built up determination over the years and that strength is paying off. Let it pay off for you as well.

UPDATE

I wrote this essay a few weeks ago and in the delay before posting, something happened that drove my point home even more.

While preparing the second round of query letters, I had a conversation with a new acquaintance, the terrific author Whitney Gardner—whose successful query has been shared on many websites. As with comics, I learn from the best. She reminded me that my first ten pages were the sample many agents want to see, and I had not been feeling sure about my first ten pages. Her push was enough for me to make them better.

This was a case of following the screenplay too closely. I’d planned to open the film with a brief, silent, cross-cutting introduction of the three main characters. Initially, I was sure it would work in prose as well, but now, a reader looking at the first ten pages would only be confused as to who two people seemingly popping in at random were.

I shifted the key introductory scenes to later in the novel and rewrote the ten pages so there would be a clear thrust of dramatic action that anyone could understand. Not only is it better, but it served to remind me that adapting the wrong way around has its challenges as well!

(I then sent out the query letters and have two rejections already. Life goes on.)

Next time: I’m going to be a bit critical, praising and blaming, of several films I’ve seen over the past twelve months. It’s going to be a poor imitation of FilmCritHulk, but I’ve got ideas I think are worth sharing on why certain blockbusters are…not good, I’ll be kind.

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