A Recipe for Making Sausages

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That title probably sounds a little too innuendo-ish for your liking (and even now I’m regretting the potential algorithmic implications), but rest assured that the discussion to follow is SFW to the highest degree.  Having recently completed a long work (Vintage) and looking back on it now from the safe perch of a few months’ distance, I feel the time appropriate to offer a few reflections on the process of the thing.  Perhaps it’s for posterity’s sake; when I’m looking back through cataracts from thirty years further on and my brain has become addled with age and lost memories, I might find it enlightening – or possibly embarrassing, who knows, really.

Back in “the day,” long before Internet and the age of instant gratification for even the slightest itch, there would usually be a healthy distance between the author and the work – you could receive and evaluate the story on its merits alone without getting overly bogged down by the storyteller’s intentions and inspirations.  You might see a cryptic print interview here and there providing hints, but the author would usually remain an enigma with the work forced to its betterment to stand on its own.  But that’s not the case now, with the world’s glut of writers actively pushing their stories across social media while at the same time being more accessible than they ever have been before.  Work and creator are irrevocably intertwined and intent is as important as event.  I’m forced to wonder if this is healthy even as I find myself doing it as I read (current slog:  Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, which halfway through is teetering precariously on the knife edge of pointless self-indulgence).  It might be better, truly, to let the work stand on its own.  At the same time, if learning about the “how” inspires a few more readers to check out the “what” – and tell a few more readers in turn – then maybe it’s worth the exercise.  So enough navel-gazing and let’s get on with the show, presented in the form of a hard-hitting self-interview.

What inspired you to write Vintage?

Simply put, I hated what I was doing.  I felt that I was stagnating as a writer.  I was not having any luck with the querying process and it was discouraging to accumulate rejection after rejection while witnessing what seemed like a perpetual stream of other people’s “I got an agent!” and “I got a book deal!” tweets pouring through my feed.   (You want to be happy for those folks but you still question what the hell you’re doing wrong that it’s not your turn yet.)  And I was finding it difficult to keep coming up with engaging topics for my blog – both subjects that I would enjoy writing about and those I felt would draw some new eyeballs my way.  I felt a compulsion to do something different, and fiction seemed to be a most logical outlet – where I would be creating an original story in which I could decide what happened and would not be restricted to commenting on events occurring around me.  There was a pretty good chance too that it might alienate some of my audience, but I don’t think you do yourself any favors by remaining predictable.  The best musicians are those who keep trying to do something different instead of always relying on what made them popular in the first place.

And then into my dreams one night popped this image:  a man half-frozen in the ice while a beautiful woman in a cloak looked down at him.  No context or anything, just this single image that stayed with me for a few days.  It seemed to be something that a story could wrap itself around.  Turned out it was, as details began to fall in place around it – the notion of a man who thinks he’s powerful in his own right but finds himself completely beguiled by a woman with a power he can’t duplicate or even fully understand.  I always want the stories I tell to have depth and meaning – to be about something – even if they seem on the surface to be a fairly airy, mindless romp.  Otherwise, it’s just a waste of words.  You have to be careful with this approach in that you don’t want to sledgehammer your reader with THE BIG LESSON.  I try instead to weave it in there so you don’t even notice that your assumptions are being challenged while you’re breezing along.  Whether I’m successful in that or not is for the reader to decide.

Was the story always intended to be what it turned out to be?

No, not at all.  As I alluded in a few of the chapter introductions I thought it was only going to be about four or five parts at most.  I began to worry a bit when the aforementioned image of the man in the ice didn’t turn up until Chapter Eight.  If I’d been more disciplined in my initial intent to do a short serial then I would have created a proper outline and written strictly to that.  But frankly I was just enjoying the creative exercise of writing away and finding out where the story went on its own.  This is the nature of the “pantser-vs.-plotter” debate that many writers have undergone, and it’s become abundantly clear to me through the Vintage process that I hate writing to outlines and that I’m much happier as a pantser.  I love discovering the story as I go and when I am writing to a predetermined end I find my words weaker and more forced and obvious.  Publishing one chapter at a time was an interesting challenge in itself as you had to pick up where you left off without the benefit of being able to go back and tweak things to get yourself out of jams.  You had to dance with the one that brung you, so to speak.  (I only retroactively changed one minor thing, and that was the location of the entrance to the secret storehouse beneath the Bureau Centrale headquarters, which was a pretty inconsequential detail but would have made for an awkward transition in the big finale.  So sue me.)

How did the story evolve in your mind?

I think the best way to articulate it would be to say it was like crafting a series of independent jigsaw pieces and then figuring out a way to fit them together.  I had this image of the man in the ice but I obviously had to get there, so with the understanding that the man was a witch hunter and the woman was his target, I started by writing a series of scenes that were – without sounding too pretentious – jazz riffs on other stories.  Etienne’s monologue where he figures out that the people of Montagnes-les-grands have been using magic to augment their wine took inspiration from Christoph Waltz’s long speeches in Inglourious Basterds.  The scene with Etienne in the casino is very obviously a riff on Casino Royale, and him getting his assignment from the Directeurs is the first fifteen minutes of Apocalypse Now, right down to the takeoff on the “terminate with extreme prejudice” line.  There’s an echo of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Etienne’s solo flight from Le Taureau’s village.  As a writer I’m just playing, playing different notes, having fun, trying to get a feel for what works and where this is going, until I get that lightbulb moment and think “aha!  Okay, now I know what this story is about and where it should go.”  I think that is the reader’s experience as well.  You’re standing at the bottom of the hill trying to get your hands about the tow rope, and once you latch on, you’re off like a shot.  Going back and reading it from start to finish, all those disparate early scenes fit into the spine of the story very nicely, but in a way that was almost a happy accident.  It could have just as easily not worked out.

How did the characters change from how you originally conceptualized them?

I should tag this answer with SPOILERS in case you haven’t read Vintage yet.  The major difference was that Etienne was never intended to be redeemed.  He was going to be a bad guy to the bitter end and ultimately be done in by his own arrogance and hubris, hauled off in irons while Nightingale laughed in the shadows.  His parents were never going to be part of the equation.  But really, “bad guy comes to bad end” is not that interesting a story.  Watching a bad man have a revelation and then try to atone makes for – at least in my opinion – a more compelling experience.  My own philosophy – my liberalism, if you will, is that I want to believe that the worst of us is capable of being and doing better, that there is no such thing as absolute evil.  At the same time, there is no coming back from a lot of the stuff that Etienne has done in the past.  Yeah, he got screwed over, but the answer to that is not necessarily to screw over other people yourself.  He himself recognizes that he can’t be forgiven, and so that’s why his story ends the way it does, and really, as I wrote it, as much as I began to grow attached to the character, I knew it couldn’t end any other way.

I can admit that Nightingale is a cliche:  the beautiful, seductive witch who leads men astray with her mysterious powers (she’s drawn from the same cloth as Melisandre in Game of Thrones among many, many others.)  Fantasy is full of one-dimensional sexy sorceresses placed there to appeal to our more prurient interests, but that doesn’t mean that a sexy sorceress can’t have depth and intelligence and an allure that isn’t predicated on the skimpiness of her outfit in the cover art.  Take the cliche and tear it apart, twist it around, poke at it, stretch it, flip it inside out.  What would someone like that really be like?  What would move her heart and drive her actions?  The story is told from Etienne’s POV but I wanted Nightingale to transcend the cliche and be as complete a character as possible.  I also wanted to ensure that the relationship between her and Etienne was handled properly.  It did not seem to me that someone like her could ever truly fall in love with someone like him given his history – though they could connect on other levels, most certainly the physical one.  You’ll note she never tells him she loves him, not once, and even in the epilogue she is evasive about her true feelings.  Really, they are her business, and no one else’s.

Without giving too much away, I can say that there was not a single main character who did not end up in a radically different place from where they were originally scripted to be.  Le Taureau, for example, was a one-off obstacle I dropped in to separate Etienne from his group for a little while.  I had no idea when I first wrote him that he would eventually come back at all, let alone become an important ally for the good guys, nor that his colorful language would be such a distinguishing trait.  (As an aside, until I literally wrote the line “The last time I saw him, I stabbed him through the hand,” I did not know I’d be bringing him back.)

How did you go about the worldbuilding?

Worldbuilding is my nemesis.  It really is.  I’m much better at characters and dialogue (see the blog post entitled “I Suck at Description” for a more thorough read on this particular boggle).  I just want to get on with the plot, so to speak.  But I think with Vintage I took a big leap forward in this regard.  Starting out by deciding to set it in the same universe as the novel I was querying removed a big burden as I could just start writing with the same basic rules in place vis a vis who has magic and who doesn’t and what the general society looks like.  The home country in the novel is written in a very English idiom, and quite frankly English accents in fantasy stories are yet another cliche, so I thought it might be fun to flip that on its ear and do the whole thing with a French feel instead.  (It also let me drag out my underused French language skills.)  Placenames and character names were drawn from French baby name websites, usually mashing unrelated syllables together to keep the French feel while creating brand new, unfamiliar monikers.

From there it was a matter of filling in the blanks while remaining true to the overall “French-ness” (even though the story obviously doesn’t take place in France).  For the scene in the casino I wasn’t going to rip you out of the story by using a real life card game, so I just made one up.  Calerre is a port city and the origin and center of the country’s gambling industry so it stood to reason that the cards might have a nautical theme to them, hence ships, oceans and moons instead of spades, clubs and diamonds.  (Don’t ask me how to actually play route de perle though, I just made up enough of it to fit the scene.)  When Etienne meets the two sisters and the other Commissionaire in Charmanoix, there was no specific reason to putting the whole community on stilts over a river other than we were now in our fourth different town setting and I wanted it to have a much different feel than the others, otherwise you’d get bored (and so would I).  But out of that setting grew the chase across the bridges and the fight to the death on the burning rope, so it was a terrific exercise in seeing how even the most basic worldbuilding could inform the evolution of the characters and of the plot.  Obviously these folks who go on about worldbuilding are onto something.

Why didn’t you put Chapter Eighteen on your blog?

I went back and forth on that a dozen times.  Maybe that was off-putting to a few folks, I don’t know.  What it came down to was that I was going to write a pretty racy and descriptive (yet tasteful) sex scene and I just didn’t feel that belonged here with posts about being a dad, the Toronto Blue Jays, U.S. and Canadian politics and the lion’s share of the rest of my work.  If you’re tuning in to hear what I thought of The Force Awakens I’m guessing you probably won’t appreciate stumbling on titillating depictions of tangling naked flesh.  I certainly don’t make any apologies for writing the scene, I think it was a logical progression of the story, it accomplished what it set out to, and I’m not in any way embarrassed by it – it was crucial to me that it was passionate yet completely consensual, and I think it was.  Interestingly enough, if you skip from Seventeen to Nineteen you can still follow the narrative and just guess what has happened, so I don’t think making Eighteen a little harder to track down harms anything in the end.  And nobody complained, so there you have it.

What would you change if you could do it all again?

What’s that great line of Woody Allen’s:  “If I had my life to live over again, I would do everything exactly the same except I wouldn’t see The Magus.”  I’ve looked at Vintage a couple of times since finishing it and I haven’t really found anything that screams out at me as a major sore-thumb error.  I guess I would have liked to have gotten it done faster, but overall I’m pretty happy with it, and I’m glad I wrote it.  I think the exercise of it sharpened my description skills; I made more of a conscious point to delve into the other senses when depicting scenes, and the writing feels far less clunky to me.  I also like that it moves at a better and faster clip than the novel, coming in at a relatively lean (for the genre) 95,000 words.  I like the twists, especially given that most of them were totally unplanned.  Do I think it’s the most magnificent thing ever put to paper?  Umm, no, of course not.  What I do like most about it is that I think it represents a maturity in my ability to write and to create a story, and with it I’ve learned lessons that I’m eager to apply to the next one, whatever that may be about.  Maybe we might even see Nightingale again some day in some unexpected setting.  She does have a tendency to appear in a flash of white light whenever she feels like it.

Never say never, especially where magic is involved.

In either case, thanks for letting me ramble on here.  A reminder that Vintage is available in its entirety on Wattpad or here at the main site, with all the chapters helpfully indexed for you on their own dedicated page.  If you have any comments or questions about Vintage that I haven’t addressed here, feel free to so advise in the comments.  Thank you for your patience during my radio silence and I look forward to posting on a more regular schedule once again.  Speaking of which, man, does that Blue Jays bullpen need help…

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