A couple of weeks back I finished reading A Void, which is Gilbert Adair’s translation of Georges Perec’s original French La Disparition. The defining feature of this book, the reason I picked it out of a pile of price-reduced literature in the bare aisles of a soon-to-be-departed local independent bookstore, was its gimmick – but for the name of its author, the novel does not contain a single E. It is the story of a chronic insomniac named Anton Vowl who goes missing, and of his assorted friends and confederates who come together to piece together his disappearance until a killer starts bumping them off one at a time. Where the constraint comes into play is that each character, shortly before his or her demise, realizes that there are no E’s in the story in which they are taking part; likewise this revelation is meant to dawn upon the reader slowly as well, the thought, I suppose, being that you would have been so swept up in the narrative that you would have failed to notice the absence of E in the prose. Where the puzzle collapses before it begins to take shape, however, is that the book’s cover illustration is a huge lower-case E inside the familiar red prohibition sign (as imitated above) and the blurb beneath it proudly proclaims that “There is not a single E in this novel!” As murderous to the book’s outcome as that advertisement choice may have been, it was what convinced me to select it over its competitors, fascinated as I was with the notion of seeing how Perec (and Adair) pulled it off. But essentially, the very reason I bought the book wound up spoiling the experience of reading it.
The ubiquity of the sale in our lives means that we live in a perpetual meta-state regarding the entertainment we consume, where the experience of the advertising and promotion becomes an inextricable component of the product itself, be it book, song or movie. See the trailer, read the review (and leave angry comments on the review’s website), listen to the soundtrack, buy the tie-in toys, T-shirts and sodas, then, don’t forget to get a copy of the Blu-ray with the free digital download. The story becomes more than just words on a page or light on a screen, it is jacked up with marketing steroids in order to escalate it to the level of cultural happening. Yet when the tease is so overbearing, the actual story can’t possibly live up to the level of anticipation that has been set. For advertisers, that doesn’t matter; once they’ve closed the sale, their job is finished, even if they’ve spoiled the ending. In fact, we’re hard-wired to be disappointed by our purchase anyway – there was a scientific study released a while back that proved the emotional experience of wanting something is more intense, and more pleasurable, than actually having it. Being fully briefed before we open the first page just guarantees this. Yet this situation seems increasingly impossible to avoid (pun intended).
In school, you’d be handed a book you most likely had not read before (or possibly even heard of) and instructed to go through it and identify themes, write an essay about it, what have you. When you’re choosing a book for yourself, what is it that makes you want to pick it up? The genre, the blurb, the online reviews, a recommendation from a peer, a personal friendship with the author, or the hottie in the cover illustration beckoning you with a sly wink? Whatever pushes you over the line from “browse” to “buy,” you already have some tangential awareness of what the story’s going to be about. The very section of the bookstore in which you find this unread treasure is a key to how events will play out, with familiar tropes rearranged like so many malleable chess pieces to provide you with a modicum of distraction. I sometimes find myself wondering if the school approach isn’t a purer way to experience stories – without prejudice, as it were. If having no expectations is the best way to be wowed. The trouble is, few of us are in the position where books are likely to be assigned to our reading list, and we’d probably be loath to embrace such instruction anyway. We don’t want our passions to feel like homework.
One of the problems with modern life is that we seem dedicated to paving over the rough terrain ahead to eliminate all unknowns and any semblance of risk; in effect, to remove all sense of adventure, and to ensure a future that may be prosperous but will by no means be surprising, or even terribly memorable. Doesn’t matter what you set out to do, there’s probably at least a hundred people with an advice blog on how to do it so you get the results you want with little room left to fumble about the edges and discover the best method for yourself. You can’t escape them. Everything you want to do with your life has already been dissected, analyzed and summarized by somebody else. By the very virtue of expressing interest in it, you will have it spoiled. To bring this back after a fair bit of digression to A Void, while I would not presume to suggest it’s a transformative work of literature, it might at least have been an enjoyable entertainment had the secret not been given away on the damn cover. I still struggle though with the notion that I most likely would not have purchased it otherwise. (And I am aware of the irony that if you have not read A Void, you have just now also had its secret spoiled by your perusal of this entry, and for that I’m sorry.)
I’m not sure what the answer is to this conundrum, whether it’s better advertising methods or a more cautious consumer, unplugged from the torrents of background noise. I just know that you shouldn’t have to work so hard not to have surprises ruined for you. They’re what make the puzzle of life so compelling to solve. And nobody likes happening upon a crossword with all the boxes already filled in.
I’ve never been good at self-promotion. Perhaps you can chalk it up to formative years surrounded by people telling me keep quiet, don’t boast and give someone else a turn. Like most people, I enjoy attention, but excessive notice tends to turn my stomach inside out. It’s why I had to stop reading the comments on the stuff I submit to Huffington (that and the occasional threat from a pissed off Tea Partier). The problem is that these aren’t qualities that serve one well if one is attempting to establish a writing career. Publishing firms are tightening their belts and seem to expect their authors to do most of the legwork in marketing themselves. You see the results often on Twitter – writers following other writers in hopes of a follow-back, and relentlessly pushing their tomes through tweet after tweet. Seems to work for some; I follow a few who haven’t published a thing yet have managed to build up their own expectant and admiring fanbases. My attitude has always been that quality will find its own audience, but, after blogging for almost two years to a relatively stable but small (yet tremendously awesome) group of supportive readers, it’s clear that my modest approach isn’t working. I need to give you more.
If you’ve been reading my stuff for a while you’ll know I’ve made some periodic and cryptic references to a finished novel that has been sitting on my hard drive for far too long. A few years back I sent out some queries for it, received polite rejections all around, and then set it aside for a while. (I had a nice one from a literary agent who represents a very famous series of books, who said that her decision to pass was not a statement on the quality of the writing, which, though it may have been a form letter, was still encouraging to a fragile ego.) About two years ago I went back and rewrote large portions of it while painfully hacking out almost 60,000 words to get it to a publishable length. Perhaps a dozen family & friends have read it from cover to cover; dozens more have seen excerpts and offered suggestions, some of which have been incorporated, while others have been welcomed but disregarded (you have to use your judgement after all). Long and the short of it is that at this point it’s in the best shape I can possibly get it into, at least from my perspective. And I have started sending queries out again. So why have I not shared more about it here?
Well, in a strange way, I have. There is a lot here about the book. And no, you haven’t missed it. Let me explain a little.
We live in a spoiler-addicted culture. Everybody wants their appetite sated immediately; we all want to flip to the last page to see who did it. I went through that phase myself – because I am fascinated by the process of film production (an interest that probably stems from wishing in idle moments that it’s what I did for a living) I devour news about scriptwriting, casting, principal photography, and yes, spoilers. I had to give myself an intervention of sorts this past summer when I ruined The Dark Knight Rises for myself by reading the Wikipedia plot summary before seeing the movie. I realized I’d become what I despised – I’d often railed about being able to figure out the ending of rom-coms simply by looking at the two stars featured on the poster. For Skyfall, I purposely kept myself spoiler-free, and as a result I enjoyed that movie a lot more than I would have had I known how it was going to end. Trekkers have been driven up the wall over the last several by J.J. Abrams’ refusal to offer specifics on the identity of the villain “John Harrison” played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness. Is it Khan? Gary Mitchell? Robert April? Harry Mudd? Ernst Stavro Blofeld? In promoting his projects, Abrams has always embraced the idea of the “mystery box,” never showing his hand until the night of the premiere. And controlling the conversation by keeping it where he wants it, in the realm of speculation, is, if managed properly, a great way to keep interest high. It’s a dance though – give away too much and you spoil it, but say nothing, or remain stubbornly evasive, and people grow bored and move on to the next thing. My more introspective nature simply lends itself better to Abrams’ way of thinking.
I’ll crack open the mystery box a little: My novel is a fantasy. It’s the first part of what will hopefully be a trilogy. The main character is a woman with magical abilities. She encounters a mortal man. An adventure ensues.
Whoa, you’re saying. Back up a sec. This is basically Beautiful Creatures, right?
Argh. As writers we need to support each other and rejoice in each other’s successes, so I’m very happy for Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. We all dream of seeing our epics translated to the big screen and I’m sure they’re bursting with joy at their enviable accomplishment, as would I. But privately I’m suffering a few gutfuls of agita. You can’t help feeling like the guy who was late to the patent office when Alexander Graham Bell released the first telephone, even though our stories are completely different. Theirs takes place in the modern day; mine is set in the past in a fictional world. Their lead characters are teenagers discovering themselves; mine are world-weary adults. And of course the supporting characters and indeed the plot bear no resemblance to one another. But to the casual observer, they’re treading similar boards, and even though I could have written a story about a lawyer or a doctor or cop without garnering so much as a whisper of comparison, I have no doubt that someone will now accuse me of trying to cash in on a trend, particularly if Beautiful Creatures does become “the next Twilight” and thousands of lesser imitators flood literary agents’ inboxes (I’m fortunate I didn’t choose to write about vampires. Luckily, I find them tiresome.) Indeed, witches are all the rage in pop culture at the moment – we had Hawkeye and Strawberry Fields hacking their heads off a few weeks ago and we’ve got Mrs. James Bond, Meg Griffin and Marilyn Monroe bandying their magical wiles with James Franco coming up in March.
Well, it is what it is and no sense sulking about it now.
I’m going to sidestep into politics for a moment. My beloved federal Liberals are conducting a leadership race right now, and candidate and former astronaut Marc Garneau has recently fired a shot across presumptive favorite Justin Trudeau’s bow by accusing him of failing to offer up concrete plans. But Garneau (and those who are praising this as a brilliant strategic move) should understand that people don’t respond to plans, they respond to ideas – the why, not the what. Our current PM came to power not because he had a thoroughly researched and scored eighteen-point economic agenda, but because his campaign message was that the previous government was corrupt and he wasn’t. It worked. His two subsequent election wins have been based on similar themes – I’m reliable, the other guys are scary unknowns. I go back to Simon Sinek’s brilliant observation that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. It was the “I have a dream” speech, not the “I have a plan” speech. The trick, when it comes to trying to pitch a book through a query letter, is that you’re required to try and hook the agent through what is more or less a 250-word encapsulation of the basic plot. But the plot isn’t why I wrote the book and it’s not why I want people to read it.
For argument’s sake, and I’m certainly not trying to make a comparison here, but let’s quickly summarize the life of Jesus Christ: A baby is born to a virgin mother and grows up to become a carpenter, lead a vast group of followers and spread a message of love to his fellow men. This offends the ruling powers who condemn him to torture and death, after which he is miraculously resurrected. If you had no knowledge of Christianity or the substance of Jesus’ message, you would never believe based on what you just read that these events would inspire a worldwide religious movement that would endure over two thousand years and counting. The plot doesn’t make you want to read the book. You get no sense of the why.
After an enormous detour, we now come back to my novel and its why. The why is here, all around you, in the archives of this site. It’s in my values, the things that matter to me and that I ponder as I type, post and share. My opinions on politics, conservatism, the Tea Party, faith, spirituality, organized religion, charity, economics, ecology, literature, women, love, the loss of our parents, the shifting nature of good and evil, even James Bond, the Beatles and the writing of Aaron Sorkin as a part of the entire human experience – they are all represented in some form or another in my novel. Gene Roddenberry taught me that a great story can’t just be a journey from A to B to C, it has to be about something more. So mine is an adventure story that is as much an exploration of my personal philosophy and observations on the human condition as it is sorcery, chases, narrow escapes, explosions and witty repartee.
It is written in first person, from the point of view of the sorceress. Why did I choose to write as a woman? Part of it was for the challenge, I suppose, to see if I could do it without falling into chick-lit clichés about designer shoes, the appeal of sculpted abs and struggles with mothers-in-law and PMS. But more to the point, if the story is to connect with an audience, its themes must be universal, as must its emotions. Men and women both know what it is like to feel alone, to be consumed by a longing for something or someone you cannot have, and to make any kind of connection, no matter how meagre. We can both crave intimacy so deeply that we don’t care who we receive it from – even if we know we are asking for it from a person who is absolutely wrong for us. My fictional leading lady has tremendous powers, yet she remains vulnerable to the stirrings of a long-closed-off heart and the desire to be accepted, even by a man who despises everything she represents – a married man, to complicate matters further. The evolution of their relationship is the absolute center of the plot, their interactions the driver of all the events that follow. I avoid a lot of the external mechanisms common to fantasy like endless prophecies, quests, magical objects, creatures, specific rules about the casting of spells and complicated mythologies. Sorry, no Diagon Alley or Avada Kedavra or Quidditch or even white walkers, folks. The progression of my story hinges on emotions, personal choices and consequences, not getting the Whatsit of Whatever to the Mountain of Something Else before the next full moon. The people are what matter and everything else to me is background noise.
Does it sound like something you’d like to read? I hope so. I hope if you’ve come with me this far you’ll want to come a little further, and maybe invite a few friends along. Over the next few months I’ll post periodic updates on how we’re doing submission-wise, and maybe a few more details like character names, excerpts of scenes, even (gasp!) the title. We’ll see if we can get a couple more folks interested to the point where we reach critical mass and something truly amazing happens. It’s a story I’ve put a lot of heart into and really want to share in its completed form. But as I said, if you’ve been following this site and listening to what I have to say, you already know much of what you’re in for. Think of it as a buffet table of themed appetizers leading to a sumptuous main course – one that I promise won’t leave you with indigestion.
As they used to say on the late night talk shows, More to Come…