Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Next Step: Publishing and Project 27 Days

As mentioned in my previous post, I finally completed Project 27 Days, my first novel, earlier this week after roughly 7 months of revisions from beginning to end. Overall, it's technically my third draft - and as far as I'm concerned, my "final" draft - after completing the second and first truly complete draft back in early March. And so, it's reflection time. (As all of you waiting for this novel with bated breath have undoubtedly been looking forward to. Besides, I haven't done a writing/publishing centric post in quite some time.)

If you've been wanting more detail about what my first novel's really about and what my second one's going to entail as well, after years of blogging here, you're in luck! This is the post you've been waiting for.

The writing process is a journey unto itself, both frustrating and rewarding. You have to lay the groundwork - scoping out the characters and developing an understanding of them, their motivations, and their goals, as well as developing the setting where their story takes place - and if you do all that right, the characters will take you through their story themselves. After spending over 3 years getting to know these characters and accompanying them on their journey, they've become very important to me, making moving onto a new project difficult. I don't think I'll be adding a section to the right column on my next novel just yet, though - ideally at least until I've made some real progress in getting 27 Days published.

Of course, after the several drafts so far, this "final" draft as far as I'm concerned may not end up being the final one in the end. Future work on the book is contingent upon decisions made by my future agent - hard to say when or if I'll manage to get one anytime soon, all I can do is try to think positively and do my best with my query letters - editor(s), and the publisher. As any writer has to, I've come to accept that my work will ultimately be passing through editors' hands, and that revisions will be made that are not entirely my own. I do have two - I feel - legitimate worries about future possible revisions and work with editors, though.

One, I'm a little worried that I may be expected to take another good year+ to do additional directed revisions for another draft or two by an agent before they'll even consider pitching the manuscript to a publisher. This is a distinct likelihood, going on what I've read about the process, and as much as I've enjoyed spending time with these characters and writing this book, time is of the essence on some level - I feel what I'm trying to get across with the book on an external level risks being lost the longer it takes for the book to be published. (Given the numerous senses in which this first novel is a labor of love. And on at least one level in that regard, I'm expecting it to be a personal failure - sometimes life's about doing ridiculous things and failing, though, too.) And on top of that, every delay in getting my work out there in any capacity is another delay in my being able to get my own life going, given how much personally hinges on this particular work.

Two, while I can certainly accept minor edits either by editors or requested particular self-edits by an agent to improve style, language use, and flow (I'm sure all three are likely needed, this being my first novel - this is about as rough around the edges as any of my novels are going to start, and working with professionals should help me hone my stylistic focus.), I'm leery about the possibility of certain turns of plot or general elements in the story being deemed necessary to cut - possibly entire story arcs. The entire book is carefully plotted and told in a relatively nontraditional style across several story arcs, while each individual chapter focuses on the events of a single day from beginning to end through the eyes of the protagonist. This offbeat structure geared on a slice-of-life approach to the narrative itself is a risk I took when writing that could potentially become a strength or weakness when pitching the novel. Sometimes it's a quiet mood piece, other times it's completely focused on character interaction and humorous, naturalistic dialogue, and other times yet, it's outright surreal. As a work of literary fiction, it blurs genre lines while keeping character development at the heart of the narrative. And from arc to arc, the story does take some arguably very weird and probably unexpectedly turns - both in terms of the courses of events that unfold and how they might seem to fit into this sort of story on the surface. But I've been questioning my decisions behind every arc along the way, along with numerous minor details the fate of which concern me. If anyone can argue for why each and every part of the story is important and necessary, of course, it's myself as the author. But having read some horror stories about how unreasonable people in the publishing work are capable of being, I feel it's only natural to be concerned about how the story would be treated by people seeking to maximize its appeal and profitability to begin with - and literary fiction itself isn't exactly known for being the moneymaker that pulp genre fiction is. To put it bluntly, I'm not interested in "suits" or completely unreasonable people hacking my novel apart and potentially damaging its carefully-constructed essence. (Yes, this is probably one of the more pretentious-sounding statements I've made in a while. As an artisan of words, I'm allowed to get away with these things, right?) As a writer, I seek to celebrate the strange and offbeat and many have been very successful in doing just that, so I'm hoping that my concerns are unfounded and perhaps exaggerated out of anxiety after reading some confidence-crushing horror stories and intimidating writer magazine articles. I can't afford to give in, no matter how intimidated or anxious I become. I have everything to lose by not persevering until I achieve - and deserve - success. And as long as I'm writing anything worth reading, the literary and publishing worlds also have something - technically - to lose without even realizing it. I think that's a healthier attitude to take, anyway.

By extension, given its Murakami-and-Salinger-inspired plot, I'm worried that between the strangeness of the book and its overall length, it may prove considerably difficult to find an agent willing to represent it, let alone a publisher willing to risk publishing it, simply because it's "too weird." This has to be my first published novel for many reasons, and I've put a tremendous amount into it to make sure it's a worthwhile venture - both for readers and ideally a publisher. In many ways, I can only just keep my fingers crossed that all these years of hard work don't amount to nothing. (Save for perhaps a slap in the face from life - and I'm pretty sure I'm already over quota for those.)

Each of my novel projects is about challenging myself on some level or another as a writer. As my first novel, Project 27 Days (Which I'll be pitching with two potential working titles for starters) evolved from a mystery novel - though the final story itself certainly hasn't lost its mystery elements - set aboard a train to a challenge of abstraction. That's a central theme of the story on every conceptual level - one that I'm hoping will be able to draw some interest from both an agent and publisher, given how many explicitly concrete novels there are out there, as opposed to those using more abstract settings, approaches to the plot, and the characters themselves. As a concept of contradictions as well, I like to describe the book as a road novel set in an enclosed space. Like any road novel, it focuses on a journey taken by individuals and the growth they experience over the course of their journey. At the same time, the majority of the story unfolds between a handful of oddly designed train cars, passing oppressively redundant snowy scenery that seems without end beyond the windows. And undercutting the setup for another cliche coming-of-age story, there's a cast of characters who've lost their memories - so the tale focuses on self rediscovery as opposed to self discovery, tempered by melancholy, cynicism, humor, and empathy. (In the least, all of this is what I've worked hard to try to get across with these characters in this story.) I want to get the reader lost in the surreal, confusing setting with the characters - to experience what they experience, to puzzle over the same questions they ask, and to ideally come away from the experience feeling something. I love these characters, and I love this story - as risky, painful, and deeply personal as it is for me in many ways.

Next up is - to officially announce it now - Project Princess. A challenge to myself to pull off a work of literary fantasy fiction, as opposed to genre fantasy. A subversion and twisting of fairy tales and light-hearted swords-and-sorcery fantasy settings. A character study with even rawer emotions at its core. And little humor to back up what I intend to be a personal challenge to write something that takes itself largely seriously without incorporating the offbeat sense of humor I usually rely on - an exercise in attempting to develop further range. (And hopefully something an agent and publisher wouldn't frown upon, given that it seems they like to see authors develop in a particular direction as "this kind of author" or "that kind of author." I'd like to have some breathing room in developing into "That weird author who writes dark stories with at least some humor." As is, I feel like the dark comedy/dramedy world of writing is a lot more honest than many, since you can take your characters and reader to all sorts of lows in addition to being able to make them laugh - and juxtaposing the two, I feel, can make their effects resonate more deeply.)

Project Princess is a thematic followup to Project 27 Days in many ways. Particularly in that it confronts the sort of emotions and their perils that hover quietly over the 27 Days cast, but aren't often directly addressed. But rather than seeing these particular emotions faced by the 27 Days cast then - frankly, I think it would completely ruin the ending I've given them if that was part of the narrative, and would be stretching the ending out far beyond where it needs to go - a new cast, some even more damaged in some ways, will step forward to undertake these challenges themselves.

It's a cold story. Not just literally, though like Project 27 Days, it will be my second - and currently last planned - novel set in a snowbound setting. Where 27 Days focuses on a sympathetic group fighting off their frostbite together aboard a train and supporting one another as they face the bared fangs of their past, Project Princess focuses on a largely more solitary journey. A deeper level of both physical emotional isolation, sharper-edged emotions - joined by sharp-edged blades - and a lack of even the train's comforting furnishings, the plot centering on a rather twisted hero's journey through an apocalyptic blizzard on horseback and foot. A harsh setting in which only the strongest and most twisted can survive and there's no one to turn to for kindness. Given this even colder central story, it's going to be a different experience to write - and involve tapping into some even more intensely negative emotions - and my current challenge is humanizing each of the characters enough so that I can come to love them as well. No matter what horrible things have to happen to them.

I've poured a great deal of my life and passion into this first novel, at any rate, and intend to do so into each successive work. I can only hope that it shows when I begin submitting sample chapters and manuscripts to potential agents, and that they see potential worth pursuing. I was going to write even more about query letter concerns in this post, but it's already long enough - it doesn't need to be yet another insanely long post to the point of unreadability, so I'll be following it up with more query letter thoughts in the next few days in a second post. Those who stuck around, thanks for reading.


CrazyCris said...

All I can say is: GOOD LUCK!

and congrats for bringing it to fruition! :o)

Benjamin Fennell said...

Thanks! I'm going to get the rest of my anxiety-laden query letter musing done and posted at some point soon - sort of demotivated myself on that by dropping a bit of the anxiety from this post and moving forward. And then I'm just trying to get a good query letter together so I can start bugging agents this month.

Here's hoping I can get this published by sometime next year and finally officially kick off my writing career. :)

livenomad said...

Hi Ben, Just a short note to wish you all the best with getting on with the publishing process. :) The promo storyline sounds intriguing. Dont worry about it being 'different', it could be the new in thing for future authors to get into. Good luck. :)

Benjamin Fennell said...

Thanks, livenomad. :) One could only hope so, haha. I'll give it my all. If luck's on my side, maybe I'll find an interested agent by the end of the year.