Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The First Hurdle

The good news that I have now written nine chapters of my next book.

The bad news is that five of them are Chapter 1 and four of them are Chapter 2.

In other words, things are going about normal. With three novels under my belt, I can actually now make sweeping generalizations about my writing process, and here comes one. The early stage involves a lot of writing and re-writing of the initial chapters. More than once I have read that the biggest hurdle to completing a book is getting past the first fifty pages, and I understand why. I do not know if there is something magic about the number fifty, but I do know that it takes about that many pages for the creation of a book to attain lift-off. Until you get to that point, you are like an airplane taxiing on the runway. The main difference, at least in my case, is that the plane is (usually) not continually backing up and starting again from a dead stop. Come to think of it, neither am I, so maybe the airplane comparison is not completely inapt after all.

A lot of things have to happen in those first few chapters that are crucial to everything that happens after. The characters have to be drawn right, which is to say that they must be consistent with what will be happening further down the line. Some characters start out as placeholders or plot devices, and they need to be fleshed out so that the story has some hope of feeling like it is really happening. The writing process takes up too much time for me to want to spend it all with a bunch of robots. Since my characters are going to be residing in my head for months and years, I want them to be good—or at least interesting—company.

Also, events need to happen in a way that leads to where I need the story to go. Plotting a story is basically a long chain of decisions. I suppose the reason that the early stages are more challenging is that there are too many possibilities. Once you get past a certain point, the possibilities become more manageable because so many branches of the decision tree have been pruned.

Maybe a better comparison for explaining the challenge of getting past the first few chapters is lighting a fire. This is an activity that has been particularly relevant lately since it has been extremely cold in Ireland. Since a mass of polar air arrived from Sibera last week (dubbed “the Beast from the East”) and met Storm Emma coming up from the Bay of Biscay, building fires has become a critically important chore so, yes, let us compare the fifty-page barrier to building a fire.

For all the reason mentioned above—and maybe some others—there is something wondrous that happens around fifty pages in. It is akin to the moment when the turf in the fireplace ignites and begins to burn on its own. From that moment on, you are not exactly home free, but everything is easier. You are no longer going back and laboring on top of already-trodden ground. You can focus entirely on going forward. If the first few chapters tend to get over-written, the rest of the book—at least in my case—is always in danger of not being sufficiently polished. Because of the momentum. I just want to keep the story going and not “waste” time looking back.

I am still looking forward to getting to that point, but at least I know from experience it is not far away.

In the meantime, let us observe that today would have been the 91st birthday of the journalist and novelist Gabriel García Márquez. He was born on March 6, 1927, in Aracataca, Colombia, which he immortalized in his books as the fictionalized village of Macondo. I have previously written on one of my other blogs about what his works—first and foremost One Hundred Years of Solitude—meant to me, particularly at the point in my life when I first read and studied them in South America.

Literary heroes can be daunting because they pose the danger of making someone like me feel his attempts at writing are pointless when there are books of García Márquez’s caliber already out there. Personally, I prefer instead to take comfort from the probable fact that, with each and every one of his books, he would have experienced the same exact frustration as me in getting past those first fifty pages.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Art of the Sequel

In my previous post I explained in a fair amount of detail how my first novel Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead came about. There is no need, though, to explain how Lautaro’s Spear came about, right? It’s just a continuation of the first book because it is a sequel or, as I explained in another previous post, just another book in the same “novel sequence.”

Okay, let’s be real. Lautaro’s Spear is a sequel. So how does it measure up to the definition of sequels that I have oft cited on my movie web site? As I keep saying, a sequel is basically the same story as the original movie or book but re-worked to give the impression that it is actually a new story that advances some overall storyline. Also, the conventions of the sequel require that, when the original story is retold, everything must be bigger and better.

So how does Lautaro’s Spear measure up as a sequel? Well, you can certainly make the argument that it is the same story. Once again Dallas feels his life in California closing in on him and decides to escape by taking off for foreign parts. During his foreign adventure he meets and falls in love with a woman and he forms a strong bond with a new Hispanic friend. Also, he gets mixed up with a bit of political intrigue that leads him to a dicey border crossing.

Had you spotted all those parallels? Actually, come to think of it, if all those coincidences constitute a sequel, then doesn’t The Three Towers of Afranor—if you substitute Alinvayl for California and Afranorian for Hispanic—technically qualify as a sequel too? Actually, when it comes down to it, isn’t every story basically about a journey of some sort?

Okay, I got a bit silly there, but there is a fair amount of truth in what I was saying about sequels. Consumers of fiction, I believe, read or view sequels precisely because they enjoyed the original work and want to have that experience again. Of course, the author cannot give them the exact same experience again because you can only experience—really experience—a particular thing once. If you experience it again, then you are re-experiencing it, which is something different but still valid in its own right. After all, in the sequel experience there is something pleasing about subtle reminders of the original experience, the recognition that, yes, we have been here before, although things were different then.

The real challenge comes with the sequel to a sequel—something some people call a “threequel.” Just doing the same thing but bigger still and better still does not quite cut it. That is why so many third installments in a series (cf. Superman III, Godfather III) fall flat. To avoid this, writers sometimes go in a different direction. They go about de-constructing the original story instead of just retelling it. That appeals to some readers/viewers, but others are put off by the fact that the writer no longer seems to take the story and characters seriously.

Fortunately, I still have a bit of time—and a whole other book to get through—before I have to decide exactly how to make Dallas’s sequel’s sequel work. I can promise you it will be something totally original—but just the same.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018


So I survived another winter solstice, another Christmas, another New Year. The dark end of the annual journey around the sun is past, and things are returning to as normal as they get in my house. It is actually possible to think about writing fiction again.

During holiday periods, when schools and businesses are closed and the world is oppressively gloomy outside, I enjoy my lie-ins. They are strangely fertile moments creatively. In the early-morning dark, my brain finds itself entering dream states where my mind plays out various vignettes, while slipping in and out of wakefulness. Normally, these would be scenes from the next book but, against my will, my brain keeps wanting to skip ahead to the third book about Dallas Green. Interesting things lie in store for him.

Dallas has become a near-constant companion for me, which is kind of strange. He really has taken on a life of his own in my head. This must be what it is like to be possessed by a ghost.

The thing is, I never actually meant to write a book about someone like Dallas. The seeds for Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead go all the way back to the year I lived in Chile during the fourth year of the Pinochet dictatorship. Inspired by such writers as Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez and Guatemala’s Miguel Ángel Asturias, I wanted to create a literary work around the rise and fall of an idealistic but flawed Latin American leader. It would be a thinly veiled allegory, mirroring the revolutionary rise and inevitable crucification of Jesus. Daunted by the risks of inauthenticity and cultural appropriation, I decided the saga would necessarily be related by a foreigner. He would be an idealistic young North American. As an outsider, he would be imbued with a fair amount of skepticism of this political movement in the name of the people. In other words, if my Salvador Allende figure was to be Christ, then my North American would be his most doubtful disciple, Thomas. Thus the point-of-view character’s name would morph from doubting Thomas to Tommy Dowd.

The epic percolated in my mind for many years, but one thing or another—like the better part of decade disappearing like a flash of light into the time-warping wormhole of the software industry—kept me from writing more than a few chapters. Finally, marriage and relocation to the Emerald Isle gave my mind space to return to the long-neglected story. By then, though, a funny thing had happened to the tale. The story I had mapped out was just not working for me. Somewhere along the way, I got an idea. What if I did not tell the story directly? What if the story was lurking in the background of someone else’s story? Inspired by my own childhood exploits with my often-feckless best friend, I conceived an early-1970s odyssey adventure à la Huckleberry Finn. Tommy Dowd would not actually appear in the story. He would be the McGuffin, the reason for the pair’s adventure. After his disappearance, they would head south to look for him. They would go outside of their own country, their own culture, their own language and their own comfort zone. They would be changed forever. And all the time—just outside of their peripheral vision—would be the story of Tommy and that idealistic leader who led himself and his followers to doom.

It was meant to a self-contained story, a one-off. It never occurred to me to go beyond the end of Dallas and Lonnie’s adventure in 1971. Other people, however, told me that I had to continue the story. Some made suggestions for what would happen next. It was a strange feeling. Dallas was no longer just an idea in my head. He was now out in the world. He no longer belonged to me alone. The more I thought about this, the more I realized that I too wanted to know what else happened to him.

Now that I have taken him nine years further through the twentieth century, I want to see his story through at least another few years.

Before I do that, however, I have another story that has been percolating for a very long time. One about ghosts and spirits and curses and demons and ancient evil and stormy weather. It wants its chance to see the light of day too. Fair’s fair. It has waited long enough. It is now at the head of the queue.