Monday, October 26, 2009

About the Novel

Here's the cover I've used for print copies over the last few years. Maybe it's time to do a new one, one that uses grown-up design instead of this punk stuff.

Before I left for Viable Paradise, I printed up a copy of the novel and had it spiral-bound. I started doing line edits on the flight to Boston; this morning I finished them. I still have to incorporate quite literally thousands of pages of crits from my writer's groups, and The Homework Club has just passed the halfway mark in the manuscript, but the bulk of the work is now done; I'll be able to start revising this week.

This got me thinking about the novel, and the impact it's had on my life. I never intended for it to be this big. My original idea was simple; I wanted to tell an M.R. James-style story about a haunted garage band. This was in 2004.

The story got out of hand. The first version was the longest piece of fiction I'd written at that point. The criticism I got from the original cast of the Monday night group was that the naturalistic scenes were good and the supernatural scenes were good, but they didn't seem to belong in the same story.

At that point I was strongly focused on short fiction. I was at the start of the learning curve, and I needed to be able to experiment. So I set the story aside as a failure, and went on to do other things.

But I kept going back and pecking at it. It was the first fiction I'd written in 'my' voice, the voice I speak with. (The voice of this blog, actually...) When I picked a setting for the initial story, I used the Santa Cruz of my late teens and early twenties, and used myself as the narrator. As I said, I kept pecking at it from time to time, inserting more and more autobiographical details.

After a couple of years it was apparent that I was working on a novel. It became the focus of my creative life without any conscious decision on my part. I had to do it; it was a compulsion.

I've written about this before, but for those who missed out on those hysterical self-pitying posts, I've got fairly serious psychiatric issues. During the years I spent in Santa Cruz, I was suicidal. I was also hallucinating. If I were to literally write about my experiences, it would be like a more depressing version of Communion, and Whitley Strieber's already written that one.

That's something that a lot of people have a hard time with. I've seen Strieber called a liar in print more than once. While I do not believe in the physical existence of visitors from another planet, I can assure you that people do have these kinds of experiences. When you experience a break from reality, its form is shaped by your culture. Other people would have seen Jesus or spies or a dead relative.

These experiences are not without value; the trick is to accept them in a way that allows you to continue to interact with conventional reality. (Which, like Gibson's cyberspace, is a consensual hallucination in its own right.) Because I've had these kinds of experiences, in order to write literally about my life I'm obligated to include elements of the fantastic in my work.

Anyway, at a certain point I realized that the novel was a conversation with three participants. One was myself, the writer. I was addressing myself-the-young-nutbar, telling him to hold on. Telling him he was of value. Telling him that things would get better.

I was also addressing -- shall we call it the feminine principal or should we be honest and say 'every girl in the world?' I was saying, yeah, I'm a man. I'm a big, hairy, trash-talking dangerous stinking animal. Please, tell me there's room for me in world fit for you.

It wasn't until I went through my epiphany at Viable Paradise that I realized the core story I was telling. A wounded man is healed through his determination to be worthy of love.

Writing that sentence brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat. That's not just the story of the novel. That's the story of my life. What I hadn't expected was that the novel itself would be an agent of healing.

Part of this has occurred through the act of writing itself; I've come to understand myself in a way that would not have been otherwise possible. I've come to realize that I'm much more of an intuitive person than an intellectual one, for instance. By regarding the protagonist of the novel with sympathy, I was able to begin the process of having sympathy for myself -- and without that grounding, my recent transformation would not have been possible.

Beyond that, it's changed my relationship with the missus immeasurably. After my back went out on me, she'd begun to regard me poorly. She hates it when I'm weak, and my inability to find a place in the world due to my disability led her to a certain attitude of contempt. It wasn't that she was going to dump me, but she was permanently impatient with me. To be blunt, she had no respect for me as a man. Which, naturally, went hand-in-hand with my contempt for the masculine, and my loathing of it in myself. We weren't in a downhill spiral, there was a lot of good in our relationship, but it was deeply flawed.

But a couple of years ago, she started reading the manuscript on impulse. She couldn't stop. And when she got to the end her reaction was to be furious that she didn't have the whole story. (I treasure the image of her shaking the manuscript at me and saying, "Look at these pages! They're double-spaced! There's hardly any words here!")

After that, her whole attitude toward me changed. She saw something in me not just worthy of love, but worthy of admiration. She saw value in the work I did, and in my dedication to my chosen art. (She still wishes I'd focus entirely on writing, but I think she's coming to understand that it's just part of the creative stew and that I need to do everything I do.) As a result, our relationship has grown, deepened, and strengthened. And again, her changed attitude helped make it possible for me to grow.

So now I have a new hope for the novel, one that goes beyond being readable or salable. I hope that some of the healing that the book is about, that the book has given to Karen and myself, carries through. That in some way it can be an agent for positive change in others. That it can make life better for someone else.

Part of me feels like an idiot for feeling that way. But the rest of me is working hard to try and make that hope come true. Every comma, every word, every tiny detail is there to bring that sense of hope, of growth, of healing and love to the reader.

Plus, there's a knife-fight with a two-headed dead guy.


Robyn said...

Hey Sean, that's not the stuff you took to VP! Weird how that happens, isn't it? I took my novel, and since I got back, I've been trying to fix some old short stories.

Sean Craven said...

Hey, Robyn!

Heh. My sorry confession is that I didn't submit my best work to VP. I chose my submissions based on word count, subject matter, and the possibility that they'd benefit from workshopping.

Turned out to be a good idea. I've already done two rewrites on God's Tourists, and I'll be doing a third tomorrow.

I'm still wrasslin' with the question of what to do about the other story. There was a sharp difference of opinion on that one -- half the readers thought it was way too obvious, the other half thought it was incomprehensible, and one person thought it was perfect. So I'm scratching my head, with a slight inclination to just send the damned thing out and move on to the next one.

Got to say, if I manage to place God's Tourists, I'll probably move short fiction up on my chain of priorities.

Robyn said...

I took to VP the thing I thought was most viable that I needed help with. Hence "Viable" in VP. There was lots of other stuff that I thought I hadn't gotten as far as I could get with it yet...

Though today, I think it's all crap.