Sunday, August 21, 2011

King of Summer (Writing Part 8)

I talked about my publishing experience with King of Summer, but I really didn't discuss the experience of writing it. I'm not sure what I have to add. At this point it was around 10 years ago that I began the project, and some of the details and specific memories are hazy. But, it's worth dredging the unconscious to see what I come up with.

Like I said, at some point after seeing the Guardians short stories printed and collected I realized that I was capable of writing at length. That was an important insight and led directly to my decision to once again attempt to write a novel. I had tried this many times before, of course and never got very far into it (the Knight and Armour manuscript I wrote when I was 15 notwithstanding). I'm not sure exactly what it was but KoS felt different from the beginning. I had more actual writing experience under my belt, for one thing. By this time I had had many articles published and paid for. I was a “professional” writer, at least in terms of selling my work. I was more confident when I sat down at the keyboard, and though the articles were different than fiction, through them and the Guardians I had finally begun to hear my own voice in my writing rather than a bad imitation of whoever was inspiring me at the moment.

I think I began KoS with humbler aspirations than previous efforts (if that can truly be said about anyone who sits down to write a novel... there's something inherently a little arrogant about the attempt). Before this I wanted to write something for the ages. I wasn't content to simply write a novel. I wanted to write the kinds of things I loved. I wanted to be Hermann Hesse, or Henry Miller, or J.R.R. Tolkien, or Robert Pirsig or... you get the idea. I was frustrated in my writing because it didn't live up to the impossibly high standards I compared myself to. In Hesse's Steppenwolf he talks about his own efforts paling when compared to those he called “The Immortals.” Hesse had become one of my own Immortals, and his voice, among others, while inspiring, was preventing me from hearing my own.

Writing articles about music was immediate and transient. Writing about the Guardians was fun. Both of these helped me to put aside my aspirations at being an Immortal and let me just write. It was with this in mind that I began KoS. For once, rather than wanting to write the great American novel and being paralyzed by the enormity of that expectation, I simply wanted to tell a story.

I'm not really sure where the original idea came from, or how the story developed. I'm a terrible notetaker and I've always had the bad habit of organizing things in my head rather than writing them down (bad for a writer). I am not an outliner. I get an idea for a story and it just sort of develops in my head. Characters appear and some of them work and some of them don't. I usually “see” several key scenes in a story, and have a general idea of the direction I need to go and the ending. I don't often write any of that down ahead of time. As a result not only am I sure that I've lost brilliant ideas, I also have very little in the way of records of how I work.

In the case of KoS I have a single page of notes.

I knew I wanted to tell a modern fantasy/horror story using kids as the protagonists. I wanted to give it a little more resonance and depth, some kind of mythological underpinning (I said I wanted to just tell a story, I didn't say I had given up aspirations that it would mean something). I have long been fixated on the legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. I have read many, many novels based on this, as well as the literature and history and the psychological symbolism involved. One of the things I am fascinated by is how this core story can be reinterpreted time and again and still speak to our modern sensibilities. The symbols, the relationships, the stories, feel universal to me.

With this in mind I decided to use the Arthurian legends as a map for the story I wanted to tell. I knew I didn't want to simply retell the specific tales, but reference the symbols and relationships in a modern context. The challenge was to encode this information into the story in such a way that those who know Arthurian legends would go, “Aha!” and those who don't know them wouldn't be lost or even know they were missing anything. The story needed to work for anyone, not just those in the know. I didn't want to deal with the idea that my characters were specific reincarnations of the knights, or that they themselves would ever know they were in an Arthurian pastiche. They were kids, in a modern setting, who embodied the archetypes without actually being the Arthurian characters they resembled.

This was an idea that Matt Wagner had used in his comic, Mage: The Hero Discovered. It was also an idea borne out of Jungian psychology. There is a book by Dr. Carol Pearson called The Hero Within (and a followup called Awakening the Hero Within), that addresses the idea of embodying heroic archetypes. These were ideas I wanted to play with.

On that single page of notes I have a list of some of the major Arthurian characters and next to each I have the name of one of the kids who ended up in KoS. This was the first attempt to figure out the roles each of them would play. I didn't want this to be glaringly obvious, so other than Artie none of them have a name that directly correlates to the character they represent (though there are some other clues with some of them). Also on the page are a couple of notes about how the classic elements of Arthurian literature would manifest in the modern world. A 12-year-old couldn't very well be wielding Excalibur in small town America.

There are a lot of hidden Arthurian tidbits encoded in the manuscript, and I'm not going to give a list here, though I want to address two of the main ones. I wanted to imbue the everyday with magic. The kids needed to encounter the fantastic in the guise of known items. Excalibur appears in KoS as a pocketknife. This seemed reasonable to me. Lots of young boys, at least where and when I grew up, were given pocketknives very early as a sign and test of responsibility. On a more personal note, my Dad is a dealer in pocketknives (not a collector... he buys them and then resells them for a profit). He knows a lot about the history and other minutia of knives, and I have been around this forever (just as an aside, I don't carry one, a fact that completely befuddles my father who doesn't understand how I can get through a single day without needing one in some capacity).

The Holy Grail appears as a tarnished baseball trophy. The obvious cup-like nature aside, this became an important symbol in the novel of the unity of past generations. When I was little there was an older man at my church named George McNeely. His wife had died and he lived in a small 2-room building near me. A friend and I would go to visit him occasionally and he always welcomed us with snacks and pop and told us stories of his youth. I realize now just how lonely he must have been. In his living room there was a large baseball trophy he and his teammates had won sometime when he was young. It was an item of great pride for him and he told us many stories from those games. In my mind, this symbol of his youth and a better time in his life became the Grail of my story (and George became a character in my story as well).

So, armed with these few notes on paper and a larger story in my head I sat down to write.

I don't know exactly what was different this time, other than some of the vague notions I have outlined here, but for some reason this time I wrote. And wrote. And stuck with it and wrote some more. My goal was 1000 words per day, and I wrote almost every day. There were slow periods, of course, and days when I didn't write because the rest of life got in the way. There were days when I wrote well over my daily goal (one magical Saturday when I was writing what would become the final chapter of part one of the novel when I topped 6000 words, to date my record, and they were all pretty good words).

The story took on a life of its own. It's cliché to say that, but it's true. The outline in my head grew, Characters began to say and do things I never had planned. Vivian in particular, simply wouldn't shut up and made me write her a bigger role than I intended when I introduced her (and as a result she is the character most people have commented on when all was said and done).

One of the problems I had before this was second guessing every sentence. I would write one and then immediately attempt to polish it into perfection. I would introduce a minor character, one who played no role beyond set dressing, and then become paralyzed by the need to find just the right name for this nobody. My internal editor wouldn't allow my writer to write. Somewhere during the articles and The Guardians and Grey Legacy I had learned to differentiate between the voices of my internal editor and my writer, and when my writer needed to work I simply didn't allow the editor in the room. His job isn't creativity. If anything, he is a detriment to it. His job is to clean up after the writer is done. It's an important job (and one he's more lax at in this blog, given the number of misspellings I find when I reread my posts), but only after the writer does his part.

It's a little schizophrenic, but I find this division of labor essential.

I wrote the first draft in about 5 or 6 months, then spent considerable time with the cleanup. In the end I was very happy with the results. I reread it in its entirety recently when I got the rights back back. I'm still happy with it, though there are some edits I would make. I'm a better writer now, but I'm not embarrassed by my first book.

At the top of this page there is a link to a King of Summer specific page. There you will find the back cover book description and a collections of online reviews the book garnered. As time passes I will update this page with any new information or reviews I receive.

And if anyone reads it and wants to know more about the specific Arthurian Easter Eggs, ask me. I'll be glad to bore you with them.

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