on the “big book,” as my son calls it (for some reason he’s not impressed with the short story collection).
I expected more of a sense of triumph, considering that I’ve been working on this monster for… lessee… wow. The initial nugget for a story about a “windup girl” came from April 2003.
I was flying out of Asia right when SARS was hitting. People dying in Hong Kong like flies. Cases showing up in Vietnam, Bangkok, Beijing, Guangzhou… So I’m on the plane, and the Japanese flight attendant working my section had the strangest herky-jerky movement to her. Very stylized. And her stutter-stop motion was even more surreal because she was wearing this blue surgical mask to protect against the stalking death. So this masked tick-tock woman kept coming by with drinks and food while we all sat around and listened for anyone who was coughing (YIKES I’m going to DIE of SAAAARRRRSSSS!!!!!). And the whole thing stuck with me. I wrote a tiny paragraph about her and her blue mask right after I got back to the States.
I started working on a short story that summer and then into the fall, failing miserably at it. Kept playing with different versions of a short story and dead-ended multiple times over a couple years. Along the way, I spun off “The Calorie Man,” which establishes the general world I was working with, and then later “Yellow Card Man” which comprises one of the four main character’s back story.
Started aggressively working a book-length version of the story in the summer of 2006. Worked it for a year, still struggling to figure out how to make four different main characters and their plotlines mesh. Took a 90,000 word chunk of it to Blue Heaven in the summer of 2007 and got scathing OR enthusiastic responses with almost no middle ground, and took it back home to work some more.
Based on the scathing comments, I rewrote two main characters and changed the arc of the story. Based on the supportive comments, I didn’t throw it away. Now, in the fall of 2008, I’m down to the final fact-checking and cleaning.
2003 Spring. Initial story nugget.
2003 Summer – Fall: Crummy short story attempts.
2004 More Crummy Short Story attempts.
2005 Write “The Calorie Man.” Throw the rest away as junk.
2006 Start novel version. Write “Yellow Card Man.” Erroneously think story will be easy. Tell many many people that it will be done in a year.
2007 Summer. Blue Heaven. Throw away huge chunk of book. Contemplate slitting wrists. Tell many many people it will be done by Christmas. (I should have learned, huh?)
2008 Fall. Finishing up.
This strikes me as being one of those lessons in perseverance. Though, I’m not sure if it’s a demonstration of wisdom.
Without question it’s the most ambitious project I’ve attempted. Just learning how to thread the four plotlines and their characters into a larger plot arc was a challenge. On top of it was the setting in a future Bangkok, and the fact that my four characters all come from completely different cultural backgrounds. And the size of it, at 150,000 words was a challenge. A lot of this was learning curve for me as well, as I make the move from short stories, which I understand pretty well, to novels, with their own pacing and rules. For a while, I kept writing chapters that were lovely little novelettes, which was fine, except that you could read a section and then put it down, feeling entirely satisfied, instead of rushing on to the next chapter.
The next book I write, I swear, it’s going to have one main character, one POV, and it’s going to be in the first person.
On the plus side, I actually feel pretty good about the book itself. The last couple sections just came together last night and today, and they finally feel right.