Saturday, February 12, 2011

Returning to the Cloak

Cloak was the first novel I wrote. In a furious writing streak that I've never replicated since, I cranked out a monster of about 800 pages in 103 days. Writing eight hours a day, every day, simply never got tiring. I started with a goal of 2000 words a night, but, as the ball began rolling, I found myself sprinting through 4000 easily, and my average was around 5000 words or so, every night, with a personal best of over 7000. Fourteen pages in eight hours is about as fast as I could type, and I found myself writing at that pace for days at a time. Near the end I remember that my fingers were cramping up pretty badly, and I found myself typing with my ring fingers and pinkies, which was sort of sad.

Cloak marked the beginning of what I think of as my modern writing phase, a more mature stage than the early short stories I'd been doing. I'm not sure if other people have a particular project that they can point to that divides their "please forget me" learning phase from a more marketable one, but I could tell that, with Cloak, things were different. Every story I've submitted or sold has come after this first novel.

My rules for writing this novel were simple:
  1. Don't stop. A no-brainer, but I had to be clear that this project was going to continue until I had completed it.
  2. Never read what I'd written before. It was simply too easy to drop into editing mode, and, as George Lucas once said in an interview, if you read as you write, you'll never get past page four. So, lots of notes, and let the mistakes wait until the second draft.
  3. Write until the story is finished in its own time. This one was the flipside of Rule One. Don't rush things, and let the story develop at its own pace.

Only one poor soul read the first draft of Cloak, and I cannot figure out how. For all of it's length, the novel read like a four-hour car chase. Reading the first draft myself was exhausting. I remember thinking that, for all the cutting and tightening I'd be doing, I had to add in some material to slow down the pace. Like sliding graphite control rods into a reactor core, the manuscript needed some cooling.

So, after four drafts, and some sendouts in the early 2000's, I let Cloak go for a while, concentrating on writing other things. This kind of cycle, of creating, polishing, active submission, and then being benched while other work is done, probably explains most of the multiple-year publishing stories out there. For example, I find it hard to believe that J.K. Rowling spent 11 years actively submitting Sorcerer's Stone. There simply aren't enough publishers and agents out there. Of course, when she started the process, multiple submissions were frowned on, and so it was with me for Cloak. It was common to have submission guidelines state that six to nine months was an appropriate wait for a response, and, after not hearing anything after that time, a query letter could be send inquiring as to a manuscript's status. Each sendout could take most or all of a year to garner that rejection. Thus I submitted Cloak to just a few publishers in the following years, but it was time-consuming.

Remember, back in 2000, the jury was out on whether or not a literary agent was necessary, and I couldn't tell you how many published authors advised against them for first-manuscript sales. But I can say that it was almost exactly half of those I contacted with the question. Literary agents were harder to track down and research then, and the age of mandatory blogs, websites, and twitter feeds was years in the future. So, years pass, and no action on Cloak.

One post-editorial-phase friend I asked about it (the mighty Barbara Young), when told of it's length, told me flat-out it was too long. "You've written a trilogy," she said. I told her that Cloak was book one of a trilogy, and that I'd already begun the next in the series, titled Curve. At that point I was 250 pages into Curve, and it was clear that neither title could be chopped down to one-third of it's length. A trilogy of trilogies seemed silly to me, and I didn't know how to continue. It seemed like a mistake to continue writing a series that was guaranteed to be made of books too big for a new author. So I placed Cloak and Curve onto the back burner, and wrote my next book, Firewatcher.

But now, having returned to it, I've cracked Cloak into three novels as Barb advised me to do years ago, using the three divisions of the novel as guidelines. Each is of novel length on its own. And, after having not read it for eight years, I read it without any preconceptions for the first time. I saw the characters the way they appear on the page, not as they appeared in my head. I found myself surprised at where the plot went, so far had it faded from my memory. The details were new to me, and I experienced the story for the first time as a reader.

So, how does it hold up? Surprisingly well.

I expected it to be far more cringe-worthy. Sure, at the pace I was writing it initially, and, given my wariness of adding more length, it gets pretty stingy with descriptive language at times, and there's a lot more telling than showing than I'm comfortable with. And, after all these drafts, a surprising number of small typographical errors. Not a terrible amount, but really, these should have been stomped out long ago. The effect of reading what you remember writing and what you expect was clear, once I was forced to rely on what was actually on the page.

But the plot itself, and the developing storyline, intrigued me all over again. They say that a writer needs to be their own fan, which makes sense, but I was ready to abandon Cloak to the trunk if it couldn't hold up. But it did for me, and I'm hoping it will for an agent sometime soon.

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