The Art Form:

The Road from Here – October 1, 2017

Mangrove path

I have never been much interested in the series or “franchise” treatment of novels, where each book stands alone and can be read in isolation with enjoyment, while at the same time being a unit in the larger career of a single character or an organization. Ian Fleming wrote a stream of such books with his James Bond character, and others have used the model successfully over the years: John Le Carré and his George Smiley books; Agatha Christie with Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, and other detectives; J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter books … the list goes on and on.

The key to these books is that each one follows a fixed formula or pattern:1 a villain plans a massive crime, James Bond is sent to hunt out the villain, foil his plot, and destroy his lair; a murder is committed, Poirot or Marple come on the scene, gather clues, and confront the murderer; Harry Potter and his friends encounter some mystery at school and try to solve it. And yet the books must also build a story arc that broadens and shapes the character: James Bond does fall in love and get married—even if only briefly; Harry Potter and friends find the real enemy in Voldemort and change the wizarding world. Sometimes the story arc drives the series, as Le Carré’s Smiley moves from being a minor but pivotal character in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold to the man who saves MI-6 in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and then defeats the arch-nemesis Karla in Smiley’s People.

But I don’t write fiction to a formula. Sometimes I wish I could, because then the process of writing a novel would be simpler and faster. If I had a plot structure that I felt was my own—similar to the James Bond model or the architecture of any murder mystery—then I could spend my time honing the central character and inventing new villains and world-destroying schemes or imaginative new ways of and reasons for killing people to present to my character and ring the changes on my formula. But, as I said, I don’t think that way.

My novels grow slowly, usually over the course of a year or two, although some of my stories have been incubating since high school and college. For example, the kernel of an idea that became The Professor’s Mistress, with its Odysseus-like voyage through the canal system of central Ontario, reflects trips my family took in summers on my father’s cabin cruiser.

To write a book, I must first focus my brain—or really my subconscious2—on an idea that intrigues me. It might be a situation, a character, a place like those canals, or something else that captures my imagination. Then I begin building a story around it. And if the central focus is not a character to begin with, I can begin assigning characters to the story.

For example, the story of The House at the Crossroads, about a time-travel station, began with the notion of a building that was bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. This is almost an atavistic thought: that certain houses and places have more stories, more history, more dimensions than others. But I wanted to make this thought come alive, as a house that really did hide a series of otherworldly dimensions. And from that point the story just grew: those dimensions would logically extend through time as well as space; so the house could be a portal for time travel; the portal would naturally require a generational series of gatekeepers; and those keepers would owe their allegiance to some group or organization that existed somewhere else in time, most likely in the far future.

A glib writer might say, “From there, the story just writes itself.” But, of course, it doesn’t. I had to pick the point at which the story starts: does it begin with an event at the house already in place, or focus on the act of establishing the house? I had to decide on the nature of the story: what goes wrong and needs fixing in the operation of the house or in the process of its founding? And I had to develop a group of characters with their own lives, aims, interests, foibles, and their own backstory. For me, this part of the outlining—for I am far from actual “production” writing at this point—is a matter of submitting pertinent questions to my subconscious, waiting for an idea to pop up in that black pool at the base of my skull—like answers at the bottom of a Magic 8 Ball—and working them into the developing story arc.

If I thought that my stories could be reduced to a simple, formulaic framework like Bond-defeats-villain or Poirot-identifies-murderer, then I wouldn’t be dealing with a living story that grew out of an idea. I wouldn’t be creating something that acquired a life and meaning of its own. Instead, I would be winding up my characters like mechanical toys to follow a track that had already been prepared for them. It would feel like hanging ornaments on someone else’s Christmas tree. Such a mechanical process might create a story that readers could love—for who does not love Bond, Poirot, or Potter?—but it would seem to me like a trick and a fake.

So the franchise novel, the long-running and lucrative book series, has never been my art. And maybe that’s a good thing, too. Because in today’s market environment, traditional publishers watch book sales numbers more closely than a patient’s fever chart. Spikes are good, but the slightest dip is a sign of doom. And while they would love to hear that an author has a long-running series planned, they will smother the first or second book in its crib if the sales numbers aren’t somewhere between stellar and spectacular. In fact, the only way to write a series anymore—if you’re not already an established author with a huge and loyal readership—is to publish it yourself, the numbers be damned, and have faith in your own creation.

Which is about my state of mind right now. After seven years of writing my novels and publishing them independently, a pattern has begun to emerge. I don’t have a long-running series in mind, but my creative energies seem to be focusing on three basic story streams. I already have two books in each of these streams and ideas are now swirling around for a third in each.

In the time-travel books that began with The Children of Possibility—of which The House at the Crossroads functions as a prequel—I can see a third book is needed. This novel would attempt to resolve the terrible breach in human history that Children opened. The story, sketchy in my mind so far, appears to involve inducting a Divina into the Troupe des Jongleurs and thereby learning the secrets of this strange divergence from the human race.

Of the artificial-intelligence books that began with ME: A Novel of Self-Discovery and continued with ME, Too: Loose in the Network, I have ideas for a third book. Since the first one dealt with solo ME as a new creation, and the second told of two versions—original ME and an evil not-ME—now I have to figure out how to get three copies of ME all working together or against each other. That’s going to be fun.

And finally, in the Wheelock family saga that began with The Judge’s Daughter and continued in the next generation with The Professor’s Mistress, I am now working on the third generation. This is the story of Dani, the child of Jane and William Henry. She graduates from the university with a degree in engineering and … the story continues from there.

Working on these three books—the third in each proto-series—will take me out to about three years. After that, I have other ideas. I want to go back to Mars, having written Mars Plus with Frederick Pohl, but not to any version of the planet that I’ve visited before. And I want to tell the story of a visit to—possibly the invasion of—Earth from the alien point of view. If I can adopt the viewpoint of an artificial intelligence who never existed, assuming the persona of an organic life form from another planet should be a snap.

As always, stay tuned.

1. The exception I can think of is Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. Although each book has a concise beginning and a satisfying end, the stories themselves follow no set formula. O’Brian is simply writing a hugely extended novel that covers twenty-odd volumes over twenty-odd years, beginning at a definite historical point in the Napoleonic wars and extending around the world. If you don’t know these books, which have been described as “Jane Austen goes to sea,” you are in for a treat.

2. See Working with the Subconscious from September 30, 2012.