Saturday, December 10, 2005

Going Back to My Criminal Ways

This past week's server problems (all behind us now, apparently) actually came at a very convenient time for me. My temporary inability to receive e-mail or post blogs coincided with a conversation with my editor at Simon and Schuster that put me back onto a novel I wrote some years ago called The Only Criminal. It's "dark fantasy" rather than horror, but also comic, and distinctly different to The Book of Renfield -- it's also my personal favorite of all the ideas I've had for fiction.

I was a dedicated diarist in those days, so I can trace the idea back to its moment of conception: February 15, 1977. I finished it for the first time on May 26, 1978 -- it was a novelette or long short story of only 67 pages. The moment I laid down my pen, there was a huge automobile accident outside the apartment building where I lived. I gave a public reading of a chapter at the University of Cincinnati on November 25. The length of the piece was all wrong, and I was still looking for things to do with it in 1982, even cutting it down to the length of a short story that I could place somewhere like The Twilight Zone Magazine. My trouble in those days, as an unrepresented writer, was that I had little stamina for sending out the material I'd worked so hard to write. I'd no sooner finish something than become obsessed with the next project. But The Only Criminal remained insistent: I later revised it as a somewhat longer novella... and then it became a full-length novel. No matter what form it took, it was never quite right and I knew that.

The thing about this book is that it demands to be read with the open-mindedness of a child. My artist friends have always gone crazy with enthusiasm about the book's premise, or excerpts when I've let them read it -- but people who are more logical, who favor the left side of their brain, have a harder time getting it. My former agent loved the book and worked long and hard to find an editor who shared her affection for it. She tried to place it after selling Throat Sprockets, and later told me that an editor at TOR Books named Melissa Singer handed it back to her by saying, "I'll be happy to publish anything by Tim Lucas you bring to me... except this!"

The Only Criminal has been in a figurative drawer now for some years, and my current editor at Simon and Schuster (who likes the book) has had trouble getting it passed at editorial meetings in its present state. It's too unlike The Book of Renfield, and it's the Renfield author they signed and expected to be grooming. I spoke to my editor last week and made it clear to him that I don't intend to write any more Books of Renfield, that The Only Criminal is much more in keeping with what Throat Sprockets was, and the unwritten novels I still hope to write. I also told him something he'd already considered, that The Only Criminal is very much a graphic novel idea written in classic novel form. If handled properly, it is the sort of book that could lure more graphic novel people back to the unillustrated page. I also suggested it might also be a good idea to hire a well-known artist to provide spot illustrations throughout the book, to lure these people in.

So the idea is for me to deliver a draft that my editor can take to his next editorial board meeting, allowing him to pitch me and this book to the company in a new way. The switch to a new server involved a certain amount of change-over time, of which I've taken full advantage to go back to the manuscript. The original idea was to take a manuscript that clearly needs more work and make it more consistent and presentable... but, as it turns out, the book is much closer to being truly finished than I realized. Once I understood this, I decided to jump whole-heartedly back into the rabbit hole.

My average day this week has been to wake up, sit immediately in this chair and visit my usual sites for 45 minutes to an hour, break for diet pills and a big glass of water, continue visiting sites for half an hour till I can breakfast and have decaffeinated coffee, get back into this chair and work on the book till it's time for the next round of diet pills and water, continue working until midnight, and then take the last round of diet pills and water, wait half an hour till I'm allowed to eat my next (small) meal, and then -- completely zonked by twelve to thirteen straight hours of editing and writing -- find something inspirational to watch till bedtime. (Of course, these diet pills work best with exercise, which I haven't been getting, but they sure do their job as legal speed, and I have lost about 4-5 pounds.)

For my inspirational viewing, I found myself going back to Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors" trilogy of BLUE, WHITE and RED. These films are not explicitly tied to what I'm doing in any way, but they do share a certain attitude and atmosphere. They put me in a creative place I feel will be more beneficial than something more explicitly connected to what I'm creating, like, say, a Franju film. It's also good to go back and examine the extras in this box set more thoroughly than I was able to do when it was first released.

I've been advancing about 120 pages per day, and that includes a modicum of rewriting. Going back to The Only Criminal has been an eye-opening experience. The most recent draft, the one my poor editor has been trying to pitch without success, was a real mess -- the first 100 or so pages had been rewritten and didn't fit the remainder at all, because the names of places and some characters had been changed. I've also gained enough distance from the book, and experience at my craft in the intervening years, to understand why some of the smaller details were preventing some readers from embracing my premise. I was giving them too many fantasy angles to deal with, when all the book really needed was one. So I've done some judicious cutting that, I believe, has strengthened the material considerably. The book does wrestle with the reader in some ways, but it's hopefully a bit like wrestling with an Angel, going through the chaos and confusion that comes before an epiphany. By the time the reader reaches the end of the book, the entire journey comes into sweet focus -- at least that's the goal.

I have only one last section to edit, so there's every chance the manuscript will be in publishable shape by Monday. And after that? It would be nice to write a book that didn't take thirty years to gestate...

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