Jason Isbell released Southeastern in June 2013. I haven't stopped listening to it since. It's brilliant, and I warn you that I'm going to gush about it all the way down to the first divider line. Okay, still with me? Southeastern is the most complete album from top to bottom since... since... Achtung Baby. Well, maybe that's a bit extreme. I'm sure I've neglected to think of many brilliant albums that were released between 1991 and 2013 (including two particularly good albums by Lisa Hannigan and a number of good albums by David Gray and...). Long story short, I've had a year to put away this album and I can't. Most recently it served as the soundtrack for a drive through the Appalachians of Virginia and West Virginia (hmm... "Traveling Alone" goes well with that drive if I could block out the fact that I had my three kids, my niece, and my lovely wife in the car with me--I guess I'm thinking about how the song mentions mountains). Brilliant lyrics, soulful singing, strong musicianship. "Elephant" will rip your heart out, and along with "Relatively Easy" and "Songs That She Sang in the Shower" (my favorite of the bunch), they all give me chills. Literally, I have to turn the air-conditioning down on these. This is a guy who studied creative writing in college and whose apartment is littered with books. Don't take my word for it, find out for yourself. Check out the way "Songs That She Sang in the Shower" begins:
On a lark, on a whim,
I said there's two kinds of men in this world and you're neither of them.
And his fist cut the smoke
I had an eighth of a second to wonder if he got the joke.
And in the car, headed home,
She asked if I had considered the prospect of living alone.
With a steak held to my eye,
I had to summon the confidence needed to hear her goodbye,
And another brief chapter without any answers blew by.
Then go check out the song. Then go buy the album: Amazon / iTunes.
Okay. Gushing over.
With the upcoming publication of Stay, Illusion, the second novel in the Marius Besshaven series, I feel I need to write a bit about book series. You see, I've been reading Nick Hornby's collected essays from The Believer, and in one of the essays he addresses book series, mystery series, and wonders how they go on and on, how all these bad things can happen in the lives of the main character of the series. Point taken, and since I'm writing a series where a lot of bad things happen in the lives of my characters, I've been thinking about this and how it applies to Marius's story.
In a series where a law-enforcement agent is the main character (Harry Bosch or Dave Robicheaux), it makes sense that bad things happen. In a series where the main character is a private eye (Elvis Cole or Kenzie & Gennaro), it makes sense. Then we get Myron Bolitar, sports agent. I never worried about all the trouble Bolitar consistently gets involved in--the books are too good! Then there's Lisbeth Salander, hacker/investigator. A woman with a rather fucked up past that is the basis for much of her story in the Millennium Trilogy.
So where does my character, Marius, fit in? Like Lisbeth, he's got a fucked up past. But he's not a hacker or investigator or private eye or police officer or... sports agent. He's an astronomy professor. And he's not battling society and its twisted system of guardianship like Lisbeth did. He's battling his own demons, their origin covered in Ruin's Entrance, and he's going to meet a real bad dude in Stay, Illusion. There's one more book to come (at the very least, as you'll see when you get to the end of Stay, Illusion). And after that? Marius will either be left in a good place, a bad place, or just left. For a while. Maybe forever. What I'm trying to say is it would be disingenuous for him to continue to get in trouble. Can't the man find peace? Are we interested in his story without the external element of some crime to solve? I'm interested, but interested enough to pour out 80,000 words exploring it? I like stories--reading them, telling them, so I don't foresee a plotless novel in Marius's future. No, no, no.
Anyway, you're going to have to wait a while for the third book in the series. I'm lucky I wrote the second one as quickly as I did. You see, a year ago I got 40,000 words into a novel that contains many of the elements of Stay, Illusion, but with the characters involved, it just wasn't working, and I instead turned my attention to finishing The Footnotes (now there's a series opportunity, and the rough draft is done on the second book!). Ruin's Entrance wasn't supposed to be the beginning of a series, but I wanted to know what happened next to Marius. And he fit in perfectly with that 40,000 word manuscript I'd put aside, so what if... A good match, I think. And I see the trouble involved in the third book as a natural outgrowth of the first, perhaps a way of bringing resolution to the lives of some of the characters. After that? I don't know. Maybe he lives out his academic life and nothing much exciting happens to him. Meaning his story will forever remain a trilogy. I'll have to wait and see.
All of this being a long-winded way of saying, I think Nick Hornby had a point. Of course he did. He's also brilliant. Like Jason Isbell, though in a different kind of way (see how I clumsily tied the first two parts of this together?).
Part the Third, then, deals with what I've learned during the last year of writing and publishing. Up until last summer I was content to write and never share any of my stories (and travel journals--lots of that) with anyone--writing's a hobby, something I love (and have loved since I was quite young), and I have a day job that pays a decent wage and affords me some free time. So all is good. No illusions about making a living off of writing (though it would be nice to be paid well to do this--I can't lie).
So a little over a year ago I let my first fully revised novel go into the world. I was scared to death. It's a vulnerable feeling, putting something you've worked so hard on out there for other people, strangers, to have a look at, to respond to. People who have read it seem to have enjoyed it. I was a little more confident with Ruin's Entrance, and, again, people seem to have enjoyed that one. (Feedback involves people saying they couldn't put it down and one person saying, 'Wow, you're messed up--but in a good way. That's a compliment.' Thanks, I think.)
So what have I learned?
I don't know what the next year of writing will have in store for me, other than I'll continue to write. Next up is, sorry, not the third Marius book. I got inspired down in Charleston and am finally writing the horror novel I've long wanted to do. Marius #3 will come after that--the idea is there. So, yes, another year full of writing. And maybe I'll learn some more about selling myself without doing things that make me cringe. And reach a few more people. I'd quite like that.
Hey, Jason Isbell didn't reach so many people without a little legwork, right? Of course, it doesn't hurt that he has so many (a veritable series) of great albums, does it? Okay. Enough with the clumsy attempts to tie these three disparate topics together. Signing off.
Today marks the conclusion of the first and heaviest round of revisions on Stay, Illusion, the sequel to Ruin's Entrance. What better time to talk a little about writing?
Stay, Illusion is now the third novel I've taken through revision (a number of rough drafts, including the sequel to The Footnotes, remain messy accumulations of words and ideas). I feel like the process of revision is getting a bit easier. It's not like prepping a rocket for launch. Lives are not at stake. However, persistence is required. My writing day starts at 5:00 a.m., seven days a week. I get as much done as I can before the kids wake up and I have to engage with the real world--mouths to feed, Lego creations to admire, summer camps and piano and guitar lessons to drive to. Such is the life of a father.
Round one (finished!):
Round two begins now:
And that's a brief view of the revision stages I go through. Publication of Stay, Illusion is probably at least a month away.
I took this photo on a solo outing to Taeanhaean National Park on the Yellow Sea northwest of Daejeon. It was off-season, the fall of 2000, and other than these fishermen, I was the only person there. This image stuck with me, and the man on the edge of the rocks was the initial inspiration for Woo.
I started The Footnotes on July 20, 2004, when I closed the door to the bedroom, sat down at my desk in our hot Daejeon apartment, and typed out the following words on my Dell laptop: "There was the thin man up the beach walking with a noticeable limp, pinched eyeglasses perched on his nose, a pair of white slacks and a billowing white shirt, his Korean face further hidden by a low-worn white sun hat. Galden had been following the man for more than a week. An easy job for a beach bum."
What did I know about beach bums? I had graduated from Ohio State four years earlier with a degree in history and limited career opportunities and had gone to South Korea following a dream hatched during adolescence while reading the works of Jack Kerouac and Jim Harrison. Their insatiable appetite for travel and experience were inspiring, to say the least. I had to see the world and it didn't matter what part of the world it was or how I got there.
Travel had been an addiction for a while. In June of 2000, shortly after graduating from Ohio State, I called a close friend at around 10:00 in the evening and asked if he'd like to go to New York. Now. And we did, leaving Columbus a little before midnight and having a late breakfast in eastern New Jersey before driving through the Lincoln Tunnel and spending the day walking around the city. Not long after that trip I was on my way to South Korea for the first time, an adventure not well thought out. Life takes you where it will sometimes, and I haven't always stopped to think before following its beckoning hand into uncharted territories. But good things have happened as a result--my wife, beautiful children, lifelong friends, unforgettable experiences, vivid memories of places like Japan, Thailand, and Taiwan.
So maybe I know something about being a bum, being a wanderer, following whims. The beach? Well, there were a lot of vacations.
Which brings me back to The Footnotes and the writing of it. I pecked away at it for four years before finally settling down to finish the rough draft during my summer vacation in 2008. We'd just purchased our first house and were more or less settled, our youngest child just a few months old at that time. My wife was a saint, allowing me the mornings to write, and by August I had a rough draft completed. I planned to let it cool off a month or two before revising.
A month or two turned into five years. During the summer of 2009 I wrote most of the second book in the series (I'm currently anticipating a release in early 2014). The rest of those years? There were college courses, mental peregrinations, time as a bit of a lost soul spent evaluating life choices, many an evening (and morning and afternoon) getting lost in other writers' worlds. In 2013 I vowed to give up the college courses, the effort at a career change, and go back to writing. I began another novel, another rough draft, but thought, "Why keep writing drafts? Why not go back to some earlier books and revise one of them?"
There were a number of candidates for revision, but The Footnotes had been on my mind for a long time (since 2004!). I reread it from a remove of years, from a perspective of distance that allowed me to see it through eyes other than my own. I enjoyed it quite a bit. I thought someone else might enjoy it as well, so I went to work, hours each day spent pondering and writing plot changes, tilting my head and giving thought to word choice, vision blurring, massaging away knots in my shoulders, killing a few of my darlings.
All summer, I felt I was almost done, the book was almost finished, just another two weeks. Another two weeks. But there was so much that needed to be changed! The last part of the novel was more or less completely rewritten (I feel like weeks were spent just reading and rereading the last fifth of the manuscript--sometimes just staring at passages before everything fell into place--a satisfying feeling when the pieces finally all fit). Tae-hee's character was completely rewritten. Various scenes changed. I felt limited by focusing only on Galden's perspective and thought that viewing the story from different angles, from Tae-hee's eyes and Woo's eyes and his family's eyes, added to the book. Their stories interested me. I had to know more, to discover their purpose in the book, what they had to contribute beyond mere mention, beyond warm bodies to move the plot forward. These people needed to live.
The two weeks I thought it would take to finish revising turned into many months, and a rough draft often rough around the edges turned into a first novel I'm proud of, that I'm allowing myself to feel good about. I've read the book more times than I can count at this point. I've devoted a lot of hours to it. I enjoy large swathes of it (especially Paul, who is very much based on a true friend, most of his best lines taken verbatim--writing it made me miss him quite deeply since he lives so far away and we speak infrequently now). There are some parts where I see the scratches and dents, but there are more books to write. I recently heard someone quote someone else to the effect that movies are never finished, just abandoned. I think that applies to all art. I could have kept going on this one. Sanded down every blemish, then rubbed until every inch of it shined. But it was time to abandon it and let it stand on its own, hopefully good enough. I believe it is.
Ray Stickle reads a lot and writes daily. For progress reports, updates on any upcoming releases, and the occasional thought or two, check here.