What is This Novel About Anyway?

Good question, hypothetical reader (site stats say there’s at least 2 of you, so allow me to be authorial and put words in your mouth). What follows is me talking out loud as much as to the imaginary people I think read this blog, so take that as you will.

Anyway.

The novel-in-progress is tentatively called CLOUDHUNTER, and is ostensibly about Major Tom. Though in all deference to David Bowie, it was actually the Peter Schilling song, Major Tom (Coming Home) that inspired the story. Specifically one line:

they don’t realize he’s still alive

I always wanted to know what happened next, after our brave astronaut flew his little tin can into orbit. Having grown up watching Star Trek, and reading Vonnegut, my mind immediately went to an obvious cause: chronosynclastic infundibulum. Time travel. Something weird happened in Low Earth Orbit and our astronaut (I always pictured Major Tom as the eighth member of the Mercury 7) traveled through time.

But to when?

An Astronaut landing in the 25th century had already been done. besides I wanted something a bit more fitting with my temperament and interests. The declining space program. history. Deconstructed science fiction tropes. Early 21st Century politics and social changes. I’ve been reading a lot about hauntology over the last few years and that idea really stuck out. It should be a story about the past haunting the present. Specifically, past ideas of what the future was going to be like, manifesting in the real world. Who better an avatar for retrofutrological hauntology than Major Tom?

OK, let’s unpack that jargon a moment, so you’ll see what I’m getting at.

You all know what the retrofuture is. Lisa Simpson summed it up best as, “what people in 1963 thought life would be like in 1986.” It’s why Futurama is funny and the Jetsons so sad. All those outdated ideas about the 21st century, how we’d have food pills and jet packs and hovercraft and be living on the moon. (The half funny, half sad question, “where’s my jetpack?” is a nervous laugh, a relieved sigh about the other side of that outdated future we didn’t live through, the one where we all died in a nuclear holocaust. There are a lot of futures we didn’t get to see. Be glad of this.)

Hauntology is a more slippery fish to define.

I think of Hauntology as the opposite of nostalgia. Where nostalgia is the retreat from the unfamiliar present into the comforting familiarity of subjective recollections about the past, hauntology is the present invaded by the secrets of the past. The unburied fears and unknown history upon which the present is built.

The creeping suspicion that your present life is the result of atrocities committed by your forefathers in your name, without your consent.

It’s the sudden realization that your ancestors were cannibals, and may not have even been human.

What Ghosts mean as a literary device.

This is what it sounds like.

So my novel is that, but in prose form, about Major Tom who went lost while in orbit in 1963, and returns to Earth in the early 21st century only to find that his mission was the linchpin of a secret history involving refugees from perpendicular universes, the real reason behind the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a group of scientists who were trying to finish the Great Work started by Aliester Crowley and Jack Parsons, using NASA as their magic circle and Astronauts as their offerings to dark and unknown forces.

This is a bit more challenging to write than the cheesy silver Age revival adventure novel it started out as, and which I gutted a few weeks ago, salvaging the parts that were sufficiently weird and making room for the real story. It’s way more introspective, thoughtful and therefore creatively interesting (also, more pretentious but in a good way).

My goal is to have a rough draft done by mid February, take a few weeks off to become a dad, then polish it up in the spring, maybe find an agent. We’ll see how this, like all my other plans, turns into interesting times instead.

What’s Happening With the Novel-In-Progress

Shortly after the last post about the novel, I realized I had some plot issues that needed resolving before I could move into the 3rd act. I was surprised to find that, while I had a lot of good stuff, it didn’t all fit together as neatly as I thought. There was a lot of dithering, scene bloat and one major character who had a death grip on the idiot ball. Basically, the plot all hinged on one character simply not telling the others what they knew. This makes for a lousy story. But I caught it early and set about fixing the issue.

There were also stylistic problems. This book really wanted to be a Silver Age revival adventure novel. The problem is, I don’t much care for writing pointless action set pieces and found myself uncomfortably close to writing a dumb action movie in prose form (and with way too many guns for my taste*). Usually I veer more towards a dreamlike suspense/absurdity with a touch of existential anxiety. And while it’s good to stretch as a writer, it’s possible to stretch too far and no one wants to read the literary equivalent of a pulled hamstring.

So I started pulling the manuscript apart and salvaging the pieces that worked. After some massive plot restructuring and throwing out half the MS, I’m closer to getting the novel I want, a more introspective sci-fi mystery. Also, It’ll be a much more marketable 90K words than the bloated whale corpse I was kicking, which was approaching 120K words before I even started Act 3. And really, if you find yourself passing the 100k mark and not yet hitting the 3rd act, that means you have a some dead weight in that manuscript and it’s dragging the ass of your manuscript through the mud.

Oddly enough, what set me on the right track was, as is often the case, sitting down one evening and watching an old movie. In this case, the great, often overlooked but highly recommended masterpiece of 70s paranoia-malaise, Capricorn One. Worth watching just to see a young Sam Waterston (and staying for Hal Holbrook’s turn as one of the more understated villains you’re ever likely to see).

So, lessons learned:

  • If you can’t tell a compelling story in 90K words, you’re doing something wrong.
  • Don’t be afraid to torch half your manuscript.
  • Watch old movies. They’re awesome.
  • relax, it’s only fiction.

 

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*It doesn’t help when you lock yourself in the office all afternoon, writing a gun-heavy action scene, only to find, when emerge for a break that a gunman has just shot up a mall a few miles away. I’ve really started to examine the role violence plays in our entertainment and question the reason for much of it.