Friday, 4 July 2014

While You Were Dancing - The Why & How

*NOTE* In celebration of the start of this series, the novella will be free on July 5th, should amazon decide not to randomly mess me up with delays again. I originally wanted to do it for today, but, again, it just didn't work out that way.

Today, as promised, will be the first in a series of posts about my first published novella, "While You Were Dancing". Today I will discuss the "Whys" and "Hows" of the story and why it even exists at all. More after the jump!



 
The story took a long time to grow into its final form from a seed of thought. Most of my stories were conceived in a period where I was in a bad place spiritually, emotionally, and physically, which gave me a lot to work with when it came to general premise. This one, however, was the last of those initial stories to come into fruition, and yet it ended up being the one I believed I needed to put out there first.

When I started College a few years back I had to travel three hours each day to get there and an additional three hours to get back home. This meant that on some days I would travel more than I would actually learn in class or talk to people which gave me a lot of spare time I didn't really want. But what ended up happening during this period was that I began to learn a lot about moving and interacting in public in a way that would offend no one, get to places faster, and keep to myself. In other words, I learned to be alone in a crowd.
 
I watched sour-faced grey-haired adults at 6am glaring at kids for playing their music too loud on their headphones, unaware teenagers rapping out loud while avoiding stares from others, middle-aged women reading romance novels while spread over two seats, and young men and women around my age looking out windows, the floor, the ceiling, anything to avoid looking at each other. What was the similarity between all these groups of people? They would never acknowledge anyone's existence by daring to speak, look at, or brush into them. It was as if everyone was scared of everyone else for some reason I couldn't understand. I could travel for three hours through suburbia, the city, and a college town and not speak to a single soul along the entire way. Is that really something to be proud of?
 
It wasn't just places like the bus or the metro, but also the streets, the stores, and even the school I attended. How can you pass by so many people every day without even having a clue about them? How can you be surrounded by so many people yet still feel alone among them? Needless to say, it grated tremendously on me.

So I began to wonder, if we're so clueless about each other, maybe there are things we're missing because of our tunnel-vision in day to day life. Maybe there are things, important things, going on all around us that we're always missing because we're so concerned with being alone in the crowd and getting to our super-important appointment on time. If this is the world we love so much, why is alienation and suicide such a problem? Why do so many people not feel like they belong and have nothing but despair to turn to? It isn't just being alone in the crowd on the street that's the issue—but in our family and with our friends who we don't really know as well as we think we do. All it would take would be a single string of events, and the loose fabric of culture would unravel and we would be left with nothing. If this is the world we want . . . then it's eventually going to kill us all. So, I imagined, if the world was beginning to rot away from the inside from this strange mass alienation and self-obsession we currently have dominating our society—would anyone actually notice? Sure, you would notice a bomb or satellite, but what about something less obvious? If they did notice it, well then, how? Why?
 
That's where my story came in.

Two Tone is a young man lost in the modern world. He has his music, his clothes, and his job—what else would he need? It's enough to get by. He has lived such a shallow life that he knows absolutely nothing about the world, his roots, his future, or those he considers close, and he doesn't seem to care. With a character like this, I had my starting point for the story, I just didn't know where it was going to go. So I let it sit over a long period of time before it finally started to make sense from a narrative standpoint. But, how to write it?

So I revisited certain stories to help me figure out my own. Being that I was still just starting to write for real, I couldn't quite get what I wanted across, so I looked to my reading roots to see if they could help me out. It turned out to be the best thing for me overall.

One of the first authors I really got into when I was younger was S.E. Hinton, who wrote her first book while she was fifteen years old and sort of blew up in popularity while simultaneously creating the "Young Adult" genre in the process (despite the fact she was merely writing a story she wanted to write, it was still somehow crammed into a genre) though none of that was why I was a fan.

Mrs. Hinton was quite good at writing about teenagers caught in the whirlwind transition between childhood and adulthood, and always managed to be thoughtful about it. Teenagers weren't always right and adults always wrong, but neither were adults always right and teenagers always wrong, like they were in so much terrible fiction in the genre. No, her characters were people—not smug soapbox vehicles and always had a role to play in the story. As far as I'm concerned, she should be read over Judy Bloom and J.D. Salinger in schools, for actually having something worthwhile to say without pandering to kids or whining about adults.

She wrote five "young adult" novels over her career, and the one that had struck me was the third one, "Rumble Fish", which was later made into a very strange movie (that doesn't really capture the essence, in my opinion) by Francis Ford Coppola. At an obvious level it's a story about a stupid teenager who lives for the moment, has no idea about the world he lives in, and ends up crushing himself when the shallow world he built for himself turns out to be a charade.

In "While You Were Dancing", Two Tone is a bit different from Rusty-James, the main character from "Rumble Fish", in quite a few ways. The first is that he already seems to know that his life is worthless and hollow though he doesn't care, and the second is that he is already an adult and well past the stage of pretending he understands the world—so he constructs one for himself. The easy way to get by.

I didn't specifically construct the story to be an answer to that one, it just sort of ended up with those similarities. But what really motivated me to finally write it was a completely different book from another era—"Phantastes" by George MacDonald.

"Phantastes" is a story best known for being C.S. Lewis' favorite book. It's a very simple concept of a young man growing up by taking a journey into the world of the Fairies which is a reflection of our own shown in pure supernatural terms. He grows in changes in terms very similar to our own but with a whole different way of getting there.

So, I contrasted.

We live in a world that either doesn't see, or doesn't want to hear from, the supernatural, we live in a world where the crowd can't look anywhere someone else is standing, and we don't dare look or walk around corners unless we know what is there. Hence, I figured that "Phantastes" general premise had some key ideas in line with mine, so I began to try to figure the story out from this perspective with the one difference being a very dangerous enemy outside the normality of the world.

The idea of the "shadows" in the novella originated from another story I wrote, and are another story for another time, but their usage in this story was needed. What other sort of threat would be lurking around corners and just out of sight in the physical world? There are few options without resorting to stock monsters, and I personally refuse to use monsters that already exist in the fiction world if I have to alter their origins. Doing otherwise would be dishonest and selfish.

I have also had the question of length brought to me. I could make it shorter and get rid of Two Tone's journey through the world he thought he knew in order to make it a simple story of an encounter gone wrong, or I could lengthen it and make it a suspense novel about a man being hunted by these creatures. Neither is what the story is about, and both are very standard stories that have been done too many times to count. This is not a suspense novel about a hunted man, nor is it a moral-wrapped short story about the dangers of crossing the street. It's about a single event that changes a man's view of the world and how he has to deal with that in the short time he has available. I couldn't get that across in any other form other than a novella.

Novellas tend to be stories that take place in one complete action, over one thought process, over a certain amount of time. There are no sub-plots, filler, or more than one main character to focus on. "While You Were Dancing" is one thought process from beginning to end—from Two Tone's realization that the world is not what he thinks it is, to what this means for his safe like, to to how he is going to fix it. To shorten it would take away his motivations and weaken his awakening, and to lengthen it would take away any sense of spontaneity and confusion in his realization and journey. He needed to slowly realize what he had been doing while the world had fallen apart while still being on a short schedule.
 
That's obviously, as you can guess, where the title came from. The title to this story is perhaps the only one I got on the first try that didn't require brainstorming. It means pretty much exactly what you think it does.

But, the real reason this story had to be written, in the end, is because it was planted in me and needed to come out one way or the other. I had spent the first half of my twenties getting ideas for stories without pursuing them, and I spent the second half relentlessly trying to write them down. It's been a long journey and I hope you enjoy what comes of it.
 
So, in celebration, if all goes according to plan, tomorrow on July 5th the story will be free on kindle for a whole day! Please give it a look and tell me what you think!

This is merely the beginning.

[The beginning of both of my stories and this feature . . . just in case that wasn't clear!]

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