It was in 2002 that I wrote my first complete “adult” novel. I put the word “adult” in quotation marks specifically because I was twenty years old at the time and I barely had any living experience. In fact, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that I had no living experience at all.
What I did have, however, was the opportunity to absorb a lot of academic experience. I had always been a pretty good student (in fact, I thought it would be the most sensible thing to do with my whole life) and I believed that University would just expand on my knowledge. And it did. I learned many more obscure ancient Greek and Latin roots of words, some mythology, and even more philosophy. To be honest, I had been learning of these elements back in Grade Twelve and the now-lost Canadian Grade OAC (or Grade 13 for those who might not be familiar with it).
Read Between the Realities: Beyond Myth and Legend was essentially a bildungsroman–or a “coming of age”–novel of 136 double-spaced computer pages. This was the point in my development as a writer where things began to really change for me.
Now, I’ve discussed a little of the background behind this novel’s creation, but there are a few more specific things I have to mention. Before this point, I had mostly been working with purely the fantasy genre: in as much of a way as someone at my skill level and knowledge at the time could. In fact, even in my first year of Undergrad I was still working on my fantasy series Deceptions of Nevermore before the change began.
First of all, I’d heard of York’s Creative Writing Program. It was–and as far as I know is–a program where you had to submit a portfolio of poetry and prose in order to be selected for a small number of spots. The Program also discouraged, if not outright rejected genre writing in its courses and, instead, wanted to focus on “realistic fiction.” Now, I was very interested in developing my writing skills in those days and I could only apply in my second year. But that was only part of what helped to create my novel.
The second crucial element in the creation of Read Between the Realities was my discovery of a book called American Gods made by a man named Neil Gaiman. That book, which only in retrospect I realize was Neil Gaiman’s own transition from the format of comic book script writing into solo novel writing, changed things for me in a very big, very real way.
I realized that there were things beyond the confines of genre as I understood it. Then I remembered the film Finding Forrester and how I wanted to write “the great 21st century novel.” So I did something new. Before I even entered the Creative Writing Program, I decided to create my first experimental “adult” novel: a great Canadian novel and all of the grandiosity I still haven’t quite grown out of even in my very early 30s of now.
In Read Between the Realities, I created a pastiche of different stories and attempted to sew them together into an open-ended patchwork reality where you could interpret the novel almost any which way you’d like. I worked on this sucker for a long, long time. I worked on it at home, in parks, on mall benches, at friends’ houses, during sleepovers, when I visited my girlfriend at the time or when she visited me, and even when I moved with my parents to our new house then. Some more marked developments in this novel was how I actually actively incorporated many of my own experiences and thoughts into the work. This was partially influenced by my interest or obsession with philosophy, but also from insights I was having from life.
I was really bad at explaining what my novel was about and I firmly believed that the only way someone could understand it is if they read the damn thing. It also didn’t help that I had the paradigm-shifting magic concept of Mage: The Ascension on my brain too, and I delved into that voraciously.
My book was essentially a story about different realities inter-lapping and how personalized they are. It was about a writer and his relationship issues with his life, a fragmented being seeking something for a demanding master in a labyrinthine subconscious world of ruin, a viciously sadistic monster hunting this being down, and two people on an Internet chat room who bickered all the time. The writer and the two chat room people both believed they were making the story, while the seeker and monster both thought they were living a reality. And none of it was real. And all of it was real.
Of course it all combined, or exploded together–because I always loved epic moments of spectacle–and I played at being profound. Yes, it was a meta-narrative: complete with the characters knowing they are characters or finding out they are and all that fun stuff.
Ten years ago, I thought it was the best thing I had ever written in my whole life, and I actually feared that I could never surpass it. Ever.
Years later after showing it to some friends, I found out that I could indeed “surpass” it. A lot of my characters were two-dimensional archetypes, I didn’t write female characters well, I certainly couldn’t write sex scenes worth a damn then, and I rambled: a lot. And when I tried to simulate experiences I never learned about or experiences I never had, it just fell flat. Also, I wrote combat and adventures as if they were video game levels: though that in itself makes sense given my interests then and now. So yes, I can safely say that I have done better since then, though …
I’ll let you in on a little secret. I actually haven’t really written any, at least official, novel-length works in a very long time. They take a lot of commitment and unique formulas to keep up. I also can’t just write anywhere at anytime anymore. Part of this is that I realized I had more of a life beyond my craft, but I also find that novels can be trapping. They can really take your time and energy. They always get on your mind all the time.
Short stories are explorations into more tightly-knit, self-contained worlds. You can spend less time on these than on a novel, though they take their own toll given that you really need to focus on tying them up all neat-like. On the other hand, sometimes I find short stories to be like little tidbits–even the more complex “four-course meal ones” that some of my friends like to call them–and not as satisfying as the meaty feel of an entire world in a novel. That is, of course, when the short story ideas aren’t overwhelming your bodily and mental limitations to write them all out.
So sometimes, despite my best intentions, I have found myself writing novel-length works because the ideas behind them are either too similar to be placed in anything other than an overarching structure, or they just too big to contain in one short story. And for now, that is all I will say for the others that came after Read Between the Realities.
What is notable about my twenty-year old writer’s novel was that this was about the point when I was also consciously playing with mythology and archetypes in addition to ideas and philosophies. I attempted to combine academics and creation together. I also very reluctantly put more of myself into the work, and–like I said–I went into meta-narrative and irony: which for someone who had just done generic well-meaning fantasy novels before was a big step. And Joss Whedon taught me to be more flippant and referential about popular culture and life too.
I would never have admitted that I created a coming of age novel. I always wanted to make other worlds and other people to get away from the ones I was experiencing–or not experiencing–but I can admit that this was what it was. And for something based on a whole lot of theoretical knowledge, incomplete understanding, video game and pop culture influences and a small if not sheltered, somewhat self-repressed and stagnant amount of personal growth at the time, I did pretty well. It was like building a small Star Gate from the scrap-metal in one’s basement. It did what it was designed to do.
Read Between Realities was made at a time where I went as far as I could go with what I had then–with what I was then–and now, whatever else, I know that I have and definitely can go farther.
Credit: Beth Ann Dowler, the photographer of this image.