Uncharted territory

The problem with doing something that no one else has done before is that no one else has done it before, so you have no basis for comparison to tell if you’re doing it right.

As I said before, I’m taking a break from the Unification Chronicles universe and working on Ghost Ronin, my nanotech-superspy-turned-assassin-with-a-heart-of-gold story. I hope to make it into a series over time, but we’ll see how this turns out first.

I had an interesting little structural thing I was doing with GR, which has mutated on its own into a new—or very old—form. The novel, when it was a novel, was structured as a playlist. Each chapter had a song that captures the mood or theme or a specific moment in that chapter. The chapter where the hero is isolated and alone is Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, for example, and the chapter that introduces the FBI agent chasing the hero is “Just A Job To Do” by Genesis. It was a nice hook, and I thought it added something to the story I hadn’t seen done very often. Sure, some of my favorite authors like Stephen King and Alan Moore are fond of including relevant song lyrics in their prose, but I didn’t recall anyone building the whole story around relevant songs.

The more I work on it, though, the less it feels like a novel. I realized early on that I can include clips of each song—up to 20 seconds, according to a lawyer friend of mine—when I release the story as a serial podcast. And structuring it with podcasting in mind got me looking more closely at how I’d containerized the plot in each track of the playlist. They’re not chapters in a novel. Chapters have more continuity, flow more easily into the next chapter. What I’m really looking at here is a series of 14 short stories. Each is largely self-contained, and should come to its own satisfying conclusion, like each episode in a season of a television show.

Also, looking at how much story I really have in each track, some of them could easily edge from short story into novelette, even novella territory. For instance, the first track, inspired by Rush’s “Bravado”, follows an Army Ranger sniper team, a two-man group of sniper and spotter. In this case, the two Rangers are best friends since childhood and work together like brothers. Chris, the sniper, is down to earth and practical, and a master of anything with a trigger. Mike, the spotter, is more athletically gifted, but also has a rebellious, impulsive streak that often gets him into trouble. The two are high in northern highlands of Afghanistan, hunting an al Qaida sniper team that is also hunting them. Over the course of the track, hunters become hunted and back again until the enemy pins Mike and Chris into an ambush. Chris manages to escape with severe injuries, but only because Mike sacrifices himself to blow up the other team.

We find out in the next chapter/track that Mike is only mostly dead, missing both legs, an arm and half his face, and is recruited by a secretive defense contractor to be rebuilt into an operative more formidable than a whole battalion of Army Rangers. That’s not part of this story. This is a war story, two buddies on their own in enemy territory. And frankly, if I wanted to I could make a whole novel out of that, considering the flashbacks I could put in from their childhood and going through Ranger school together. I’m not looking for that kind of “decompression” to use a comics term, but to really get to know Mike and Chris—while Mike is the protagonist of the series, the Ghost Ronin, Chris will be coming back into the story and playing a vital role later—we’re probably looking at more than 10,000 words here.

This has two ramifications that I’m trying to get my brain around, and I think they’re why I’ve found it so difficult to get started on the actual writing. The first is that if each track ends up being closer to 15,000-20,000 words, that pushes the whole 14 track story far out of novel territory. 280,000 words is way too long for a novel written by someone not named Rowling, Clancy or King. I could try to edit it down to publish it as a novel, but I’m looking at the real possibility that I’ll have to split this into a trilogy if I want to go commercial.

The other is that I don’t know how much to plot ahead of time. As I discuss in an article I haven’t posted yet, three-act structures are not only the absolute foundation of human storytelling, they are also recursive structures like fractals (yes, there is more math to writing than word counts). A trilogy is three novels. A novel is three acts, the beginning, middle and the end. But each of those acts also has a beginning, middle and end. It’s turtles all the way down.

For reasons I’ll go into in that other article, I outline novel-length works so I can make sure I hit those act breaks solid, twist in all the right places. But that’s novels. Do I need to do that for a novella? I don’t outline individual scenes. But there’s more structure here.

If I outline it in too much detail relative to wordcount, I freeze the story and feels mechanical, paint-by-numbers. If I just dive in and wing it, I have no idea if I can hit the complication, climax and wrap it up satisfactorily.

What’s a writer out of his normal medium to do?