Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
Even though I’d just written about hitting important word counts on both my second novel and my upcoming fantasy web novel, The Second Magus, it appears I wasn’t’ done with my cluster of milestones. This one, on reflection, is a little bit bittersweet.
This past week, I’d reached 100K words on the fantasy story that I’ve been reading and writing for my kids for a couple of years now, and to which I simply refer to as “Cassia and Mateo”. You can read more about it here but long story short is that I’d taken two characters from a short story I’d written, and then expanded their world into a tale of treasure hunting and mysterious magical powers that I thought I could read to the kids in little chunks at bedtime.
As you can see, at one hundred thousand words it’s grown way beyond a simple bedtime tale, and seems to have also grown beyond my kids’ interest. I remember when I first started recounting it to them, they’d be asking me for “one last part” over and over again, even when I’d say that it was for real going to be the last part this time. The light that those words would shine inside me, both as a father and as a writer – I will carry that warmth with me forever. Now though, it’s been at least a month since I read them any of the story.
The “one last part” requests had slowly morphed from genuine enthusiasm into tradition, and even that was eventually dropped. I’ve prepared all my segments that I would read to them with a little encore, and now was forced to prompt that encore myself. I’ve asked them about this of course, and they told me that there weren’t enough monsters in the story anymore. Sure enough, early on in the tale there’d been flying sharks, and croco-jaguars and even bear-eels. Then the story went in its own direction and try as I might I see little room for those kinds of beasts right now.
Maybe that’s my fault. Maybe I let the story get away from me when I should have kept it more towards my kids’ interests – found ways of incorporating the elements they wanted and turning away from the vision of the story that had formed.
It’s like, you kind of expect it, but you’re never truly prepared for how much parenting is one constant struggle with second-guessing yourself. I just never would have imagined that there would be such a crossover with my writing as well. They grow up unfairly quickly. Just when you think you’re hitting a groove with them, they’re older and they’ve moved on to something else. You want to hold onto these moments so tightly but the truth is you never know when they’re about to slip through your fingers.
I’m continuing to write Cassia and Mateo because I know I will finish reading it to them one day, I’ll let them know how the story ends. But what I really want is to find that spark again. To chase that story where I can again capture their imaginations like I did before, even though their imaginations are maturing so quickly. If not with Cassia and Mateo, then with another story, perhaps this one catered entirely to them, responding to their cues and their whims. After all, I’ve got many years of writing ahead of me, but precious few years of my boys being kids.
Not going to lie, I choked up a couple of times while writing this. You’d think hitting 100K in anything is a cause for celebration and nothing but, but I’ve made it about self-reflection, it seems. Oh well. If any of you out there have kids, be sure to hug them extra tight tonight. Wherever you’re finding joys with them right now, whether in the big things or the little things, those are the only things that should matter right now, because this part is so preciously small.
Update: After I wrote this entry and before it went live, I had a brief chat with my kids about the future of the story. Not surprisingly, they did say they didn’t really have much interest in seeing it to its end (poor things, they looked so guilty even though they don’t owe me anything). I said I figured as much but wanted to know why and was it the lack of monsters. They agreed, and then I asked them if there were monsters closer to the end, but it would take a little while to meet them, would they be okay sitting through the parts leading up to that. They both agreed that this was a good plan. My eldest also rushed to tell me that he’s still interested in The Second Magus even though it’s got no monsters. I told him yes, there won’t really be any monsters in that one and he said that’s fine, he still likes it. So there you go, lessons learned for me about how to approach writing that I intend to cater towards my kids, a reminder that it’s vitally important to talk to your kids., and further confirmation that I’m raising a couple of absolute sweethearts.
I’ve confessed here before that I have so many projects on the go it’s sometimes hard to envision any of them reaching their conclusion. That said, I’ve also mentioned that this is one of my strengths – almost a necessary ingredient to sometimes push through writers’ block. So it’s nothing I’m really in need of changing, but it does make it hard to provide any kind of regular updates with respect to everything I’m working on.
I’ve talked about Wake the Drowned, the novel that I’m currently editing and seems to actually be nearing completion sometime in this fresh little decade (if we live that long, given the year we’ve been having). I’ve also mentioned, including very recently in my post about utilizing Google Street View in writing research, my second novel, which has now surpassed 30,000 words. I’ve also devoted some time here to my “side project” – The Bloodlet Sun, a sci-fi serial I’m releasing on this blog and that’s returning for regular updates September 10. There’s plenty of other things I’m working on, and I wanted to introduce one that has been very near and dear to my heart over the last year-and-a-half: an adventure story I’m writing for, and reading to, my kids.
If you follow my Twitter, you would have noticed that here and there I mention “Cassia and Mateo” or else make other references to writing a fantasy work for kids. This is less of a real writing project and much more of a labour of love.
My kids are voracious readers. Thanks to mostly my wife they’ve already consumed a small library of kid literature and the place they miss being at the most during this whole COVID-19 quarantine is the book store. Having grown up in Russia, my access was pretty limited to old Soviet children’s books, which were adorable at the time but are like ten kinds of problematic when read with a current cultural lens, so I’m lucky enough to have been sucked into my kids’ reading world as well.
As a writer (and I use this phrase sparingly as I think in 99% of cases it can be replaced with “as a human”), something was missing. Sure, there was that one story about Petey the Pirate, who had a massive hoarding problem, and the one about the kid who ate the world’s longest noodle, a tale that didn’t go anywhere, much like the noodle, but I was looking for something bigger. I guess the main kernel of inspiration came from The Antlered Ship by Dashka Slater and the Fan Brothers. I also wanted to create that sense of whimsy with a ship and adventure on the high seas. Disclaimer: I still had no idea what I was doing.
I took two existing characters, the eponymous Cassia and Mateo, from a yet-unpublished standalone short story called “River Cows” and threw them into a world filled with pirates and treasure hunters and ancient relics and magical powers. At first, I tried to do it off-the-cuff – tell the story to the kids and then write it down when I had the chance. This quickly became unworkable as the story became more complex, and let’s face it, I wasn’t terribly good at improvising. So now, I do all the writing ahead of time, break it up into smaller chunks that I can spread out through our bedtimes, and read it to them later. This whole endeavour started in January of last year, and one-and-a-half years later, it’s still a staple of bedtime a couple of nights a week.
From a purely utilitarian perspective, this has been a great experience. Writing Cassia and Mateo as I go has been the ultimate exercise in flying by the seat of my pants (or “pantsing”) versus outlining the whole story in advance. Sure, I kind of know where its going to go in general, but mostly I don’t know all that much about what’s going to happen more than a chapter away. It’s also allowed me to practice building characters and worlds, and trying on for size what makes kids excited (for a while, my reading of Cassia and Mateo coincided with my wife’s reading to them the first few books of Percy Jackson and the Olympians and there were many loud protestations whenever Cassia and Mateo weren’t being chased by some sort of monster).
Aside from how this helps my writing in the long run, this has been a magical experience. Hearing for the first time “and then what happens?”, giving them a similar kind of excitement and joy they get from other books, made everything worth it; my whole writing career, if this is its apex, wouldn’t have gone to waste. I may not be the Fan Brothers or Rick Riordan, but I’ve got the most important audience I could ever hope for. Every time either of them says “one last part” when I’m finished reading, my heart pulls a Grinch and swells three sizes.
I’m not sure what, if anything, I will end up doing with the story. It’s ungainly – at 70,000 words it’s at most two-thirds done and I still don’t know how to tie off some of the loose ends. My kids are sometimes unclear as to the nature of Cassia’s power and asked me on more than one occasion whether the story actually has an end. I’m also retconning a bit as I go, which is exceedingly difficult with kids who have memories akin to elephants. So if this were to ever somehow move forward, it would require a gargantuan amount of editing.
So there’s a chance it won’t, that I’d be perfectly content with my kids being the only ones who are privy to this story. Which is fine by me. Though I’ll never drop the fantasy of being like Wrinkle in Time author Madeleine L'Engle and reading to my kids something that would eventually be loved by millions of children around the world, it was written for my kids, and there’s nothing disappointing about it staying that way.
And who knows, maybe all that practice would be put to good use. I’m already starting to plan my next young readers project, and I’m even more excited about this one.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.