Words and music are the two great passions of my life from which all others have derived. Hard to say which came first. They’ve been inextricably bound together in a passive sense within my consciousness for longer than I can remember. I started piano lessons when I was seven, right around the same time I started getting my first positive feedback from my classmates when we would have to get up and read the stories we’d been assigned to write.
I’ve written stories — or tried to — and played instruments — or tried to — ever since. Piano and violin as a kid. A yearlong stint with the guitar in my mid-twenties. I’d been in love with the idea of bards and harps since I discovered Irish mythology at the age of eleven. Of course, right around that time was when I quit the violin. I would still take piano lessons for another three years, but I never practiced adequately with either, even though I financed the violin by getting my own paper route because, well, since I wasn’t practicing the piano already, my parents wouldn’t subsidize the violin on top of that. So I knew with that track record — and the rarity and expense of the instrument — that I wouldn’t be able to get into the harp.
In 2000, at the age of twenty-nine, after messing with teaching myself on a relatively inexpensive lap harp for a year, I finally got a harp and found a teacher about four months after that. 2001 was also the year I discovered the German industrial metal band Rammstein and also when I read the first three books of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire that were out at the time. I’d worked on a fantasy novel off and on through high school and college, accumulated about 250 pages or so, and eventually stopped because I couldn’t figure out where I needed to go with it. So by 2001 I hadn’t really written for a few years. Martin’s storytelling, his writing style, and his amazing characterizations kindled something in me, though. I wanted to write again — had to write again.
I’d written fantasy or sci-fi ever since I was a kid because those were the genres I primarily read. I wanted to do something different. I wanted an epic feel and grittiness but something set in the real world, and I began writing a story about a female guitarist named Linnea whose band gets selected to tour as the opening act for a successful German metal-type group. She ends up filling in for their guitarist after he suffers an accident on the tour, and the way they redesign the show to take advantage of the onstage chemistry between her and Mark, the lead singer of the more well-known band, ends up being a resounding success.
But there are lots of complications. Linnea’s kind of a mess with a dysfunctional family situation ever since her twin Thomas died when they were ten. Mark’s a heavy drinker and a womanizer, and his ex-wife has run off with a Russian mobster. And the drummer for the band, Peter, who is as narcissistic as he is good-looking, would like to get involved with Linnea himself. Peter and Fritz, the guitarist Linnea fills in for, are big gamblers, and when Fritz defaults on money he owes a Basque loan shark who happens to be the archenemy of the Russian mobster Mark’s ex ran off with, the band gets caught in between the two feuding European criminals. Fritz develops an illness that makes him unable to continue playing in the band, and Linnea is brought in once more, this time as a permanent bandmember.
Then hijinks were supposed to ensue. A big part of it was going to be a tension between the way things appeared on the surface according to the various characters’ perceptions and how wrong they were about the realities of the various situations. I gave the novel a working title of Eroberung, the German word for conquest, which was the name of the album they were supposed to be working on during the main timeline of the story.
And then somehow, despite the fact that I was going for gritty realism, supernatural elements started creeping into the whole thing, complicating it even more. I was also writing all the tour scenes as flashbacks…and I was writing everything out of order because I only wanted to write the inspiring, almost iconic-feeling scenes, that had inspired me to work on the story. The result was an enigmatic mishmash of unconnected stuff, and, once again, after working on it off and on for maybe five years I got to a point where I didn’t know what to do with it anymore. By that point I had renamed the book The Lesser Evil, due to certain thematic things that had developed, but I shelved it and concentrated my energies on learning the harp. I got divorced, remarried, had a baby, and quit court reporting to raise my daughter.
Meanwhile, my good friend Amy Lee Burgess had started sharing her vampire novel work-in-progress with me on LiveJournal. Even in the raw, her stuff was very, very good. I’m a geeky nuts-and-bolts kind of person, and so over the years we got talking about the more technical aspects of writing. After a few years of writing a series of novels that she herself was having a hard time drawing to a resolution, a mutual friend, Michael Davis, challenged her to participate in NaNoWriMo, and in eleven days she did the impossible — she wrote a whole novel about werewolves, one she went on to get published with a small digital press. She had asked me to beta-read it for her, as well as the six subsequent novels in the series. Pretty soon we weren’t just having casual conversations about the technical aspects of writing — this shit was getting real. I got to see, up close and personal, as she went through the process of being edited by a third party and started to learn the more formalized rules of writing as they apply to published authors.
Over the years as we’d been talking, I’d thought about The Lesser Evil from time to time, but it was an irretrievable mess. I’d even started a pure fantasy novel at some point while I had been still working on TLE, got myself about fifty pages of material, and then didn’t know where to go…yet again. I started finding myself itching to write as all this writerly wisdom slowly osmosed into me, but I resisted. I’d proven three times now that I was good at starting things but could not finish anything to save my life.
I had started out a spectator to her process, but the more we talked as she was learning the ropes, the more I found myself reacting against some of the conventional wisdom we were talking about. I’d always thought myself a pretty good and competent writer, but I was finding that all the things that were a no-no for the published author, I did — in spades. I was itching more and more to write again, but I was afraid to because now I was finding that it wasn’t just that I couldn’t finish anything — maybe I really had never had any aptitude for it at all. I began developing a weird sort of existential dread, the kind of Everything I’ve thought about myself is a lie! stuff that keeps the more neurotic of us awake at night.
At some point we were having a discussion about describing rooms and environments, and I thought to myself “Aha! That is something I’m actually pretty good at.” And I pulled up the old files for TLE on my computer and nervously sent her a chapter to read that started out with what I felt at least was a lush description of a setting, thinking I was probably signing the death warrant on my credibility as a beta-reader and generally competent human being by doing so.
She responded very positively, and I was inspired to reread all of the files I had, all the files I’d dreaded looking at after soaking in the philosophy of published writing.
Around August of 2012 I decided to pick things up by finishing the scene that had so tied me up in knots that I’d abandoned TLE. It was an awful slog that took me a couple of weeks, and the result was embarrassing for me to read, but I did it. I decided to go on and try to write a scene I’d been envisioning since almost the beginning of my work on the novel. That turned out better, but it was bumpy. I was starting to get inspired again, but it was such an uphill battle. I talked to Amy about my frustrations about the supernatural elements and how they were tripping me up because they weren’t supposed to be there. I was embarrassed about it because I’d been trying to get away from the usual stuff I always wanted to write — the fantastic elements — and write a “serious” realistic novel. She suggested that, rather than eliminate the supernatural stuff that I bring it forward and make it the major focus. I started to see a potential for where to go with it, but the 250 pages I had were a barely cohesive mess, and I hadn’t set it up properly. I started to realize it would have to be rewritten because the foundation just wasn’t there. When the supernatural elements had begun to creep in, I realized that I had been unable to ever commit to anything plotwise in the novel. It was all there in the vagueness of the scenes I’d written — a lot of dramatic sound a fury and enigmatic hints of potential, but ultimately signifying nothing.
My paternal grandmother passed away at the end of November 2012. In the months before her death when she’d asked me what I was doing, I had been talking about starting to work on my novel again. An extremely talented and creative person that did a lot of work with her hands — needlework, crocheting, knitting, baking, cooking, leather work, and building and repairing clocks — she had always been a staunch supporter of all my own creative endeavors. I don’t think there was anything I ever did, no matter how unrealistic an undertaking, that she ever so much as criticized. I spent several weeks alone right after the holiday season helping in the cleaning out of her apartment, coming across all of her own projects, all of the personal effects and evidence of things that had fueled her own creative spirit. I did a lot of thinking about myself during that time and how much I had in common with her, how much of my own stubbornness and temperamental dedication to a certain level of quality of things mirrored hers.
I didn’t plan for it — in fact I didn’t even realize the timing until several weeks, almost a month later — but I began the rewrite of The Lesser Evil on January 17 of 2013, what would have been my grandmother’s ninetieth birthday…