The next project–yes, I’m thinking about the next project, even as I am pausing on the current one–is a space opera. It doesn’t have a name yet, but there’s quite a bit of it written already.
I last touched it using my electric typewriter, some time in the spring or summer of 1979.
It has the potential for massive plot-sprawl, but at the time I began it, I didn’t have the long-form chops to handle that kind of thing. I had no concept of planning on paper; all I find in my paper files is a few cryptic notes in between assignments for high school algebra and world history.
Oh yes, and in those files there’s a history paper about Catherine II of Russia, written in the persona of a fictional British diplomat. The moves I’m doing in Cleopatra’s Ironclads I have been practicing for a very long time.
It’s the dark of the year, here in the northern hemisphere, when we approach the gateway of the winter solstice that opens onto a succession of such doors, year after year into the past as far as I can see. That’s the time of year when I look through papers from the past. This year marks my fifth year doing the National Novel Writing Month challenge, and the point at which I begin to turn full circle to confront the writing I did when I was very young. Cleopatra and her world were my obsession at age nine and ten and eleven. Now I am writing an alternate-history version of her.
Back in 2004, before I’d even heard of National Novel Writing Month, I did 52,000 words of narrative, about a young woman who was the belle of her province in eighteenth-century Ukraine. It wasn’t at all intended as a novel, but character backstory for the antagonist in an adaptation of Nadezhda Durova’s memoir–her mother, who is known to history only by her daughter’s account, a handful of descriptions collected almost a century after her death, and a few census entries.
Out of these few mileposts in the darkness, I conjured an entire character and a world. Granted, I did a huge amount of research to pull that off, but the real work wasn’t there–it was the moment when I stepped into her skin and lived her life, scribbling away in a composition book in ball-point pen and looking up to blink in surprise at the electric light.
I sent it to my dramaturgical consultant to review, and cringed in expectation of a rebuke; even if I was paying him by the hour to review and comment, it felt like I’d just committed a human rights violation shipping all of that off to him. Not only the story of Durova’s mother, but her father, her horse, Czar Alexander I …
He wrote back and said that he’d been sucked in, utterly mesmerized, by the lives of these imaginary people. It read just like a novel.
And so it was, and it gave me something to look back on when four years later I left the job from hell and launched on a sabbatical year dedicated exclusively to my own work. No problem, I said, tallying the word-count for all those stories; I did this all in November and I can do it again.