Sequels vs. Grad School: Task Queues of the Damned

Ten years ago I waded into my first National Novel Writing Month with an idea that had been banging around in my head. I came out the other side with something more than 50,000 words and the pleasant surprise of learning I could in fact write a novella all in one go. It took a lot of caffeine and it ended with one long 11,000-word day when I got sick of writing but not sick of wanting to win. It was satisfying in the way I imagine it’s satisfying to skydive or to bike 100 miles: here’s an idea that can go badly in any number of ways but might also result in a real sense of personal accomplishment, so let’s stop thinking and say screw it and jump and then let’s see if we’re alive when we land. If we didn’t go for it like that sometimes we wouldn’t be human. Our ancestors didn’t come down out of the trees because they simply felt like it. They climbed down and crossed the grasses because nobody had ever been to the trees over there.

An unfortunate truth is that I am both almost entirely sedentarily stuck in my ways and addicted to new experiences. I tend to sign up for more than I should, bitch constantly about it, power through and then throw my hands in the air in who da man fashion at the end. That’s why, in addition to a full-time job, responsibilities as primary breadwinner for my household, volunteer in two graduate organizations for my fraternity, an election judge and an aspiring novelist I’m also in grad school. This is my last year, thank all the gods, but I have been trying to juggle The Perishables Project and Information Systems Management 680 (Health Information Management) against one another since August and the latter has come up the winner every single time. It has seriously slowed down my schedule for editing and revising Tooth & Nail, the sequel to Perishables. This past weekend I sat down to take my first crack at the first draft – just a simple pass-through to tidy up some wording and see if it feels right or totally wrong.

I realized almost immediately that it felt entirely wrong.

Part of what kept me excited about Perishables was what I found the elevator pitches really compelling: a vampire at a dinner party when the zombies attack! A sysadmin at a tiny Bible college when the zombies attack! Zombies attack at a Black Friday sale! The elevator pitch for Tooth & Nail was nonexistent and when I tried to formulate one based on what I had written it was a total mess. I had no idea how to explain to someone else why they should care about the story idea; further, the words I had written were so boring I couldn’t care about them myself. My prologue was dull and my first chapter was a total turn-off. I found myself having a miniature crisis over the text.

Happily the boyf was able to talk through some of it with me and I realized my big problem was that Tooth & Nail was written years ago. It’s a story in the continuum of Withrow’s experiences, yes, and I thought it could easily be modified to occur after Perishables, but the voice I used then was totally inappropriate to the sort of Withrow story I want to tell now. I scrapped what I had and started trying to think up compelling elevator pitches. The story opens with Withrow, in the 1950’s, meeting his best friend from high school to gather information about something. This friend has no idea that Withrow has been turned, but the friendship is important to Withrow and – and this is part of what I like about what I did have written – the friendship continues well past the point at which the friend must know something is going on: that Withrow isn’t aging, or isn’t aging the way others do, and that there’s plenty to find suspicious about the conditions under which he’ll meet. I banged my head against the wall for a bit and then I thought: what if the story opens with him tracking that friend down to gather information, yes, but it’s at Withrow’s own high school reunion?

I attended my own twenty year reunion a couple of weeks ago. The idea of a vampire going back to his high school reunion, flush with new powers and new secrets to keep, totally clicked for me as an elevator pitch. It isn’t the whole story, it isn’t even a particularly length introduction, but it’s a way to kickstart my enthusiasm for the work and it provides an introduction that can say to a reader who enjoyed Perishables, “Yes, you’re reading a sequel with the same fish-out-of-water sensibilities.”

It’s easy to let the task queue of life get in the way of having fun. When that fun involves a specific set of tasks in its own right, and those tasks are unfamiliar and sometimes unpleasantly introspective, the fun itself just becomes another type of work. I realized it wasn’t entirely that school has gotten in the way: it’s that I’ve let school get in the way because I was having so much trouble figuring out how to think about the sequel. I feel like I’ve got a surer grasp of it this time. I’m skipping doing NaNoWriMo this year in favor of working on Tooth & Nail. I’m hoping to have it edited/revised/rewritten/etc. by the first week of December. Gods only know if it will sell or if anyone will be interested but I found out in the last few weeks that I do have one really incredibly enthusiastic super-fan on Facebook and that one person – just one – makes me feel like it must be the case that the fun and enthusiasm I feel for the initial idea survives all the milling and shaping of the work of writing so that it can be experienced at the other end when someone encounters the output for the first time.

None of that has a thing to do with the business of writing, I know, but I need to write it all down in case three days from now I have to be reminded.


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