I did it! Over the course of November I took a story idea I had around 12,000 words in draft and notes for and built it up to a full draft of around 65,000 words. Last year around this time I finished up the first draft of a visual novel script, and was talking about my intention to return to fiction writing after taking a break from academic work and job applications. Since then, I've finished some short narrative games and two short stories with a lot more in the pipe, and I did NaNo again for a traditional prose novel!
Final word count: 64,881
Approx words per day: 2,162
Title: initially simply saved as "more bugs.doc," now, tentatively Involuntary Movements
Genre: Voice-y, dallying dark sf of the banal (think: Liquid Sky, Repo Man, Dark Star, but also Paradise Rot. Elif Batuman's The Idiot meets Gregg Araki's Nowhere, Aliens & Anorexia if the alienation was literal (not quite, but the pun (and the spirit) is right-on).)
Current structure: 12 chapters, prose
Working playlist?: fine, here
What do you mean by full draft?
I usually describe these as the "everything happens" drafts. The plot has been moved from point A to point B with all the things I think need to happen between the two occurring in some sense. Like anything done to a time limit, there's things I had to go over more quickly and in less detail than I wanted to, or realized would probably be expected by a reader. Taking a bit more time also means you can develop the existing themes and make them more coherent, and also make a note of the pacing and adjust when things happen and where a bit more hang time is needed, etc. That's the kind of work I expect to do before arriving at a "first draft I'd let other people see."
So what happens?
The main plot of the novel follows the protagonist returning to her parents' house in her small, poorly-connected hometown after going to art school for college and failing to scrape by as an artist in the city for a few years, which reached a breaking point when her girlfriend who she split rent with dumped her. Trapped without a car in an endless housing development, her only options are babysitting for a widowed mother down the street, and nagging her ex from high school, who she unintentionally re-connects with, for rides to the nearby Target/strip mall.
She finds Jessica, the woman she's babysitting for, to be improbably kind and understanding to her, and her ex's new girlfriend, Mollie, to look improbably similar to her, but like, a normal straight girl version. Well, no point in holding off spoilers here, they're both insectoid aliens of a species who have lived alongside humans on earth as mimics for an undisclosed period of time and to an undisclosed extent. Their life cycle, and need to regularly shed and rebuild their skin in secret, usually benefits from a sympathetic human companion.
On top of the erotic power play/dependence of entering this sort of relationship with Jessica, the main character also has a lot of time for introspection while watching the kids (the actual human children of the woman Jessica is impersonating, who suffered from severe depression impacting her ability to care for them after the accidental death of her husband/their father). The older son maintains a (possibly fantastical?) belief in UFO sightings as a way to cope with his absent father, and the protagonist relates to him while being forced to confront her own strained relationship with her mother and similarly absent father (not dead, but became increasingly eccentric and left under mysterious pretenses while she was in high school).
At the same time, she also has to deal with her lingering affection and curiosity towards her ex, and the unresolved mutual shunning that ended their relationship in high school that they're both dancing around. Plus Mollie kind of provokes her insecurities and gendered hang-ups just by existing, through no real fault of her own. Ultimately the plot doesn't really work towards any specific "event" so much as the process of the main character thinking through these relationships and expectations and trying to think of a way of living and course of action to take that can avoid being/feeling trapped or predetermined by them.
But what's it ~about~?
Well, I think the main question the protagonist is asking is something like, "to what extent can you escape something that seems to exert an enormous amount of gravity on your life?" For her, what her hometown represents becomes entangled with her own sense of ill-fit on the grounds of gender, orientation, sociability, interests, etc. The outsize impact of something, like your childhood, your family, gendered expectations can have on your life can make them feel smothering and like a trap. How can you live or re-make your life in a way to get out? Obviously the shape-shifting aliens are initially an image of idealized capability to change and escape, but they end up with entanglements of their own.
I wanted to write a story about "going home" which avoided sentiment about family or community or authenticity etc. related to the place where one grew up. This piece is kind of cringily peak 2015 (in hindsight, funny that it is passed off as critique of pandering), and the beginning talks about, not exactly, but somewhere that is recognizeably close to where I lived. Even though it doesn't paint a flattering picture of the place, it still comes across as tropey and sentimentalized; it's "real" because it's so "murdersome" (allegedly). It rings true to how people who have grown up in cities react to fairly regular things I say about my hometown. Life adjacent to such deleterous pits didn't offer me much in the way of sophistication (it was merely hickish and boring) but also none of this edgy "down home" authenticity I could exploit if I cared to fake it. Like, we had a Target, a Borders, etc., it was banal. It was a place and life to make you feel isolated and trapped, especially if you were in any way weird, and I didn't want to let the nuclear family/community/locality/consumption-heavy lifestyles off the hook as constituent of that, and the resulting alienation in general. I also didn't want to do a bunch of twee descriptive work about like dairy farms and the amish and centralia and the york fair etc. lol.
The working title comes from what I think is a recurring theme of things done consciously/unconsciously, chosen or against one's will. A list of phrases I have relating to the theme in my notes document includes a dictionary definition of the autonomic nervous system and what follows:
- Inability to cry/Inability to sleep/Inability to speak
- Vomiting/not vomiting
- Life cycle/Self-fashioning
- Going home/Going anywhere
- Sexual desire/Sexual differentiation
Um, building on these recurring themes/images, the protagonist is heavily written as (but not outright stated to be) both bisexual and autistic. It's goes unspoken not because I think it needs to be "subtle" or whatever, but because at the character's age, I also didn't really have a sense of those aspects of myself and how they related to my feelings about gender and interpersonal problems. It's not really anything the entire emotionally-constipated cast of characters would even say out loud. Plus I am kind of sick of affirmative representation anyways, so much of which is based on like, a heartwarming arc of the supposedly representative character becoming socially integrated and accepted as normative or normative-adjacent through effort, wacky striving, positivity, charm, fighting for justice, etc...lol and groan. That's not really my goal in real life so why act like it in fiction?
The main character is a lot like me, the hometown is a lot like my own, and I only started really synthesizing the threads of the story (based on a sf novel I wrote in high school, a short story I wrote during college, and a game idea I was idly screwing around with but decided had no point being visual or interactive), after I had to move home to live with my parents for a few months due to visa issues. Unfortunately the alien insect milf is mostly from my dreams.
But this brings up kind of an interesting element, which is, while this character, and the perspective characters in most of my fiction, aren't "me," they do kind of represent and facilitate my own thinking through of these issues. In that sense, I also feel like a lot of the writing, in terms of voice, omnivorous breadth of topics, and layering experiences with memories, takes a lot from what I like about Chris Kraus' and Jenny Hval's autofiction.
Autofiction? But it's sci-fi...
I was thinking about this as I did one of my first revisions after finishing the draft: I had to expand on the detail that the main character went to art school from the very superficial mention of it I did the first time around. I had her remember a conceptual art piece she put up for crit in art school which didn't go over well (which is also a description of a stunt I did, not in art school), and led to her shift to video-based work. Over the course of the draft she now cites Chris Kraus twice, as well as Adrian Piper and Lee Lozano's conceptual art practice, so as a character, who is not me (but shares some of my interests in art and theory), she still has a post-autofictional self-awareness, and is narrativizing and applying theoretical/philosophical meaning to her life in such a way. hehe :P
So far, I feel really confident about the "four" "main" characters. They're all very specific, weird, irritating, charming sympathetic, etc., they're fun to think about and keep thinking about. I think the arc of where the plot starts and stops, and what happens on the way, makes sense, though the pacing probably needs some rethinking. I'm also happy with how the themes came together, though they might need more meat. I love some of the more gruesome, weird and erotic scenes I just get to make happen, like the way John Carpenter does the best laugh on the commentary track of The Thing when the chest mouth thing happens.
What's not so good?
I feel like I've kind of implied everything I'm dissatisfied with above, but to put it all in one place, the things I feel less confident on right now is the pacing and detail needed for certain scenes and themes. There's a few things that I worry might happen too soon or too late, so the emotional timing feels wrong, or it just doesn't "work," even if it's what needs to happen for the plot it doesn't fit yet. I also know there's spots where I felt a bit insecure or uncertain about what the voice of the book was or what it was meant to be doing, and I'd usually lapse into describing like the light in the room or the sky or something... euugh. I want to give the non-main characters a bit more, so they don't just feel like "roles." I want it to be funnier/have more jokes!
How was the process?
I mostly enjoyed writing, had (most) steps in the plot planned out from the start, and didn't have any major writing block hangups, though I did slow down a lot in the last third or so just because there were less things to jump around to if I was at a scene I was struggling with. Being able to break up scenes and move them around in Scrivener was VERY useful. As always, the hardest things were character names and the title lol. I got what I wanted out of the process, which was a solid "everything happens" draft that I can clean up and beef up in a more methodical way later.
First, I want to do at least one full revision, reading through and trying to beef up what I think is currently weak as best as possible and also making sure everything is as typographically sound and has good continuity to the degree I can figure it out on my own. Then, I'll probably let a few people read (maybe YOU?) just for general feedback on what worked and didn't work for them to guide additional changes. I don't know the first thing about publishing a book beyond that, though it may be something to look into after the next few months? I feel like it's interesting at least, and I want to share it once I'm a bit more confident in it, but this feels like as far as I can plan now that it is still in a very WIP stage.