In Lieu of an Afterword

A month ago I published The Same Story Told, a pastoral post-apocalyptic fantasy retold six times in a row. I didn’t include an afterword at the end of the book, because I didn’t want to distract from the formal strangeness of the novel. The book already has six layers of overlapping, diverging narratives, plus a frame story, and I didn’t want to toss a totally non-diegetic commentary on top of all that. So this post is in lieu of an afterword. As with the afterwords for my short fiction and plays, I’ll talk about the origins of the book, and the process of writing it. If you haven’t read the book, don’t worry, there’s no spoilers! You can’t spoil a book that delivers the entire plot in the first thirty pages and then repeats it five more times! 🙂

That said, I dunno how interesting or intelligible this will be to someone who hasn’t read the book. Proceed at your own discretion, and if you do want to read the book, you can buy it on Smashwords, or read an excerpt of it here.

The initial idea for TSST was not fantasy, but sci-fi, though the core concept was the same. A spaceship crash lands on a distant planet. There’s only enough oxygen and food for a few people, so some are put into cryo-sleep, alternating throughout the years as they struggle to gather enough resources to repair their ship. Or something, I don’t really know—I brainstormed a lot of different possible scenarios, but pretty quickly gravitated towards a fantasy setting, with a world struck by plague instead of a distant lifeless planet.

Right from the start, I had the basic structure of the different character’s stories—one person asleep for all of it, providing a sort of historical perspective; one person awake for all of it; one person continuously awake at the beginning and end, but with a big gap in the middle; and two people alternating each year. I drew out graphs to visualize how each of these characters would age over time, the dynamics of older and younger shifting.

I wrote out character notes, sketched a few world maps, and typed up a plot outline for the Klobs story, the first one I would write. At this point, I thought the story would be a novella. I’d never written a novella before, and with spring break coming up, I wanted a big project to work on—though not as big as a novel. Turns out it would take all of spring break just to finish the Klobs section. Go figure. In my journal I wrote, “For future reference, you cannot write a story that takes place over six years with five different viewpoints as a novella!

Throughout the rest of that school year, my senior year of high school, I chipped away at the book, finishing it in June, three months after I’d started it. That draft was only 57,000 words long, about half of its current length. It had no frame story, and large chunks of Hakleen were totally missing, including the final chapter where I just wrote “Da end al-fucking-ready!”

The Hakleen section had been the most tedious to write, mainly because as I wrote it I was making constant reference back to the Klobs section. I wanted the stories to diverge, but I didn’t want them to contradict each other—and I figured referring back to what I’d already written would speed the process up rather than slow it down. What I didn’t reckon on was how boring it was to write a scene I’d already written, constricted to the same beats as before. But what else could I do? This was the whole conceit of the book, if I was bored rewriting scenes the whole project was doomed!

The answer was to just let go. Ignore what I’d already written in Klobs, let the other stories be their own thing. I of course still knew the major strokes of the story, I couldn’t purge those from my memory, but starting with Boos I approached each new section as if I was starting all over. If there were contradictions I could always fix them later, or keep them if I liked them—for now, it was more important that I was enjoying things, that I felt like I was exploring new territory each time. So Boos and Binlev were far more enjoyable to write.

Then I set the book aside. For a while. I spent the rest of the summer writing short stories, then I was off to college, and I wrote half a novel and a few plays, and only the summer after I’d finished Five Stories (as it was originally called) did I start editing it. Or, I planned to, anyway, but didn’t really get around to it. It was the same story the next summer. As time went on, the book mattered less and less to me, and it became clearer and clearer how much editing it would need. I debated whether it was even worth revising, but ultimately decided it was—mainly to prove to myself that I could edit book-length works. I’d written other novels before, and they’d all gone through a similar pattern: Excitement at finishing the first draft mixed with exhaustion; set it aside for a while; keep telling myself I’m going to edit it someday; grow less and less interested in it; get better and better as a writer, further distanced from who I was when I wrote it; finally accept that I’ll never edit it. And then write a new book that I will definitely edit this time.

Well, The Same Story Told wasn’t so unsalvageable. It would take a lot of work, but I could do it, and I wanted to leave college knowing I was capable of seeing a project of this size through to the end. Whenever I wrote my next book, and promised myself I would edit it, I wanted to actually believe in that promise, trusting myself because I knew I’d done it before.

So the summer before my senior year of college I finally started the process in earnest.

Although the Klobs section was the longest, it was also the easiest. I wrote some new material at the beginning, but most of the revisions were just padding. Because I’d written the Klobs section assuming Five Stories would be a novella, that first draft had the brusque, rapid prose of a shorter work, which felt too rushed for a novel. So the Klobs section is the least modified of all the sections, like an especially well preserved fossil with only a few polyester bones and filled-in imperfections. I know with more extensive rewrites I could elevate the quality of the prose, but 1. It would take too long, and 2. Klobs is, basically, the youngest character—it makes sense that her section sounds the most like it was written like a 17-year-old, because it was.

The Hakleen section, by contrast, was the most difficult. That dinosaur is 90% plastic. Just as I’d found it tedious to write, I found the first draft tedious to read. Not because it was redundant, but because it was all a bit soulless. It lacked it’s own identity, it lacked any spontaneity. Essentially, I had to rewrite it entirely, focusing on the voice and energy of the piece instead of each individual plot point.

Binlev received some major rewrites as well, and Daltob I didn’t even bother with. I knew I’d have to rewrite it entirely at some point, but I also knew it would be short, easy. I figured, since Daltob was a retrospective kind of section, I’d write it once I’d reread through all the stories. That logic allowed me to push it further and further down the line, only rewriting it in January of 2020, such that the second draft of Daltob was inserted into the third draft of The Same Story Told.

I was surprised to find how functional the Boos story was in its first draft form, almost as functional as Klobs. I used “the wind is cold” as a kind of compass for my rewrites. That phrase appears in the first draft, and despite how plain and obvious it is, it fits Boos perfectly. It’s a sentence that 22-year-old Francis would never write, but it works, and to rewrite this section I needed return to that level of simplicity and bluntness, rather than try and progress past it. Of course, some of the writing was simple and blunt in a dull way, so that did get changed. But overall I’d gotten the general idea of what a Boos section should look like right on the first try. I didn’t have to find it’s identity like I did with Hakleen—I just needed to refine it.

The Lost Expedition was added at the same time I figured out what I wanted the frame story to be—the collective alienation of these people from their own lives as believed by everyone surrounding them. Well, if this mythologized version of events was going to figure so prominently in the frame story, I might as well write it out.

In doing so, I went full tilt on the narrativizing. Not only was I not worried about contradicting other parts of the story, contradiction was encouraged! Above all, I wanted something where all the pieces fit together, where events were explainable and meaningful, where emotional resonance was more important than reality. This is something I keep away from in my writing in general—making everything meaningful, nothing random, a perfect plot that affirms rather than challenges. I was surprised at how easy it came to me, and how enjoyable it was.

Writing The Lost Expedition also helped me write Daltob. As I said, I rewrote it in January of 2020, months after I’d finished the other characters’ sections. Once I really tacked down the format, it was a lot of fun. If The Lost Expedition is a cloying, simplified tale where everything has maximal meaning and nothing goes unexplained by some polished anecdote, the Daltob section is me pointing out how meaningless the story really is. It’s a 22-year-old Francis poking holes in the story I wrote five years ago, approaching it with the rigor I take when plotting out current works and finding all the unanswered questions.

After all the sections had received their major rewrites, editing went a lot smoother. It was still a lot of work, but there were no sections that proved thornier than others. Plus, I’d graduated, I didn’t have to squeeze editing into the crevasses between mountains of schoolwork.

A map of the Breath, for my own reference.

So, that’s the story of TSST, nĂ© Five Stories. Oddly, I grew up with this book. When I first wrote it, I was 17, closer to Klobs’s and Binlev’s ages at the beginning of the story. Hakleen, Boos, Daltob, all around 20 throughout the book, seemed old then. When I published it, I’d just turned 23, closer to the ages of Hakleen and Boos at the end, but older than all of them. When I first wrote it, a high school senior looking ahead to the unknown years of college, Klobs outgrew me. Now, I’ve outgrown her. Working on it off and on through these years of change, It’s made me find new connections with the work, but also grow more distant from it, gaining and losing something at each step.

Really, my feelings about this book have fluctuated a lot. For a while, I didn’t even expect that the final product of my editing would be something I liked. I just wanted to edit it to prove that I could, but the first draft was so far from complete, I figured it’d be a victory if the final draft just adequate. I even considered publishing it with a disclaimer introduction explaining that it was sort of a trunk novel.

In the end though, I did really like the final draft. I do. I just don’t have the passionate connection to it I do to other finished drafts of plays or short stories. Editing and revising it was dispassionate work, motivated by a commitment to the process rather than the project—almost like I was a ghostwriter for my 17-year-old self. I like that the book is a standalone. I like that it’s not absurdly long. I like that it’s doing something different, and that that something different isn’t something I added as a 22-year-old with more experience writing, it’s something I was ambitious enough to take on as a 17-year-old. I like that it’s a coming of age story written by someone at various young ages. I like the line “the wind is cold.”

I don’t know. I’m more interested in what other people think of it now.

Francis Bass
September 2020

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