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Monday, March 4, 2013

GUEST POST: The Debut Novel: A Series of Intentions by Zachary Jernigan

Just before I started writing No Return in September of 2010, I'm sure I thought my intention was to write an immensely thrilling novel, the kind of no-holds-barred science fantasy adventure that would be so fun to write that I would be unable not to write it. My original concept? Space Opera... Without the Technology!

In those early days before any actual writing was being done, my head was filled with images of spaceships made of wood, astronaut-wizards battling in the interstellar void, awe- and fear-inspiring creatures, and—of course—cool looking, superheroic people doing superheroic deeds. After a month or so of writing—a torturous four weeks during which I tried to justify quitting every day—I realized that I'd deceived myself in ever thinking that a thrilling adventure tale was the goal: no, from the beginning I'd been hell-bent on a serious attempt to write like my New Wave heroes, Roger Zelazny and Samuel Delany.

Fun stuff, sure, but also sober literary junk. On the day in early February of 2011 when I finished the first draft—all 97,000 words of it—I knew that my intentions had actually been just to copy every damn clichéd thing I'd ever read. (No, I wasn't all that happy with the first draft.) By the fall of 2011, the manuscript—despite being a better, more finely tuned beast at 102,000 words—had been rejected roundly by twenty or so agents and a number of publishers, and I was sure that my intention had been to remove all traces of happiness from my mind.

When Night Shade sent me an offer in June of 2012, it seemed—you see, it's hard to remember; bliss hormones were resounding like a feedback-drenched guitar solo throughout my system—that from the outset my intention had been to single-handedly revolutionize sff literature. And now—after going through a fairly straightforward round of edits that nonetheless convinced me I'd written the least graceful, most confusing book in the history of the world; after going through a copyediting round; after seeing the cover, an awesome object that nearly made me cry; after receiving five of the coolest blurbs from five authors I respect immensely; after hours and hours of promoting via social network; after just starting again to think my book might maybe, possibly, not be all that bad—what do I think my intention was?


Perhaps I should just go back to my earliest recalled intention; I mean, isn't that the truest one? No matter what was actually accomplished, perspective doesn't change the past... Or does it?

I actually think a little perspective has changed my past—or, rather, perspective has allowed me to see what I couldn't see before. I know I thought I intended to do one thing, but now that I'm done writing and have achieved some objective space, it's clear that my intentions were not so elementary, so one-dimensional. I hid aspects of my goal from myself, probably because I wanted to simplify the writing of my first novel, make it appear more manageable. I was intimidated by what I really wanted to do, basically. Why? Because I didn’t think I could do it.


Two things I hope to make clear before I continue:
 1. Even though I’m writing about intentions and results right now, the verdict as to whether or not I accomplished what I intended is not up to me. That decision is the reader’s. An author might intend all sorts of things—and might even think he or she succeeded in conveying them—but the author is among the people least fit to judge what the ultimate effect is.
 2. On that note, I realize that I may have communicated disdain for the “simple adventure” story. This was not my intention. I may like a different sort of story—the kind critics, often communicating a great deal of elitism, label “literary sff” (as opposed to “pulp sff”)—but that is most expressly not me saying that I think there is a hierarchy of fiction, with my kind at the top.


So, what was I actually trying to accomplish in writing No Return? Well… Have you ever read a book that hit every single high note you could imagine? One that placed its characters into a situation in a locale in a manner that compelled you in just the right way, both aesthetically and narratively? One that was written in a way that made you proud to be reading it? One that—and this may be the most important factor—ended in such a way that it left you both breathless at its execution and excited by the possibilities it presented?

(I guess the answer’s obvious: surely you’ve read a book like that! Why would anyone keep reading if they didn’t experience that every now and then?) I wanted to write a book like that—the kind of book I myself would cherish reading. Even if I wouldn’t consciously admit the desire when I began writing, I longed for the opportunity to reach readers that loved the same kind of book I loved. I wanted it all, dammit!


But, of course, all is not incredibly specific. Plus, if I just listed one book that influenced me, it’d be not only boring but inaccurate—neither would it account for the fact that now, looking back, no single book hits every high point for me.

I wanted, first and foremost, to create a vast-seeming mythology. My favorite sff books have always been those that deal with myth in some way, whether creating it from the ground up or speculating on an existing one. The early works of my aforementioned New Wave heroes, Roger Zelazny and Samuel Delany, were particularly inspiring to me in this regard. I don’t think I even approached the genius of either author, but I tried, and I’m happy I did.

I wanted characters who looked and often felt larger than life, fulfilling the aesthetic needs of the ten-year-old Zack who spent so much time thinking about superheroes. But I also wanted characters who acted like actual human—or close to human—beings, fulfilling the narrative needs of the guy who’s largely grown tired of the many one-dimensional portrayals of super-powered individuals. I hoped to create something that read like Steven Brust’s To Reign in Hell, a book that manages to make even Yahweh and Satan incredibly sympathetic.

I wanted—perhaps inevitably, considering how mythology and larger-than-life characters intersect—to build a world where gods (or at least beings powerful enough to be called gods) could exist. On the other hand, I did not want to simply wave my hand and say it was all a matter of magic. Thus, from the time that I first began wondering how gods might exist, I started thinking in terms of advanced (and purely hypothetical) technology. This is not, I should specify, to say I hope my thought process is immediately apparent to readers. I’ve long loved works of true science fantasy, those that seamlessly blend the sf and the f. My first novel, I resolved, would have a science fictional underpinning but a fantastical feel, reminiscent of Gene Wolfe’s Books of the New Sun or even Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains.

I wanted No Return to read like it was written by someone who appreciates the beauty of words, as well as the need for more than just a tidy plot—but not to the detriment of the adventure. I tried to use language that struck the reader as efficient but also lyrical, as Phyllis Gotlieb managed to do in her fantastic (and criminally underappreciated) novel Flesh and Gold. Her language in that work is superbly lyrical, yet it also propels the narrative forward at a swift pace.

Lastly, I wanted to end my novel on the right note. Resonance is a word that gets thrown around a lot, yet I think many people never give it a deeper thought. I mean, of course an author wants his or her novel to stay with the reader, but exactly how? What does he or she want the reader to feel, specifically? A sense of completeness, primarily, or a sense of further possibilities? Obviously, the type of novel being written informs one's decision: reason dictates that a standalone is generally going to end differently than a single volume in a series.

And yet, though I always intended for No Return to be a self-enclosed narrative, I don't think I would've closed it any differently than if it had been the opening gambit in a ten-volume series. I know it's not everyone's cup of tea, but I strongly prefer an ending that feels open with possibility, fertile with questions to be (or not to be) answered. Certain authors make a habit of such endings. Look at what China Miéville left the reader with at the end of The Scar: a multitude of choices still to be guessed at. At the same time, it felt complete—to me, at least. I loved that I was left to consider the ragged ends of the narrative. I cherished the fact that I continued searching for meanings, for conclusions to multiple stories, long after I finished reading the words the author had set to paper.


Of course, now that I’ve set these words down, my feelings will change—maybe not immediately, but they surely will. In a year’s time (hopefully in the wake of my debut’s massive success!) I’ll rethink what I intended yet again. The only constant will be the fact that my intentions—all of them, at any point in time—don't matter all that much in the final accounting. They only tell you the kinds of effects that I'm shooting for. And the rest? Well, that’s up to you.

Read Civilian Reader's Interview with the Author 

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Zachary Jernigan was born and brought up in the United States and has lived for most of his life in the western half of the country. He has a BA in Religious Studies from Northern Arizona University (2005) and an MFA in Creative Writing from University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast program (2011). His short fiction has appeared in a variety of places, including Asimov's Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, and Escape Pod. He has previously worked in a variety of fields and avoids seeking management positions. He currently lives in Northern Arizona and No Return is his Debut novel.

NOTE: Author picture courtesy of the author. No Return cover art provided by Robbie Trevino. Perspective picture by Aaron Stern. Books Of The New Sun cover pictures by Lynne M. Thomas and CONFESSIONS OF A CURATOR blog.


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