Wednesday, June 19, 2013

"Speaker for the Gods:" A Proposition

I've written a novel.

Many people who read this space already know this because they know me personally--the project ongoing for nearly two years--but it's the sort of thing you have to say to avoid a self-important preamble. There's plenty of self-importance in store, I promise you.  Anyway, it's called "Speaker for the Gods:" a fantasy adventure set in distant post-apocalypse Hawaii. Preamble concluded.

Back in February, I sent around early versions of the first two chapters to a small set of friends and family. I didn't ask any specific questions, but my unstated purpose was simple: to discover whether they sucked. Did anyone actually want to read a story like this, especially considering (or maybe because of) its novelty? NOTE: I did not intend to set up the "novelty" pun in the last sentence, but it's there and it's staying. I had to get this question answered by an outside source, because it's frankly impossible for an honest writer to trust his opinion of his own work.Writing is an egotistical pursuit, and it takes a pretty staggering ego to write an entire novel. This is even more true when building whole worlds as one does in fantasy and sci-fi. Understanding my own profound weakness, I knew this wonderful place I'd created would live or die in the brains of other people. It's a terrifying prospect, letting your progeny wobble out into the world to get potentially run down by municipal buses.

Luckily for me and all the work already invested, this hydrocephalic creature made it to the boulevard's far side. It AMBLED, if you will. Those semi-willing test readers felt strongly in various ways, but certain consensi emerged (technically "consensuses," but fuck that). The most important of these: they actually liked it. They felt immersed in the setting and eager for the possibilities presented. Most of all--frankly most gratifying to me--they liked Ashur, trusted him and rooted for him to succeed. If you write a first-person novel, this simply MUST work at an elemental level. So now instead of being terrified nobody will relate to Ashur, I'm terrified of somehow breaking that spell and screwing it up. Baby steps.

The Pitch
As a creative person, one constantly finds oneself in the position of asking other people for things. The writer's ego renders this process especially excruciating. Luckily, novels are such solitary pursuits (and so cheap to write purely in dollar terms) that I only have to ask folks for the same things I've already expended: time and emotional energy, not money. It's an easier sell, but still a sell. Here goes, and apologies in advance for the jarring earnestness:

"Speaker for the Gods" is an adventure story with a simple premise: one man's quest for a buried treasure. In the centuries since human civilization collapsed, the Hawaiian Islands have adopted  re-constituted versions of their ancient culture. Ashur, an enigmatic wanderer, sails to the distant island of To'mea to find a war ongoing, and is soon swept up in it. Armed with two old books crucial to his quest and a talent for lying, our battle-averse hero works to communicate, stay alive and seek his prize in a beautiful place torn apart by invasion and internal conflict. Looming over his struggles are the gods themselves, who have imbued To'mea's ruling Speakers with staggering supernatural abilities. At last Ashur finds his fate bound with that of a young High Speaker, who sees his deepest secret and wields enough strength to change the war: Ienith Pele'iwa, She Who Cracks the Earth.

That's more or less what you'd see on the jacket, though I'm sure copywriters specialize in those and they'd tear my work to shreds. This is not only the first serious work of genre fiction (as opposed to historical fiction like James Michener) set in the Hawaiian islands; it is an honest attempt to raise the bar for fantasy books, to bring a highly deterministic approach to a genre that far too often just throws shit at the wall. I've built this world from the ground up, starting with Hawaiian natural history and doing an enormous amount of research over the past two years on the intricacies of ancient Polynesian life. From the plants and animals I derived crops, villages, property, family, economy, society, civilization. I have created--says the egotistical writer--a world that absolutely pops with color and flavor and sound and smell. Plants grow, seasons change, people raise children and harvest crops and live their lives. Though the world as we know it may have ended long before these events, it's still very much alive.

Oh, and it fucking rocks. That's important to mention. For all the descriptions of landscapes and  birds and trees, this is a fantasy adventure story set in Hawaii and so it absolutely had to be fun.  It's loaded with battles, natural disasters, capture, escape, chases, humor both light and dark, and a better romance plot than I thought I'd write.

With all that said, I have prepared the first eight (8) (acht) (ocho) chapters of "Speaker" for release to NTHBs (Non-Tony Human Beings). I won't approach publishers until I'm satisfied with the whole novel, but these eight chapters represent about the first third of it. Blasting out the first two chapters wasn't much to ask from people, but this is 40,000 words (90 pages of single-spaced Word doc). It's a lot to ask especially if that person's going to give any feedback, and it's generally not good business to let big chunks of creative work that you hope to sell sit around on the Internet. So, if you'd like to gawk at my baby, I'd like to make that happen in a private sort of way. Here's how it'll work: contact me either through a comment on this post, an e-mail to my Gmail account, a message on Facebook (I'll be spamming this post's link for a bit, sorries) or honestly any other means of human communication aside from grunting. I get enough of that crap from Bella. If you ask for a copy, you'll almost certainly get one. If the response is overwhelming (unlikely), I'll amend this post to say so.

The Pitch is concluded. I'm really excited to get this out, but don't want to impose on busy people. If you want a copy of Chapters 1-8, you can have one.

Navel-Gazing Follows
Going back to the serious stuff, the material in this novel is sensitive for a number of reasons. First, given the atrocious storytelling so many female fantasy characters are subjected to, I believed it was important to get Ienith and the other female characters absolutely right. Second and arguably more importantly, I worked very hard not only to capture real elements of the ancient Hawaiian culture, but also to maintain distance through poetic license. To wit, I am a privileged white man representing a culture and (occasionally) gender not my own. Very real responsibilities come with that, and I've dealt with them largely by fictionalizing. The Kane people aren't ancient Hawaiians, they're the descendents of modern Hawaiians. Their culture is artificial even in the story, rebuilt and cobbled together from bits and pieces after the Calamity much the way I built it through extensive research. So this culture isn't properly that culture; this Hawaiian language isn't meant to be 100% accurate; and the island of To'mea deliberately combines geographic features from across the Hawaiian chain to make clear it's not any of the "real" islands (which are referenced in the novel).

My unwitting partner in this sensitivity work was Alyssa Rosenberg, whose thoughtful, entertaining and increasingly well-regarded blog asks far better questions of popular culture than much of it deserves. Her blog and our various conversations went a long way towards shaping the ideology and philosophy (if you will) of "Speaker." Put in simpler terms, they helped me decide what kind of novel I wanted this to be. Creative folks don't get to pick the paths our projects take once they're out the door. It's for that reason we have to work so hard crafting the ideas in them, and I think I got this largely right. That said, I hope I find the whole thing embarrassingly bad in ten years. It'll mean I got that much better.