On September 30, 2022, Cemetery Dance Publications will release a brand new edition of my dark suspense novel, Alexander’s Song, in e-book and, for the first time ever, in trade paperback. In preparation, I’m writing a three-part blog post about the book. This is part two.
NOTE: I finished writing this installment on Tuesday, Sept. 6. Not more than an hour later, I learned that Peter Straub had died. I briefly considered rewriting the piece, or even putting it aside and not publishing it at all. I soon realized that was both unnecessary and ridiculous. I’ve respected and admired Straub’s work for decades, and his passing has only heightened those feelings. I hope a little bit of that comes through here. -PFO
The new Cemetery Dance edition of Alexander’s Song is dedicated to five writers whose work has inspired, informed, and enriched my own. In the months before I began writing the novel, I happened to read books by two of those writers. Peter Straub’s brilliant Mystery was one of those books. The other was Charles Palliser’s ingenious The Quincunx. Alexander’s Song bears little resemblance to either one, but I felt their influence, still strong inside me, with every word I typed.
Mystery and The Quincunx couldn’t be more different. Straub’s novel is a dark, subversive dream of a book. It’s deceptive and tricksy. It appears to be one thing on the surface, stating its genre right in the title. But then, as with the author’s Ghost Story a decade earlier, it goes on to play with, distort, twist, upend, and otherwise challenge nearly every convention of that genre. The Quincunx is a sprawling epic – the greatest Dickensian novel that Dickens never wrote. It has an intricate structure, with five parts, each part divided into five books, each book divided into five chapters – and that’s just the beginning of the carefully-crafted puzzles within. Its mysteries are old and impenetrable, its plot harrowing and bleak. Straub’s dark secrets lie just below the surface, almost but never quite visible in the harsh sunlit glare of a Caribbean island and a blue-green Wisconsin summer. Palliser’s are buried deep beneath layers of fog and duplicity in 19th century England.
What both books share, what appealed to me when I read them and kept whispering to me for months afterward, was their sheer audacity. I loved the way that Straub and Palliser fearlessly built their intricate, complex plots and then trusted their readers to follow along. There’s no authorial handholding in these books, no “let me explain that a little more” or “let’s go over that again” or “hey, maybe you missed this bit, so I’ll repeat it here.” The authors believe you’re an intelligent human being and will be able to do the work yourself. After that? Well, you either keep up or you don’t. And keeping up with these novels isn’t easy. You don’t escape into the worlds of Mystery and The Quincunx. You are engulfed by them.
I tried my best to bring that same spirit to Alexander’s Song, which maybe wasn’t as hard as it sounds because, somewhat like the future readers of the book, I was flying blind as the plot unfolded. The terms “plotter” and “pantser” hadn’t been invented yet, but the types were certainly familiar. There were writers who assiduously planned and outlined their books before typing a single word and writers who just jumped in and flew by the seat of their pants. You can probably guess which kind of writer I was.
As I worked my way through the first draft, I had only the faintest notions of where I was going to end up. From time to time, I could glimpse the destination in the distance, but I was seeing through a glass darkly. Clarifying that vision became a compulsion. My desk and walls were covered in dozens of hastily-scribbled notes: names, dates, places. I had a family tree taped above my computer and a fictional bibliography next to the keyboard. I had a map. No, two maps. And still I floundered. I was really not much different than my protagonist, good old Andy Gillespie, who only wanted to solve the mysteries that lurked in the past of his favorite writer, Alexander Bassett. Like Andy, I was lost in a world of deepening enigma and darkening menace, and like Andy, I thought I had everything figured out a number of times, only to have the rug yanked out from under my feet. Even at the best of times, I was only twenty or thirty pages ahead of the poor guy, and I had to scramble to keep my lead; I could literally hear him huffing and puffing behind me, hurrying to catch up.
I eventually got to the point where that hazy vision of the ending came into focus, and from there it was a downhill sprint to the finish. When I got there, pleased as punch that most of the pieces had fallen into place, I took a couple of days to consider what I had. I had a manuscript of nearly seven hundred pages. I had a beginning, a middle, and an end. I had lots of nifty scenes in between. That much I was sure of. But I wasn’t sure I had an actual novel.
I knew the second draft was going to need trimming. Seven hundred pages is a lot of book, even for me, who’s always had a serious wordiness problem. So I’d have to cut – little nips and tucks, a few bigger slices, and some big walloping whacks. But first there were things to fix. I had to take my ragged storyline and all those scenes I was so proud of and turn them into an honest-to-god narrative. That meant I had to connect the dots. Lots and lots of dots. Then I had to impose order on the chaos, bring structure to what was essentially just an amorphous blob.
Normally, I don’t much like second drafts, but doing this one was a treat, and most of the fun came from getting that structure just right. It was important to me that the reader and the characters in the book be in the same place as often as possible. This was no cozy whodunnit, where the sharp-eyed reader would pick up all the little clues I sprinkled throughout the story and figure the whole thing out before they were halfway through. I wanted just the opposite. When Andy was lost and baffled, I wanted the reader to be lost and baffled. When he began to sort things out, then readers would too. Emboldened by books like The Quincunx and Mystery, and sticking with the idea of writing the sort of book you like to read, I wanted the reader to almost become part of the story, to be swallowed up by it and ultimately work as hard as the protagonist to find their way back out — and if that led to a bit of obsession, if the book made them miss a meal or a little sleep, if they felt they had to go back and reread something or jot down their own notes to keep track of all the whos, whens, and whats, all the better.
To help bring about the total immersion I sought, I tried to utilize a structure that mirrors Andy’s own struggles. In the first half of the book, when the mysteries are many and deep, I did everything possible to keep the reader off-balance – playing with the timeline, presenting information out of order and in unusual ways, casting a dreamlike uncertainty or even unreality over the proceedings. Later, as things begin to fall into place for Andy, the structure gradually becomes more traditional, the narrative more linear, until the final third of the novel when I stopped playing games and allowed the story to move swiftly and mostly straight ahead to the conclusion. It’s the kind of storytelling trick most people won’t even notice, but I like to think that doesn’t matter. Whether they notice it or not, the trick is there, quietly doing the work I needed it to do.
Depending on how you count such things, I did either three-and-a-half or four drafts of Alexander’s Song, and when I was done I had a five hundred page novel I was quite happy with. I hadn’t succeeded in doing everything I’d set out to do, but I’d managed to pull off quite a bit of it. I had wanted to try something different, to challenge myself, to be ambitious, to forget about genre, to disregard rules, and to accomplish something bigger and better than I’d ever done before. To my surprise, I found I had done almost all of those things. To use another term that hadn’t been invented yet, I had leveled-up. It felt good.
Now all I had to do was sell it.
Next time: Reality check