Life Cycles of a Story

He waits beneath the bridge. Dark, with long arms.
  He waits beneath the bridge. Dark, with long arms.

I have a junk drawer in my head.

This is not uncommon with writers, or so I’m told.

We collect characters or bits of dialogue or story hooks the way other people might collect rubber bands or plastic bags. You never know when one might come in useful. Every time that junk drawer is opened to take something out (or more often than not, put something new in), the bits and baubles roll around. They strike up against other things and sometimes spark a fire.

Sometimes they spark a few.

This is an example of one of those. A story about a story that takes its seed from yet another story.

In 1997, the sequel to Matt Wagner’s incredible series Mage: The Hero Discovered appeared. I had loved the previous series from over a decade earlier, and while I enjoyed the new series, The Hero Defined, it was one particular page that tucked an idea into my junk drawer. In the first issue, the hero, fights a troll.

Somehow that brief appearance changed the way I saw trolls. My previous impressions had been formed by children’s books and the D&D Monster Manual. This troll was different. And it was kind of scary. So I filed it away.

It was around this time that I moved to Seattle, a city full of bridges.

I had recently finished writing a horror screenplay with a good friend of mine and we started talking about the next project. I mentioned the troll, and a few ideas got knocked around. Before I knew it, I was writing the first draft of a screenplay that I then sent off for his draft. He sent it back and we hammered out a tight third draft. It was a scary story about a reclusive millionaire, survivor of a childhood attack, forced to confront his fears and childhood monsters when they resurfaced to threaten his own child. We were both really happy with it, and it began making the rounds.

Then nothing.

Nobody was going to touch a horror movie in which children were threatened. Certainly not fifteen years ago. Certainly not when Hollywood still had the bitter, troll-like taste of one of the worst movies ever made still in their mouth.

So Bridge, as it was then called, sat in a drawer. Which was a shame because I still loved that story.

When I started writing novels, I revisited Bridge, adapting it into a novel. While I added a few characters and changed up some scenes a bit, the overall arc remained pretty similar to the screenplay. Then 2/3 of the way through I had a data fail and lost the files. I had the foresight to have printed up each original chapter, and I was able to find most, but not all of them. Bridge sat, unfinished, for another year while I worked on other projects.

But I couldn’t get it out of my head. While the movie had been a single project, the novel sparked an idea for a trilogy of much bigger scope. I had to finish it. So I pulled out what battered chapters I had and rewrote it from the ground up. I even outlined the second book and had a very rough idea of what I wanted to do in the third. I got so far as to pitch it to an agent who shut me down when she realized the protagonist was married.

“People don’t buy books with married protagonists.”

That stuck with me. Bitterly.

But I wasn’t going to change it. The fact that he was already in a strong relationship that was tested by his actions over the course of the book was too central to what I was doing. I won’t lie. I lost hope for Bridge.

Years passed. I did a few edits on the book, but the last was probably 5 years ago. And really what the book needed was a full rewrite. Sure, I liked the book when I wrote it, but that was a decade ago. And to make it what I wanted, edits weren’t going to cut it. Every new novel I wrote, ever year that passed, the more aware I was of how much BETTER that story could be. But I didn’t touch it. There were too many other projects. And the protagonist was still married, so why bother?

As a final disincentive, I couldn’t make the outline for the third book work.

That was the kicker.

I had an idea what I wanted to do for book three, but couldn’t find a way to make it work in a full novel length. And that outline for book two? Gone. No idea where it went. In trying to reconstruct it, I could only remember about half of the story beats.

So I worked on other projects. My writing improved. And my perspective on what I wanted to be doing with my writing shifted as well. It no longer felt appropriate for the main character to be a hetero, white, male millionaire. While I liked the story, there was ultimately nothing about the character that I found compelling other than his damage and relationship to other characters.

Then, out of nowhere, I saw a fascinating opportunity to rethink the entire story.

If there wasn’t enough story to maintain a novel for the third (and possibly second) part, why try to write them as novels? Why be so committed to the form that I can’t do these as novellas? The only real hindrance was that I had a 75,000 novel to condense into a third of it’s original size, but I wanted to reinvent the protagonist anyway, which involved a major rewrite. I tore that first novel apart, beat by beat by beat, spread it out across the garage floor to see what I needed to keep and what I could discard. I figured if nothing else, it would be a fascinating exercise.

Several side characters got pared out, their functions in the story eliminated or shunted onto the protagonist’s partner. The bits featuring the monster’s hunting spree from it’s perspective were cut for space. The lengthy chapters of investigation and doubt cut or condensed to mere paragraphs. The timetable of events ramped up.

The result was leaner. Meaner. And darker in ways than I expected it to be.

But through all the formats, all the drafts, all the years, the core story that sparked in that cranial junk drawer has remained the same: we never truly leave our childhood monsters behind. Sometimes, like it or not, we pass them on to our children.

And there are still reasons to be afraid of the dark.




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