It Tries to Explain Itself But It Can’t
The long, convoluted, inane history of my novel called Chokeville.
I wanted to make a movie with my pals, so one night I wrote a short script about a teenager who gets a summer job looking for a document that was thrown out of an office building window. I can’t find that script anywhere, which is weird because I keep and/or recycle everything, but I remember there was a very long scene where the love interest is in a grocery store just sniffing a package of bacon, and there’s something about biomechanical bees.
It took place in a made-up seaside town and I wanted to call it something-ville, so I flipped through the dictionary and settled on the word choke. “Chokeville” doesn’t have any special meaning, I just thought it sounded good as a title.
I cast my friends and held a couple prep meetings and then never made the movie. Could this be the beginning of a trend? Let’s find out!
I wanted to write a novel but didn’t have any ideas (I’ve never had a novel-length idea) so I used that script as a starting point: important document goes out the window, kid gets hired to wander around town and look for it, gets in adventures.
(I didn’t like the town being called “Chokeville” anymore so I changed it to La Garra but kept the title as-is, because why not be as confusing as possible.)
Since 1995, everything I’d written had been posted on the internet. So it felt strange to go offline for however long it took to write a novel. (Days? Weeks?) It’s like my writing didn’t really exist unless it lived on a web server somewhere. So I made a site and posted chapters there as I wrote them.
I made it up as I went. The plot, uh, meandered. I would foreshadow events without knowing what they were. Why was that missing document so important? No idea.
But I finished it! And then threw it away. It was trying too hard to be literary, the protagonist was boring, the prose was blathery, the town was bland.
I said OK what if the bland town was instead this huge metropolis, and what if I started incorporating all the pulpy genre stuff I liked (pirates, ghosts, dames) instead of trying to be a fancy literary writer, which I was not? Terrific, let’s give it a whirl. And let’s change the city name again, this time to Fortalia, also known as Fort Alia, because complicated is better.
Again, I felt compelled to post it online as I wrote it. Time to make yet another website.
Did I have the plot figured out beforehand? No. Did I know what that document was? TBD, friends, don’t rush the creative process!
I added new chapters to the site for years—very sporadically—and Kevin Fanning heroically posted recaps along the way.
I was again stunned to discover that writing a plot-driven narrative didn’t work if I had no clue what the plot was. I tried to retroactively tie all the loose ends together but yeah no. And anyway what was the point of all this effort? A book deal? Who would publish it? Nobody’s making money off this.
So I finally abandoned it, unfinished.
I decided to resurrect the project not as a novel but as an ongoing web…thing. My inspiration was, and always has been, Achewood. I wanted to build out this fictional city with little stories and blogs and sounds and videos. I nixed the teenager and the missing paper and came up with a secret illegal courier service. I thought that’d be a solid foundation for telling a bunch of stories about different characters moving through the city. (Which was now a smaller, seedier port town called Fort Hook. Sure, why not.)
It was pretty ambitious. I made yet another goddamn website and a twitter account and a radio show and a trailer…
But I was very inconsistent in updating it, and it jumped around a lot, and it mostly confused people, even those who liked it. Paul Ford wrote this:
Most prose born on the Internet is highly defensive. Everyone is braced for audience attack and opens their posts with four paragraphs explaining why the remaining four paragraphs are worth reading. Chokeville is not that. It tries to explain itself, but it can’t.
Anyway twist ending, I abandoned it like six months later. Because why bother? No one asked for it, no one was paying for it, no one knew what to do with it, and, most importantly, my preference is always doing Nothing rather than Something.
Kevin made me sign up for Wattpad, so I started writing a little adventure story there called Liquid Smoke.
I liked how it didn’t take itself too seriously, and how it mixed genres together, and I really liked the main characters: two tough/goofy sisters. I’d never particularly liked my main characters before (hm I wonder if that’s significant) so this was inspiring.
So inspiring, in fact, that I threw the story away after about 30 pages DO YOU SEE A TREND HERE
I was pretty sure I’d never write anything longer than a tweet again.
I woke up and said hey tiger, the world’s ending soon, maybe it’s time to get that novel written. I had no ideas, of course, but what if I took those tough/goofy sisters and implanted them in the Chokeville Cinematic Universe, working for that courier company? I have all this material sitting around, couldn’t I just like…cut and paste it all together into some kind of, I dunno, epic masterjam? Wouldn’t it basically write itself?
Reader: It did not write itself. It was a whole thing. It was about 90% brand-new writing. But I…I liked it? I didn’t throw it away? And I saw how it could be the first in a series of books about these characters and this made-up town. (Still called Fort Hook. Still no explanation for why the title is Chokeville.)
Two years later, I finished it. An actual complete novel with an ending and everything. It was a mess, but it was the book I wished I’d written in 2001. Someone who read it called it a “joyful romp” and I was like YES. I always wanted to write a joyful romp!
Then things took a dark turn. I thought: Maybe I should try to get this published.
I worked with an editor and went through a few drafts and got it in shape. Then I learned everything I could about traditional publishing, something I’d ignored ever since the internet came out.
I did not like one single thing I learned! The process is excruciatingly glacial and antiquated. And the likelihood of getting an agent, let alone getting published, let alone selling any books, is almost hilariously improbable.
But whatever, I had a “dream” in my “heart” for the first time, so I sent out a ton of queries. And got approximately zero takers.
I felt real sorry for myself, and then, to pass the time while the rejections slowly crept in, I started this newsletter. I figured I’d write some new supplemental bits from my fake town and see what happened. Make it up as I go, as ever, but at least stick to a schedule this time.
And, as an old-school internet writer, this platform made sense to me. I liked writing my little About Me page and creating my little logos and pressing a button to instantly ship my little stories out into the ether. That’s what I’ve always done.
Now what. Who knows. I’m planning to do one more round of revisions on the book and then maybe I’ll just publish it myself. Some days that feels like a failure, some days it feels right.
Next week I’m turning [an extremely large round number I don’t want to talk about] and I can’t believe I’m this old and Chokeville is still just a file sitting here on my hard drive. But I also can’t believe it finally exists, and I’m very eager to share it with you, even if it means just throwing the document out the window so you can go look for it.
I feel seen reading this. Congratulations on finishing your book 🎉 Whatever happens with it from here on out, you’ll always be able to say you finished it - something I can’t say myself about my throw aways. Onward!
buddy, i loved the liquid smoke shorts and i've been very much enjoying whatever... this is so far, so i hope you see it through, i'll be along for the ride