The Quinquennium

 

  

 

The second novella in the Quinquennium series, As It Was In The Beginning, is taking shape. It takes place three years before the events in book one, To Thee Is This World Given, over the week leading up to the “end.”

While To Thee Is This World Given was intended originally to be a stand alone novella, everyone who read it asked the same questions, “What happens next? Are you writing more?” My answer was always “They continue on” and “no.”

It took me awhile to put enough distance between myself and the effort it took to write To Thee Is This world Given, but I eventually got to the place where I agreed that each of the four characters in it deserved their own story and the world in which takes place deserved to be expanded, and so the Quinquennium was born.

The titles for books three through five are still to be decided but the stories themselves have already been plotted. Book three takes place one year after As it Was In The Beginning, and follows the male character from To Thee Is This World Given. Book four takes place one year before To Thee Is This World Given. It follows the young Amish man. And book five takes place fifty years later and follows the young girl, who is now approaching sixty years old.

The timeline: day one, As It Was In The Beginning; one year later, Book 3; two years later Book 4; three years later, To Thee is This World Given; fifty years later, Book 5.

Simple, vibrant, eye catching single-color covers that reflect the mood and theme of each book were chosen to create a unified look for the series. Double click on any of the covers to see it in greater detail. Each has an identical star field pattern and a white border.

 

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“The First Draft of Anything is Shit”

firstdraft

I get ideas for stories all of a sudden out of nowhere and can see the scenes clearly in my mind’s eye before I ever attempt to write them (even months beforehand).

The idea for the To Thee is This World Given  came to me in March 2014. The next day at work I jotted down a brief outline on a yellow legal pad that would remain the same until the story was finished:

Two characters, a man and woman, meet on a road several years into a zombie apocalypse. They leave the road and go into the woods. They camp at the side of a stream where the woman tends the man’s wounds. They talk late into the night. The next morning they hike back to the road where they meet a third character, before parting for good.

The only  significant changes to my original concept were to make their relationship antagonistic (originally they had been much more chummy), to make their relationship with the third character friendly (originally it had been hostile), and to have the female character walk away from the male character (originally he had walked away from her).

While my stories may come quickly, the actual writing for me is not spontaneous. It’s the result of intense planning, outlining, reworking, refining, and even acting out. I frequently make the faces and perform the actions the characters are doing to figure out how to describe them and to make sure they actually work in real life. I also recite dialog out loud as I write to make sure it sounds like normal speech. All of this makes it a little embarrassing for me to write where other people can see and hear me.

It ended up taking me four and a half months to complete the novella’s 20,000 word first draft, and I ended up throwing out 99% of the text away in the second draft.

I started the actual writing the middle of April 2014. The first two lines I wrote were the first and last lines of the book — this is pretty typical for me, except that usually I start off with just the last sentence (I often can see the end of my stories before I can see their beginnings):

The First Line of To Thee is This World Given is The dead congregate; the last line is The living collide.

The only other text that stayed unchanged through all drafts was a paragraph of dialogue in which the female character is talking about the star Betelguese, the left hand of OrionI almost named  To Thee is This World Given, “The ninth brightest star” in honor of Betelguese. This paragraph is one of the most important for understanding the story:

Her voice was wistful, almost sad. “It rushed into existence and used up all of its fuel too fast. Just the blink of an eye in the lives of most stars. And right now its winds are crashing against everything in the galaxy, even us. And eventually it will explode outward and there will be nothing left. No star. No black hole. Just empty space. As if it had never been there at all.” Her eyes closed. “It’ll have had just a short, brilliant life that extinguished so much with it when it went.”

To Thee is This World Given is written in both third person objective and in medias resI wanted readers to experience the space between themselves and the characters in the same way and at the same time the characters experience the space between themselves. Third person objective and in medias res forces them to do so.

The reader is dropped immediately into the action and is never told what the characters think or feel, or how the characters got to where the story starts. They have to make that decision for  themselves, based on what the characters do and say (and fail to do and say). The reader is never told who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, who is the hero and who is the villain, who to root for and who to root against. Just like life.

The truth is that unless we are told, we never know what is going on in someone else’s head, and even then we have to take it on faith. The best we can do is pay close attention, but even then we often still get it wrong. How we decipher someone else usually says more about us than it does them. That’s a central theme of the book.

The slowest period of the entire writing process, which ended up taking me eight months to reach the final draft, plus another three months in editing, were the first six pages. Those six pages took me almost three weeks to finish, because I kept reworking what I had written the day before instead of moving on. So I got nowhere.

I was having a very hard time getting the voice right. It was driving me crazy.

The voice in third person objective is “silent.” There is no narrator, there is no “telling” at all. Everything must be “shown” through action, dialog, and description. In all other point of views the voice is obvious and can smooth over less elegant writing in the action and dialog. In third person objective, the action and dialog have to stand on their own, relying solely on the strength of the writing in each sentence. It requires tremendous discipline; it’s like a straight jacket, except that you are always fighting slipping into telling.

Additionally, by writing in medias res the story starts with no exposition, and especially early on, is in strict active voice; you just jump right into the action. The problem I was having was in not sounding like blocking, or like something written by a five year old.

(To this day, the first half of the first chapter remains the part of the book that I am the least happy with. I never could get it completely right).

In the end, I made a rule that the only thing I could read on a given day was what I was writing that day and that I could not re-read or rewrite anything I had written earlier. I finally began making progress.

I wrote every day from noon to 4 pm, longhand on yellow legal pads, and as I went along I created detailed outlines mapping out each chapter. In the third chapter, I realized that having the characters get along didn’t work, so I changed course going forward as if they had always not gotten along and stuck post-it notes on the early pages about what changes would have to be made in the second draft.

People are often surprised at how long it took me to write the first 20,000 words. The thing about a novella is that everything included has to pull its weight. Everything is Chekov’s gun. Every word has to count. Whereas the difficulty in writing 100,000 words is in having enough to say, with 20,000 words it is not saying more than enough. This was compounded by how tightly structured To Thee is This World Given is. On most days, at least half of my time was spent organizing and mapping out what I was going to write.

I didn’t keep a copy of the first draft. Every time I finished re-writing a corresponding section in the second draft, a handful of yellow pages was tossed into the recycling bin. At the end, a mountain of scribbled-on yellow pages that no one ever saw but me.

At least once a day I said, “God, this is garbage.”

Not getting demoralized was hard.

I couldn’t see how I would ever get anywhere close to being happy with the story.

But I had a little post it stuck on my desk reminding me that the first draft of anything is always shit. I had another ordering me to not edit as I wrote.

It’s better to press forward and throw it all away, than to stand still and have nothing to throw away. Ernest Hemingway threw away the first 3,000 words of

 The Sun Also Rises and re-wrote the ending of a A Farewell to Arms forty-seven times.

-k-

You can read about the themes in To Thee is This World Given, in my post  The Hardest Thing in Writing is Simply to Tell the Truth

Some of my thoughts on writing in general can be found here and here.

 

 

 

To Thee is This World Given turned one year old today

All week long Khel will be posting about how it came to be.

The first two posts, on being able to find the time to write  and the ideas behind the story  are already up. And over the next couple of days, the story of writing the first draft will be posted as well.

Also, from now until June 22nd, we are running a giveaway on Goodreads for five signed and numbered hardback editions of To Thee is This World Given.

There are no strings attached and you can enter for free at the link below. You can also read impressions and reactions to the novella from Goodreads’ reviewers by clicking the title link in the box below.

We are extremely proud of the fact that the number one response has been about the high quality of Khel’s prose (even by those who found fault with other elements).

Happy birthday little book. Here’s to many more.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

To Thee Is This World Given

by Khel Milam

Giveaway ends June 22, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

“The Hardest Thing in Writing is Simply to Tell the Truth”

The unifying theme behind To Thee is This World Given is that we are not an inherently selfish, callus, violent species. While I don’t believe we are inherently good, I do believe we inherently desire to be so, which is diametrically opposed to our supposedly sociopathic nature depicted by The Walking Dead and other books, movies, and television shows in the post-apocalyptic genre.

For the most part I believe we are basically a pretty decent species. After all, there is no other species on the planet willing to adopt the offspring of another, rear it as a family member, and do everything in its power to keep it safe and sound (especially the offspring of a species that used to eat them). That’s pretty exceptional when you think about it.

What I don’t believe is that we have to love each other. That’s unrealistic, even as goal. I don’t even believe we have to like each other, we just have to try tolerate each other, not harm each other, help each other if we can, and at the very least acknowledge that we’re all just struggling to stay afloat in our own way.

I tried to suggest this in To Thee is This World Given from the very beginning with a pair of quotes from Siddhartha and Charles Dickens:

“What is the appropriate behavior for a man or a woman in the midst of this world where each person is clinging to his or her piece of debris? What is the proper salutation between them as they pass each other in this flood?” Siddhartha

“It is required of every man…that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow men, and travel far and wide, and if that spirit go not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness.” Charles Dickens

In To Thee is This World Given, two-thirds of the character interaction is cooperative, and the two best adjusted characters are the two most cooperative ones. Additionally, basic human decency comes up in dialog scattered throughout the story and is shown in the “hobo code” that people use mark to the roads to let others know that lies ahead and where to find things like food, water, and shelter.

While I made up my own symbols, the road markings in the book were inspired by the actual hobo code of the 1930s. The fact that the real hobo code developed is, itself, a testament to human nature.

A second theme in the story is our fallibility in interpreting and understanding other people’s motives and personalities, and the fact we often deceive ourselves about our own. This is alluded to by the title itself.

To Thee is This World Given is comes from one of the most famous quotes in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, Young Goodman Brown:

“Now faith is gone…[t]here is no good on earth; sin is but a name. Come devil, for to thee is world given.”

Young Goodman Brown centers around the title character’s shifting interpretations and opinions of his neighbors’ motives and personalities, as well as the reader’s own shifting interpretations and opinions of Goodman Brown’s motives and the reliability of his conclusions.

In the story, Goodman Brown’s neighbors are revealed to be hypocrites; however, the reader can’t be certain that the part of the story in which the reveal happens actually took place or not. It could have been a dream or a hallucination, for instance, and the only time the reader actually sees the neighbors undeniably in action, they behave the opposite of how they behaved in the dream-like reveal. So the reader must decide if the neighbors are hypocrites or if Goodman Brown is deceived. Because the story is written in third party objective and in medias res, the reader has nothing more to go on than what Goodman Brown sees, hears, and says.

But if you move beneath the superficial story, you realize there is only one character that is undeniably a hypocrite, and that is Goodman Brown. He is everything he condemns his neighbors of being, and everything he condemns them for doing, he does, himself.

The final theme in To Thee is This World Given is that we are our actions. There are no good or bad people, just good or bad actions. The difference between a hero and a villain is that the villain is honest and up front about doing bad things, while the hero creates elaborate excuses to justify doing bad things. Hero’s suffer from Goodman Brown syndrome.

This is why I did not give my characters’ name. Names are authorial and reader short cuts into character personalities — “Bubba” forms a completely different picture than “Allister,” for instance. Even common names influence one’s perceptions of a character — John tells a different story than Jack does. If a character doesn’t have a name, they can only be evaluated by their actions, which are either good, bad, or neutral, or more typically a hodge podge of all three

I also had the main characters address this theme directly when they argue about Superman and Lex Luther, and indirectly when they argue about the refusal of the leader of Britain’s south pole expedition to let his surviving men try to continue on to get help.

I think of my story as sort of a moebius circle. Every element can be traced back around itself to one of these themes, all of which are already inherently intertwined with each other to begin with. Each time you run your finger along the story’s edge you end up in deeper layer. There is the superficial story, and beneath this, a story about the fallibility of perceptions and expectations and conclusions and justifications, and then at the deepest level, there is a story about the world as it is today.

Plots to me are not the stories, to me they are just the way stories are made sensible to other people. The stories are the truths about the spaces between people, and between what we believe is the truth and what the truth really is.

 

-k-

You can read about my experiences writing the first draft, in my post The First Draft of Anything is Shit.

Some of my thoughts on writing in general can be found here and here.

 

 

 

 

 

To Thee is This World Given, Book One of the Quinquennium

Three years after the day the world reset, when the dead stopped being dead, a man, a woman, two dogs, and a cat, cross paths on rural road littered with desiccated corpses. When the man chases the woman into the woods he links their fates for the next twenty-four hours. What each wants, where each is going, and whether either can be trusted will play out against a vivid, evocative backdrop and the ever present menace of the undead.

To Thee is This World Given is the first of a planned quintet of novellas by Khel Milam highlighting four characters as they cope with and adapt to a post-apocalyptic world. It is the only one of the five books in the Quinquennium series in which all four human characters appear together. Chronologically, it takes place between books four and five.

At just over 100 pages, this understated, thoughtfully composed novella’s steady, unrelenting pace shifts seamlessly from overt to subtle tension, creating a slow burn that holds the reader’s attention from start to finish. Its fluid, effortless prose is always driving forward with no extraneous motion.

What People are saying about To Thee is This World Given:

“A rare gem…a measured, well written…philosophical perspective on the end of the world.” Dom Mossiah, Dom on Wrting 

“Extremely well written — the prose is descriptive and interesting. The characters are memorable.” Ed Morawski, author of over 20 books

“Extremely well written. Milam really knows how to paint a picture with words.” RachaelReads TTITWG page

To Thee is This World Given is brilliantly imagined, expertly told, and hard to put down.

About the author:

Khel grew up in Texas in the 1980s, but has lived in South Florida on and off for the past 20 years. Degrees in Anthropology and Philosophy and Law greatly influence her writing, as does her admiration for the works of John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Dennis Johnson, and Jorge Luis Borges. Despite having intended on being a writer since high school, life seemed to always get in the way. And so, when finally given the opportunity to pursue writing full time, she took it, and her first book, To Thee is This World Given, was released the following year.

Read the first chapter 
Buy A copy now — Amazon     Barnes & Noble  

 

To Thee Is This World Given, Khel Milam, Eponym ISBN 978-0-9862625-1-7 (hb) US $16.95 / 978-0-9862625-0-0 (pb)  US $9.95 / 978-0-9862625-2-4 (Kindle/Mobi) US $2.99 / 978-0-09862625-3-1 (Nook /ePub) US $2.99