Among the greater writerly fears is that of the sexy new idea, the one that will swoop in and steal our attention from the project we’re oh-so-close to concluding. Less lamented is a similar phenomenon, one that forces us to re-examine our current project so fundamentally that square one rewrites would be required to accommodate it.
Let’s maybe frame them this way. There’s the sexy new idea, and then there’s the long-term partner who, after having held steady for all of these years, slips into a midlife crisis of sorts. It wants the two of you to sell your home, move into an RV, and emigrate to a neighboring country you’ve only ever dreamt of visiting.
This is, for obvious reasons, equal parts terrifying and alluring. You’ve already got such a lovely thing going on at home, after all. You’ve built a life together in that space and just think about all the time you spent finishing the basement. And the patio? Let’s not even get started on the patio.
But here’s the thing: you’re still tempted to hammer a FOR SALE sign into the lawn, hold an estate sale, and clasp hands with your partner as you jet off down the road in your brand new, gas-guzzling motorhome.
After admonishing yourself for failing to keep two hands on the wheel and for, even in your dreams, failing to adhere to your resolution to reduce your carbon footprint, you’re left with one question. What do you do?
Every relationship–every story–is different, but I know which path I chose for my science fiction debut, Imminent Dawn, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
As with all stories, Imminent Dawn started as a sexy new idea. I’d just gotten out of a long-term relationship with a project that felt like The One, but, as it turns out, there wasn’t a future there for either of us (by which I mean for the manuscript, specifically). After breaking things off with The One That Wasn’t, getting that adventurous haircut I’d always been after, and hitting the gym, my confidence steadily rose, and the tension between me and the idea that would become Imminent Dawn grew from flirtatious glances and shy smiles too, well, let’s fade to black before things get too salacious.
At any rate, so began a project known at the time as EMPATHY. The idea was to write a Flowers for Algernon retelling using an internet-access brain implant as the advancement aiding my story’s equivalent of Charlie. But, as I’d go on to learn, this sexy new idea wanted more than it first seemed.
The next thing I know, it’s spending the night and we’re getting breakfast in the morning and leaning in for a goodbye kiss. And after the idea leaves, it’s all I can think about! Now, wherever I am, every time my phone vibrates in my pocket, I’m hoping-hoping-hoping the idea has texted me to ask when we’re getting together again.
“I am so not ready for this,” I remember thinking despite the ever-expanding lightness in my chest. We were on the same page, I thought. We were both in this for something fun, for something that would burn bright and inevitably smolder just as fast.
The point is what was meant to be a short story found itself hovering at the 20,000 word mark, which had me wondering whether there was more to this EMPATHY thing than I’d originally anticipated.
So what was I supposed to do? Break things off and always wonder what could have been, or take the plunge and assume a new adventure and, possibly, a new heartbreak?
Short Story Collection
The car’s in park. You’re outside their place. All throughout dinner, all you could think about was how you were going to find the words, how they’d react, whether you’d actually be able to go through with it.
“Thanks for the ride,” they say, placing a hand on your thigh as the car continues to hum.
Your fingers clutch tightly to the steering wheel. “Sure.” Sure? What happened to “Listen, we need to talk?”
“You, uh… you want to come up?” they say.
Before you manage a word, somehow the car’s engine is shut off and you’re walking hand in hand up the steps to their place.
That’s pretty much what happened between me and EMPATHY. All right, well, that’s not quite the whole story.
EMPATHY and I had talked—joked, really—about possibly inviting others to join us behind closed doors. A short story is great, after all, but what if we brought a few more shorts into the mix to round out what could be a really fulfilling bit of fun for everyone? Short story collections—especially when set in the same world—were all the rage, or so we told ourselves.
It didn’t take long for both of us to realize despite what we’d read online, this wasn’t going to be for us. This left our relationship in an… awkward position. I mean, there are some things you just can’t unsee, some feelings you just can’t unfeel. But having convinced ourselves we’d be able to adapt, that we were doing this to keep the other happy, we forged on, pretending we were something we weren’t.
It should come as no surprise that this charade eventually reached a breaking point. I’ll spare you the sordid details, but after a few exhausting, tumultuous months, we were back to choosing between pressing EJECT or RESET.
Confident we could make things work—and still not having lost the all-important passion—we opted to reset and get back to doing what we did best: us.
And, strange as it might seem, for however much what we’d been through might have shaken the very foundations of our relationship, what came with it was an entirely new outlook, a fresh perspective.
By which, of course, I mean a new perspective character.
At this point, EMPATHY was still the same story I’d set out to tell originally, but I wondered how it might look from another character’s eyes. What new insight might we get into the world, into the decisions made, into the story’s ending by examining it all from a different angle?
Enter Wyatt, the ruthless tech magnate opposite Chandra, our art-school dropout and EMPATHY-install recipient.
And so our relationship grew, exposing a deeper, darker side of us that neither knew existed prior to grounding ourselves in Wyatt’s perspective. Did Wyatt terrify us? Surprise us? Leave us wondering whether it would have been for the best to keep things how they were?
Yes, though we were truly only terrifying ourselves. Things were getting serious now, after all, and we’d spent enough time with one another to see our relationship through joyful and dark times both.
It was at this stage that others’ opinions started affecting how we viewed the relationship, too.
“You can still go back to how things were before Wyatt got involved.”
“You should have stuck with The One That Wasn’t. You two were always so good together.”
“If I have to read one more scene that ends with someone blacking out or falling asleep, I might black out or fall asleep.”
The feedback—whether we asked for it or not—started to shape how we, or at least I, viewed the relationship. It took months to separate the quality feedback from the rest, and even more time to understand why.
In the end, it all came down to one question: what kind of relationship did we want for ourselves?
The answer to that, we’d take the most difficult step yet: expand the world of EMPATHY again, and this time beyond the walls of the research compound.
This is the moment Meredith, our relentless investigative journalist, stepped onto the scene. With all of the quackery happening on the research compound, someone had to be in a position to get to the bottom of who was truly responsible for the success or failure of the study.
Meredith’s sleuthing as an (almost) unbiased arbiter led us to develop a better understanding of the politicking at play within the research compound, outside the research compound, and within ourselves.
Furthermore, and perhaps most critically, Meredith revealed the things we thought were driving the most disruptive aspects of our relationship weren’t as they seemed all these years. No, there was something else—another someone—at the heart of that.
This, folks, is when our naive, advancement-hungry administrative assistant became a perspective character.
Ariel helped us discern how we got to where we were in our author-manuscript relationship. We, like Ariel, were at one time young and willing to accept anything and everything we heard at face value. We were so enmeshed in our culture’s prevailing narratives about relationships and happiness that it suddenly made sense why we allowed ourselves to get swept away into that short story collection and, in the world of EMPATHY itself, what truly set the Rube Goldberg machine of action-reaction into motion for Chandra, Wyatt, and Meredith’s stories. And, for the first time since Wyatt entered the fray, we were forced to face difficult questions about ourselves and our relationship again.
How far were we willing to go to see our relationship through? Was it really the right thing to do, or were we simply keeping at it because the alternatives frightened us? We’d already invested so much time in getting to know one another, in falling in love, in wrestling with the difficulties and celebrating life’s joyful moments together that we simply couldn’t back out now, could we?
I mean, seriously, I’d written about twelve different versions of EMPATHY by now and had queried it on and off for years. What was I even doing? What was our long-term plan?
We always knew we could run off to Vegas and get hitched in the KDP Cathedral. A number of our friends had done this and were very satisfied with their relationships, after all. Getting tickets to Vegas and hopping on a plane didn’t feel like us though, so we bided our time, bringing out the best in one another as much as we could every day.
Still, I wondered: would this book and I ever truly take the plunge to publication?
I sure hoped so, because it was seeming more and more like this relationship was about to lead to a whole litter of book babies, and we needed some security, some stability if we were ever going to go that route.
Five Books Later
It was then, on December 26, 2017, that we finally met the right folks to bless our relationship. NineStar Press offered a contract for a book that had now become known as EMPATHY: Imminent Dawn.
Once the dotted lines were signed and we confessed our love for one another, I approached NineStar on the side and mentioned we had plans to expand our family. Would NineStar be interested in supporting us as we became parents for the first, second, and, well, however many times?
The answer was a resounding yes.
So here we are now, Imminent Dawn and I, wed before the world and expecting our first book-baby sequel as early as April of this year, with another possibly on the way before year’s end and (at least) two more to follow.
I know, right?
It Happened for Us, It Can Happen for You
I chronicle all of this now not to pat ourselves on the back or play the braggadocio, but rather to convey the all-important lesson that is that of perseverance. There were so many times along the way we could have walked away when the going got rough, but when you know, you know.
That’s not to say the manuscript you’re writing right now will prove to be The One despite however much it might feel that way right now. Remember I, too, had a The One That Wasn’t, and it took me years before I was able to embrace the “That Wasn’t” in that relationship.
Perseverance. Time. Patience. With these three in mind as you fall in and out of love a million times over, you’ll one day find yourself with a ring on that finger or, who knows, with a book baby or two cradled in your arms as well.
r. r. campbell is the author of Accounting for It All (November 2018) and Imminent Dawn (January 2019). He’s also an editor and the founder of the Writescast Network, a podcast collective for writers, by writers.