Excerpt from "The Silent Typewriter,"
chapter two of The Invisible Dragon,
my master's degree thesis, December, 2012.
For the past three years, nearly everything I've written has been a class assignment, so they all fell within the realm of literature. There were two exceptions; a short story I wrote from the perspective of a burned out and depressed Satan, and a 3D graphic novel I worked on just to have a hobby. As I entered my last semester of class work and faced graduation, I realized that I needed to write something for publication. It was time to stop being a student and become a writer. Naturally, I turned to a literary short story.
I hated the idea. It seemed to me that literary stories featured miserable characters who only grew more miserable as the writer piled increasing calamity upon them, until they committed suicide. Reading such stories made me feel depressed. That was an emotion I never wanted to feel again. If reading them made me feel depressed, then what would happen if I wrote them. The chance of a relapse filled me with such dread that I felt nauseated. I couldn't do it. I just couldn't. There had to be an alternative. That left me in a quandary. If literary fiction was out of the question, then what could I write?
One night in class, my professor said "If you aren't sure what to write, ask yourself what you like to read. What type of books fill your bookcase? That is what you should write. Write what you like to read."
As I drove home from class that night, I thought about what she said. I knew the answer but I wanted to see it with my eyes. I wanted to touch it. Touching it would transform it from theory into reality, and I could work with reality. I walked into our apartment, mumbled hello to Trish, then looked at my bookcases. Curious about why I didn't even kiss her, Trish followed me. I explained my dilemma about choosing a genre, and what my professor said. We examined our bookcases together. In the five bookcases that filled what should have been the dining room, we had everything from theology to history, from William Faulkner to Raymond Chandler, from cookbooks to comic books. Nothing jumped out at me. I liked those, but not enough to commit my life and talent to them.
Then, we walked into the living room. A shorter bookcase sat underneath a large Japanese fan featuring a painting of cranes flying over a creek. This bookcase held the answer that I knew on my trip home, but I wanted to count the volumes before I made a commitment. I still didn't trust myself, still couldn't trust my feelings. I had been wrong so many times before. I needed the concrete reassurance of something I could touch and see and smell.
That bookcase overflowed with histories of Medieval England and fantasy novels. We had the Saxon Chronicles, the Domesday Book and every book on British castles I could find. We had Le Morte d'Arthur, The Lord of the Rings, the entire Harry Potter series in hardback, and most of the collected works of Robert E. Howard. Between them lay the Poetic Edda, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede, and collections of the works of fantasy artists Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo. We used to have books by Marian Zimmer Bradley, Terry Pratchett, and David Eddings, but sold them back in 2009 to have gas money.
I am drawn to archetypes, myths, and heroes; to Boadicea, Robin Hood, and King Arthur. I love a time when men were men and women were women, and both were tough and if you challenged them, you could expect a round of skull cleaving to ensue. I admire people who stand for something and do the right thing just because it is the right thing to do. I love magic and swords and dragons. I need a level of mystery and paradox in my life, the feeling that there is something out there that cannot be quantified, examined, and categorized. I guess when I was born, I was given an old soul, the soul of some ancient Celtic or Saxon bard. I need one more Icelandic Saga before I head out to face the day. That bookcase existed because of those loves and needs.
"If this is what I like to read, then this is what I should write," I said to Trish, nodding toward that bookcase.
Later that night, Trish and I sat in bed. I think she read one of her Wicca books while I stared at the drawer pulls on my dresser. Sometimes, I have hyperfocus. I think so hard about something that the world around me ceases to exist. Only my thoughts remain. I must have been in that zone, only becoming aware that I had a wife and a home when Trish shook me.
"I've been talking for five minutes," Trish said. "Are you all right?"
"I'm not sure," I said. "I'm thinking something crazy. I'm thinking about turning Aura into a written novel."
I called my 3D graphic novel The Adventures of Aura Lockhaven. It was just a hobby and never meant for anyone's eyes but my own, although Trish read it too. Originally, the story featured the enchantress Aura Lockhaven from a little village called Manchester, England in the year A.D. 1051. I designed it to satisfy my prurient interests, and planned for her to romp naked through four chapters having sexual adventures. When I stopped working on it after the summer of 2011, the story had grown to thirteen chapters. While it was exploitative and quasi-pornographic, a good story lay beneath all the lasciviousness; a story about a naive and unsure girl becoming confident and powerful woman, of a someone finding her identity. I sat on the bed that night, unable to shake Aura from my mind.
"I think it's a great story," Trish said. "You may have to tone the sex down, but it will be more powerful if you do."
"I'm not sure the story can be written," I said. "That's what concerns me. It's a visual story. How can I capture her facial expressions? How can I transform an action panel into a written fight scene? She breaks the fourth wall. How do I write that? It's easy in a comic book, but a novel? They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I made three thousand separate renders for that story so far. That's 300,000 words. And it isn't even finished. That's a blooming big book!"
"I think you should try it," Trish said. "You'll never know until you do."
I pondered it for another three months. As I did, I made a few one-off artistic renders featuring Aura either as a heroic warrior or a glamourous enchantress. Those only made matters worse. Aura began to show me her potential as a heroine, instead of just a sex object. I knew I wanted to write fantasy stories. I had one already outlined with solid characters and deep themes. Translating the Aura comic book into a novel only made sense. Yet, I hesitated.
There was something I didn't tell Trish that night we first discussed turning Aura into a written novel. I had failed three times before. This would be the fourth time I tried to write a full length story. What made me think this time would be any different from the others? The popular definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over, expecting different results. I did not want to prove myself insane by trying to write another book, only to fail and throw it away. Worse, I held the character of Aura in high regard. I developed her personality so well that both Trish and I wished she were a real woman and lived next door to us. I felt that Aura deserved better than to have her story written, then thrown away. She deserved better than have me try to write it.
The idea refused to go away. It only grew stronger. On the heels of "what makes you think this will be any different" came a new question. This one entered my head on its own volition. I asked myself "What makes you think this one will be the same as the others?" I trapped myself. Why did I think this one would fail? Why wouldn't it be different? The previous three novels had been written in the shadow of depression, and died from my own sorrow-induced lack of confidence. This time, no such shadow existed, and while I did not possess full confidence in my skills, two years at UNT had taught me how to bring an artistic aesthetic to a story. Trish was right, and about more than she realized. The only way to find out was to find out. The only way to know whether this novel would end up like the other three was to write it.
With the spring semester over and no more classes to teach and no more to attend, I knew I also had no more excuses. So, on the first day of summer break, I turned on my laptop and typed the line, "Aura Lockhaven lay her book on the ground beside her, settling it between the new blades of grass and the soft quilt of spring's first heather and lupines." It had begun; my first novel, my first full length writing effort of any kind, in fifteen years. Which would it be, the same as the other three, or the start of something new?
Just because the novel existed already in what amounted to a storyboard format did not mean it was easy to write. I worked backwards from the screenwriter's perspective. They believe that many things that work in books do not work in a visual format. I found out fast that many things that work in a single comic book frame do not work at all as a paragraph. Whole panels needed to be reimagined and written fresh. Around the third page, I began to bog down. I wasn't sure what to write next.
This didn't happen, but it seemed like it did. It was as if the little 3D character of Aura Lockhaven stepped out of my monitor and stood on my keyboard. She shook her long auburn hair free of the tangles of computerized confinement and flashed her large green eyes at me. In a crisp English accent, she said, "Oh, merciful heavens! I have a fascinating story to tell. Stop trying to force it and do let me tell it." So, I did. Stephen King refers to that style of writing as creating dynamic characters, throwing them into interesting situations, and seeing what they do. I felt like that's what the character wanted and what the story deserved. So, Aura seized control of the story. While half of the graphic novel needed to be replaced, I knew this character inside and out. I let her tell me what to replace and what to keep, what to subdue and what to enhance. I trusted my character. I trusted myself.
What happened amazed me. The words flowed from my fingers with no effort, in an organic wave, almost as if I merely took dictation as someone else spun the yarn. Sometimes, I felt as if I read the words on the screen before they ever entered my mind to write. My experiment to see if Aura could become a novel reached 5,000 words, then broke into chapter two. Then, 10,000 words and soon, four chapters. Six chapters followed by two more and her story still unfolded, the pornography vanishing in the face of a tale about determination and love. When I reached chapter ten, the first one to be completely scrapped, a new one emerged that was far more powerful than the original.
Today: That was four years ago. The only thing that remains of the original graphic novel is the central character, Aura Lockhaven herself. She even lives in an alternative world now. On most days, it feels as if Aura has grabbed two tankards of ale, one for herself and one for me. She pulls a chair up next to me at my desk. She tells me her story, and I merely take dictation. Despite having an outline of the entire series, I really don't know where it's going or what is going to happen. That is all in the hands of the Enchantress from Hartshorn. It is Aura Lockhaven's story, after all.
Copyright Nathan Boutwell and NJB Media, 2018.
Updated February, 2018.