Friday, July 04, 2014

The Story Behind Three Kingdoms

Happy Independence Day, Americans!

My story, Three Kingdoms was just published at Kaleidotrope. It's number 95 of The One-Thousand. Go read it here: http://www.kaleidotrope.net/home/three-kingdoms-by-matthew-sanborn-smith/ and then come back and read what went into the making of the story after the jump.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

            I can't trace the seed of this story back to a definite date. Not even a year. But I know Process Five was born sometime in the Nineties along with a group of other characters who were not in Three Kingdoms (those others may show up in future stories). I'd had an idea to do sort of a superhero story set in a future city. When I say these characters were born, you should know they were the opposite of fleshed-out. They weren't even sketches. They each had one line, describing what made them unique. I was coming up with ideas for heroes which I hadn't seen before. So the entirety of Process Five's character at that time was: "A cyborg that's half-plant, half-robot." That was it.

And that was it for a few years. Like hundreds of my ideas, Process Five sat in a file, along with other character ideas, a bit of a sketch about the world (which was never used, and a couple of scenes that don't resemble anything that happened in the final story or anything of the final character.

In the early 2002 I discovered Dark Horse comics was looking at unsolicited material for creator-owned works. I thought about what I might do, and decided the most comic booky thing I was excited about at the time was the world of Process Five. That was when most of the big decisions were made about the world, the story, and the character. Dark Horse wanted a rundown of the series and the first eight pages of a script.

The series was going to be called Unity, after the planet on which it took place. For almost as long as I've been writing I've been interested in merging opposites, especially the biological and the mechanical. In Unity I was going to explore this in a number of ways, some of which you saw in this story. It was going to be an ensemble comic; Process Five and Tanse were only part of a larger story.

For what became Three Kingdoms I stole a central idea from a disaster of a novel I had attempted years before. The idea was that a powerful computer was pretty amazing in many ways but couldn't compare with humans when it came to imagination. The solution? Enslave some humans and use their imaginations as its own. The twist was these humans weren't just going to be kept floating in tanks. Their bodies and what was left of their minds were going to be put to rudimentary use so the imaginations would have some input on which to draw. These people would be split creatures, neither half aware of the other.

The Jaycourt Farm fell into place then, the people and the miserable conditions. I thought the farmer most likely to pull out of this nightmare existence would be one of the least conditioned to it: a child.

But what did this have to do with Process Five? I thought only a government would be capable of constructing something as complex as P5. But I didn't really want the whole idea of government agents or armies trying to recover missing technology. That seemed old to me. I didn't even want governments. I wanted a frontier system with hundreds of factions, the law being whatever a faction could manage at the end of its guns. Some of these factions might be military labs, cranking out more advanced weapons than the neighbors, either to sell, or to defend itself. That was a small enough unit to be easily wiped off the map so P5 could be autonomous. And the trauma of its awakening in the world could be a key part of its character.

Alan Moore's Swamp Thing was a big influence on P5's more botanical abilities, primarily the crazy-fast growth and the variety of vegetation grown. But I didn't want to copy Swamp Thing outright. I thought of some things I hadn't seen him do and what the addition of robotics could add to the mix. It got so out of control I had something of an unstoppable creature on my hands. How would I put the brakes on this thing? I'd make it a coward! The Jaycourt Farm, populated with humans of bovine-like docility, was the first place process Five could feel safe.

The bad guys in the first issue were mostly imagined as fodder for P5's destructive capabilities. The other key to them was to make them shitty people who were almost trying to out-shitty each other. They were corporate mercenaries and The Mind Company grew out of them and the original computer idea, rather than the other way around.

With a sample script posted by Dark Horse as my formatting guide, I put together a package over the next three months. Understand, I was a salary man, putting in too many hours a week at work, and was also a husband and father of two little kids. On top of that, I was probably working on other writing projects.

I sent it out. Dark Horse rejected it less than a month later. I can't remember the reasons they gave, if any, but I think it was something like a form rejection. C'est la vie. I had other things to work on. I forgot about it for over a year.

In 2003 I learned Marvel was sniffing around for new talent for a revived imprint called Epic, named after their Heavy Metal-inspired Epic Illustrated magazine. The original imprint gave us things like the Dreadstar comic, the excellent Elektra: Assassin mini-series by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz, and a graphic novel adaptation of William Gibson's Neuromancer. Epic wanted a full script for the first issue and beat sheets for the story arc. Beat sheets were just bullet-pointed lists, issue by issue, of the major plot points. I blew the dust off of Unity and developed it some more.

I figured out the pacing of the first issue by working within a basic six-panel page layout I had decided on while using an intuition honed by reading thousands of comics over the course of a lifetime. I had to move sections around A LOT as I stumbled my way through it. There was a second story going on in the first issue with other characters who would meet Process Five and Tanse a few issues later. I coordinated the two storylines so scenes ended at the bottom of a page and reveals popped up on the first panel of a page, that sort of thing. I shipped it off in mid-August.

They sent a letter, I think with a color image of Spider-Man at the top, and it wasn't a form letter. They couldn't accept Unity as-is, but if I could make the changes they suggested, they wanted to see it again.

Holy shit.

I'd been in the writing game for more than ten years at that point and this was the best thing from the biggest publisher I'd ever gotten. This could lead to a steady gig! A steady, day-job-quitting gig!

Their changes, if I remember, had to do with slowing down the pace of the story in order to simplify and focus. They were good suggestions. I re-wrote the shit out of that script and sent it back, more excited than I had been in a long time.

I never heard back from them.

After a while, I learned that the guy at Marvel who was reviving the Epic line had been replaced and all his projects had been dumped. Fuuuuuuuck. I coulda been a contender. I tried the script out again at Marvel proper. No dice.

Time marched on.

In 2005 a close friend of mine had a few dozen business ventures going on in various states of completion and he asked me to write a screenplay for a feature-length animated film. There were no guarantees and no money on the table, but he and I were tight, so I got to work. I fleshed out Unity even more, based on the outline I had made for the story beyond issue one. I did a substantial amount of work, then abandoned it when I thought about the work to come and remembered there were no guarantees and no money on the table. My friend never got back to me on that project anyway.

Eventually I figured I might have been out of luck with the comic (and the screenplay), but I could break the story into smaller pieces and turn them into the kinds of stories that didn't have pictures. I'd start with the first story about Project Five and Tanse. It took a while to convert the sparse sort of stage direction of a script into the detailed narrative of a short story. Then it took many more whiles.

Three Kingdoms was one of the grandest struggles I've ever had with a story. It took years to get it right. I'd attack it, give up, go away, sneak up on it, and attack it again. And again. The plot was there. It had been there since the beginning. It was the conversion from one medium to another where the problems cropped up.

One thing that was tripping me up was the pacing. In comic book form, the whole story was spread over three issues (I had finished issue two and started issue three somewhere in there, I don't remember why), because a comic was only twenty-two pages long and I had a couple of other storylines worked in there with the first. Even though a story might not be finished in a single issue, you need to plant a dramatic punch at the end of the issue so readers will want to buy the next one. Issue one ended when Process Five kills Norken, makes its decision, and says, "I'm coming Tanse." If you're reading the comic book, you're like, "Oooo. That was bad-ass, and it's going to get even worse-ass next issue! I'd better buy that one!" But because of that bit, I had this thing that felt like an ending somewhere in the middle of the story that wasn't an ending. I had to sand that thing down.

My other problem was a point of view problem. In the comic, I sometimes followed the action from the baddies' point of view and I had scenes that took place at The Mind Company before Process Five ever got there. They were small, information-relaying scenes with some characterization work on Kale, Norken, Hewe and a computer jockey that didn't make into the text-only version. That stuff worked great in comic book form but worked terribly in short story form.

Imagine an episode of the TV series Hart to Hart. It was a shitty show, but the first one that came to mind. Hart to Hart would tell you who the villain was from the get-go. There was no thinking needed on the part of the viewer to solve any mystery. Anyway, the show would often have a scene with the bad guys doing exactly what my bad guy scenes were doing. Let's say some evil dude just finished playing tennis or is drinking wine while looking out on Monte Carlo from his balcony. His lady friend is present and either she or an underling delivers the news that the Harts have been nosing around. The bad guy says "Let's make sure the Harts have an accident on their upcoming skiing trip!" (Or gambling excursion, or dog-walking escapade. Those Harts were always doing something!) Evil Dude's lady friend looks on in horror. This reminds us that the bad guy is bad and keeps us from being surprised when an errant ski boot flies from the trees and nearly misses Jonathan Hart's big ducking head.

You put that type of little bad guy scenelette in a short story and the modern reader is going to say, "What the fuck? What kind of dog shit am I reading here?" Then the reader will crumple up the computer screen and toss it in the waste basket. Granted, my bad guy bits were better and conveyed necessary information, but they still didn't work in the short story version.

What I had was a giant lumpy, lopsided mess. But I had one good thing going for me, and that was friend-of-the-blog Grant Stone. Grant read it and suggested I dump those scenes and stick to one point of view for the whole story. I did it and had to do some remodeling and painting, but I finally made the thing readable.

Although Three Kingdoms was number 95 of The One-Thousand, Unity #1 was number 31. They are different enough from one another, and enough work went into each, that I consider them two different stories.
Incidentally, the main reason the story is told in first-person was to avoid the incessant repetition of the pronoun "it" when referring to our genderless protagonist. What "it" might refer to can too easily be confused with any number of genderless common nouns in a story and I'd have to do some unpleasant verbal acrobatics in many instances so that the reader would know that I was talking about Process Five and not a shoe. We rush past the word "it" in a way that we don't rush past "he" or "she." Using a different genderless pronoun that I had either made up, or borrowed from some other writer who had dealt with the same issue, would feel clunky to my ear. At least in the case of this story. First-person solves all that with the stealthily genderless "I."

Good golly! That was a lot more jabbering than I expected to do. If you're still there and have any questions, feel free to e-mail me at upwithgravity@gmail.com and please leave some comments at the end of the story itself so Fred Coppersmith, who runs Kaleidotrope, can see what you think of his choice of story.

Thanks!


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