Saturday, May 18, 2019

An Afterword for BANNEKER BONES AND THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE

I love all my published works, Esteemed Reader (you never get to read the ones I don't love), but Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees is my favorite. I've never made a secret of that. It was a love story I wrote for my wife when we were younger and I've got a lot of pleasant memories tied up in the writing of that book. But I also just plain love the characters and the story and there are several jokes that always make me laugh.

That said, I think I love Banneker's second adventure as much as his first. They're different parts of the same story and I'm looking forward to completing Banneker's third adventure. I love this world and am always happy to check in on the residents of 221 Garrett Street.

I'm going to share with you some of my experiences writing the novel, and some of them will include SPOILERS, because this is an afterword, to be read AFTER you've read the book.

The nice thing about a sequel is that I don't have to spend as much time defining the characters and their universe. This means:

1. We can hit the ground running after a brief recap of the first book, which ended on a dramatic reveal (my favorite sort of ending). This second book opens with the momentum of our characters already in direct conflict with the villain.

2. I had some nifty plot ideas and suspense techniques that could only be done in a second book, and only with these particular characters. I don't know how many Banneker books I'll get to write before I'm done, but I'm not saving anything for later. I've tried to make the best use of all the toys at my disposal in the Latimer City universe.

3. Since we've previously been introduced, we can really get to know these characters this time around. Ellicott Skullworth is still our perspective character, but Banneker is much more the proper, front-and-center hero of this second book with his name in the title. Because he decided to terrorize Ellicott for much of the first installment, we didn't get to spend as much time with Banneker as I would've liked, though he's always been my favorite. His decision was also responsible for delaying the planned appearance of the alligator people from the first adventure to the second.

4. I can get up to some of my favorite tricks from the first book. There are plenty references to Mrs. Kent's childhood black history flashcards, just as there were in the first book, and plenty of references to Batman, though by far my favorite reference is to an obscure line from Jurassic Park (I always credit the stories I owe and, of course, the Formula Eighty Six is this world's version of a lysine contingency).

Stories are magical thingssometimes, they're also a lot of workbut sometimes ideas seem to magically find authors at just the right moment. Sometimes stories involve magic is going to more or less be the thesis of this afterword.

Therefore, I should clarify that "magic" is a word I may very well be substituting for "strange neurological processes occurring entirely within my mind that strike me as magical because I have only my own brain with which to interpret them." I may be making that substitution. Sure feels like magic.

It strikes me that it was during the campaign for Barrack Obama that I first began to imagine this story about an interracial family having adventures in a more hopeful comic-book universe. I started this second book shortly after I finished the first and the main plot points haven't varied much. However, I didn't seriously sit down to write Banneker 2 until after the "election" of Donald Trump.

For a while, I thought I might not write Banneker's second novel. In 2016, a wealthy egomaniac protagonist obsessed with what the media thinks about him struck me as significantly less funny than it had in 2014. And I hated that thought almost as much as I hated Mr. "Fine People On Both Sides." Maybe Donald Trump got to ruin America, but he didn't get to ruin my book or my love for Banneker.

I think I needed Banneker Bones more than he needed me this time around. The worst depression I ever suffered was probably in middle schoolthank God I don't have to go through adolescence againbut a very bad depression took hold of me after Trump took office and American death eaters came crawling out of the woodwork. Something else happened I don't feel at liberty to discuss, but it led me to spend quite a bit of my time researching autism spectrum disorder and becoming more depressed.

The long break between Banneker's adventures was a blessing in disguise (a magical blessing?), because I didn't yet know what I needed to know to write the second book. What I discovered in studying ASD is that both I and Mrs. Ninja are somewhere on the spectrum. Many of my painfully awkward social interactions throughout my childhood started to make more sense.

Banneker is sort of a cartoonish version of young me (if I'd been more Batman-esque, and I really, really wanted to be). I also identify strongly with Ellicott, though they're both of them their own thing and I see a version of myself in every character. I just see more of myself in these two boys.

The word "autism" doesn't appear in this book and that's intentional. The definition of ASD is an evolving one and I firmly believe that if you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism. But as I was doing my research on neurological divergences, it occurred to me that Banneker was most certainly not neurotypical. And he never had been.

It amazed me to realize something about my character I hadn't known when writing his book, but it was staring me right in the face years later. The mystery of how Banneker's mind works is what finally pulled me back into his world and out of my depression. 

Because it was time for me to return to Latimer City. Because I needed Banneker to give me hope. Because I needed to know neurologically divergent people can do anything they want. They can even be heroic detectives who do battle with alligator people. Of course they can.

My original desire in writing the first Banneker was (in part) to write about an interracial family and not have it not be a thing. In this second book, I'm writing about two such families and it's still not a thing. I want to do the same for neurological divergence. Yes, there are all sorts of different people in this world," I want Esteemed Reader to say, "but who cares about that. Get on with the alligator people chases and the over-the-top comedic adventures."

I hope Banneker's fans are pleased with his second adventure, but this was a book its author needed more than anyone. I have a lot of writer friends (I'm always looking to make more). A few of them talk money every time I see them, and that's cool (I like money). But if it's money we're  primarily after, why aren't we speculating on bonds instead of writing books? 

Personally, I get more excited about readers and finding more of them. The experience of this book in particular reminded me that the act of creation is its own reward. If Banneker Bones and the Alligator People was never read by anyone and never made any money, the act of creating it would still be one of the more rewarding experiences of my life.

Writing fulfills something vital in me; its compensation is considerable.

That said, Banneker 2 was a very hard book to write. Here's an entire post about how difficult I found its writing and editing to be. One Banneker Bones novel took me almost as much time to write as five volumes of The Book of David. Partly, that was because I was also plotting Banneker Bones 3, but mostly it was because I, a fellow who insists on calling himself a Middle Grade Ninja, was relearning how to write middle grade.

I've always thought All Together Now: A Zombie Story reads like a horror story written by a middle grade author because it was my follow-up to Banneker 1 and some other as-of-yet unpublished middle grade works. Banneker 2 reads a little like a middle grade book written by a horror author, as this description makes clear:

     Ellicott flew in the opposite direction, the headlights from his jetpack leading the way until they caught on the corpse of an animal laying on the cement walkway. The animal was too long dead for Ellicott to know what it had been.
     A rat perched atop it, the dead animal’s decayed eyeball lodged in its mouth. The rat tugged against the cords connecting the eye to its socket to break their hold the way Ellicott might've bitten a cherry from its stem. When the jetpack’s beams swept across it, the rat leapt into the river of sewage with a panicked squeak and swam away to enjoy the eyeball elsewhere.
     Ellicott swallowed the bile that rose in his throat and flew past the animal.

For the record, author Laura Martin tried to convince me to cut that selection. But a description like that one would've endeared a writer to my heart at age eleven, so it stayed in as did some other creepy stuff (children like to be scared as surely as adults do, which is one reason The Witches was my favorite book growing up).

I loves me a scary monster. I often joke that the way I decide whether what I'm writing middle grade or adult fiction is by the scariness of the story's monster. That's not entirely true as giant robot bees remain the monster that most scares me, but it's not not true. Alligator people are monsters I've been imagining/dreading since I was a child and Banneker's world is one of the only places I can play with them. Bonkers monsters benefit from a bonkers world to inhabit.

But we were discussing magic in writing and I find I encounter it the same when writing for adults as surely as when writing for a broader audience. If you're reading this afterword before reading the book, I'm operating under the assumption that you're either never going to read it or you don't mind spoilers, which is good, because here comes a huge spoiler:

I always knew I wanted to have a countdown to build suspense around the big death at the end of this story. I love plot puzzles, and few have so intrigued me as the one featured in the second season of Breaking Bad. Several episodes in that season open with black and white epilogues of strewn wreckage without context, most notably a one-eyed pink bear. The epilogues all come together and make sense only after the season finale. It's one of the finest story-telling devices I've ever seen deployed with expert precision and I've been looking for a place to re-purpose (steal) it ever since.

Banneker Bones 2 was the perfect spot for this as 1. The story has a dramatic ending worthy of being built up to with non-sequitur flash-forwards. 2. Much of Banneker's age-appropriate audience hasn't seen Breaking Bad, so this will be new to them and I'll appear smarter than I am:)

I knew going in that I was going to write flash-forwards of Banneker's smoldering clothing being recovered across Latimer City after a devastating explosion. I also knew that the date I was counting down to was Halloween, because you can't pick a more distinct date for a  middle grade monster story. Banneker is the best character I've written to use for this plot puzzle as he has the most distinct costume. Halloween is a good date. I patted myself on the back as it was a good plot device well deployed.

I was more than halfway through my first draft when it finally occurred to me that Ellicott should dress as Banneker for Halloween. It made sense as Ellicott doesn't have a costume otherwise and it's the perfect suspense accelerate, because if both Banneker and Ellicott are dressed alike, there's no way for the reader to know which of them gets blown up and has their clothes strewn about in the flash forwards. A second set of the same clothing also makes sense because Banneker has multiple sets of the same outfit and this also takes care of other nagging plot questions not otherwise addressed.

It is, I'm pleased (perhaps overly so) to say, the perfect plot device perfectly suited to this story and no other.

This is, for me, both the thrill of writing and the horror of functioning on my brain for all other activities:) Dressing Ellicott as Banneker to heighten suspense in the third act is very exciting. It's also a very obvious maneuver, but apparently not to me. You have nothing to go on but my word, Esteemed Reader, but I assure you, it never occurred to me to dress our heroes alike until I'd already written more than half the book and several flash forwards.

It really seems like the idea should have come whole formed as all its elements are clearly of apiece. But that's not what happened. It could be my subconscious mind had already outlined the story and my conscious mind needed to catch up. Or it could be the secret, invisible muse hadn't whispered the additional plot details in my ear until I needed to know them. Or it could just be that my mind plays tricks on me due to atypical wiring that allows me to complete an entire novel, but apparently not understand it beforehand (or always remember to pay my power bill, which is why Mrs. Kent is in charge of that).

What I'm saying, Esteemed Reader, is: that's weird, right? Maybe even a little magical. I honestly don't have much else to say on the subject. I'm both pleased to know I can trust my writer's mind to produce a story on blind faith and know that it will work when I'm finished, and horrified that I didn't put my puzzle together until shockingly late in the game.

And that's about it for this afterword, I think, except for two things: I really, really like Bob Dylan. If you also like Bob Dylan, you probably picked up on that while reading the book. For many years, I didn't cop to this fact because I hate how cliché it feels: oh, you're a writer type with a liberal arts degree in an interracial marriage who goes to farmers markets, has a mostly dormant cigarette habit, and you listen to Bob Dylan? Do you also like Tom Waits and Tori Amos and Kurt Vonnegut while wearing glasses with distinct writer-ly frames you walking cartoon character?

As a matter of fact, I do like those things. I'm going to be 40 this year and I don't care what others think so much anymore. I love Bob Dylan, I think his music is the right vibe for this story, and if that makes me a cliché, I'm at least a happy one:)

I also really love Batman (and hate the writing of Ayn Rand), which I've admitted to previously. But I think these two things are even more apparent in this second novel than they were in the first (Ayn the pug originally appeared in an early draft of book one). I'm still a Bob Kane fan (I wore all black the day he died), but I've had to reevaluate my admiration of the man since the many revelations of how integral Bill Finger actually was in the creation of my favorite fictional character have come to light since I wrote the first Banneker. Thinking about Kane screwing over his partner struck me as a perfect metaphor for this story and something I think more Batman fans should be aware of.

And that's it until the next book. I love this story and if you loved it too (you must've to have read this afterword), I love you also, Esteemed Reader. Thanks so much for allowing me to tell you my story. I hope you're interested in a third Banneker Bones adventure, because I sure am. Hopefully, we'll be talking about it here sooner rather than later.

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