Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Guest Post: “Why I Didn’t Write My Book in an Elevator” by Jack Skillingstead

Skillingstead-LifeOnThePreservationUSHere’s the so-called elevator pitch for my new novel, Life On The Preservation.

A man discovers his city is caught in a time loop. He fears he may be losing his mind. Then a girl from outside the loop arrives. They find each other and solve the mystery. It’s Dark City meets Groundhog Day.

I never actually delivered this pitch. In fact, I only wrote it just now. One time I did find myself in an elevator with David Hartwell, who is the senior editor at Tor Books. I wasn't even tempted to blurt a pitch at him. All I said was, “Nice tie.” David is famous for his ties. After that, we did what most people do on elevators. We stared at the doors and waited.

On publication day, which was May 28th, I did a public reading from, Life On The Preservation. The reading took place at the University Bookstore in Seattle, Washington. Duane Wilkins, who runs the excellent science fiction section of the store and who is probably as well-read as anyone ever has been in our genre, had this to say in his introduction:

“I don’t know how to explain this book.”

Then he stared into space for a while, repeated himself, and suggested I might do better at describing Life On The Preservation. Presumably, he believed I could describe my own novel because, after all, I’d written it. But I couldn’t, even though I’m a fairly articulate person. If I’d had my elevator pitch handy I might have recited the thing, but I doubt it. Besides, I only wrote the elevator pitch five minutes ago.

People who like to give writing advice will often tell you that if you can’t describe your book in one paragraph you probably don’t have a saleable idea. If that’s true, I’m living in the wrong universe. Though I have described both of my novels in one or two paragraphs, I did it only after the books were finished and sold and the publishers asked me to do it, so they would have some copy to put on the back of the book and to advertise it in catalogues and around the internet.

Skillingstead-LifeOnThePreservationUKThe truth is, you don’t know what your book is about until you’ve written it, and if the book is any good it lives in the details – details that you discover along the way. At my University Bookstore reading I could have described LOTP as a story of alien destruction, time loops, transhuman survival in an environment of outlaw art, paranoid estrangement and redemption. I could even have said its secret theme concerned living in the world you create – whether you acknowledge you’ve created it or not.

But, while true enough, that description isn’t anything but a laundry list of related generalities. And I must say that, generally, I distrust generalities. Before I wrote LOTP I took several stabs at the one-paragraph description. I even tried to outline chapters. It felt a little like looking at a slide show from a vacation I hadn’t yet enjoyed. Here’s a pretty picture of a beach with random people lying around! Yes, the people are strangers, ciphers, and the beach looks like any other beach. But there it is! And I'm going!

My early efforts of transforming Life On The Preservation from a short story to a novel looked something like a generic beach with sun-bathing ciphers. This is because I was desperate to get organized and write a novel that pushed all the right buttons – you know, the buttons that would make people love the book and shower me with contracts and money. Of course, those first attempts to expand Preservation turned out to be abysmal failures. I learned that – for me, at least – there is only one way to discover whatever it is that might be original within myself. I had to go there and document the journey every inch of the way. Only then could I begin to organize my fancy slide show.


Life on the Preservation was published by Solaris Books on June 6th. Here’s the synopsis…

Inside the Seattle Preservation Dome it’s always the Fifth of October, the city caught in an endless time loop. “Reformed” graffiti artist Ian Palmer is the only one who knows the truth, and he is desperate to wake up the rest of the city before the alien Curator of this human museum erases Ian’s identity forever. Outside the Dome, the world lies in apocalyptic ruin. Small town teenager Kylie is one of the few survivors to escape both the initial shock wave and the effects of the poison rains that follow. Now she must make her way across the blasted lands pursued by a mad priest and menaced by skin-and-bone things that might once have been human. Her destination is the Preservation, and her mission is to destroy it. But once inside, she meets Ian, and together they discover that Preservation reality is even stranger than it already appears.

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