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A 29-Year History of Strings


Strings was born of a marriage between two unlikely interests fertilized by highly developed senses of cynicism and humor.

I started writing in 1978 or 1979. Well, I'd written before that, but I wrote my first “real” short story, the first one I thought was worth submitting somewhere, in 1978 or 1979. I dabbled with writing after that, but I don't think I took it too seriously for a while.

In 1979, some time before the beginning of my sophomore year in high school, I became a hardcore fan of both the Beatles and Dungeons and Dragons, if not simultaneously, then as good as. I can trace at least part of this disparate pair of interests to August 1979, when I bought the AD&D Player's Manual and Dungeon Master's Manual. And at some point during this year I bought Nicholas Schaffner's The Beatles Forever. I was definitely more into D&D than the Beatles, in the sense that in those early days I spent much more time thinking about games and character sheets, but my fascination with the Fabs just kept growing. In fact, I remember banishing a previous character from my head to let them occupy the role of “heroes” in my imagination.

In early 1980 I was laid low by combined pneumonia and bronchitis. I missed the entire first week of second semester (which would prove to be a problem later). During this period my science teacher, Mr. Owen, unexpectedly died—the first person I'd ever known who died. While I recuperated mentally and physically, that Friday I decided to create some new D&D characters. I must have been completely taken by the Beatles by then, because my first thought was that I would create characters based on the Beatles. From there it was a very short step to, “I think I'll use the actual Beatles as D&D characters!” (In retrospect it was a really terrible idea, but hey, I was 15 and still rather sick and very depressed.) Almost immediately I began to imagine them having adventures.

When I returned to school the next week, I broke down when they asked me to sit in on discussions about who would replace Mr. Owen. They let me cry in the bathroom for a while, and then they let me skip my next class to get my head together in the lunchroom. I remember starting to write some poetry—really, really terrible poetry—to try to express my feelings. Not long after that, I started writing down the Beatles' adventures. The first thing I chronicled was a Star Trek crossover; I wrote 20 pages in four days, often during class, completely ignoring what the teachers were saying. I showed it around a bit, but after this I was terribly embarrassed by it and never touched it again. I still have this document lying around somewhere. Mostly what I ended up writing were notes about the world they were in, which had started to grow, and about the magic and things that I wanted them to have. I still have a lot of these notes.

By my junior (and final) year of high school, I had become obsessed with the world and the story. It didn't have a title at that point, though I knew I did not want it to be “Magical Mystery Tour.” I was set to graduate early and wanted to go to college expressly to work on the book. (This turned out to be a bad idea, but it's a little late to be regretting that decision now.) I applied for several in-state schools and (I forget why) Johns Hopkins. I was actually accepted at JH, but as I was only 17 and timid as hell, I couldn't face the notion of moving all the way to Maryland by myself. Anyway, the University of Denver offered me an honors scholarship, so I ended up in their writing program, which was supposed to be really good but was operating mostly on reputation. The professors there had little to no interest in anything besides “serious” fiction, but somehow I managed to use the book (now titled Middle-Eighth) as my honors thesis. That first, woefully inadequate version covered roughly what is now the First Movement and had a horrible ending.

The five things that most influenced the proto-Strings in 1981-1985 were:

  1. At some point, probably in 1981, I began connecting music to events in the book. With Supertramp's “Fool's Overture” playing in my bedroom, I suddenly started matching John's attempts to fly with the music. Boy, what a moment of revelation! That was the second epiphany I've had in my life. (The first one was when I was really paying attention to “A Day in the Life” for the first time and really realized just what amazing music the Beatles had created.) From then on I would partially “write to the songs” whenever I could.
  2. I got into comics in 1982 or 1983 as the result of my cousin's brief marriage to a writer for DC comics. The visual language of comics has continued to influence me ever since. I also managed to start reading them at the beginning of the Black-and-White Revolution, when for the first time independent publishers and their alternate ideas were getting relatively wide distribution. I don't know if I would have stuck with comics had they been all superheroes and kiddie trash.
  3. I wrote the first really good chapter in what I think was late 1983 or early 1984: what is now chapter 9, “High.” I would have been 19 at the time. I was having a tough time writing (and I was desperately trying to write to “Fool's Overture”), and I went over to a friend's apartment for a change of venue. My friend wasn't home, but her roommate, Vicki Washington (hi, Vicki, wherever you are), let me in to write. And the chapter just poured out. It's changed somewhat since that time, but it is essentially the same. Its appearance changed the entire feel of the book and affected how I write to this day.
  4. I switched from AD&D to Champions and the Hero System. Aside from being a superhero role-playing game, the Hero System let me design our heroes from top to bottom for the first time. It's amazing how much guidance a character sheet can give you. It had become a lot easier to define everyone's limits, and to determine their relative levels of power. (Someday I will post the character sheets for the four.)
  5. My reluctant advisor, Bin Ramke (google him, he's pretty literary), hated that I wanted the four and the reader to go through their adventures never knowing why they were on C'hou. (I'm pretty sure he hated the whole book, actually.) He may have suggested adding the Fans, or he may just have named them that, but that's where they came from. I have a sense that it was a throwaway comment on his part. Still, they became an invaluable part of the story.

By the end of my undergraduate career I was even more determined to finish the book, and I applied to seven graduate writing programs, using chapters 1 and 9 of the book as my writing sample. I was immediately accepted by Emerson College and turned down by everyone else. Had I known at the time that Emerson's writing program would be exactly one semester old when I was due to attend, I might not have gone; but I didn't, and I did. The writing professors were pretty crappy (I knew a lot of people who dropped out of the program), but I was lucky and fell in with one of their few literature professors, Dr. Lynn Williams. She actually took SF & fantasy seriously—she was a student of utopias and dystopias. More important, she herself was not a fiction writer, and I'd had more than my fill of egotistical professors competing with their students.

Lynn's major influence on me was to get me to tighten up my writing. She always wanted me to reduce the number of main characters down to one (I think she favored Paul, since he started the book), but I refused, since that simply wouldn't have worked. (Think about it: How would I have done John's flying scene from Paul's POV?) Given that even in the 1980s fantasy books were becoming overstuffed with characters, I thought four wasn't too unwieldy (though nowadays I would almost always stick with one in any other story). The other significant change in that period was that Lynn hated the title and insisted I come up with another one. I spent days brainstorming and finally settled on With Strings Attached, which had a number of connotations that I liked. The subtitle would come years later. I have a separate essay on what the title signifies.

I finished my MFA and the first version of Strings in 1989. That version ended just after what is the Third Movement, and it had the most godawful chapter with Jim Hunter that you could possibly imagine. I hated it, but I had to write it fast, and I cranked it out in 12 hours. The whole thing was slightly over 400 pages long and, I think, is still available through UMI. BTW, relatively famous children's author Jack Gantos was on my thesis committee, but I'm almost positive he never bothered to read it. His comments when I was defending my thesis were of the “What she said” variety, and he never asked me anything.

With Strings “done,” I was ready to rewrite it immediately. With my usual slowness I didn't get very far with it over the next four years. And I was, sigh, growing bored with it—no big surprise, since at that point I'd been working on it (or at least thinking about it) almost nonstop for 13 years. In 1993, I said, “No more,” and I put it out of my mind. That was also when I started to write my graphic novel book, so I suppose that filled the gap. I was also drifting away from the Beatles (gasps of horror are allowed); I flirted briefly with world music, then settled on musical theatre, of which I have become a mildly famous collector. But I digress.

In 1995 I began to really become aware of the Internet after editing a book with a lot of web addresses in it. I had also gone back to school (the University of Colorado at Denver) for another master's degree, this one in technical communication. In 1997 I realized that here I had this huge unfinished thing on my computer that wasn't too terrible, and maybe it would be worth posting on the Internet; maybe there would be enough interest and praise to get me to work on it some more. I decided to start posting Strings on my friend Kevin Perizzolo's Geocities website, Writer's Cramp, because he had a small established audience. Being somewhat simpleminded about the Net back then, I spread the word by emailing people who had existing websites rather than by getting on any bulletin boards or anything. I did develop a bit of a following for this version, and, more important, I met Susan and Jim Ryan after Susan found it by accident and wrote me a very enthusiastic email.

I'd been dying to have my own website, and when I finally thought of a good domain name in 1999, I registered it and emailed Kevin to let him know that I wanted to start pulling it off and posting it exclusively on Rational Magic. But the email bounced; to this day I don't know where Kevin went. I hope you're OK, Kevin! [He is, he got in touch with me.] Anyway, it was impossible for me to remove the Geocities material, so I just went ahead and started posting chapters in February 2000, along with other writings and suchlike.

Strings became fairly popular; on at least one search engine (this was pre-Google) it was the #1 single Beatles fanfic on the web. I posted chapters more or less consistently for a while and developed a mailing list with an even 100 members.

Then, personal disaster struck. My mother had started displaying mental problems in 2000, and by the end of 2001 she was really losing it, hallucinating, having rages, and becoming completely inarticulate. She would be formally diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in March 2002. My father was having a terrible time trying to take care of her, as she had gotten very violent, but he didn't want to put her in a home. Then, in June 2002, I was laid off from my great job (along with about 75% of the other employees). Not long after that, my father fell and broke his hip, which meant that I had to take care of my mother for over a month while he recuperated and rehabbed. This period is one of the three times in my life where I have almost no memory of anything that happened. Anyway, the long and short of it was that I was much too depressed to write any longer. (P.S. Mom died on 1/4/07.)

Months of not writing stretched into years. I couldn't even bring myself to reread the Strings stuff, much less work on it. I also had fully transferred my affections to musical theatre and was consciously avoiding all rock music when possible. The only substantial writing I did from 2003-2008 were marketing descriptions for eBay (I started selling in 2004; here's a link to my eBay store) and tons of short scripts for artwork and merchandise for the Rocky Mountain PBS annual Auction (RIP Auction, killed by morons). Oh, and more school stuff; hoping to give up technical writing for good, I went back to school for my third master's degree, this one in library science. During this period I actually did get a contract to write a sequel to my graphic novel book, but I was so thoroughly blocked that I had to regretfully cancel it. By this time, I'd completely lost interest in Strings, and I really thought it would just languish forever in Development Hell.

And then 2009 happened.

I've been calling it “struck by literary lightning,” because I just don't know why I suddenly wanted to finish Strings. Maybe it was my profound relief that Barack Obama had been elected. Maybe it was listening to Beatles: Love over and over in the car. Maybe it was my friends at the Jones Library at the National Theatre Conservatory prodding me to write. Maybe it was just sheer desperation from not having had a job for a long time. But suddenly... I started rereading Strings and editing the existing stuff.

And I got into it... big time.

Crazy big time.

To the point where I wouldn't take a shower because I was afraid to interrupt my thought processes. I went to bed late and got up early to run to my laptop. I listened to Beatles-a-Rama (streaming radio station, fantastic, check it out!) incessantly. I often went to bed working on a sticky thing in the story and woke up the next morning with a solution offering itself. I skipped several dinners and plays. I left the house maybe six times during an entire month. I listened to the Strings score incessantly, getting high on the music like I hadn't for over a decade. My emotions were set at max; in the evenings my tolerant father had to put up with me weeping over who knows what. He was really very good, cleaning up after me in the kitchen and letting me alone nearly all the time.

And I wrote 300 pages in about three weeks. Never before or since have I been that productive. Years' worth of material came pouring out. I'd been afraid that I wouldn't be able to match the tone of the original material (or, indeed, that I was no longer capable of even writing fiction), but I was able to do so. It was easier than I'd dared hope, actually.

And in early February, the first complete draft was done. Of course I burst into tears when it was done. I continued working on it, polishing and polishing, until I published it in May.

I have started working on the sequel, The Keys Stand Alone, or [I'm changing the subtitle], and currently have some 400 pages and 11 chapters, plus piles of notes. It's not coming quite as easily as Strings because I don't have as much plot worked out in my head, and because of the nature of the book, but it's coming. Here's a link to a bit of info about it.

So that's the history of Strings. I still can't quite believe it's complete. I just hope, hope, hope it was worth the wait for everyone.


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