My latest undertaking is a sci-fi novel called Paratraz. This is one that's been simmering in my mind for a couple years now. I wrote a version of the beginning in 2015 when I had the basic idea for the story, but ended up scrapping it after fleshing everything out with an outline. This is actually a first for me—outlining an entire book before doing the dirty work of writing.
At this point I've written and rewritten the first chapter about half a dozen times, but I've pressed on and as of April 16th I'm officially past 31,000 words (which means I'm about a third of the way done).
I'm really excited about this story. It's dramatic, emotional and adventurous, with a bit of romance, and it even delves into the psychological. There are certainly cinematic elements to it. I love the sci-fi genre because it allows you to try things you can't do in present day, playing with technologies and ideas we're only dreaming about today.
One thing I've taken a lot of liberty with is the U.S. judicial system, which I've pretty much turned on its head. The story takes place 111 years in the future, in a time when crime has gotten so rampant that lawyers and juries and the traditional court system are just too slow. In the future of Paratraz, a person is guilty until proven innocent. And rarely is there a chance to be proven innocent. This really becomes apparent when my main character, Nick Durant, is framed for a terrible crime. What's more, he's a single father to a young girl who needs him, and both of their lives could be forever changed.
I look forward to posting updates as I make progress. For now, here's a sneak peek at a snippet of Paratraz.
I trudge through tall grass along the banks of a mighty river, trailing behind an eight-year-old girl with the head of a pink unicorn. Rainbow-colored chaser lights spiral down the ridges of its shimmering golden horn. “Come on, Daddy!” she calls with her unicorn mouth. “We’re going to miss it!”
“You’re too fast for your old man, Cora.”
Cora sticks her hands on her hips and shakes her unicorn head. “You’re not old, Daddy. You’re thirty-one.” She twirls in place and a long, glittering tail sprouts from her backside and follows the motion of her turn. She giggles, then continues to run.
The river is wide and its banks steep, and it flows with thick, golden honey that inches slowly but surely in the direction of the Great Honeyfalls off in the distance. Everything is slightly askew, the colors oversaturated. Inhaling deeply, I get a whiff of the strawberry-scented air freshener in Cora’s room, but I swear I can smell the pine trees on the other side of the river, hundreds of them, leaning every which way and growing so close together I wonder if I’d even be able to squeeze between them.
This fantasy is not unlike one I concocted myself when I was Cora’s age, although the Grid had less fidelity back then, and lagged a bit, sometimes struggling to keep up with me as I ran through my creations. I had led my own dad across the vast landscape of Nicholas-1, a planet I made up and named after…well, me. “Hey bud,” Dad would say to me on lazy Sunday afternoons, “let’s go back to Nicholas-1.” And we’d spend a good couple hours on the surface of my virtual world. I managed to get Jace to explore my planet with me a few times, but he quickly grew bored. We were alike in almost every way, except he was much more grounded in reality. I was quite content to let my imagination sweep me away.
I catch up to Cora, who is lying on her stomach in the grass, peering down into a rocky ravine. She still has her tail, but now her head is her own, her brown, curly hair cascading down her back. Her excitement bubbles over as she grins up at me with wide, green eyes that remind me of her mother’s.
“Did we miss it?” I kneel beside her, then lower myself to the ground, curling my fingers over the ravine’s edge.
“Shhh.” Cora holds a finger to her lips as her eyes flit back and forth across the bottom of the ravine. Nothing stirs there but a few tufts of grass sticking up through the mud.
“What are we—”
“Daddy!” she whispers. “If they hear you, they won’t come!”
I nod. Cora sets her elbows in the grass and props her chin on her overlapped hands, and we wait.
This past week I reached out to a potential editor for Paratraz. I've set a tentative goal of completing the first draft in October.
Today I passed the 40,000 word mark and I'm chugging along. This means it's taken me about three weeks to write 9,000 words, which is less than I'd like. However, I tend to kick off my writing sessions by going back and tweaking the previous couple chapters. I didn't fully consider what writing a prison novel would mean—pretty rough conditions, situations and language! But I want to keep it as true to life as possible. I've surprised myself by introducing a few interesting characters. It's funny how I don't really know who's going to inhabit the pages of my story until I step into the setting and look around.
A teaser: One of the recent characters I've written is named Agent Rachel Yanez. She's a somewhat frazzled investigator who wants to get to the bottom of what's happened to my main character. Here's the paragraph that introduces her!
A short, olive-skinned woman with round glasses approaches, trailed by a prison guard. She’s perhaps in her late twenties, wearing a gray ISC Academy sweatshirt and tan pants. Her thin lips are pursed together and her black hair is pinned up in several places, chunks of it hanging down beside her cheeks. She’s the kind of woman who probably looks stunning dressed for a night on the town, but at the moment, she could care less. She clutches a large slimtab against her chest as she eyes me earnestly.
Last night I passed 57,000 words! I'm really starting to see the end approaching, even though I have at least 20,000 words to go. They say the middle of the book is the hardest to write, and I can confidently say that they're correct. I tend to spend a lot of time watching authors and editors discuss writing on YouTube. There's a lot of inspiring, helpful stuff on there. One of them suggested, if you're struggling with the middle, to actually start writing the end of the book and work backwards. You'll be forced to write the events that lead up to the ending. This is pretty good advice—although I'm going to use this method to flesh out my outline instead of fully writing everything. Even though I generally know what's going to happen next, I'm still surprised by everything that unfolds as I fill in details.
I did hear back from the editor I reached out to, and I'm tentatively slated for a developmental edit in October. I'm feeling good about finishing my draft by then—probably by August or September, leaving time to polish it one last time.
For this month's teaser, let me introduce you to another new character, Dr. Matilda Ambrose, aka Dr. Matty.
So with a heavy sigh, I ease myself into the chair and lie back into a reclined position. Dr. Matty secures my ankles and wrists to the chair, tightening the leather straps but not enough to constrict my bloodflow. Then she moves to the counter on the other side of the chair, pulls on exam gloves. She begins to prepare something, but with her back to me, I can’t tell what it is.
Soon she turns and unzips the top of my jumpsuit halfway. She sticks something small and round, like a suction cup, to the center of my chest. “This will let me keep an eye on your heart rate,” she says, and I realize my heart is already thumping harder. She turns back around and begins preparing something else.
“Dim lights,” she says after a moment, and the brightness of the room lowers about 80 percent. “Comfortable?” She turns. There’s another object in her gloved hand.
“Not really, no.”
So I've come to a fork in the road, and I have several ways to take my story at this point.
I've realized that Paratraz station, as I've written it so far, isn't nearly as terrifying or "maximum security" as it should be. It's a little more Shawshank than what I imagine Alcatraz to be like. So in order to lay on that sense of an eerie and tough prison, I'm redesigning the station and rewriting Nick's experience from the moment he approaches Paratraz. It's going to be a long rewrite, as I'd already filled several chapters describing the place, but hopefully it will be worth it to fully realize how dark, dangerous and terrible Paratraz really is.
I'm vascillating between telling the story in a completely linear fashion and starting when Nick is already in prison and telling the bulk of how he got there through chapter-long flashbacks. I think there are benefits to both methods. I did a little experiment and wrote an alternate first chapter in which Nick has already been in prison for a month, and he's reflecting on what he's been through up to that point. I think it may be stronger to open with the shock of some of his thoughts, dropping the reader right into the middle of his chaotic world—but again, I'm vascillating.
All of this has caused me to step back and slow down on my word count. (It wouldn't make sense to continue writing if the story takes place in a vastly different Paratraz.) So my goal for the next week is to literally draw a cross-section of the new station I'm imagining, and then go through the previous five or six chapters and rewrite every description and experience of Paratraz from that perspective.
I figured it was about time for another update! So, I took some time away from Paratraz after the fork in the road incident I mentioned in my last post. The rewrite was more daunting than I thought, and it sort of paralyzed me. I started to question why I needed to change things after all. Fundamentally, so many concepts I’d created for the station would have had to change that it was almost like telling a completely different story.
So after my time away, I pulled up my draft and read through it with fresh eyes. The things I had worried about before—about how terrifying the prison was and how “maximum security” it was—no longer seemed to matter. The story, as I had been telling it, was good.
Around the beginning of September, I jumped back in, continuing from where I’d left off. I’m now on such a roll that I’ve been able to crank out nearly 10,000 words in just two weeks! I’ve never written that fast before, but having just crossed the 69,000 word mark tonight, I see the end coming. It helps so much to have thought through the events that need to happen to carry the story to the end. Only a few details are still somewhat sketchy, but I’m confident they will all come together as I keep going.
I’m blown away by how I’ve been able to weave these plot points into something exciting and meaningful. Many times when writing, I’ll end up with whole sections of story that just don’t belong. That hasn’t been the case with Paratraz. Even the section I thought perhaps might be nixed by an editor, a fantastical scene near the beginning, has come to be vitally important to what happens later in the book.
By the time I write my next post, I may be writing my last chapter!
Prison always has been a good place for writers, killing, as it does, the twin demons of mobility and diversion. - Dan Simmons
Ah, yes, looking up good prison quotes to open my book with! This one is a gem—no doubt I would have finished the first draft of Paratraz long ago if I was in prison, ha.
But I can see the finish line. In the past month I’ve written over 16,000 words—as of today, I’m past 86,000 words. I’ve also outlined the closing two chapters and it’s getting real now, folks. I’m within a week or two of completion—depending on how much time I end up being able to write.
This thing has been such a beast—but such a blast to work on. I honestly feel like this is more than a first draft…perhaps a second, third, or fourth draft, actually. That’s what I get for constantly editing as I go, writing and rewriting, moving sections around…all the stuff you’re supposed to save for the actual “edit”! But for me, that nonstop revision keeps me motivated and focused. And the payoff is coming!