Uncivil War and structure

Blame it on Hugh Howey. It's all his fault.

Back in March of 2012, one of my favorite people from my college days, Anne-Marie, recommended a book, Wool, by an author I'd never heard of. Anne-Marie's tastes were impeccable, so despite the fact that the title didn't sound like something that'd naturally be up my alley, I decided to check it out.

Turns out the first volume of Wool was free, and although at the time I didn't really care much for reading on the Kindle—largely because, no doubt, I pretty much had never actually read anything on the Kindle at that point, despite having been regifted one by my good lady wife—who could beat that price? If Anne-Marie said it was good and it was free? Well, it was certainly worth investing at least a bit of time.

A few hours later, after flipping the virtual pages faster and faster in astonishment, I plunked down cold hard virtual cash for the entire five-volume omnibus. And stayed up until dawn, devouring the damn thing—and given that my kids begin getting up pretty much at the crack of dawn, that's no small thing for me.

But as much as the story grabbed me by the throat and wouldn't let me go—and it did and it wouldn't—it was the structure that really staggered me. I can't really go into how unusual it was without lots of spoilers, and I don't want to do that. So let me just say that it proved there was a new commercially viable way of not so much writing a story but selling a novel.

Which just.

I love novels. I love epic novels. I love epic epics comprised of epic novels.

But I've always loved short stories too. Like, I guess, most, I was blown away when I first read Raymond Carver's short stories. And when it comes to two of my all-time favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut and Stephen King, I've actually generally preferred their short stories to their novels. This is not to say, for a moment, that I don't love Breakfast of Champions or God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater or especially Cat's Cradle (for a while I considered considering myself a Bokononist), or any of his other novels, but I'm not sure I've ever loved any story more than I love "Report on the Barnhouse Effect" or "The Euphio Question" or most especially "Long Walk to Forever," which may just be the sweetest love story ever and it's by Kurt damn Vonnegut.

I've read, I think, 44 of the 50 novels Stephen King has published, and of the ones I haven't, two are his most recent which I simply haven't read yet and the others are the end of his Dark Tower series since I adored the first four and heard so much about how it ended and am holding out hope he's going to do a director's edition at some point and maybe revamp the ending a bit. But as much as I love 'Salem's Lot—my nominee for scariest novel ever—I think I prefer his short stories set in that same area, "Jerusalem's Lot" and "One for the Road," and he's got a handful of other short stories which are even more frightening still. And the only thing King's ever written that I may possibly love more than the character of Charlie from Firestarter, if such a thing is possible, is his story "The Last Rung on the Ladder," which just devastated me the first time I read it, and which gets even more lovely and painful with each subsequent reading.

For that matter, although I would never say I prefer Alan Moore's short stories to his full length works, I will say that his short stories are utterly brilliant, and that while The Ballad of Halo Jones can't touch V for Vendetta or Watchmen or Miracleman or From Hell or his oddly overlooked and underrated Swamp Thing in terms of scope and importance, I will say it's affected me emotionally every bit as much as they and maybe more and it was written in (I think) five page installments, each of which was designed to be completely accessible to a brand new reader and at least somewhat satisfying on its own. Five pages. And they were! The mind reels. (The fact that only one third of Halo Jones was ever published is one of the great losses in comic book history, easily up there with the tragedy that is Big Numbers.) And then there's Moore's Future Shocks and Time Twisters and...

Which is another thing: for pretty much my entire professional career, I've spent somewhere between some and all of my time working on monthly comics. Telling stories in installments is simply embedded in me by now. That's not to say I couldn't do it another way, just that that's the most natural way for me. And that with Uncivil War, it's a good fit.

And as long as we're discussing other media, television these days is where much of the very best stories are being told the very best, from Deadwood and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, using structures that borrow more than a little, whether they know it or not (and I suspect many of them are fully aware of it) from serialized monthly comics.

So...yeah. Hugh Howey's Wool proved that the way I naturally gravitated towards telling stories might just conceivably be viable in this brave new world. Which was a relief, since Uncivil War is set in a post-second-civil-war America, and there was sorta no way to tell a story in that setting without either going very, very minimalist or having a cast of thousands. I mean, to point out the obvious, there are 50 states, and if there's a story set in each state, and there are only two or three characters per story, that's still obviously well over a hundred characters. And of course in a state like Illinois or Colorado or Florida, that's so large and diverse, there's going to be more than one story that's just begging to be told, never mind Texas or California. There are hundreds, thousands of stories per state. How you gonna do that in a standard novel?

Oh, it could be done, I'm sure. It's just, that's not the way I wanted to tell the story. And Hugh Howey showed that maybe there was another way it could be done, and that maybe readers'd be okay with it.

Here's hoping. Because whereas the first Uncivil War volume, The Island, was a novella, this second one, After the Fall, is a short story collection. It's got five stories, each set in a different region of the country, none of them terribly close to each other or where The Island was set.

I've got another half dozen stories already written, each taking place in a state we haven't seen yet, as well as about half (I think) of the prequel that shows how this whole thing got started. I've got still more I'm dying to write, with rough ideas of how they go, stories set in Alaska and California and Nebraska and Kansas and Texas and Florida and Maine and, well, really, just about every state in the (former) union. 

Just today, an Uncivil War scene came to me, out of the blue, that could only take place in Minnesota. I'm not sure what it'll turn out to be or where it'll go (in either sense of the word). Maybe it'll just be flash fiction, or a vignette, more or less complete (if unpolished) already. Maybe it's supposed to be the dénouement of a short story or even an entire novel. I don't know. But the nice thing is, this way we have options, that scene and I. We can figure out the best place for it to land. It's an incredibly liberating and exciting way to be able to tell a story and, so far at least, the initial readers seem to think it's okay too. And, for me, that's even more exciting.

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