TOKYO GREEN was published in the spring of 2019. It was about three years in the making, though in pure writing time it took fourteen months. A few friends asked why (and how??) I wrote my first novel during a time when I should have had zero time for anything outside of family and career. Here’s the official story for anyone else who’s interested. It might also benefit other new writers who are eager to go insane.
It should go without saying that my primary motivation for writing anything is psychological and emotional need. I just feel better when I write. As a teenager I spent summer breaks filling notebooks with tales of imaginary worlds, but when it came time to choose an economic path in life I lacked courage and drive. I took the road most traveled, which did not involve any creativity at all.
Twenty years later there was hell to pay for my lack of courage. Midlife hit me hard. It felt like everything I had done professionally up until that time wasn’t worth a thing. No surprise, this was around the time I began journaling and writing short stories in an effort to keep the muse off my back.
In the summer of 2016 my wife and I took the kids to a small family reunion in Colorado. Our youngest was taking his first steps. For a few years I had been writing every day and learning from my mistakes, so by this time I had a few ideas for a novel kicking around. On this trip I decided to go with Tomo’s story, as he and I had a lot in common when it came to work. I was also fascinated with the story’s starting question: what would the world be like in thirty years? Looking at it another way I was asking the biggest question on any parent’s mind: “how can I prepare my kids for the future, with all the big-picture changes that are sure to come?” I started reading books and articles on the topic, and even corresponded with an actual futurist on a few thoughts.
Another motivator was my mild obsession with the idea that the sub-genre of dystopia was dangerous for the human race. The future was a product of what we imagined it to be, so why not imagine something kick-ass? This was the theme of one of my favorite stories, Ray Bradbury’s “The Toynbee Convector,” in which a scientist lies to the world about a better tomorrow in order to save the world from itself. In reality the world was much better off now than when Bradbury wrote the story, but most people perceived it to be going to hell. This mass delusion was complicated by the means of distributing information media in the modern age. I did some more research, and read several non-fiction books by people who were trying to turn the tide of this bizarre phenomenon, well-known titles like Factfulness and Enlightenment Now.
Fueled with these ideas, I wanted to contribute my part (however small) to set the record straight. For sure there would be big problems in the future, but there was no reason to assume civilization would collapse. It was no accident the main character of Tokyo Green is the same age as my oldest son. I wanted to imagine a future for our children. Otherwise what was the point?
Back in Japan, I resumed an online course by Holly Lisle called “How to Think Sideways,” the first ten weeks of which was a holistic approach to discovering one’s own true story that needed to be told. I probably had twenty thousand words of notes, world-building and character sketches before the real writing even began. I pounded out the first scene in August of 2016, and maintained a good pace of about a thousand words per day for several months. I did most of the writing in the ungodly morning hours, and during my commute on the train.
Every November there’s something called “National Novel Writing Month” (NANO-WRIMO) in which writers from all over the world push themselves and friends to bust out fifty thousand words (of anything) in thirty days. It seemed like a good idea, so I tried it, and by the end of the month I did indeed have an additional fifty thousand words. The only problem was that most of it was crap. I know this event works well for many writers, but I won’t do it again. I have no problem motivating myself to work, and with this project I had already established a good, balanced pace of writing before the NANO-WRIMO month began. With the slight uptick in speed the story stepped out of tune, resulting in unexpected “Wild Bill” moments and senseless tangents that would complicate revision ten fold.
Earlier I mentioned the muse. By this time he and I had become close. This might sound romantic to the uninitiated, but I can assure you it was not. As a left-brained techie I used to roll my eyes when people talked about their so-called muse. (The word still sounds too quaint, but there’s no better fit.) Suffice to say my muse was not quaint. I had kept him locked up in a closet for most of my life. Now he was a mean bastard who rode into town on a Harley and fought dirty when drunk. And dammit he was always drunk. He banged on the door any time of night and did not care if he woke the baby up. He blew an air-horn in my ear at 2 AM just because he had crazy new ideas. What did it matter if I had to get up in a few hours to go to work? I’m sure anyone who has been involved in a big creative endeavor can relate.
By mid-December, I had a 130,000-word beast of a manuscript that only I could love. It was thicker than a big-city phone book when printed out. Much of my real life had been running on auto-pilot during the four months of writing, so I put this ugly baby in a drawer for a few months while I worked on reuniting with family, coworkers and friends.
In April of 2017 I pulled the heavy stack of paper out of the drawer and put it on a shelf. For a while I was afraid to take a look. I finally read it, and it wasn’t as bad as I had feared. In fact some of it was pretty good. However it was clear that it needed a lot of work. In the end it would take every scrap of my free time over the next eight months to revise. I used Holly Lisle’s “How To Revise Your Novel” (HTRYN) method, which was thorough (to say the least), grueling and extreme.
The revision process slaughtered about a quarter of the original manuscript. I removed scenes, added scenes, and rewrote all eighty of them at least once. The original story had been written from three points of view: Tomo, Kosei, and Sara. I gutted all the Sara POV scenes in the revision, because it just didn’t make sense that a story could be told from an AI point of view. (I reckoned that computers didn’t think like humans any more than submarines swam like fish.)
I catalogued every detail, item, and artifact, making sure each had its place. A third of the original characters were cut from the cast. I did a manual cut and paste of the physical manuscript, typed the whole thing in from scratch, printed it, read it out loud, and then repeated the whole process twice.
During this time it felt natural to withdraw from the real world. I grew my hair long over the course of a year and a half. By the end of the revision it was shoulder-length. For most of a year I slept four hours, woke in the middle of the night, revised, and then crashed out for an hour or two before starting the daily commute. Real-world pressures mounted at work and home. My family expected me to stick to our original plan and move back to the States. (Okay, to be fair this was my original plan, before the muse took control.) But the move would’ve required a year or more of my undivided attention to get my foreign-born family settled in, and TOKYO GREEN was not yet complete. So the muse rejected the idea in the psychological equivalent of holding a loaded gun to my head. It was very rough patch on the road to finishing this thing, and I was doing it alone. How could I explain that I had a slave-driving boss in a second career that paid nothing at all?
At the end of 2017 I had something resembling an actual novel. The 130,000-word beast emerged from the revision process a lean, mean, 90,000-word version of its former self, which by total coincidence was an average novel’s length. Eighteen months after starting the project, it was time for others to take a look.
In January of 2018 I asked Matt Turano to help with content editing. He read the manuscript twice and sent a forty-page, double-spaced reply. It was a real treat to work with him. He applied the right balance of encouragement and hard critique. Some of his suggestions were easy fixes, but some required a lot of work. The most significant mod was a re-write of the first chapter (for the fourth time!) to smooth out some emotion that made no sense. Back in the summer of 2016 I had punched the words of the first chapter into the keyboard with a bit of wage-slave angst, and after all the revisions some of it still remained. Chapter One was not the place to alienate readers with my problems. By the final re-write it was all Tomo, doing his thing.
I spent a month making these final revisions. Afterwards I declared my midlife crisis to be over and once again dropped the book in a drawer.
For most of the next year I enjoyed the awesome feeling of not having a secret second job. I did explore the idea of traditional publishing for a while, even though I wasn’t sure it was right for the book. This was new territory for me, so I pursued it for the learning experience alone. Jane Friedman (author, publishing insider) was nice enough to correspond with me a bit. Out of twenty submissions to various agents I got two bites. An agent and I went back and forth about possible representation.
In the end I concluded traditional publishing was not for me. I wanted to do things on my own time, and I was not open to making big changes to fit an existing niche. As a reader I didn’t think traditional publishing had done the best job of providing me with what I wanted to read in the past twenty years, so why should I trust them to tell me what to write?
A year drifted by and I forgot about the project. This might seem unbelievable after so much effort, but I had this complacent feeling like the demon had been exorcised. I was at peace. Still, the idea of making my small contribution hung in the air. If a book was dropped in the forest and nobody was there to read it, was it ever written at all?
In January of 2019, I asked EJ Clarke of SilverJay Editing to copy-edit the book, and got Ida Jansson of AMYGDALA DESIGN (Norway) to do the cover.
So now I’m on the eve of finally publishing this thing and I think back to my teenage years of daydreaming and filling up notebooks with tales of imaginary worlds. I feel like the best part of me is vindicated, even if this novel doesn’t make a cent. If you’re thinking about writing a novel or embarking on some big creative endeavor then consider this: The economic me has made some money over the past twenty-five years in this thing I call a career. For sure I’ve met some good people along the way. But if every minute of it was wiped from my memory I wouldn’t miss a thing. (Hell, if such a service existed then I might pay to have it done!) On the other hand, the experience of completing a meaningful, creative project is a memory I wouldn’t give up for anything. It’s an accomplishment I’ll take to the grave.