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Into the Unknown...

  Sometime back in April or May, I committed an exceedingly foolish act.

For a while I've been a subscriber -- and occasional contributor -- to Blue Ear, a site that's aptly subtitled "A Global Journal of Our Time." If you're not familiar with Blue Ear, let me thoroughly recommend it: never a day goes by without at least one or two -- and usually several -- interesting and/or challenging communiqués from around the world.

I was comfortably reading my "Daily Blue Ear Digest" of new messages one morning three months or so ago when I came across an offhand note from the site's editor, Ethan Casey. He was interested in the notion of expanding the site's coverage to include fiction. Already, of course, there was coverage of fiction in the sense that there were reviews of novels, discussions of fiction writers, and so on; but Ethan was meaning something more than this. In particular, he'd heard of another site that had commissioned a serial novel with great success (in fact, several sites have done this over the years), and he was wondering if it would make sense for Blue Ear to follow suit.

If it would, he wondered if any of the numerous fiction writers who subscribed to Blue Ear might like to submit their ideas to him.

[The main underpinning of Dragons of Manhattan] was to be that most of our positions of power, and in particular our positions of economic power, are occupied not by real human beings at all but by survivors of the ancient, pre-human civilization of shapeshifting dragons.

You're beginning to guess the nature of my exceedingly foolish act, aren't you?

Two or three years ago, my wife Pam and I were driving past a local area of untamed countryside, and Pam mentioned that she'd learned this was once a Warner Bros. wildlife park. There had been some difficulty with the local or state government, and Warners had simply pulled out. Nowadays, although it's apparently not possible to drive in there, you can hike in to discover what archaeologists of the future will doubtless regard as a series of inexplicable follies.

What a marvelous place this would be, I thought, to use as the setting for a story or part of a novel.

That much I can understand of my own thought processes. The rest I'm not so certain about.

By the time we got home, I'd had the idea for a novel to be called The Dragons of Manhattan. Its main underpinning was to be that most of our positions of power, and in particular our positions of economic power, are occupied not by real human beings at all but by survivors of the ancient, pre-human civilization of shapeshifting dragons. In the twilight of that civilization, with humankind everywhere on the ascendant, the dragons had realized that a better survival gambit than head-on interspecies clash -- a war that they might well lose -- was to shapeshift themselves more or less permanently into human form and to live parasitically among humans, exploiting them to the hilt. Human misery would count as nothing to the dragons; indeed, they would somewhat revel in it. All they'd care about would be their own prosperity and their own gratification.

Now, if I'd really wanted to make some money out of this conspiracy theory, I'd have described the eruption of these ideas inside me as a revelation. It is, after all, a theory that has really quite a lot going for it. However, never having had much of a financial brain, I decided instead that I had here the basis for a satirical novel.

Oh, yes, and part of it would be set in the abandoned wildlife park. That'd be where the dragons would go for their occasional weekend R&R, during which they could relax into their natural body-shape and have jolly fun hunting human prey. Preferably nubile virgins, as per tradition, although in this neck of the woods that'd present them with certain logistical problems.

A more immediate logistical problem for me was finding the time to do anything about the novel. Over the next week or two, I grabbed an hour here and an hour there to rattle off the first couple of thousand words or so -- getting my nose into the project, as it were. I resolved that in future I'd treat The Dragons of Manhattan as a little personal retreat, somewhere I could go when I had the spare time. I had starry-eyed visions of myself finishing each day's work and then, with a gleam of light-hearted creative merriment in my eye, settling down to add a few hundred words to my work in progress. Ah, carefree muse . . .

Of course, what happened when I finished work each night thereafter was that I gave a low moan of complete exhaustion and staggered off to see if there was some brainrot movie on the TV.

Imbecilically, though, I mentioned The Dragons of Manhattan to Pam. She loved the idea. She wanted me to write the novel -- preferably, in fact, already to have written it, so that she could read it. Pam has strong views on things. More than once I had to invent a sudden gastric upset in order to avoid further discussion of my progress on "her" novel. Even then, the inquisition might continue through the bathroom door.

So, when Ethan mentioned that he was looking to commission a novel for Blue Ear, it hit me that I might be able to kill more than one bird with a single stone. If I were committed in some way to writing The Dragons of Manhattan, then I would be forced to sit down and actually write it rather than constantly leaving it for another day. I'd have the exposure on Blue Ear, which might be commercially useful to the novel. I'd never tried writing a serial novel before; after sixty or so books, the element of novelty involved held a very powerful appeal. And, not least, I'd get Pam off my neck.

If I were committed in some way to writing The Dragons of Manhattan, then I would be forced to sit down and actually write it rather than constantly leaving it for another day.

Surprisingly quickly, Ethan accepted my submission. Starting on July 1st, I would be writing The Dragons of Manhattan episodically for publication on Blue Ear.

A shaft of ecstatic delight may have pierced my heart but, if it did so, it did so very briefly, because within a few nanoseconds I began to realize what I'd let myself in for. Not the work burden of producing a contractually required 5000-plus words every week -- that would be slightly onerous, perhaps, in some weeks, but it was perfectly maintainable now that I had a good excuse to shove other work aside to make room for it. No, the question that turned my mental knees to Jello(r) (you can tell I've just been reviewing a very bad book, can't you?) was this:

What happens if they hate it?

Make no mistake, some of the contributors and subscribers to Blue Ear are pretty heavy-hitting thinkers. This is not the kind of site where people demurely sit around congratulating each other, as at certain writers' circles. If you disagree with someone's political or philosophical or aesthetic judgments on Blue Ear the ethos is that you go for the throat -- assuming, that is, your reactions are slow and someone else has already laid claim to the balls. It's precisely because of that cut and thrust that I so much enjoyed being a subscriber to Blue Ear.

Cut and thrust. In my bleak moments of self-doubt, slash and burn seemed more like it.

I looked at my ideas for The Dragons of Manhattan and they seemed sillier by the minute. These mental giants were going to make mincemeat of them. Inevitably, I'd be about a week and a half into the enterprise before the chorus would start, and then steadily rise, that this was all infantile balderdash . . . and I'd be stuck either with continuing for another three or four months in the teeth of unremitting -- and justified -- hostility or, contrariwise, with the humiliation of having to abandon the whole scheme having hardly started.

Still, I was committed. Was that better or worse? Who knew? But it meant there was no way out.

What happens if they hate it?

I wrote a long prefatory essay for Blue Ear in which I outlined what I was proposing to do with The Dragons of Manhattan, in terms of philosophical underpinning and textual structure. (For this latter I adopted -- er, stole -- a mode I'd discovered in various of the novels of my late, lamented friend John Brunner, who had in turn adopted it from John Dos Passos. It seemed suitable for a novel that was being written both as a serial and with the intention of book publication.) Into this essay I inserted various not so subtle pleas for mercy from the Blue Ears, along "Don't shoot the pianist" lines. In a further Uriah Heep-like attempt to curry favor I put forward the Special Offer that, if asked by any Ear, I'd apply their name to one of the novel's minor characters.

This Special Offer was slow to be taken up at first, then became more popular. The name of the publisher of Blue Ear, Michael Corbin, was applied to a bit player who was a lampoon of the James Spader character in the movie Stargate; Michael wrote to me in awe that I'd psychically known he was a (Grateful) Deadhead in his youth. The editor of Crescent Blues, Jean Marie Ward -- who'd become an Ear in order to follow the course of the novel -- volunteered her name, which was gleefully given to one half of a Terrible Duo: two teenage hitchhikers from hell, the other half bearing the name of a Blue Ear called Priscilla Nagle. (Jean Marie reassured me recently that at least I've not yet heard from Priscilla's lawyers. This strikes me as rather more worrying than if I had.)

As I type this, I'm about three and a half weeks into the writing and serialization of The Dragons of Manhattan. To my continuing astonishment, the reaction from the weighty thinkers of Blue Ear has been overwhelmingly positive -- I've been getting plaudits from the most unexpected quarters, and if any of the Ears rightly despise what I've been doing they've kept politely quiet about it.

And I'm beginning to enjoy this manner of novel-writing. It's not something I necessarily want to make a habit of -- or even repeat, although I might -- but it most certainly is invigorating. Contrary to my expectations -- I'd assumed the process of having people see my work in progress would be rather like an emotional striptease, only even more intimate -- it's actually quite a lot of fun to read other people's reactions and observations. Most importantly of all, I myself like what I'm doing with The Dragons of Manhattan: the novel feels strong to me. Even more most importantly of all, Pam's happy.

Where will it all end? That's a tricky question, and I cannot immediately answer it.

Sometime around October or November is my best guess.

Footnote: The Dragons of Manhattan can be followed at http://www.blueear.com. In addition, Blue Ear has created a special page for the serializations, including also my periodic notes on the enterprise, at http://www.blueear.com/Dragons.cfm.

John Grant

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