As of Sunday, August fourth, the last installment of my Gemen trilogy is up and published right here on the Black Gate site.
It’s a curious feeling to have these three closely linked tales “on display” at last. I wrote the first entirely on a whim back in 2004, but the storyline itself had actually evolved decades before, in 1986. How Gemen got to where he is today — that is to say, fictionalized, and available for public scrutiny — is a tale that will perhaps be instructive to rising writers, and hopefully of some interest also to those readers who’ve kept pace with my hero’s travails.
Yes, Gemen is the love child of Dungeons & Dragons (possibly too much Dungeons & Dragons, although that, I hope, will be left to the eye of the beholder), but consider this: in all the literally thousands of hours of role-playing in which I immersed myself from approximately 1980 until 1989, only one idea, one small glimmer of a scenario, presented itself later as worthy of being translated to fiction. Lucky Gemen: alone among my endless sword & sorcery imaginings, he has stumbled into a literary afterlife.
In my gaming time through the eighties, I nearly always served the role of referee. As a result, I have notebooks full to bursting with maps, sketches, dungeons, realms — the works.
That said, the fact that all my many files turned up only fallow soil when it came to story generation should come as no surprise. Role-playing games do indeed take flight from story arcs, but with creative, uppity players aboard — and mine were both — they are also likely to progress in the loosest, most meandering fashion. The tight weave required by adventure-in-prose is unlikely to surface for more than brief moments, even in the most efficient of role-playing groups. For better or for worse, fiction makes demands that dice-rolling games do not.
The “real” Gemen, the Gemen of game-land, died fairly quickly. He really was, however, an antiques dealer — an NPC — and of course greed was his downfall. (Speaking as a person who in real life haunts his share of antique malls, I too am plagued by greed, so Gemen’s obsessive behavior tends to strike a personal chord.) Game-wise, in the course of his scheming, Gemen set a pair of the player characters on a collision course with a certain stone portal, a portal with which you, gentle reader, will already be conversant if you have read “The Trade,” “The Find,” or “The Keystone.”
Amazingly, the initial conceit of the portal has survived all these years intact: that anyone ducking under that skewed, ungainly arch would alter reality such that only those in close proximity to the portal would have any notion that the world had changed, or any remembrance of life as it had been before.
Having encountered, at some point in college, Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven, I remained fascinated with the admittedly paranoid concept that perhaps reality is not what it appears to be. In the Lynchian recesses of my mind, it seemed perfectly reasonable that my reality, like certain alternate Star Trek scenarios, might be essentially wrong, incorrect, aberrant. If so, how to put it back again? How to right the wrong of creation itself?
Poor Gemen. It became his task, in my fictions, to try to patch the world back together. Or, to borrow the words of another arch, this one given life by Harlan Ellison from Star Trek’s arguably best episode, “The City On the Edge Of Forever,” “All is as it was.”
Unlike Gene Roddenberry’s Kirk-captained reality, I took a dim view of Gemen’s ability to fix anything. Chalk it up to cynicism or call it a fascination with Werner Heisenberg, but in the three Gemen stories referenced above, Gemen manages to shift the world on its axis, yes, but never in the way he wants — and in the end, what closure he receives also sets the stage for a longer story cycle. Gemen and his sister will remain as characters, certainly, as will Tetch, but the hero of The Portal is Rayna (of all people), although a rather different version of her than might be expected, as the close of “The Keystone” intimates. A key point: like Gemen before her, Rayna is not out to save the world. (I am SO tired of teen-agers on quests to save the world.) No, all she wants is to bring back the world she remembers best, the one she believes is “true.” If she happens to “save” the world along the way, so be it, but her motives — like most people’s, for better or for worse — are essentially selfish.
Let’s call Rayna a flawed character, shall we? And let us also ask, will she succeed in her task?
Possibly no one will ever know. The novel is written, but has not, thus far, generated the kind of interest that leads to publication. It has, however, gained a reader or two; in fact, by virtue of reading “The Keystone,” you have already started the novel. The story’s last sequence, in Joycean fashion, also forms the opening sequence of The Portal.
As for the stories, I wrote them in the order in which they appear on this site, to wit, “The Trade” came first. Now, I don’t make a habit of dispensing writing advice, but one chestnut I hold very dear, and that is that one should begin any given tale or scene as late as possible. Put another way, it’s nearly always a strong choice to open a story once the internal action is already in full swing. Drop readers into a crucial moment. Cast your net quickly, and bait it with questions the reader wants answered. Even when “the crucial moment” is nothing more dangerous than a haute couture garden party, if the author brings the reader into the event at the last possible moment, that will spur the rest of the story.
So it was with “The Trade.” I began, with bull-headed intentionality, smack dab in the middle of Gemen’s story. This certainly caused problems later as I doubled back, both in time and in terms of story development, to generate “The Find.” (Indeed, the careful reader will discover a one-paragraph summary of “The Trade” crouching somewhat uncomfortably right in the middle of “The Find.” Let’s write this off as a surrender to the Demon of Necessary Information; it’s not a tactic I advise, and I have not employed it since, in any other writing project. That said, in this one instance, it proved to be inescapable.)
Having finished the first two stories, I began casting around for a publisher. I knew John O’Neill liked my prose well enough, as he had recently rejected my story “The Latest Incarnation of Secondhand Johnny” with a hand-written note (this was back in the days of snail mail — in fact, the pony express had only recently been put out to pasture). In the note, John told me how much he liked the story, but that it wasn’t right for Black Gate. And indeed it was not. “Secondhand Johnny” was not a true adventure and it deserved to be rejected. (More advice to new writers: know your markets! Don’t waste an editor’s time!)
And then a curious thing happened. I got to know Howard Andrew Jones. Our children were in the same pre-school class, and we struck up a conversation at a birthday party, with gaggles of yelling children racing around us. Not long after, Howard kindly invited me to join him, his wife, and his friends for an evening of Pathfinder gaming. With geography having separated me from my former band of players, I gratefully accepted and soon became a regular member of the crew. Not too long after that, I discovered Howard had become the managing editor of Black Gate, and I, mindful of my mother’s advice to answer the knock of opportunity, promptly put “The Trade” in his capable hands.
Howard loved “The Trade” and quickly passed it on to the boss. Let this be the next lesson for aspiring writers: connections and relationships matter. This is especially true in my life as a playwright, but it holds for fiction as well, and the best way out of a slush pile is not to get in it in the first place.
Once “The Trade” garnered an acceptance from Mr. O’Neill, I sent along “The Find” and it met with a similarly enthusiastic response. John suggested some changes; I made them. So far, so good. I had two sales in pocket with a magazine I actually liked.
However, when I got to “The Keystone,” my road turned rough and rugged. Just prior to a Friday evening gaming session, Howard swept me into his home office (book-lined, of course, fantasy and history tomes in all directions) and he proceeded to administer a friendly but stern beat-down. “You can’t put readers through thirty thousand words and then leave them hanging!” he insisted. “You have to let them in on what’s been going on!”
Chagrined — but pleased, at least, that the stories had gotten under his skin — I rewrote the back quarter of “The Keystone” with an eye toward overt clarity. The rewrite passed muster; Howard sent it to John. When John responded with much the same commentary as Howard, I rewrote more. (New writers: yes, writing really is re-writing.)
The ending of “The Keystone” is now clear as a bell––maybe. As to whether I have succeeded, you, gentle reader, must be the judge, and I admit at the outset that I haven’t exactly made it simple. The cyclical nature of my characters’ relationship to the portal is (I believe) laid bare, but it might not make sense without reading each story back to back, without too much of a layover in between. Also, I confess to withholding at least a few choice secrets; after all, Rayna’s story is yet to come.
What I trust shines through is a sense of loss, a pang of regret. My characters, Gemen and Velori in particular, work hard for one particular outcome. They don’t succeed. This won’t matter at all if we don’t care about them as people — if, to paraphrase Howard, we have followed their lives for thirty-thousand words, but have formed no attachment — but if the emotional core of the tale functions as I hope, and as I have designed it, then there is an outside chance that I have penned a trilogy that veers toward epic tragedy.
Success in the face of astronomical odds is the typical fare of nearly all adventure fiction, but failure, too, can be fertile ground. Witness the Arthurian tales, or Wagner’s Ring Cycle; look, too, at Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga, or even John Crowley’s fairy-strewn monument, Little, Big.
In any event, the Gemen stories do not end without hope. I may be many things as a writer, but I am not a nihilist. Sure, my hope may be misplaced — call it a by-product of Pollyanna plus a cultural overlay of redemptive religion — but at least in my written work, hope also springs eternal. So be it. I prefer to write from a place of hope. Call me crazy, but there it is.
So. We have at last reached the final page of our story, and it’s time to put Gemen to rest.
Or is it?
The novel lurks in the shadows, hoping for release.
Not only that, there’s a prequel to Gemen’s tale, already written and champing at the bit, so perhaps this fictional road, if I may steal briefly from a master, truly does go ever on.
Oh, and before I forget! “The Latest Incarnation of Secondhand Johnny” will shortly see print (at last!) in The Journal of Unlikely Architecture, an offshoot of Unlikely Story and The Journal of Unlikely Entomology.
For now, I am deeply indebted to both Howard Andrew Jones and John O’Neill for their faith and assistance, and I do hope you’ve enjoyed following my good friend Gemen, lost and compulsive though he is. You have my humble thanks.
Until next time, dream hard.
Mark Rigney’s latest story for Black Gate was “The Keystone.” You can see what all the fuss is about here.