Fours and Thirteens and the Art of Letting Go and Starting Again

On December 2011 I published my first Michael Chang novella. Since then I’ve published three more stories. There are more. There would have been more. But when I think back on them, compare them to my current projects, I have to drop the Michael Chang series.

One and three make four. Four is the number of death in Chinese superstition, because it sounds phonetically similar to the character for death. It took me four books to realise that everything about the Michael Chang series wasn’t going where I wanted it to go. Every story I wrote, I had that niggling sense that it was good, but not great. The feeling only grew stronger with each published story. Now I can put my finger on it.

The stories felt cold, lacking vitality, caught in a state between life and death. They were obsessed with petty things, little niggardly conflicts between small people that could be easily resolved just by walking away. There was no great conflict, over-reliance on mechanics instead of characters, and a sense that the stories weren’t living up to the full potential of the universe. That the stories were locking themselves into a tiny box instead of embracing the totality of their universe. When I read it again, the series felt like an embolus swimming in the blood, gathering mass to clog an artery and stop a heart. It was like the death of creativity in slow motion.

Place one and three side-by-side and you get 13. Thirteen is also associated with death in Western superstition.

The numbers 1, 2, 3 and 13 have held special meaning in my life. There are 13 letters in my name. I was born on a 26, which is 2 13s. There are 6 letters in my transliterated Chinese name, 2 3s. 9 if you include my surname, which makes 3 3s. I finished writing my 1st novel when I was 13. That one was lost in a computer crash. I started novel no. 2 the next day. By my third story I figured I really could make a career out of writing. I published 1 Michael story, then 3 more, which makes 4, which is 2 2s. To date, there are 13 Michael Chang stories. The original story that created the foundation of the universe, 2 unwritten novels that could have taken the universe in different directions, 2 partially written ones that could have explored the universe further, 4 finished-but-unpublished, and 4 published. Today is the 13th day of March. This is my 76th post, and 7 and 6 gives you 13. And the year is 2013.

When the world conspires to help you, this is the language it speaks.

The above was an example of a tiny part of the original vision I had for Michael Chang, the way arc numbers would float in and out of his life in the strangest of ways, especially in critical times. There would have been other ideas: travels to different worlds, a man grappling with his twin duties of healer and killer, a cold-eyed look at human problems. Things could have been different. Bigger. Better.

But that’s okay. I realise now that back then I didn’t have the experience or the skill to fully realise the stars I’d sketched in my mind. In a sense I needed to write all those stories, to learn from them and draw what lessons I could. Way back then, for all the experience I had, I was just a beginner, experienced enough to know where I might be going wrong. Not what I was doing right. There was a large gap between my ability and my ambition.

American radio personality Ira Glass spoke for 2 minutes about this here. He said everybody engaged in creative work goes through a phase like that. The only way out is through. To produce a huge volume of work, to keep at it until you’ve got something good, something real, something that lives up to your expectations or beyond.

I did that. Through end 2011 to early 2013, that’s exactly what I did, intensifying my efforts from December 2012 to February 2013. I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. And at the end of it all, I crafted a short story and a novella that met my ambitions. Stories that lived up to the standards I aspired to, and beyond.

I’ve published an earlier form of the story, Blowback, on this blog. The novella, titled American Sons, will be published as soon as the cover art and final edits are ready. American Sons ushers in a whole new universe titled American Heirs. I’ve begun work on Keepers of the Flame, the first American Heirs novel. If anything, Keepers of the Flame is even better than American Sons.

Compared to that, Michael Chang feels inadequate. I own that work, all of it, and it even made me some pocket change. But its time is past. It’s time for it to die.

Kill your darlings, the writing gurus say. It usually applies to editing. You can craft a beautiful, heart-wrenching moment, or pages of backstory that informs a character’s motivations, or have someone solve P vs NP, but if it adds nothing to the story it has to go. If an adjective or adverb, tag or character, chapter or subplot, doesn’t add to the story, it has to go. All you have to do is think bigger, and you can apply this maxim to stories and series too.

This isn’t the end of Michael Chang. Not by a long shot. In tarot, 13 is the card of Death, and Death is the card of change. It’s the scythe that sweeps a field clean, paving the way for new growth. Death is an ending, and a beginning. Michael Chang will be back. Maybe under a different name, with different characters and slightly different concepts, but the concepts will return. After I’m done with American Heirs, I’ll look through the series again, and work on rebooting it.

Michael is not dead but dreaming, and that which is not dead will not eternal lie.