Author Justin Ordonez schools us on writing an Interlude and how it happened in his latest novel, Sykosa, Part 1.
My name is Justin Ordoñez and, as I write this, my book Sykosa has been finished finished for about nine months. I say finished finished because, when you’re a writer, the first time you’re finished, you’re not really. Book writing is like a bad relationship, you gotta come back to see if it can work this time. The nice thing about book writing is usually the book gets better. The nice thing about re-visiting the relationship is you find out for sure you’re never seeing this person again. I find the closure of both to be satisfying, and it’s not all downside, as I’m not one to over-contemplate stuff once it’s finished finished. I saved Sykosa as “SykosaPartI(FinalDraft).doc” and, to be honest, I’ve scarcely thought about it since. I had friends who told me, “Dude, you’ll never be able to stop writing this,” and, “You’re going to be like George Lucas, you’re always going to be making changes,” but, at least thus far, the opposite has held true. I couldn’t be happier with the novel, and I’ve flipped through it once or twice, daring the Gods of writing to make me loathsome with regret and it hasn’t happened.
I love Sykosa.
Yet here I sit, in one of my favorite restaurants in Seattle, a teriyaki place 145 streets up from Downtown. It’s in the burbs, and it serves giant portions that I graze at for three hours while I write, and it has wooden benches my friend Megan once said, “are as uncomfortable as the crap they make you sit on in elementary school.” I guess her sole trip to this restaurant was a painful one, but for me, the benches remind me I need to work, and ftw, it’s the one moderately priced restaurant in Seattle without a TV blaring in it. It’s also a friendly, neighborhood place. The owners got my order memorized, and despite how I’m tired of it, I must admit to a strange comfort in someone knowing your order down to the stupid little deviations from the menu, then they bring it to you, and it’s as seamless an experience as one can imagine. In such an environment, I can get flowing with Sykosa, I can get my fingers typing in such a way that people sitting next to me try to look at my laptop like one might in an airplane—it’s a persistent curiosity. What is this person so interested in and how can I find out about it in the creepiest way imaginable?
This is my restaurant. This is my world. Here I’m the star, and I’m invincible, and nothing shakes me, which is why it’s difficult to say I’m racked with anxiety, and that to give myself courage, I’ve downloaded the Rocky soundtrack (from iTunes, don’t sue me, RIAA), which is blasting out my earphones, and if I still drank alcohol, I’d be downing the sake generously.
It’s because I’m about to do something I swore I’d never do.
I’m about to talk about the Interlude in Sykosa.
If you’re curious, an Interlude is a story within a story. It’s the structure Stephen King used in It, and the Interludes took place in the past, while the Parts took place in the present. I’ve borrowed this for Sykosa. (Though, Sykosa’s nothing like a Stephen King novel. Actually, she might occasionally freak out Carrie-style, but the carnage is strictly imaginary). I like this type of storytelling because you can foreshadow what happened during the past in the first half of the book, then spend the Interlude foreshadowing what happens in the second half, and bring it all home with a rock star, kick butt ending. The hard part is that every character needs to be two different versions of him/herself. This is essential because if they’re exactly the same, why write their past? Flashbacks existing solely for character building are boring, they must be driving the story.
It took me a while to learn this, though I didn’t expect such.
It was December, 2010. This was the deadline.
After years of pushing off when Sykosa had to be finished, I had decided—in an epiphanic moment upon waking in June, 2009—that Sykosa had to be finished before 2011. I had worked under this assumption using mostly a blind faith similar to the lunacy that convinced millions of Americans the world was ending on May 21st, 2011. I didn’t need “facts.” I “knew.” The issue? As I crept closer and closer to 2011, I saw the story’s flaws. They weren’t huge flaws, per se, and I might’ve been over-blowing it a bit, but that’s only if you think a big, stinking pile of turd in the middle of a novel is a notable issue. My Interlude was so bad it literally stopped people in their tracks. When people had read Sykosa in the past, when it had no Interlude, they had finished it at a high rate and told me how much they liked it. With the completed Interlude in it, my last four readers had quit reading at the start of the Interlude, then told me the excuses everyone tells.
“I’m really busy right now.”
“I’m waiting until I go on vacation next month.”
“I gotta finish another book I started reading.”
“Justin, I gotta be honest with you, it’s terrible and you suck.”
Okay, I made that fourth one up, but it’s what they’re thinking. And what bothered me wasn’t so much that the Interlude was bad, but that it should be good—it had the elements of a captivating and meaningful story, yet it never felt right. For one, the Sykosa in Part I was a character formed without a time crunch; whereas, the Interlude Sykosa had been written under tremendous pressure. To economize and compensate for this, I took Sykosa as she existed and made her a shyer, more introverted, somewhat nerdy girl who didn’t know anything about beauty, didn’t party much, and was a bit awkward. The issue wasn’t that I had written her poorly, she was just typical. Sykosa is a character who gets to be an airhead and a genius. She gets to suck at being sexual and enjoy it anyway. She gets to be tremendously cowardly about some things and tremendously courageous about others. Sykosa isn’t a story of archetypes, where we have the burnout, the brain, the geek, the jock, etc, etc. It’s a story about people who’re complex and engaging, and for the Interlude, I had basically decided to retell the tired story of the ugly duckling turning into a swan, and in what was simply boggling, had done so in a non-transformative way.
Confronting your writing like this is really confronting yourself. When my characters fail, I wasn’t receptive to what they wanted, I ignored their needs, I focused too much on plot and shoved them into a too tight of a box. As humans, I believe we spend considerable time complaining (mostly internally) about uptight a-holes who can’t accept people for who they are, and as I hacked away and murdered my Interlude—the months bleeding by, my self-imposed deadline stretching into February, March, April, May of 2011—I was realizing I was the uptight a-hole who couldn’t accept people for who they are. Sykosa was there, screaming at me, “Justin, do I really sound like the type of girl who only discovered her vanity at sixteen?” Or, “Justin, did you really just write that I never masturbate? Do you know how good it feels? Why wouldn’t I do it?” Or, “I’m not the type of girl who wanted to go to school dances and parties in sixth, seventh, eighth grade? Why are you making me so boring?” For all of these questions, I had no answers, and I had no reasons, as it was true—I couldn’t make Sykosa a fully formed woman because I was intimidated by the idea of it, by the enormity of it, but I dug deeper, and my mood got darker, and I started into probably the worst stretch of my life.
I worked endlessly, tirelessly—writing and deleting and writing and deleting, hearing Sykosa in my head, again and again, “No! No! No! No!” It began to cross over into my regular life. I wasn’t going out with friends as often. I was making major mistakes at work—stupid stuff like faxing things to the wrong person, confusing deadlines, and using Facebook for 4 straight hours. I lost the life in my eyes. At one point I spent 45 straight days on a chapter, only to learn 500 things that didn’t work, but not a one that did. Though, I was living in one of those can’t see the forest from the trees situations. I was so immersed, I was failing to see what was forming. By June of 2011, I had gone from an Interlude that accomplished the simple story function of linking A to B to an Interlude that created some type of thing I couldn’t yet control, a web of betrayal and loyalty and love and hatred between four women—Sykosa, Sykosa’s mother, Sykosa’s best friend Niko, and Niko’s mother, Kana—and the one woman who held them all together, the religious authority of Sykosa’s parochial school, an as-yet unnamed woman who’s also head of the abbey, and as such holds the title of Mother Superior.
At this point, I was so over-worked, so under-slept, and so perpetually stressed out that, after work, I’d take a towel out to the lawn and sleep in the sun for hours and hours. My usual productivity goal of 2,700 to 4,000 words/night began dwindling—first to 2,200, then 1,800, and by August, it was down to 750 words. I’m a rather confident guy, but you try to do this and not get swallowed in negativity. It comes up on you slowly. The thought, “You’ll never finish this.” Or, “You finally met the piece of writing you can’t best.” To, “Maybe I need to give up.” And while my loyalty dwindled, Sykosa’s never wavered, as she dragged me to the computer every night, and she worked with me until we finally began to get her 10th grade self right, working through the major issues, one being that I had spent years writing conversations between teenagers, and the Interlude had three major conversations between an adult and a teenager. I had to learn how the dialogue changes, things like who lies, then when and why. I was a wreck for the whole thing, and upon finishing it, I was so confused I thought it was a terrible. I would tell everyone, “It’s done. There’s no doubt it’s done, but it’s awful. I tried as hard as I could, but it couldn’t be saved.”
Not convinced it was good, but convinced to move on anyway, I altered Part I to fit the new Interlude. A month passed before I even dared to look at the Interlude again. In my time away from it, I had developed a life again, my self-esteem was returning, I was thinking for the first time in a long time, “Hey, this writing thing, you might want to keep doing this.” Even given this, I had prepared myself for the FUBAR’d mess the Interlude would be, and one might imagine my surprise when, as I read the first seven or eight pages, I found myself thinking, “You know, this isn’t so bad, but wait, it gets bad soon.” Soon after that, I thought, “It’s thin here or there, but it’s great, it’s got this suspense in it.” This Interlude taught me that the best way to write suspense is to have no idea what you’re bleeping doing. (Seriously, it works). By the time I made it to the middle of the Interlude, I had changed my mind about the whole thing. It accomplished everything I needed it to accomplish, it set up splendidly for Interlude II, got the reader some good laughs and good character insight, and gave just enough information about “last year” to get you hooked on knowing what happened, but never gave it away.
I could scarcely believe how terrible I thought it was a month earlier.
So, in the fall of 2011, after the winter, spring and summer from hell, I fattened up what parts of the Interlude where thin, trimmed what parts of it were fat, fixed some of the tone and rhythm problems, and ended up with the Interlude I had always envisioned. One might hypothesize it made the process worthwhile, but it’s still an experience I’ve completely repressed. For while I ended up with an incredible piece of writing, it came at extreme psychological sacrifice, and it’s a bit scary that I subjected myself to such pain and suffering, showing so little regard for my well-being to simply write a story. I suppose that’s what blind faith does to a person. It makes you both Superman and Lex Luther. For what it’s worth, Sykosa was proud of me, and she was sure this Interlude would set up Part II well, as the old Interlude—I discovered while writing the new—had issues that would’ve required a major revisionist undertaking. In the end, it was good for Sykosa, for the book, for the reader, and terrible for me, but I suppose that’s the democracy and curse of art, you’re always in the minority.
About Sykosa, Part 1
Sykosa (that’s “sy”-as-in-“my” ko-sa) is a sixteen-year-old girl trying to reclaim her identity after an act of violence shatters her life and the life of her friends. This process is complicated by her best friend, Niko, a hyper-ambitious, type-A personality who has started to war with other girls for social supremacy of their school, a prestigious preparatory academy in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. To compensate, Sykosa has decided to fall in love with her new boyfriend, Tom, who was involved in the act of violence. Propelled by survivor guilt, an anxiety disorder, and her hunger for Tom and his charms, Sykosa attends a weekend-long, unchaperoned party at Niko’s posh vacation cottage, where she will finally confront Niko on their friendship, her indecision about her friends and their involvement in the act of violence, and she will make the biggest decision of her life — whether or not she wants to lose her virginity to Tom.
Find Sykosa, Part 1
About Justin Ordonez
Justin Ordoñez was born in Spain, raised in the mid-west, and currently lives in Seattle. He’s nearly thirty years old, almost graduated from the University of Washington, and prefers to wait until TV shows come out on DVD so he can watch them in one-shot while playing iPad games. For fifteen years, he has written as a freelance writer, occasionally doing pieces as interesting as an editorial, but frequently helping to craft professional documents or assisting in the writing of recommendation letters for people who have great praise for friends or colleagues and struggle to phrase it. Sykosa is his debut novel.