Sooner or later you come to this point. The time has finally arrived to push the novel out there.
A bestselling if somewhat unhinged novelist founds a small coastal Texas university dedicated to the study of the human psyche. Appointed writer in residence at the whim of the director, computer technician Himal Steina realizes his dream of mythic sanctuary at the vast foggy Soul Institute, falling in love with one of its numerous faculty goddesses but unaware that he’s blundering into a catastrophic jumble of power lust, romantic chaos, drug abuse, and gang violence.
The Soul Institute is my aircraft carrier flagship novel. I do think this is my best work, and it’s karmically important for me to publish TSI after either eleven or twenty-four years of work, take your pick once you see my calculations below. Since September I’ve more or less put all my energy into a final revision and publication effort. This novel isn’t science fiction, not even the bizarre “what if” social commentary of CommWealth’s dystopian economy, but like almost anything I write, The Soul Institute is farcical / over the top / serious / psychological / tragic / absurd. And hopefully funny. I try to navigate through the drafts of a novel by amplifying those sections I feel have good flowing energy, and cutting those parts that drag, no matter how necessary they might at first seem to the book’s structure. But I figure if something bores me as I reread it, it can’t really be necessary. If you reread your work with a feel for whether energy is leaping off the page, you eventually coalesce around the emotionally correct parts that are necessary. The point is that I think the entirety of The Soul Institute is now high energy.
I’ve also had fun updating the Soul Institute character images. Some are almost twenty years old! The aircraft carrier has been under construction for some time. I have several additional drawings planned.
The novel came from my recurring dream of a return to Rice University–not the common anxiety dream about getting behind in classes, but the urge to explore some vast, stupendous, mystic Source, the Other World, the sanctuary of the deep night university of Soul. Several sets of characters interrelate:
- The TSI administrators and faculty pursuing love affairs, power struggles, and fantasy life as they cope with the school’s increasingly hateful bureaucracy. The novel opens at Moolka Waxtor’s farewell party in the English Department offices, with department chair Derrick Dexter recoiling in horror at their out of control lovemaking in a closet minutes earlier. But fully in love with Derrick, Moolka tearfully declares she’s decided to stay at the Institute even as director Alfred Burlcron hires a midlevel computer technician from Chicago, Himal Steina, to replace her as TSI’s writer in residence. Burlcron makes Himal one of his secret ruling caste of Overcrons, but Himal falls for Moolka and begins chronicling his feelings for her in the pornographic memoir TSI is committed to publish.
- The students who came to live the life of Soul in the small college town of Linstar but are dismayed to discover the underlying anarchy. Lisa Melinda Burlcron, Soul Institute freshman and Burlcron’s daughter, falls disastrously for the rudderless professor Derrick as her former boyfriend Dorrington Caldwell, guitarist, songwriter, and poet, winds up in erotic thrall to Derrick’s wife, the manipulative administrator Jipo Jarg.
- The ninth graders at Faller Junior High with their separate world of inhalant abuse and gang violence. Blasted by days of inhalant highs, Burlcron’s fourteen-year-old son Mitar leads the Paint Sniffing Gang on a raid to vandalize the Institute’s library, then orders it to assault his own house before he flees with his girlfriend Rhea to Mexico.
- Members of the past paradise, Waxtor Carnationist College, with their deep genealogical ties to TSI. Considered by some to be merely a failed rough draft of the Soul Institute, for others Waxtor is the Other World they seek to return to. Solis Waxtor, Moolka’s father and Derrick’s uncle, with whom they’ve severed all relations, lost five hundred million dollars turning the ancient Waxtor estate into a crackpot religious school; after years in exile in Africa as a soldier of fortune, the vile old man arrives in Linstar to help the college town prepare for National Soul Day.
- And then there’s five-year-old Urside Charmouth with his own set of adventures which get seriously tangled with all the above. While Urside later figures as an adult character in the Jack Commer science fiction novel Nonprofit Chronowar, this novel’s universe and that of Jack Commer are separate. Likewise separate is the CommWealth world, which uses the same town of Linstar, grown into a city a decade and a half later, its early Soul Institute having long ago evolved into the University of Linstar.
These characters have transcended mere self-expression or need for autobiography on my part, though the novel is an homage to my attraction to the University of Mind and my seeking it in the library world. But The Soul Institute answers everything that didn’t work about my failed The University of Mars, the unsatisfactory, someday-to-be-rewritten Sortmind, and numerous other attempts to describe that mystical university or the Life of the Mind. In addition, TSI decisively ended, even as I finished Draft 1, all those transcendent dream adventures of returning to a university of Soul. This is disappointing in one sense, as those were lovely and fantastical dreams over many decades, but the novel apparently addressed their karmic themes.
The Long Process
I was surprised to run across my 10/18/11 blog post declaring that I was completely done with The Soul Institute. But that 2011 version did represent a long-overdue return to a novel I’d abandoned in 1999–even while I paradoxically thought it was perfect. As that post described TSI’s 1999 predecessor:
Yet, inexplicably, I placed the manuscript securely in the desk drawer for over a decade. I think this was primarily because I assumed (I’m sure quite correctly) that an offering of 1,064 pages and 266,000 words by an unknown author was way too long to be seriously considered by traditional print publishers–and I had no concept of the e-publishing industry which was in its infancy at the time. I think the idea was to get one of my shorter novels published first and then TSI might be considered for a second one. But whatever the excuse, the real feeling I’ve had all this time about the 1999 TSI is shame that I didn’t even try to send it out.
… But maybe the long wait was worthwhile, because, however much I was proud of the 1999 expression, another decade gave me new perspective and I could see the faults in the 1999 MS. and how the whole story could be strengthened. Two more drafts over the last year rearranged and simplified its plot, cutting the length about 25% as it reduced a great deal of interior character thinking and expositional verbiage.
The actual time I’ve spent on this novel could be as much as 24.5 years (the entire time from the first May 1991 inklings to now) or as little as 11.2 years of focused work on six drafts (10/94-12/99, then 12/09-12/15).
I really thought, the last time I touched TSI in 2014, that all the novel needed was one last copyediting and a sprint through my formatting checklist. But instead of mere editing I found myself taking a more critical look. I began the 2015 version at 197,707 words, 787 pages, and finished at 186,755 words, 746 pages. That’s 10,952 words cut. I’m not cutting them in order to fit a body into a cramped casket before I send query letters off to–wait! The damn thing’s alive, and I’m the publisher! My aim in cutting words is to make sure the prose is as high-energy and fluid as possible–also to spare the reader from plowing through forty-one unnecessary pages.
Rediscovering Draft 1
While working on the final version I decided to explore the origins of this decades-long effort, so I unearthed the twenty-six separate WordPerfect chapter files of the first draft of The Soul Institute, 10/94 to 7/97, moshed them into one Word document, and made an EPUB format to reread on my iPad. Draft 1 is 381,949 words, 1,646 pages, almost 200,000 words longer than the published version, an endless (some would say interminable) exploration of the psyches of forty-plus major and minor characters. But I now consider Draft 1 as character notes for my own reference; I’ve definitely gotten to know these folks over the years.
Although the best parts of Draft 1 can seem, to my chagrin, very little changed from 1994 to 2015, appearing merely cleaned up, there are vast sections of deleted, sprawling reflections and alternate plot, some of which I vaguely remember–and others I can’t place at all, as if some fan fiction writer had taken hold of Draft 1 and run with it!
Some of the Draft 1 deletions are unexpectedly good–but I’d never throw any of it back into the final TSI. I was worried that starting to reread it during the final publication phase might negatively affect the current work, but that never happened. In fact, it’s been beneficial to review the whole karma of this novel at this time.
I stand by the final version as the real novel, and I understand why I cut what I did from this monstrous first draft, but there are a lot of good psychological chapters that would make a great Alternate Soul Institute. Like movie outtakes, deleted scenes. Don’t worry, I won’t really publish it!
In October I made press.sortmind.com in anticipation of TSI’s publication. Sortmind Press isn’t a viable business, not yet at any rate, but Amazon and Barnes and Noble and Smashwords ask what your publishing name is, so–there it is. So far I’ve published three works through Sortmind Press, a.k.a, Sortmind Publishing: The Soul Institute, my novella The First Twenty Steps, and Trip to Mars, The Picture Book, this latter still in Draft 1 as I try to figure out how to properly do an illustrated picture book. I published it as a YouTube video but it will someday be a bona fide children’s book.
And before too long Sortmind Press will have a paperback version of The Soul Institute.
The word “publish” has certainly changed in meaning. Every blog post, every web page update, is a “publication.” And all these … novels. So be it. We’re all just putting it out there. I’ve often wondered what humans in the year 3000 will make of all this glut. I certainly hope they have fascinating AI/indexing software to probe through the exponentially increasing amounts of “publications” from here through December 31, 2999 in order to determine that The Soul Institute is, in fact, the finest human expression of the entire era.
The fourth Jack Commer, Collapse and Delusion, soon to be published by Double Dragon Publishing, addresses this issue in passing:
He whirled to Phil. “What is this, Phil? Alpha Centaurians read novels?”
Phil shrugged. “Yeah, it was a surprise to us, too. But they’ve been writing and publishing ’em for thousands of years. It’s just that the inspiration always came from the Emperor. It’s like a novel was whatever the Emperor’s mood was that day. One AC would just sort of take it down, like taking dictation. Any novel probably only took ’em a few minutes, I think. Then it’d immediately be part of the Grid and everyone in AC would read it at once.”
“Jesus …” Jack said, shuddering.
More anthill insanity! This place has always given me the creeps! Why did I ever think I’d want to retire here?
“The strange thing is that they’re awfully similar to human novels,” Hedrona put in. “They sort of … I don’t know … reflect the whole society or something. I was able to read a few before the Grid collapsed and somehow I didn’t have to be part of the Grid to do that. Weird. Of course all that was lost when the Grid went down.”
“Yeah, it’s like the Emperor was the publisher and the computer network it was all stored on,” Phil said. “When he went, billions of novels–just went poof!”
A published novel is closed. You’re done. There will be no more rewriting. It’s out there in the world, performing its published function, whether it sells or not. Aside from uploaded error corrections, you’ll never touch it again. You’re free to go on to new work. Marketing it is another matter entirely and doesn’t impinge on the closure. Because the book is still definitely alive.
I know I can always submit the novel elsewhere, but right now I don’t have the time or patience to start shopping Soul Institute query letters to publishers and taking on a two-three year wait (or longer!) for something to jell. The Soul Institute is done. I want to point my life energy towards something even better than this effort.
Self-publication is not for every novel. TSI is my best work and I want it out there, but like many writers I have several other novels on file that were just experiments which have no further resonance. In no way do they ever need to be inflicted on the world.
I expect TSI will sink a long way down into the depths of billions of books in the publishing ocean, but I have this strange feeling that it will ultimately bob to the surface.
Here’s a twist I never considered until this month: At the end, Lisa Burlcron’s assertive high school friend Seveta, just visiting TSI at Thanksgiving break at the time of the chaos, declares that she might have to enroll at the Soul Institute, abandoning her first year at Yale, just to fix this mediocre backwater college. Hmm … sequel? Titled The University of Linstar? Set in the next year as the remaining characters struggle with all the good and ill they’ve wrought upon each other?
copyright 2015 by Michael D. Smith