Behold the whiteness of the Whale!
The Key of Worlds (sometimes titled The Key of Dreams) was to be a modern fantasy novel, something like a James Blaylock book. It began with some notes jotted down in the late 90s about a young man who stumbles into a dreamlike world when he turns corners, pulls certain books from library shelves, etc. And there was an idea of something hidden in the ancient Library of Alexandria that was so important, the Library was burned down just to provide a distraction while it was smuggled out.
In its most coherent form, KoW was a story about a young man who inherits his late grandfather’s house, located in a strange neighborhood with a large population of eccentric old people. His grandfather possessed (or was himself) the object of a power struggle among these eccentric old people, something called the Key of Worlds.
The main characters try to find out what and where the Key of Worlds is and what it’s for without leading the wrong people to it, whoever they are. In the process they uncover a secret history of this community that’s full of shame and horror and deep wounds that need healing. They also learn a secret history of the twentieth century involving bizarre experiments in psychic research by Naval intelligence that tie into the secrets of this little neighborhood.
In the end, the good guys win.
Why it was abandoned
I’d just come off writing a first novel that was making the rounds at the publishers. A few people were pretty excited about it, but were anxious to know what I was going to do next. Could I be counted on to consistently deliver quality product? Or was this the only book I had in me?
I’d succeeded in finishing the first novel because it was fun to write. Now I had to create something “marketable.” I had no idea how to successfully complete a marketable novel, only one that was fun to write. The result was creative paralysis.
I coped with my paralysis by substituting planning for actual writing. I wrote mountains of notes: plot outlines, character studies, lists of people, places, and things and how they related to one another, all of them changing constantly as better ideas came to me. I wrote a history of the Bryce family from the late 1800s to the present day. Every time I moved I changed the location to whatever part of the country I’d moved to, which changed the mood of the piece, and the characters’ biographies…
All I had to do was make it perfect, you see.
Pretty much any of the later versions of the story would have made a fine novel. (The villain remains for me a tremendously compelling character.) But I couldn’t stop working on the book and start writing it.
Eventually the endless and unproductive struggle for perfection left me burned out. I filed the notes away and stopped thinking about the project altogether.
Along the way I learned that I find old folks more interesting to write about than young folks. Old characters have a long history that they need to come to terms with. They have complex relationships, and the sobering knowledge that this might be their last chance ever to put things right.