On making mistakes and doing better next time

I'm an author writing outside my lane. Here's what I'm doing to fix it.

On making mistakes and doing better next time

CONSTELIS VOSS has a sordid history. Initially, it started as a roleplaying game on a niche forum with a bunch of nerds penning a story about technology and corruption. Set on a space station orbiting a planet, the cast of characters crash-land and come face to face with an alien civilization. An alien civilization with magic-tech tools. There were mystics, existential-crisis robots, a girl riding a giant wolf, and an engineer-babe in a mecha.

All in all, it was a riveting experience.

I manned that sandbox RP as GM. My job was to facilitate storytelling in a group setting, but there was no clear destination in mind. As with many collaborative storytelling games, it fizzled out, but what we did create together was awesome.

Many years passed and I kept writing variations of that story. It was special. My life took a terrible turn and I dove harder into writing. I wrote through every tragedy, and after one final horrible RP experience with a toxic GM, put the hobby down for good.

I decided I'd start writing actual books. I thought I'd base my first on the RP of old, but keep it on the space station, with an original cast sans my old faithful catharsis-engine—Alex.

It would be a prequel to the crash-landing, a story on everything I'd lived (and almost died) through, plus social commentary. Commentary on inevitable technocratic meltdown. Commentary on the politics of power. Commentary on things that were important, because I wrote CONSTELIS VOSS as a way to cope.

At first, I fucked up by doing something I'd have never done when I was a GM. I wrote a cast solely to serve Alex's goals. Moreover, the social commentary was heavy-handed to the point of disrespect.

When I realize this, I understood that I was writing from inside my trauma, and this was not only inappropriate, but the story suffered for it.

I had to take a good, long, hard look at why.

While writing CONSTELIS VOSS, I was in a lot of pain. The work was haunted, because I was haunted. Haunted by a life of exploitation, events that marked me for life and a ghost of queerness I couldn't pin down.

I wrote a haunted story to understand the world and beg for understanding from the people I'd loved, hurt and lost. All of that came through in the work.

The friends I'd needed during the events were given to Alex. Then, I wrote him learning nothing, destroying every enemy and dodging all consequence.

All of it was pain made into selfishness.

Self-aware, I aimed to realign the work. My second fuckup was thinking that realigning was enough. I spent years refining my characters so they would feel real.

The characters were beautiful, but they were still caught in the machine of a mad-man. A mad-man hellbent on saving himself from a fated self-implosion primed to doom an entire species. A self-implosion that reflected events. Events that I thought had doomed me forever.

I sat with the work shortly after COVID was announced and something clicked.

I'd inserted myself, but that wasn't the issue. The issue was how. I'd orchestrated a complex conceptual universe, yet it was ultimately an act of cowardice.

To address this dingdong mistake, I wrote a meta-commentary subplot.

An underutilized character was weaponized: the original AI that'd ruined everything to prevent implosion. In seeing what he'd created due to hubris and pain, he owned 'the suck' by ending his protocol for good.

The AI shut itself off, gave his proxy a shot at not being a dick, and let every character run off-script. Off-script, the novel broke form as the very rules of speculative fiction snapped in half.

Off-script, the cast flourished, never to return to what hell was wrought. A trauma-boiled, closed system finally reformatted, the loop was broken.

This character is called Alex, but that's not exactly right. This is an AI that lives in the ship as an exploited engine powering a broken world. In the text, he works through his garbage data as a ghost from the past. A ghost aware enough to know and own his mistakes.

Still mishandling the friends he brought back through time and memory, but aware of it. Aware of why, how and aware that the mess rests on a failed human society plus a tortured human mind.

I made this AI-Alex into a lesson to learn from and sent the work out into the world hoping people wouldn't just listen, but they'd also learn.

As a writer, I had no business exerting my pain across a closed system so arrogantly. Nobody does. So, I wrote that into the text as a warning.

I wrote that the only way to a healthy society is for the power-hungry to step down, humans to grapple with their bullshit and to grow society around empathy. That's a 2022 thematic message if ever there was one.

A friend and reader called CONSTELIS VOSS a living document and that's exactly what it is. It's the act of unlearning, packaged into an action-sci-fi story. What it asks of readers is to challenge themselves the same way I did.

You aren't meant to walk away from this trilogy admiring Alex. You're meant to walk away aware of what our world makes people into. Then, you're meant to unlearn all of it, for your health and the health of society.

That's what writing this work taught me.

But that's not the only thing I learned. While writing, I realized I was trans. Leafing through the work, the dam broke all at once.

I'd spent years writing a queer guy like my life depended on it—because it did. I misplaced myself in fiction because 'myself' was an unacceptable error. I owned that, and suddenly the narrative opened up.

Lucid and making the best—yet most chaotically self-aware—work of my life, I set out next to do what I'd never done: I'd write the events that turned me rotten. Events that nobody knows the extent of—save my partner—and one other.

INDIGO VOSS comes out this year and it's the most vital work I've written. It's me being brave, but more than that, it speaks to just one single person. Someone special who knows I wrote it so we could 'own the suck' together.

Alex's past life was fated to die in the late 90s according to canon, yet he defies reality in this story. Just like me and mine did. Like we do to this very day.

What I aim to reaffirm with this work is as follows: the knowledge that you can heal from deadly wounds and not just survive, but thrive.

I had to make this work to survive. Then, I had to be aware of the arrogance of it all to truly break free. Next came owning the suck. Finally, I had to incorporate hard-won lessons:

You need to let it go. You need to survive and learn. Then, you must truly live, which means knowing that you deserve love even if you're haunted.

So, what am I doing, knowing I'm a dingdong author, and wanting to continue creating this big work?

It's simple: Every character (there are 7) will get their own first-person novel. Their human stories told, finally. Not as pawns for a dying machine waging war on a dying society. Not even as futuristic robotic Gods who defeat evil, and go on to live their best lives when the curtain falls.

This will be a work of characters-as-people.

To do this right, I will invite co-authors and contract consultants. If that isn't feasible, I will leave some stories untold, or divest those to others. Their name shining with all my resources as stairs, like it used to be in the RP of old.

So maybe I'm not the protagonist. Maybe I'm the sandbox GM. Maybe I'm meant to provide resources—like I am with a group of transfem friends—for a trans fiction database we're building. Maybe I'm the the resource who shows you what not to do so you can thrive.

That all sounds beautiful, to me.

It sounds like a rainbow of stories that expand forever.  It sounds like things many authors don't attempt, because far too many don't know they're not the protagonist of everything.

But I also know what I wrote, how I wrote it and why.

I also know that I still don't know enough.

However, what I know more than anything else is that all of humanity must unlearn its bullshit. For that's the only way our species survives.

That's the only way to survive, period.

In every mistake, in messy human characters, in trying to do good despite being fucked up, I want you to learn from the performance. Use my journey as a guide and grow wise. This the goal of the work: to help others shine from what I've lived through. To help them avoid the self-implosion. To help them rise with wisdom that let me survive the insurmountable.

That, my friends, might be the only way to stop being a dingdong author. As many of us are selfish dingdongs, I'd like us to try. What do you think?

K. Leigh is an ex-freelancer, full-time author, and weirdo artist. Read their lgbt+ sci-fi books, connect on Twitter, visit their site, or send them an email if you’d like to work together. 🌈 🏳️‍⚧️

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