I’ve been working on my fiction novel, Contrivance, since 2011. Numerous drafts, huge changes, shifts of universes, new plots, evolving characters, and total do overs.
My goal here is this: trace those changes along with my mental health state at the time.
Contrivance is born of a massive Hunger Games fan fiction project. I’m now creating the characters who will ultimately become the main characters of Contrivance, though, at the time, they’re simply original characters to play a background role in the fan fiction, the Gamemakers, who create the titular Death Game, the Hunger Games.
It’s the holiday season, and I’m running around town, shopping with my dad. I lean a back to school sale composition notebook on the back of our shopping cart and start on basic character profiles. Pull names from a list I’ve kept of ideas. Write interactions to test how these characters go together by the fire and Christmas tree at home. Lavender, my eventual main character, currently the Head Gamemaker, already technically exists, but not in any recognizable form.
It’s Christmas break of eighth grade. Days before school let out, I had my first panic attack while working on this series in free time during Algebra I. Rushed to the nurse’s office and then the ER, I went home early that day, took a day or two off, and went back for the last day before break.
These characters catch my interest quickly. By New Year’s, I’m on chapter three of the companion story to the series I’m writing that introduces them, distracted from all of life’s new questions.
I’ve begun therapy and medication for anxiety. I’m working on a different companion story to that big series. This one introduces Justice as a character (which we won’t come back to for a while).
I write an original short story, “Contrivance”, using “the Gamemakers”, for a summer program for gifted kids, where I basically take a semester of Creative Writing in three weeks at the local university.
The universe concept is that in a world where everyone is assigned a job by lottery, promising young people get a chance at the best jobs by proving themselves in a VR simulation called Contrivance, which also matches them to the field where they’ll do best, personalized testing based on analysis of their dreams, which can be recorded. The short story basically tracks one run of Contrivance the game, taking a few weeks.
A few names and appearances shift with the universe change, suited to something that’s not the Hunger Games’ stylized Capitol. Some don’t stick, but the ones I feel the need to change here eventually settle out to something new, among other minor changes. I have to submit two short stories for review over the course of the class. The instructor tells me that the other is good, but “Contrivance” is clearly where my heart is. And maybe it’s more than a short story.
In January, I had my first psychotic episode, terrifying demonic hallucinations. The episodes keep coming, hallucinations paired with paranoid delusion or catatonia, tears or panic.
I begin writing a novel draft of Contrivance for Camp NaNoWriMo, a challenge to write 50,000 words of fiction in one month. I end up writing over 77,000 words that month. It goes from Lavender’s job interview for Lead Deviser (the “Head Gamemaker” equivalent) to the completion of the first time she leads Contrivance, about a year later.
I’m permanently stressed and sleep deprived by the magnet school I’m at. In late March, after receiving a poor grade from a spiteful instructor for a special project that halts all normal classes, I panic, knowing it’ll be incorporated into my English grade. I ask my English teacher if I can submit a novel I’m writing next month for extra credit. He’s a little baffled, but says yes.
In this draft, Lavender inherits my psychosis. It fades in and out in a few more drafts, but mostly doesn’t last.
I do NaNo two more times in the middle. In July, I write over 93,000 words, a sequel to Contrivance titled Trial, named after a feature of the in universe game. In this one, the Contrivance test takers are kidnapped by rebels, though Lavender teams up with the usually evil Contrivance Director (who oversees the more administrative/financial side of Contrivance) to rescue them. To discourage revolution, Contrivance is toned down a bit.
I’ve started frequently pairing Lavender and Francisco, one of the Devisers, off at the end, though it’s always strangely sudden, and sometimes even in the epilogue, they split up again.
By April 2014, I’m ready for another draft of Contrivance itself.
A lot of the characters are taking very recognizable shape by now. Not so much a contradiction of what they were before as a solidification. Lavender and Malka still have a long way to go, but their relationship is starting to take on the more formal mentor/apprentice turn. Malka is the former Lead Deviser (the leader of the Devisers, who create Contrivance) and has a lot of advice for her replacement as she steps down, preparing to fully retire. In this draft, there’s a formal office mentoring program for new employees; Kaye, hired at the same time as Lavender, is involved as well, though from even the short story, Lavender seems to unofficially look out for her. Here, Lavender and Malka (and Kaye) don’t meet before Lavender’s job interview, though it’s clear Malka’s had her eye on Lavender for the role for quite some time as she went through training.
Meanwhile, my psychosis is getting out of hand, and I leave school, too agoraphobic to leave the house.
My parents have gotten a divorce. I’m planning to homeschool in the fall. To overcome my agoraphobia, I’ve started going to the weekly NaNoWriMo meetups.
In this July’s NaNoWriMo, Lavender’s hostile relationship with the Contrivance Director (who in previous drafts frequently would do things like use torture just to send a message) comes to a head when the Contrivance Director tortures and plans to kill Kaye, nearby but outside of Contrivance Headquarters, which at this time was an isolated complex in the middle of nowhere.
Lavender and the other Devisers thwart this plan, ending in Lavender killing the Contrivance Director. Realizing that the people inside the complex are not on their side, they flee into the wilderness, hoping to make it to the actual Contrivance Testing complex to get a hold of the right government officials.
Once they do, Lavender is on trial for voluntary manslaughter, though sentencing gets reduced to probation and fines due to government official standing. Contrivance’s staffing gets an overhaul to prevent people like the Contrivance Director from getting in, and the Deviers safely return to Contrivance Headquarters, though Lavender is suspicious of the new, innocent Contrivance Director and doesn’t seem to fully recover from all the events, developing severe PTSD.
This turns into a nervous breakdown and she ends up in a psych ward for part of the novel later. Malka is effectively the interim Lead Deviser again, as Lavender’s supposed to focus on recovery and not her job (something she struggles with, though she starts to grasp the importance of it).
There were a lot of issues with this draft (see the gaping plot holes), but it got into some interesting themes. We really start to question the Devisers’ morality outside of even Contrivance, see mixed factions within the government, and explore a lot more mental health themes.
I’m still trying to get the above kind of outline to work, but failing. Most of the plot is eventually scrapped, along with the role of the Contrivance Director. I don’t finish NaNo. Mostly non verbal for nearly a month due to a mix of dissociation, disorganized thoughts, and distracting hallucinations, I myself almost end up in a psychiatric ward, though in the end I simply commit to sorting out my meds.
Writing continues, heavily focused on Lavender and Kaye’s friendship. I’m starting to realize that I care more about the Devisers’ relationships than about any world or plot issues.
I develop a self-harm problem. Interestingly, self harm and suicidal ideation are the key mental health issues that plague Kaye. In many early drafts she even attempts suicide, usually towards the end of the novel/series, and successfully. (Rissa, another Deviser, does too. This was in drafts where Malka usually died first of fairly natural causes, resulting in emotional chaos for the Devisers.)
I’ve started community college classes, but it’s not going well. I attempt suicide, an ultimate low point, though it actually turns out to be a key turning point. I swear off self harm and with only a a few relapses in the next several years, quit entirely. I’m also around this time diagnosed with autism, schizophrenia, and anxiety. I’m working on new Contrivance ideas.
This is the first time I finish NaNo again despite a hectic month of family medical issues, though my own are improving, working on Contrivance, but exploring new ideas and writing in random orders, not going for a full draft. I’ve scrapped the job lottery/ability testing idea for worldbuilding issues, and go for general unethical experimentation instead.
Somewhere in here, I know Malka’s aged moved up a little, about sixty to about seventy.
In the past year or so, Malka and Lavender’s relationship has become increasingly hostile in every draft. Malka seems to no longer be there with just perhaps unnecessarily high standards, but seems to exist to criticize and cause problems. Rather than trying to follow Malka’s advice out of respect for her abilities, Lavender seems to be just trying to tread water. Malka especially interferes in Lavender’s connection with Kaye.
By the end of the month, I’ve done my first official experimentation with the idea that there’s most history between them than meeting at Lavender’s job interview, starting to roll with the childhood apprentice idea.
Still in a bit of a low spot, I try a collaboration in which the Devisers go on a quest for the government by travelling between universes to meet with my co-creator’s characters, powerful magician sorts working for a military in the other world. The Devisers will bring them modern war technology and strategy in exchange for magical training. It’s short lived, but kind of comes back later…
I’ve started experimenting with the idea that Kaye is autistic, and she occasionally comes into Lavender’s new backstory with Malka, though I can’t seem to make her stay there. I think this is around the time Malka either developed a military backstory or it really became relevant.
The next month or so, I relapse once on the self harm.
I’m improving mentally, but still stuck on what the plot for Contrivance actually is, so I take a break from it as a serious original fiction project and throw the characters back into something like fan fiction. I’m wrapping up the fan fiction universe the “Gamemakers”/”Devisers” still do exist in, in their original form, so I try something new.
It’s still kind of original fiction. The Devisers, doing experiments for the United States government, conduct their most questionable one yet, based on a now old dystopian novel: The Hunger Games. Could such a thing really happen? What were the effects on society? How did people just let it be?
I called it Contrivance Chronicles. There were several more playful, lighter touches here. Justice joins this cast for the first time, though she’s not a Deviser. In the fan fiction universe, due to character deaths, two new Gamemakers had joined the panel, Zeely and Laya (who’s the sister of one of the Devisers, Thespian, sometimes seen as an intern). They both appear in Contrivance Chronicles as well, though neither lasted long in most original drafts of Contrivance. Laya got cut altogether by the current draft. Another character named Jorah sometimes appears briefly, though in about two scenes ever written. A very changed version of them later appeared in a different, currently on hold original project.
Justice is a secret revolutionary against Contrivance, though she’s conflicted as she volunteers at a community theater, working on putting on the musical Annie, staring all actual talented orphans. Thespian is her co director, a Deviser who volunteers on his off time. They bond unexpectedly, and Justice even subtly warns him of an upcoming attack, telling him to keep the Devisers away from that location the day of. Contrivance Headquarters is now set in NYC. Justice keeps some of her revolutionary friends from her original universe, but most of them are starting to fade in importance.
Meanwhile, Malka pressures Lavender to adopt/apprentice one of the children from the show. Lavender likes the child, but doesn’t feel ready to be something like a parent.
The project didn’t get terribly far. There was a lot of silliness here, though some important things start to crop up.
I’m still in a rut on, “What is the plot of Contrivance?” For the first time in a long time, I start some new original fiction projects that actually get somewhere that aren’t Contrivance, though Contrivance is still what mostly seems to play in my thoughts. I believe Malka’s name started to change (to Malka) around here or a bit later.
My mental health is mostly improving, and I’m making plans to go to college.
I’ve attempted to go to college in Boston, and things aren’t going so well, and I’m in a psych ward.
I pretty much have my notebook for company, and I start trying out a new idea, combining Contrivance with one of the projects I started around January, which ends up looking a lot like the collaboration: traveling across universes. Even Justice finds a place as someone who had left the dark magical group and was now forced to return as part of the deal with the modern US government. I never actually write much of this, but the ideas were interesting in my head.
I leave Boston in early November and go home. Eight days later, I meet the love of my life.
I moved in with Kate in January, and I’ve even gone off meds. Everything is looking up, except for a set of mysterious physical health issues no one can diagnose. I barely write, exploring a few new projects, but barely anything goes on paper. I’m thinking I’ll stop the weird experiments and try to get back to the core of what Contrivance is.
Ah. So the house I moved into is full of toxic black mold, and I have a pre-existing respiratory condition (a severely deviated septum that means I don’t get as much oxygen as I should). This gets remediated, though even more time passes as I fully recover. I stop going to NaNoWriMo events locally, though I still want to write for the challenge, despite a slow few months. I’m eager to start sorting ideas out again.
Writing is still slow as I deal with lingering health issues. I got surgery in April for the deviated septum/enlarged turbinates. I recommend my dad (who I got the nose from) to my ENT. My ENT looks at my dad’s general medical file and says, “I’m surprised you’re not seeing ghosts.”
My father abruptly dies at home a few weeks later.
But all I know is he’s not answering his phone, and now my mom says mail is piling up in front of his obviously unopened front door. Grandma says he didn’t put the trash bins down on trash pickup day. Something’s not right.
I use my spare key to get into his house when he doesn’t answer my knocks.
Yeah, something’s not right: he’s been dead for ten days.
Coming back from a trip, a long car ride, I start trying to figure out some details for Contrivance again. I’ve figured out how to get Justice involved, as a former Deviser who left for the revolution and returned, much as she’d left the magicians in that one draft. Her primary Deviser relationship is not her friendship with Thespian (as it was in Contrivance Chronicles; Thespian appears much closer to another Deviser, Trace, here). Instead, Justice is focused on her romantic relationships with Rissa and Ritter (Rissa’s husband). Her age shifts slightly as needed. The revolution is becoming an important theme again.
I start to sort out Lavender and Francisco’s relationship. While he pines, she just doesn’t feel that way about anyone, but she’s aware of his feelings, lending a strange edge to their otherwise close friendship. At least I’m not just throwing them at each other in the epilogue.
I’ve spent the last several months handling my father’s estate amongst the new trauma. I’m busy, but I’m creating again.
I finally have tenants move into his house as a rental on the first of this month. Things are slowing down. I can work on other things now.
It’s NaNo again, and I haven’t finished it in four years at this point. But it’s not like I sleep at night anymore, so I may as well write.
The first few days are slow. I go for miscellaneous Contrivance pieces, which is what I did the last time I finished. Some interesting ideas are coming out, but nothing of real substance.
Kate, her friend/coworker, and I go to California on a business trip. In the car on the way there, I blare Evanescence through my headphones, stare out the window, and will myself to come up with something.
I’m exploring Malka and Lavender’s relationship a lot again. It’s… less hostile. It’s still deeply fucked up for sure, but there’s a norm of a superficial layer of civility at least, and there’s obviously a lot of love somewhere in the messy mix.
So I try writing down ideas for things that could’ve happened in backstory.
One concept jumps out at me.
I do little but sit in the room and write the whole trip. My hands barely leave the keyboard. I don’t sleep, I eat only something in the morning and then whatever I made for dinner for Kate and her friend, and I’m distracted whenever I’m not writing.
This was when the practice interrogation was born.
It’s a gripping idea. An especially dark take on the world the Devisers live in, the very real threat of a revolution. People out there want the Devisers hurt or dead. That’s pretty much always been true, but more of an emotional factor than a logistic threat.
But in this draft, I say, So what do they do about it?
Of course, they have government security, all of those good things. But backstory for Lavender, at least, starts to include combat training and practicalities. I kind of skim over these things while I’m gripped by the interrogation idea, but I come back to the full depths of those later.
So I add into backstory that Malka prepared Lavender for a capture scenario. Gave her some data to keep a secret and spent sixty hours trying to get it out of her. In various eventual drafts, there was a little bit more preparation before this, or the idea that this was supposed to be more of the start, not the end, of this curriculum. In the end, it’s a bit of both.
As I finish that up, along with a lot of the fallout, the next thing to explore is, of course, the payoff of this.
So I start a new document called “The Devisers Are Captured”. Later, this becomes the opening scene of Contrivance. The Devisers are thrown into a hostage situation, this time in Contrivance Headquarters as set in Washington, DC. Offered the sadistic choice of picking who will get interrogated for information first, Lavender steps up. The others refuse to quietly agree, many claiming they should go, and Lavender says they should vote. Everyone votes for themselves, except for Malka, who votes for Lavender.
Lavender quickly gets separated from the group while the Devisers round on Malka for answers. Malka reveals the practice. A book of emotional chaos ensues.
Needing worldbuilding that adds up, I change what Contrivance is again, this time opting to go back to the Death Game genre origins, an annual televised simulation of a social collapse scenario, participant households chosen at random, and one surviving, while keeping it original fiction. I have an awful cold a lot of the month, and so lie around and write a lot. I sleep from about 10PM to 12AM, and 4AM to 10AM. In the middle, after the nightmares, I write.
Just starting to see the PTSD calm down for a bit, I keep rolling with my current Contrivance train of ideas. Eventually, I run into a wild take on the fallout of their capture, which is, What if they did the practice again?
But it’s different this time. Lavender, paranoid that, while their capture and rescue did not result in any leaked information, it would be easy to get information out of her in the future if only their captors tried to play the Devisers against each other, hurting someone she loved and asking her the questions, asks Malka for a new curriculum: resisting the other Devisers being in pain, though without letting any of them know this is happening. They’re still furious over finding out about the original practice, and none of them would agree to help. Besides, Lavender doesn’t want to expose them to it.
Lavender definitely is more than just a victim here, a direction she’s been heading in for a while, much more of an active participant and instigator in the questionable activities her and Malka engage in.
All kinds of subplots come out of this, and of course, the question: how does this one pay off?
There’s a pandemic. Talk about my novel now being timely. My grandmother passes shortly after the beginning of quarantine. Kate and I are engaged.
Meanwhile, I start posting Contrivance on a website of my own, snippets that are out of order, presented as a bit of a puzzle. A lot of it doesn’t go neatly together yet.
My mental health declines. The PTSD at the one year anniversary. Grandma’s death. The psychosis. I go back on meds, though I stop attending therapy (now on Zoom) a few months later as I improve. I’m still working on multiple projects and producing a lot of words.
Kate and I got married last month. I’m doing well, really. I published my first book, a non Contrivance “side project” that got out of hand and is now a popular series of its own. I’ve taken down the Contrivance website and post Contrivance online chapter by chapter as I did the other project, now officially starting for basically the first time since the fan fiction universe somewhere other than Lavender’s job interview: with “The Devisers Are Captured”. This ages Lavender up a little. I try to make it linear, sensical for new readers, and kill my darlings.
To Be Continued…