This year a serial takes root

This year a serial takes root
Illustration by Orla, licensed via Bigstock, with manipulation by William Shunn

As near as I can pin it down, it was late January in 2009 when, frustrated by whatever recalcitrant writing project I was struggling with at the time, I opened up a new document and typed these sentences:

Everything changed when Hasta flipped Bobby Kimball the bird. The universe turned inside out—or at least that's how it seemed.

From then on, for Hasta and her friends, nothing was ever the same.

This was the opening for a novel with the working title Technomancers, a sort of young-adult urban science-fantasy thriller set in the Chicago neighborhood where I lived at the time. I had been working out the background of this world for some time but had not made the leap to committing pen to paper.

As it happened, by telling myself I was only jotting down a few opening lines for use later, I tricked myself into jump-starting the novel. Technomancers became my main project almost immediately, and it remained that way for the next three years.

I couldn't seem to stop writing. The first complete draft of 805 manuscript pages weighed in at a ridiculous 175,000 words. For the next draft I somehow managed to whittle that down to more like 120,000, while cramming a couple of extra chapters in at the very beginning. I wrote college entrance essays in the voices of my three main characters. I started a Twitter account, @v15hnu_pr3z, for one of the powerful behind-the-scenes characters. I tramped around the North Side of Chicago, scouting out locations for some of the important set pieces in the novel. I took the manuscript to workshops and read chapters aloud to live audiences. I fell in love with my brave young characters, and I watched as the title morphed from Technomancers to Flip City to Endgame to Waking Vishnu before finally taking root as Root.

Root Summer

It was not a perfect novel. Even after the third draft, I knew it needed work, but I was still very happy with what I had produced. My early readers really dug it, while still offering helpful critical feedback, and my agent at the time was confident enough in its strengths to start sending it out to editors. I was eager for professional feedback, for a strong professional hand to help me knock the remaining flaws into alignment. The waiting game began.

I waited and waited. I waited some more. The rejections trickled in. The second-guessing began.

My characters weren't the right age for the material. There were too many characters. You can't set a novel in Chicago without using any famous local landmarks. You definitely can't have an adult tagging along with the kids on their grand quest. Why on earth would you even attempt to write from the viewpoint of a fifteen-year-old girl, let alone one whose parents are Indian immigrants? My then-wife tried to tell me that a YA novel like this one wouldn't sell without a lot of sex, which led to more than one agonizing argument. After my original agent quit on me, another agent suggested that I rewrite the entire multi-viewpoint novel from a single character's POV.

I gave that a try. The paralysis began.

I understand now at least part of what that paralysis was trying to tell me, which is that a single POV was not right for Root as I envisioned it. I can see some of the novel's true flaws more clearly now—oh, Ivan, I love you, man, but why must you be such a mansplainer?—but the manuscript has lain fallow for long enough that I'm not sure I have the perspective it would take (or, frankly, the time remaining on the clock) to whip it into shape.

Root Autumn

The last time I took a serious run at it was late 2017, when I tried to hire a seasoned editor of my acquaintance to help me fix what ailed my manuscript. At her behest, I spent the first few days of a Normandy vacation writing a “series bible” for Root and its planned sequels, while my marriage fell to pieces around me. But my editor friend became too busy with a new career to help me, and soon enough I was too busy simply trying to survive on my own to make a dent in any project the size of a novel. Root quietly fell back into a coma, along with a piece of my heart.

But I do still love this book, and I really love the kids in it—kids who don't just get angry when they realize that the adults around them have been hiding the true nature of their world, but who set out at great personal cost to do something about it. I love Hasta and Ivan and Juan and Frida and Gillian and Kylie, kids who discover their world will end if they don't act, and who defy heaven and earth and adult authority and the very nature of reality to take on a thankless and probably impossible task. I love these kids for bringing their skepticism and creativity and scientific acumen and most of all their sheer heartbreaking bravery to a quest no one else would or could attempt.

Root may never see the inside of a bookstore, but that doesn't mean I can stand to leave those heroic kids trapped in a drawer of my filing cabinet. Starting Tuesday, I'll be serializing the novel a chapter every week in a premium section of my Substack. The first three chapters will be free for everyone, but to keep reading after that will require a paid monthly or annual subscription. Hopefully by that point you'll be eager to keep spending time with Hasta and the gang, and to, dare I say, root for them.

And don't worry if Root is not your thing. I just don't want to be the one to tell those poor kids. They've been through so much already.

Beginning February 8, a new chapter of Root will appear every Tuesday throughout 2022 at A paid subscription will be required as of March 1.  

Root Winter