I’m trying something a bit different with my fourth novel. In the first three I wrote either a complete novel or a complete screenplay, then, once it was out and making the rounds, I’d write its counterpart. Left for Alive was a novel for three years before I turned it into a screenplay. The Devil’s Breath was a screenplay first, then a novel. Same with The Empty Confessional.
If you’re doing both, I’d suggest starting with the screenplay. First off, you’ve only got 120 pages (max) to fill. And it’s easier to build up from 120 than it is to shrink down from 300. But I’m trying something a bit different: writing both at the same time.
I’m finding that each one has something to teach the other. With the script you have to do it all with action and dialogue. But the novel, with the ability to go inside a number of characters, reveals things about the characters that you can go back and insert, though still with action and speech.
But here’s the most interesting thing to come from this dual approach: how each one begins. As readers of my past work know, I like Prologues. They introduce tone, action and characters that you will see immediately (tone), early (characters) and mid-to-late (the actual scene).
When I began writing The Forever Game, a novel about the VC/startup world and the quest to live forever (or at least to 150), I started with an episode based on a true story: a VC friend of mine on a yacht comparing notes with other VCs. The producer I’m working with on the script loved it as an opener (spoiler alert: it ends with the death of one of the characters), so I put it in as the opener of the novel.
But my writing coach (for the novel only) urged me to change things up. First, she’s not a fan of Prologues (there we just disagree); second, she told me that, while she loved the dialogue and action (who doesn’t like a good death?), that action doesn’t occur until the end of Act 1, which could be as much as 100 pages (or more) into the novel. So either lose the Prologue altogether or make it a chapter on its own later in the book.
After pouting for a few hours, I took a look at things through her lens and realized she was right. So I wrote a new Prologue, one that introduces the antagonist early.
Let’s see what you think: we’ll start with the original Prologue, which is still the opening scene in the screenplay but is now Ch. 22 in the novel. Next blog we’ll look at the new Prologue for the novel.
“Don’t pay any attention to Vinnie,” Trina says to Zac, the new guy.“He’s the only one at this table still drinking his own piss.”
Filtered or unfiltered, Vinnie?” Maksym asks.
“Unfiltered, Max. With a twist. I like my urine to have a bite to it.”
Vinod’s laughter gives the rest of the table permission to join in. It’s an unspoken rule–the biggest of the Big Swinging Dicks sets the tone and topics for the gathering. And the recent sale of Vinod’s startup for four billion has moved him from fourth to first place in net worth, a figure all the BSD’s pretend not to know but that they all track.
Each of Vinnie’s four startups has gone liquid, a BSD for being acquired for a shitload of money or going public. So no one believes him when he swears this is his last rodeo, that he’s now determined to savor life, starting with the Cuban cigars that Eric, their host, gave him as he boarded the yacht and is now passing, pre-dinner, around the table. In his late thirties, Vinod is what Trina and her crowd would term “high-school handsome.” The looks are there but his newest incarnation is better suited for a younger man: the hair a tad too long, the earring a little too precious, the clothes a bit too Zac, who’s a dozen years younger. Trina hopes that one of his “savor the good life” promises will be a good stylist.
The Dicks have gathered on Eric’s yacht, currently parked in the harbor of Hvar, an island just off the Croatian coast. In the world of yachts, mega-yachts and now super-yachts, instead of trying to keep up with Larry Ellison and the rest of the boys, who keep one-upping each other for who’s got the biggest one—and don’t get Trina going on that subject—Eric has opted for style over length. To celebrate his newly-minted billionaire status in 2014, he bought a 200-foot yacht, gutted everything except the supporting structures, and turned it over to the team that had designed his favorite Manhattan boutique hotel, his only guidance being he wanted it to be unique, modern and comfortable. The result is a spectacular and startling combination of glass–tons of it–distressed steel, and concrete. Maksym says it feels like a cross between an aquarium and a Tribeca warehouse loft.
The group is assembled casually around the dining table, which is set in keeping with the interior design. Nothing flashy or expected—no gold place settings or crystal—everything distinctive. Black steel flatware, hand-formed dinnerware, and hand-blown goblets, no two the same. An hour ago they wrapped up the last meeting of the three-day gathering and now they’re awaiting both their host, who is fifteen minutes late–a rarity for Eric, normally a stickler about time–and their farewell dinner, with Chef Andre flown in especially for the occasion. Most of the group is on their second drink.
Maksym stands up and raises his glass. He pushes his heavy-lensed black glasses back in place with his index finger. After two years, the BSDs still have no idea whether Max is the nerdiest rich guy they know or is having them on with his style choices. Take tonight’s dress: Max has come to dinner in madras shorts, sandals and a white short-sleeved collared shirt. “Here’s to Vinnie,” he says, slurring slightly. “Not only the biggest but the swingiest of the BSDs.”
As the members lower their glasses and return to their interrupted conversations, Zac says in a low voice to Trina, “I thought Freddy hates that name. He told me we’re the Hydras, not the BSDs. No one told me why.”
“Why Freddy hates the name or why the Hydras?”
“On the BSD front, he says the public hates us enough already, we don’t need to go rubbing their noses in our wealth. Also, he thinks I’m offended by the term, though I’m not. I’m even fine with the boys calling me ‘Strap-On’ behind my back.”
“And the hydra? What’s up with that?”
“The hydra is the only animal whose stem cells are in a state of constant renewal, making it the only creature that can claim to live forever. It makes sense, given the group’s interests.”
The BSDs are an eclectic group with only two things in common: their excessive wealth and shared fascination with longevity–or, as Max puts it, “the determination to live forever. Or die trying.” Their unifying force and unofficial leader is Jason Fredericks, known in the industry as ‘Freddy’. The Managing Director of Headwaters, the leading VC firm in Silicon Valley, he’s the only BSD with a full-time job, now that Vinnie has retired. Freddy is a poster child for the good life–immaculately coiffed, a brush cut of graying hair swept back from a chiseled face that reflects his raft of outside activities, all of them challenging. His uniform for all occasions is creased khakis, boat shoes and a starched white collared shirt. His only concession to being on a BSD outing is his lack of socks.
In addition to their investments in longevity startups, each BSD is a committed biohacker, a term for those willing to use their own bodies as testing grounds for emerging technologies. Or, as Zac puts it, being their own guinea pigs. From extreme diets and blood replacement to DNA editing and microdosing hallucinogens, biohackers have no problem offering themselves as testing grounds for the latest thing, despite the warnings inherent to each project. The first morning of each BSD offsite is given over to informal reports on their own self-experiments and the results to-date.
Despite the casual dress and snarky comments, BSD meetings are serious stuff. Kerry, the group’s shared assistant, fields all requests for presentations, vets them with one or more of the Dicks, then assembles the list for the offsite, working with whoever’s hosting the event to handle all the logistics. She doesn’t attend the actual meetings but is always on site and on call. Right now she’s up on the deck with a cocktail, looking at the Croatian coast through the last of the day’s light.
The BSD meetings are modeled on their VC counterparts: no more than three presenters; thirty minutes for the actual presentation; fifteen minutes for a demo, if there is one; and fifteen minutes for questions. At one hour, unless one of the BSDs gives a signal that they’d like to extend the Q&A, Freddy thanks them and Kerry sees them to their cars. Or boats, in this weekend’s case. Kerry always leaves an hour between meetings for further discussion, calls and email.
In their first two years of operation, the BSDs have invested six million dollars in eight startups. Like the rest of the longevity industry, they have little to show for their investments, though everyone acknowledges they’re playing a long game. Their investments entitle one or more of them to either sit on the Board or be an active advisor. The CEOs–many of them in that role for the first time–report their progress to Kerry, who summarizes them and presents the updates on Day One.
Zac drinks cucumber-infused water and looks around the table, still feeling his way into the group. He’s the only one who’s never been either a VC or startup founder. A trust fund kid, when he turned twenty-one, his parents–against the advice of counsel–gave him full access to his inheritance, over eight hundred million dollars. To be fair, as Trina pointed out when the Hydras were considering his candidacy, he could have sat on that money and played the role of the rich prick. “But he did his homework and invested in some companies that, let’s be honest, some of us passed on. Now his net worth is greater than that of his parents, which he mentions in every interview I’ve read. Must make for lively family gatherings.”
Freddy’s take: “He reminds me of those rich kids who lorded it over you in high school, the kind of guy you wanted to stuff into a locker. The only reason you didn’t was because he’d pay members of the football team to beat the shit out of you.” Still, Zac has two attributes that, in addition to his wealth, make him attractive to the group. The first is that he’s an asshole, and every group needs an asshole at times. The second is that, when it comes to biohacking, he is the guinea-est of the guinea pigs, willing to try treatments, meds and hallucinogens that the others hesitate at.
“What’d you think of the last presenters?” Zac asks the table. “That last woman impressed me.”
“You just liked her tits,” Maksim says, receiving no objection from Zac.
“Real or fake?” Zac asks Trina.
“Enhanced. But she started from a solid foundation,” Trina answers.
If Max is at one end of the fashion spectrum, Trina is at the other. She wears her hair in a stylish long bob, pulled back now into a casual pony tail in deference to the steady Adriatic breeze A wide-brimmed with a Pucci scarf and a crossbody rattan tote sit on the chair next to her. Jewelry is simple: mid-sized gold hoop earrings and a thin gold chain around her neck. A white bikini halter top shows under a crisp white linen slip top, with practical drawstring linen shorts and Tory Burch sandals completing the picture. On land, she’s even more put together.
“Bringing the conversation back from the gutter,” Freddy says, “their early results are impressive. But it’s still way too volatile. They’ve got to get portions and side-effects under control before I’d vote to invest in them.”
“Agreed,” Vinod says. “I know a little about the drugs they’re combining, and you’re right–it’s a volatile mix.”
“That’s it,” Freddy says, getting to his feet. “I’m going to scare up our host. I have the feeling he’s on the phone now with one of today’s presenters, trying to cut us out of the deal.”
“Remind Eric that when Chef Andre says we eat at eight, we eat at eight,” Vinnie says. “He’s already twenty minutes late and I’veave visions of Andre back in the kitchen spitting on our appetizers.”
As Freddy leaves the table, Vinod turns to Zac. “You receive your Kiwi package yet?”
“I’m hearing through back channels that the government will be more amenable to my application if I up my investment in the New Zealand Tech Fund to fifteen mil.”
“That’s bullshit. I got the whole package–passport, land, plans for the bunker, preferential landing at the airport in case of a shutdown–all for ten. Let me know if you want me to get my agent involved.”
Zac is the last of the BSDs to purchase what is commonly called “the Kiwi Apocalyptic Package.” The package had its genesis when some university in the UK deemed New Zealand the optimal place on the planet to ride out the ‘imminent global collapse.’ Peter Thiel, the political and social contrarian, saw the article and petitioned New Zealand for citizenship. Despite having spent a total of twelve days in the country in his life, he was approved immediately, New passport in hand, Thiel bought a big chunk of land, with plans for building an apocalyptic Shangri-la for himself and a select group of his pals. A number of tech, banking and Hollywood uber-rich followed suit, until international coverage and local objections caused the government to publicly outlaw the practice. But with the right connections and the right contributions to New Zealand’s tech industry, the opportunity is still there.
“Which package did you wind up going with?” Zac asks Trina.
“The ‘Gradual’,” Trina said. “I can’t afford the Sudden, time-wise. And, to be honest, I kinda don’t want to be around if the Sudden happens.”
“I’m with Trina,“ Vinod said. “Eric’s the only one I know with the Sudden package. I looked into it, and the preparation and maintenance of it all just feels too exhausting.”
There are, as Vinod explained to Zac at their last meeting, three different packages. The Core consists of citizenship, a remote plot of land, and blueprints for a survival bunker. The Gradual is a step up and is for those who believe the Apocalypse will be foreseeable, something sparked by social unrest or a pandemic, allowing for preparation before migration. The Gradual package comes with citizenship, a built and fully-stocked bunker, and landing rights for your jet, even in the case of a nationwide shutdown.
The Sudden package is for those who believe the collapse of society is imminent and will be due to a major natural disaster or nuclear attack, meaning little to no warning. As Vinod explained to Zac: “Eric keeps a go-bag with him at all times. Because the roads will be blocked or collapsed, he’s got a motorcycle fueled and ready to get to the airport, where his jet is always ready. But remember: someone needs to fly the jet, which means he has to pay for his pilot to have the same package, including citizenship, the motorcycle, and everything else. I get tired just thinking about all that.”
“Besides,” Maksym said, “With the Sudden package, the only ones who are going to survive are the sheep, some New Zealanders I’ve never met, and a few rich assholes like us, all of whom think they should be in charge of this new world. If that’s what survival looks like, I’d rather just have a nice glass of scotch, toast the mushroom cloud and kiss my ass goodbye.”
Freddy leaves the lounge and heads down the stairs to the sleeping level. Even on his third scotch, his gait is steady and relaxed. Each room that he passes has the door open, soothing and impressing at the same time. One room looks like Al Gore’s stylist got there first, all earth tones but in gentle blends and textures that pull everything together; the next is all black and white and grey, with enough metal to evoke a favorite East Coast diner. And so on down the hall.
It’s at the end of the hall that you witness his architect’s masterpiece. Built into the prow of the yacht are full-length windows that hover just above the waterline. At night, with the prow lights on, you have a view of the stars as well as an aquarium, the light drawing inquisitive fish of all sizes and types.
Reaching Eric’s stateroom at the end of the hall, Freddy knocks on the door. When he doesn’t get an answer, he puts an ear to the door. Hearing nothing, he tries the handle, expecting it to be locked. But it turns in his hand. Frowning, he stays in the hallway for a few moments, giving Eric a chance to tell him to get the hell out. It’s the continuing silence that finally impels him to ease the door wide open and peer in.
Eric is splayed on his bed, a small amount of foam drying on his mouth like a piece of cotton. His eyes are an empty blue and fixed on the ceiling. Freddy steps back into the hall and calls, his voice cracking, to the crew to summon the Croatian harbor patrol and a sea ambulance. Then he returns to Eric’s bedside. He feels for a pulse but has no idea if he’s doing it right. He cleans the foam away from Eric’s mouth with a finger, then inclines his ear to it. There’s no sound, no breath, no motion of any sort. He puts a hand to Eric’s forehead but the clammy feel repulses it.,
He looks around the room quickly; it would be like Eric to have one of those heart-jumper kits nearby. Finding nothing, his eyes settle on the bedside table, which holds three small plastic bags. Each bag is open, with a small piece of aluminum foil next to it; there is a slight residue of blue powder on each piece of foil.
“You dumb sonofabitch,” Freddy whispers to his friend. “What part of ‘volatile’ did you not understand?”
The captain of the yacht bursts into the room, followed closely by his lieutenant. Freddy gestures with a resigned wave at the corpse, rises unsteadily and leaves the stateroom. He returns to the dining table to break the news and wait for the harbor police and the coroner. He wonders about what the cause of death will be, then how it will affect the asking price.