Weird Beginnings

The 16th Academy is releasing this winter on December 13th.  In preparation for the release, I’ll be making this blog series detailing every aspect I can of how this novel came to be – from a story jotted down by a freshmen during a particularly slow class to a published work releasing internationally. Each part will present a different aspect of the process, from my initial vision of the story and the changes that were gradually made to my attempts to break into the infamously difficult world of fiction publishing. It was a two year long journey full of hope, tears, and embarrassing spelling errors.

The 16th Academy is a story about a group of juvenile delinquents and outcasts given a second chance working as agents for a shadowy organization. If they cooperate for five years, they get a clean record and a free ticket to any college of their choice. There’s a traitor on the loose, however, and one high stakes mission quickly turns lethal because of sabotage. The story is full of espionage and thrills, but initially started out as something entirely different. My initial concept for the story still had delinquent teens, but took place in a space prison on an asteroid.

Yup, a penitentiary for teens up in the void of space. The 16th Academy was originally going to be a sci-fi novel.

I always have a lot of fun experimenting with new genres. Before writing The 16th I was working on a High Fantasy story called Heroes by Candlelight. The story was a gargantuan 115,000 words (for reference, The 16th Academy is about 80,000 words and almost 300 pages long!) and was about as meandering and unfocused as a fifth grader doing homework on a Friday night. It was less of a consistent story and more of a palette for me to experiment with different literary structures and find what I was best suited in. What initially started out as straightforward story of a quest became a fast-paced, dialogue-driven drama about espionage and assassination in the high courts of the fantasy realm I had invented. As a writer, very little is more gratifying than successfully pulling off a twist in a story, and I filled my works with as many as I could.

So sci-fi stories are all well and good but it would also require a lot of world building. Rather than spend time creating a futuristic world, I wanted reader’s attention to be focused on the characters, their backstory, and how they interacted with one another. I quickly brought the story back to planet Earth and went back to brainstorming. The only element I ended up keeping from the original story was the idea of delinquents. The concept of people with lives broken by mistakes and crime at such a young age was interesting to me. The concept of prison was quickly dropped considering I was an upper class kid from the suburbs who had never been near a prison before and I didn’t have enough faith writing about one based solely on my imagination and the one and a half episodes I’d seen of Beyond Scared Straight.

Still wishing to use the idea of “delinquents” I realized the story’s focus would not be on kid thugs or gangsters, rather teens who were very talented and at the top of their class. Some were rich, some were poor, but all were looking for a second chance. To make matters easier for myself (since writing entire families for each character was difficult), each of the teen characters would have virtually no family left alive. This shortcut on my part also gave the teens their biggest motivations: they were alone. With their families taken away from them and criminal mistakes on some of their records, there was now a prevailing sense of entitlement amongst the characters. After all they were smart, they worked hard, don’t they deserve to have a happy and successful life? Why let small mistakes or deaths out of their control ruin their future? From this angle, the idea of Eastway Academy (or at this stage of development, Eastpoint Academy) began to make sense. Do a few morally gray activities for us and in a couple years you’ll get your bright future – and clean record if need be. And how could a shadowy, powerful organization bring a bunch of teens from across the globe and not draw attention? By pretending to be a secluded boarding school, of course.

From there the story could have become a straight action story detailing the exploits of the team on various high-stakes missions. Although some colorful missions are shown, the predominate focus of the book is on the sabotage and betrayal the team encounters on one certain mission, and how they begin to get killed off one by one. I was always fascinated by stories of dwindling survival. Literature and film have always been a big influence on me and I tried to combine the suspense and ambiguity seen in classic horror movies like Friday the 13th and Aliens with the kind of interpersonal conflict seen in books like The Hunger Games and Battle Royale. After all, the villain isn’t some monster that crawls of the deep. It’s one of their own on the team, and the fact that the reader and the characters don’t know who can be just as unnerving as any psycho in a hockey mask.

The last early idea I want to cover in this part is the nature of the ‘morally gray’ activities done in the novel. As you’ll see in the finished book, the students of Eastway are often referred to as ‘agents’ and their missions are very diverse ranging from stealing drugs to blackmail to destroying assets of the mafia. But no matter what the mission is the objective is never full-blown assassination, and there’s this big point of contention actually in the book when this is brought up. Although bad guys do get killed, it’s usually in some kind of self-defense with this designated sniper character pulling the trigger. But in the original story the characters weren’t ‘agents’ as much as they are ‘assassins,’ and in every single mission they would kill someone. They were all total psychopaths whereas in the finished book it’s a little less clear who’s really that bad. When I made that change from cold-blooded teen killers to pragmatic special ops agents I ended up having to rewrite about half the manuscript. Why I made the change, along with the idea of murder and responsibility for taking a life displayed in the book, will be covered in a later part. For the next part though, I’ll be discussing the development of each character individually, as they really are the true heart of the story. There’ll be a special focus on Davy Prince, the main character, who started out development as a conceited, self-obsessed teen but quickly changed into a much different, but equally unique individual.