James R. Tramontana

What I Learned From Space Truckers, Comic Books and Rock n Roll 06 Sep 2018

ivan chimpanov

Writing a novel can be a long, arduous, and lonely project. For some, stress and self-doubt can be massive roadblocks. I’ve been writing stories since I was old enough to hold a pen, but have only completed one novel.

The idea for my lone novel, Ace Tucker Space Trucker, began, like all great ideas, by an off-hand comment at a comic book convention. I don’t recall the exact context, but I remember brainstorming ideas for new comics, and telling a younger artist friend that all the trucker movies of the 70s and 80s — at least the good ones — featured chimpanzee or orangutan sidekicks.

I thought it would be fun to have a story about a trucker in outer space who had a cyborg chimp as his wingman.

Fast forward a bit (sure, booze was involved in the brainstorming session), and that chimp sidekick turned into a genius Russian cyborg chimpanzee named Ivan Chimpanov.

Now that I had a space trucker protagonists and a cyborg chimp sidekick, I needed something for them to do. A quest. An adventure.

Elvis Has Entered the Building

graceland

I’m a musician and have always been fascinated with the life and work of Elvis Presley. As the King of Rock n Roll, his influence touches everything in my musical life. As I fleshed out the basic outline for my novel, I became aware of a peculiar fact about The King. Elvis had bought hundreds of Cadillacs in his lifetime, but never a 1959 Eldorado Biarritz.

Why was that?

I had no idea, but my brain latched onto that nugget and conjured an odd association: when I visited Graceland years earlier, I learned the second floor of the mansion was off-limits.

I can’t remember if I asked someone or if the Graceland-provided audio guide mentioned why guests couldn’t tour the second floor, but the gist was, “Upstairs was Elvis’s private abode in life and out of respect for him, it is kept off limits after his death.”

This little factoid germinated in my mind and became intertwined with the “special” Cadillac that Elvis “never owned.” Perhaps he did own one and it is stashed on the second floor of Graceland!

Through the magic of creative association, a seed of the first full adventure for Ace Tucker was planted, took root and grew into an elaborate mythology spanning all of space and time (and at least one alternate universe).

The more my brain noodled with the idea, the most it screamed for attention. It churned around in my head for weeks before I decided, “You know what? I’m going to do this damn thing. I’m going to write this story as a novel!”

Failure Was Not An Option

failure is not an option

It took me two false starts and the better part of 18 months to write the novel, my first complete novel, ever. I had started books before but could never carry those projects to completion. This story was different.

If you’ve never written a novel, let me fill you in on a little secret: it’s an extended, grueling, solitary operation. You will start out all bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and gung-ho but for most, like me, after a few (several) thousand words, the motivation and the gumption dies.

I learned this was normal. Thanks to an open community of writers on the Interwebz, I realized there was nothing wrong with me. My self-doubt, self-loathing and self-imposed feeling of being an impostor was all part of the process.

I pushed ahead, doubting and cursing myself for not writing faster, and wondering if I had what it took to be a novelist. For months.

And then something crazy happened. I typed the words, “the end” and a frigging bolt of lightning flashed through my body. I had done it. A solid, complete first draft of a novel!

After patting myself on the back (and cracking a few cold ones), I knew I was just getting started because next came the editing.

They say novels aren’t written, they are edited, and boy howdy are they right! I did at least four full editing passes before handing the manuscript over to trusted beta readers for feedback. Then came even more editing, more proofreaders, etc.

When the novel was in pristine condition and ready for the world, I did something even more insane. As if I hadn’t been though enough creative agony bringing this story to life, I decided to turn it on its ear.

Power Records to the Rescue

power records

I’m not 100% sure when I got the idea to tell Ace Tucker Space Trucker as an audio drama, but I’ve always been a fan of that kind of storytelling. I’m going to date myself here but, when I was a kid, I owned a bunch of vinyl Spider-Man and Batman records. Each side of the record told a full story like an old-timey radio play with sound effects, voice acting, music, etc. I loved them. I played them so much, I wore them out. I wanted Ace Tucker Space Trucker to be like that. An entire theater of the mind like those records I loved as a kid. The story was screaming for it.

With the success of audio fiction podcasts like Welcome to Night Vale, The Message, Life/After, Black Tapes, and Tales from the Magic Tavern I thought, “Man, that would be so cool to have an Ace Tucker audio fiction podcast! But can I actually do it?”

I reflected on my skills and assets. I have been in recording studios for most of my life. I know how to use the digital audio workstation software, Pro Tools. I have a small project studio in my basement. I’m a decent actor, and even if the acting was horrible, that could be funny too. Why not try to do it all myself and make an old-time radio play-style show out of Ace Tucker Space Trucker?

I took the first chapter and rewrote it as a single 20-minute audio drama episode. Then recorded it, to see 1) if I actually could do it all myself and 2) if it was cool.

And lo and behold. It kicked a lot of ass.

Since any good modern production needs background music, I used music from all my bands (past and present). I also did custom scoring and utilized a sparse amount of creative commons free library music.

I voiced all the characters, using my knack for silly voices to breathe life into them. Some characters sound better than others, but that was part of the joke. I can’t do a good Russian accent, but I didn’t let that stop me. I used it as an opportunity to turn it into a gag. In episode four, one of the characters comments on how Ivan Chimpanov sounds like, “a crappy Arnold Schwarzenegger impression.”

Given the scope of the project, I didn’t have time to second-guess myself. Each episode took me anywhere from 20 to 35 hours to create.

I powered onward and it became the confluence of all my skills and passions in one package: storytelling, music, sound design, recording, editing, goofy voices. The apex of what I’ve been building towards through years of other creative projects. A ridiculous and freeing form of storytelling using all my talents and manias. A complete “comic book for your ears.”

Keep on Truckin'

ace tucker space trucker

The Ace Tucker Space Trucker audio drama was launched as a free podcast in June 2017 and has had tens of thousands of worldwide downloads. It’s not yet a giant behemoth like Serial or Welcome to Night Vale, but the downloads keep going up and more importantly, it was a hell of a lot of fun to make.

With a modest audience cultivated, I turned my attention to the novel once again, beefing it up and making slight changes that came out of the audio fiction experience. Ace Tucker Space Trucker: A Novel was published in print and ebook in February 2018, and it shot to the top of Amazon’s Science Fiction — Time Travel category, beating the Sci-Fi luminary H.G. Wells for a hot minute!

Since then, new fans have come to find Ace and the gang both in print and through audio fiction. It’s been a wild ride, and I’m just getting started.

My original plan was to write Ace Tucker Space Trucker book two and then turn it into a serialized audio fiction as I did with the first book, but I’ve since realized that this process is way too slow. People need their fix of my dimwitted trucker and his super smart (Arnold-sounding) cyborg chimp pal.

Season two of the audio fiction podcast premieres in October 2018. This time I am taking the “comic book for your ears” concept a step further. Each episode will be a self-contained, standalone story that can be enjoyed in any order. Whereas the first season told the entire novel through 17 serial episodes, season two will be more like a season of the seminal science fiction classic Star Trek.

Each episode will be a self-contained full story with a beginning, middle, and end. That way listeners won’t get nailed with a cliffhanger at the end of each episode and will be able to listen in any order they want.

Of course, there will be the occasional multi-episode stories, and future episodes will reference earlier adventures (like Star Trek!), but I think it will be a better storytelling experience for the listeners.

Not to mention more comfortable for me to produce. It still takes me around 30 hours per episode, and I have other creative pokers in the fire biding for my time.

I share this story, not to toot my own horn, but in the hopes it gives someone the courage sit their butt in the chair, be weird, try outlandish things, and finish their own stories. Please let me humble tale inspire you to make something weird and wonderful because the world desperately needs weird and wonderful.

If you’d like to listen to the Ace Tucker Space Trucker audio fiction series, click here.

Or the read Ace Tucker Space Trucker NOVEL, click here.

james r. tramontana

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