Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Dickens You Say!

Hi, Chris Grabenstein here.
Chances are, sometime over The Holidays, you encountered one of the most adrenalized authors of all times: Charles Dickens. His ghost story “A Christmas Carol” could become its own Holiday TV Network it’s been filmed so many times. Great actors such as George C. Scott, Jim Carrey, Mister Magoo, Yosemite Sam, and Oscar The Grouch have all played the character of “Scrooge.”

And, at its core, it’s a spooky tale about a man being visited by three other-worldly creatures. (Today they'd probably all be zombified vampires with issues).
One of the cool things about living in New York City like I do is being able to hop on a subway and head down to places like the Morgan Library. If you ever saw the movie Ragtime, it’s the building the Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. is holding hostage with a stack of dynamite.

This year, the MorganLibrary has an exhibit called "Dickens at 200." Britain’s first true literary superstar (there were riots on the docks when the next chapters of his serialized novels reached America) was born in 1812.

At the Morgan Library, I was ableto lean over a glass case (until the security guard informed me that such glass case leaning was verboten) and examine Dickens’ hand written manuscript for A Christmas Carol.
So what great secret of writing do you see revealed in the great man’s hand?
It’s right there. Under the scribbly loopy ink.
The rewrites.
Because the secret to all writing (even 200 years ago) is re-writing.
When I visit schools to talk about my Haunted Mystery books, the students do not want to hear about rewriting. They want to write their story down once and call it quits. It is perfect.
Usually, when students show me their work, one of the first things I say (after, of course, telling them what I like – and there is always a lot to like; you guys have wacky creative minds) -- is something along the lines of “You should do all your writing with a space between the lines.”
“Why?” they ask.
“So you'll have room when you go back to scribble out weak words and put in stronger ones. So you can scratch out or rewrite whole sections.”
I remember in Journalism school, we had to type all our news stories with triple-spacing. That’s so we could go back and edit in all that open space.
Of course, word processors make the rewriting much easier. You can delete, insert, undo the insertion and the deletion, cut, paste, and move chunks of copy all over the place.
What you can’t do as a writer is write it all perfectly on your first pass. Even if you’re Charles Dickens.
Another neat thing I learned at the Morgan Library was that before Dickens wrote "A Christmas Carol" he wrote a story called “The Story Of The Goblins Who Stole A Sexton.”
A sexton is the guy who digs graves in churchyards. You probably know what goblins are. This Christmas tale was published in 1836 as part of Dickens' series The Pickwick Papers. A Christmas Carol was published eight years later in 1843.

In the “Goblins/Sexton” story, a gravedigger, who refuses to make merry at Christmas, is kidnapped by Goblins who convince him, overnight, to change his ways.
Sound familiar?
Kind of like Ebenezer Scrooge, who refuses to make merry at Christmas, becoming a changed man after spending a long winter’s night with the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and yet to come.
The moral of this story about those two stories?
Never throw out your old ideas. You never know when you might be able to change them up a little, do a major rewrite, and turn it into something better.
Years ago, I wrote a 120,000 word ghost story for adults about an evil tree that stood at the intersection of two roads and all the spirits trapped in that spot because of an incident that took place back in 1958. The book was rejected by all the best publishing houses in town. A few years later, an editor read it and said, “You know, this would make a great ghost story for middle grades readers…if you can cut it down to 50,000 words and make some major changes.”
Several re-writes (okay, about a year’s worth) later, that book became The Crossroads, which went on to win the Agatha and Anthony awards for best Children’s/Young Adult novel.
Now you see why I always double space all my manuscripts.
You have to leave room for some serious, Dickensian rewriting!


Jordan Dane said...

I absolutely LOVE a good ghost story, Chris. Over the holidays, I must have seen all the latest versions of Dickens. I have especially grown fond of the Patrick Stewart & animated Jim Carrey versions. AMAZING on a big screen.

I agree too that rewrites are a MUST. Learning to tighten the phrasing or finding a better way to describe a scene can make a book magic. I'm excited to see you reaching out to kids in schools too. You never know what budding genius is out there.

Thanks for the great post.

Jennifer Archer said...

LOVED this post, Chris. I learned much about Dickens -- riots on the docks?! Who knew?! And I am in total agreement about rewriting. Even though I edit as I work my way through the first draft, I always do several rewrites. Like you, I find that the students I talk to hate hearing this!

Michelle said...

One of my all time favorite stories, Chris. I usually do around twenty drafts of each book, so hear hear on the rewrites.

Anita Grace Howard said...

Only now that I'm writing, can I fully appreciate the effort Dickens put into plotting this masterpiece. His rich characterizations went beyond his main characters, all the way through to the ghosts. NO one is one dimensional in this story.

And what a moral message.

Thanks so much, Chris, for teaching me some wonderful trivia about one of my fave authors! Love this post!