Monday, April 16, 2012

The Undiscovered Country of Our Imaginings

You remember Hamlet, right? That "to be or not to be" soliloquy? Or maybe you're most familiar with its incarnation as the subtitle for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, where the evil Klingon General Chang, played with giddy abandon by Christopher Plummer, regales the Enterprise crew with more Shakespeare per frame than any previous Trek film--because, as we all know, Shakespeare was Klingon. (Don't get me started on the franchise's canny appropriation of classical and popular literature, by the way, or we'll be here all day.) The fact that Chang's trying to reduce the ship to a plasma smear while channeling Marc Anthony only makes this even more enjoyable.

Chang doesn't succeed (of course), and at film's end, the crew sets course for the second star to the right and straight on till morning, warping off into the future of a metaphorical Never Never Land where they never grow old and I'll be able to revisit them, as they were, whenever I want.

Chang's point--and Shakespeare's--is that death is the ultimate undiscovered country, one from which no advance scouts return to fill us in on what's going to happen next. In the context of the film, though, Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner) offers a toast where the quote's meant to highlight uncertainty: peace between the Federation and the Klingon Empire's never been achieved; some fear that future and others embrace the unknown.

I was reminded of this during the past week when I settled down to revise and edit a new book, THE SIN EATER'S CONFESSION (Carolrhoda Lab), slated to come out next February. I confess: I wasn't too keen to work on the novel just yet. See, I was deep into (and in love with) a new novel I was all hot and bothered to finish before a drop-dead date when I knew/know that I must stop and begin the last ASHES book. But my editor's wish is my command, so I put aside my new novel and cracked open a book I hadn't seen or thought about in three years--the longest time I've ever been away from a book in my life.

What an experience.

When I edit, I tend to work as I go along: re-reading, tidying, deciding if I agree with an editor's comments or edits. After all, I've reasoned, it's not like I haven't just spent what feels like eons getting to know and care about my characters. I know what happens when and to whom; I can typically find a particular passage or scene without breaking a sweat. Sure, sometimes I rewrite massive sections or add scenes, or divide chapters differently to correct for pacing issues. I see things after a book's marinated that I haven't before. That's pretty standard for every writer, I'll bet. But the changes are never so stunning or major I didn't see or imagine them coming a mile away. (In fact, I frequently have. They turn out to be scenes I've edited out but then reintroduce because, you know, they really DID work that first time around.)

This book was different. Clearly, as the writer, I knew what the book was about. I even kind of remembered the basic order of what happened when. But I didn't remember the scenes so much, who said what when and to whom. Ask me to go to such and such a scene, and it was, like, say, wuh?

At first, I was appalled by my book. There were ENORMOUS pacing issues and big swaths of chunky, clunky writing that sort of hit me in the face. Like, whoa, I wrote THAT? I'll tell you what's also interesting; many of those things slid by my editor. Not that he did a crummy job or anything: he's a fabulous editor. But my guess is that he saw this book at a different point in his life, too--a couple years ago. (We've both changed.)

I can also tell where he fell into the hole in the page, too. There was much more in the way of mark-up early on in the manuscript. By the time he got about a quarter of the way through, the writing had tightened up; the pacing got better; my characters had found themselves and their voices; the plot had legs; and--honestly--I think he got swept away by the story.

The same thing happened to me. I was rewriting massive chunks of this thing, pages and pages and pages. There were scenes I cut out, others I tightened, new passages and paragraphs and scenes I penned from scratch. I was all over that thing like ticks on a ginger mutt.

But then, as I got into the book more deeply, a funny thing happened. I still worked just as hard; in some ways, it felt like I was writing a new book. But I must've accessed the book I'd already stored in my brain, too: not a book graveyard but the undiscovered country where memory lives until we need it. I'd finally fallen back into, and in love with, my book. The words were my character's words, not mine; I wasn't turning over so many rocks to find them. The freaky thing: there were times when I'd write something down, only to discover that I'd written the same thing--in many cases, verbatim--a few pages further on. Already. Three years ago.

So, it was a fascinating experience. Here I am, further along in my career and a different writer than I was when I began--and yet the characters, exiled to the done-book graveyard, are there, the associative connections still active such that when I access those memories and their stories, they think and behave in nearly the identical way they did before. They come to the same ends; they're helpless to alter their paths because I made them that way. They can't do anything but follow those same paths unless I radically re-imagine them and write a wholly different book. In a way, these characters came back from the grave.

Which also reminds me of the opposite and something my very dear friend and mentor, Dean Wesley Smith, once said: when a book fails, don't try to fix it. Kill it. For good and forever. I know: radical. Hurts like hell, too, because you really think that book deserves to live. If you kill it, you'll have nothing to show for all that work and sweat and blood and tears.

But that's not true. What you have to show for failure is experience. Judgment. You know enough to know when something truly stinks. Think about people you've read who don't--and how many books you've thrown across the room.

So, kill the characters. Kill everything about that book because there is nothing you can do to alter the fact of its failure. Your characters will follow their predetermined paths to that same end, just as mine did even three years after they were born. They can't help it, and neither can you.

The only thing a writer can do is reinvent, quite a different thing. Reinvention is the engine whereby your characters head into a truly undiscovered future, one where their story may not fail, because you haven't imagined it yet.

No need to do so with this one, thank heavens. THE SIN EATER'S CONFESSION is fine as it stands--and better now that I've found it again. All it was really waiting for was me to rediscover what I'd already known.


Jordan Dane said...

Ha! Loved this post. I saw much of my process in it. Reinvention is a great way to put it. I usually would agree on killing a book I'd written that I considered riddled with mistakes. I'd rather start something new, but my very first book still haunts me. I reinvented it by rediscovering my heroine & fixing a mushy plot by changing the ending. I rewrote the beginning, redid the synopsis to include the new plot flow, but set it aside. I had enough for a proposal, but now with self-publishing opportunities, I've got a better foundation to reinvent that book & add my more experienced voice. It's the perfect way to reconnect with the writer I first was & introduce her to the writer I've become. I'm still in love with that book.

Ilsa said...

Yes, I hear you, Jordan. I have several books languishing in my trunk and one that my husband keeps bugging me to rewrite and reinvent. I even may get around to it someday.