Saw A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL. It was definitely very English. And very great.

I never got into the BriTV craze. Not saying there’s anything wrong with British TV; the moment for me just never came when I could be like, “I am a lover of British TV now.” I love British novels. I am astonished at the number of classic British novels that’ve been turned into TV series. I mean when you’ve turned CRANFORD and DOCTOR THORNE into TV shows, that’s definitely a commitment to keeping your own culture alive.

Which is a long way of saying that I just watched A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL, which is a BBC show that I think Amazon is involved in somehow (anyway it’s on Amazon), and it’s only three episodes long, and it was so good. Whoever cast Hugh Grant in this role was a genius. He isn’t really acting. He’s just being the same smarmy and adorable Hugh Grant that we all remember from the 90s and early oughts, except instead of wooing Julia Roberts, he’s trying to kill the former lover who’s attempting to out him.

The show has the curiously British quality of being a show about politics and politicians in which there’s very little actual political content. I first noticed this with Trollope’s Palliser novels, but you can also see it in Yes, Minister and in Middlemarch and, really, in any British book that touches at all upon the political system. At least in their fictive treatments of politics, they don’t really spend too much time thinking about ‘issues’ or ‘ideology.’ It’s much more about personal character: honesty, integrity, and honor. That’s why they love to write about war-time governments. Because when all the parties are united in prosecuting a war, you finally have a playground on which all these personalities can come together and clash and squabble. (Whereas the American way, in which during wartime we give our President effectively unlimited power, is much less dramatically interesting).

Anyways, the show is about the leader of the Liberal party (a fairly marginal third party) who throughout the 60s and 70s has to dodge the attempts of a former lover to out him. Hugh Grant is a delight to watch, but Ben Whishaw really gives the series’ command performance. His Norman Scott is just so multi-faceted. Right from the beginning he comes off as slightly mentally unhinged, and everything bad that’s ever said about him–that he’s cowardly, unstable, publicity-made, etc–has an element of truth. But, as the series points out, the exact opposite is also true. He’s also strong, stalwart, and publicity-averse. And yet there remains an essential unity to his character. By the time the show is over, you do feel as if you understand him, and you feel as if you’ve seen him grow. It’s certainly worth watching.

Recently read a trio of novels that weren’t appreciated in their time (and also maybe are still not appreciated)

I love Edith Wharton. So much so that I slogged through her memoir A Backwards Glance. It wasn’t worth it. Most of it was not about writing. A substantial amount was about interior decoration. But there was some good stuff in there! For instance, Edith Wharton was _not_ really a part of literary high society, either in the US or in London. Her main writer friend was Henry James, with whom she was extremely close. But she does describe the literary productions of a few other friends, amongst whom were Howard Sturgis and David Graham Phillips.

Well what I always say is that if they’re good enough for Edith Wharton, then they’re good enough for me! I promptly ordered Sturgis’s Belchamber, which wasn’t even available from Project Gutenberg! Damn, you’ve gotta be obscure when even Gutenberg won’t archive your book. You’ve gotta be obscure when even the NYRB classics series, which specializes in reissueing obscure out of print books, has allowed their edition of your book to fall out of print.

And it was really good! I honestly don’t know why the book hasn’t gotten a great reception. It’s about this dude, Lord Belchamber, who is heir to a great fortune, but who is just a shy, bookish, timid, retiring guy. The problem is that his brother and his cousin are terrible wastrels, and because he has the purse strings, it falls to him to reign them in whilst also not allowing them to be ruined by their own excesses. Belchamber, although shy, has a strong sense of right and wrong and of his own responsibilities. He is the British sense of propriety, divorced from the British sense of masculinity. Lots of readers, apparently, hate him, but I thought he was sweet! Very, very worth your time.

Susie Lenox, David Graham Phillips’s book, is a bit more of an acquired taste. It’s about a girl in turn of the century Indiana who has an affair and runs off with this dandy, who of course promptly abandons her. Then she begins a picaresque adventure that takes her through the Cincinnati and New York underworlds. It’s like a mash-up of MOLL FLANDERS with HOUSE OF MIRTH. Lennox constantly flirts with prostitution, in various forms, but then flinches away, only to flirt with it again. The book goes on a bit too long, but I was quite engaged throughout, and I thought it had interesting things to say about morality, propriety, and relations between the sexes.

The third book I read that was unappreciated in its time, although Wharton does not mention it, was Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. So good!!! I read Agnes Grey, her first novel, a few years back, and I was struck even then by how different this book was from anything else I’d read from that period. She seems far more influenced by continental authors, by Balzac and by Stendhal, in particular, than by any English writers. There’s not a touch of romanticism in Agnes Grey. It’s all about the dreary, day-to-day experience of being governess to two brats.

But The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was even better!!!! Here the eponymous tenant, Mrs. Graham, details the story of her disastrous marriage to a rake and spendthrift. Bronte is excellent at making her husband seem initially to be not that bad, and to even be loving, before everything starts to slide downwards. Graham does her best to save him, and then she does her best to protect their son from him, and, finally, she feels she’s been left with no other option than to flee.

The book is a work of astounding moral force, and I loved the characters (except for the somewhat flat narrator of the framing tale, which is about a man who falls in love with Graham after she’s fled from her husband), but I was also struck by how much more mature the writing was than it is in many 19th century novels. The landscape, the architecture, the flowers and the plants, they all have a critical role to play in the symbology of the book, and unlike in many comedies of manners, you really feel like you’re inhabiting a living world (compare, for instance, Jane Austen, who never describes anything). It’s mostly a work of realism, but there’s a slight touch of the Gothic that, in my opinion, really improves and elevates the novel. I would definitely class it above Wuthering Heights (a book to which it bears many surface-level similarities, in setting, situation, and structure). I’m sorry Anne didn’t live longer; she would’ve written some great stuff.

On the other hand, maybe she would not have, because her book was panned, when it came out, for, essentially, its moral laxity. The reviewers faulted Anne for writing vulgar scenes where the husband and his friends are partying and tormenting the protagonist, and they fault her protagonist for choosing to leave the husband! Anne ripped the mask off of some realities that Victorian-era book reviewers really wanted to keep ignoring, but, more importantly, from the modern perspective, she did it while retaining her own humanity. This isn’t a novel about an oppressed woman; it’s about a woman struggling to live a decent life within oppressive circumstances.

In the end, that’s what all three of these novels share. These books are all deeply moral. They’re about people who have a strong sense of right and wrong, and who find that although their society pays lip service to their ideals, it does not expect them to actually follow those ideals.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more and more interested in the ways that ideals and morality impact personal behavior. There is so much fiction about how social systems interact with people and how people interact with social systems, but less about how it affects the ways they interact with each other. Or perhaps moral fiction has always been rare, but it’s only the moral fiction that survives. These three books, while they were not successful upon release (Susie Lennox was probably the most successful, and I see that it was adapted into a movie in the thirties, but Wharton refers to it as unjustly forgotten), all still have tremendous power even after more than a hundred years, and not many books of that (or any) era can say the same.

When should I revise something?

I recently read a critically acclaimed (and quite good) novel that was horribly overwritten. I could’ve gone through with a red pen and cut twenty thousand words of internal rumination without seriously harming the plot or character development of the book. To be honest I felt a little sorry for the author. Because the book did rather well in its current form, they’re unlikely to alter their style, and they will forever after be hampered by this unnecessary wordiness.

Of course that’s only a matter of opinion on my part. And it’s very likely that the author is aware of this criticism of their work. Perhaps they even at this point agree with it. Now, at three years remove from finishing my first book, I can see all the issues with it, and when I happen to pick it up I almost immediately note things about the book that I would like to change.

People put rather a lot of faith in editors to catch these sorts of mistakes. They say, “Didn’t this book get edited?” or “I hear nobody bothers to edit anymore.” But the truth is that there’s a limit to what an editor can do. At bottom, an editor is nothing more than a very sophisticated reader who (hopefully) has a keen understanding of what makes books succeed or fail in the marketplace. Many errors, particularly errors of style, have zero effect on how a novel performs, and thus editors are somewhat disincentivized to comment upon them.

Moreover an editor isn’t necessarily right. When it comes to your novel, you’re the only person who really knows how it ought to go. Perhaps you strongly believe that pages upon pages of internal rumination are a critical element of your style, and that to elide any of it would ruin your book. And you might be right, but you might also be wrong.

Obviously, it’s all subjective, but I am of the opinion that it’s possible to make improvements to a book that will, for the sophisticated reader, turn it into a more beautiful and satisfying work of art. However, a book is also a statement of values; in its form, it tries to say something beautiful and unique. Each great book teaches its readers how to appreciate it. So it’s possible that the choices I most disagree, because they conform the least to my own vision of a good book, are actually the best parts of the book.

I don’t know how an author decides whether something is essential or not. I think…in my own work, I’ve noticed the difference between times when I’m trying to ‘get away’ with something and times when I’m in control. I’ve a story circulating now that relies on a very subtle and persistent sense of unease that a reader ought to feel from the beginning to the end. I’ve no idea whether editors get it, but I am certain that it’s in there, and that it’s working as it’s supposed to. But I’ve also written stories where I’ve ended things on an uncanny note just as a sort of, “Well, let’s see if this works” gambit, and in those I’ve just felt like for whatever reason I wasn’t in control.

As I’ve advanced as a writer I’ve learned to distrust that out of control feeling. Generally whenever I’m uneasy about something in a book, I’ve found it profitable to go back and rethink it. But I still make plenty of mistakes. I just abandoned the book I’ve been writing for adults–a book I was pretty excited about–because I realized it had gotten away from my true interests. It’d be nice to skip right to the end and just write the final draft first, but that’s a thing much easier said than done.

They’re turning Wordpress into Medium

Wow, they really changed the WordPress interface, now it’s a lot like Medium’s. I approve of this blatant stealing. It reminds me from a quote by the guy who was running Netflix, “Our goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.” This amuses me.

Got a good response from my editor on my book! Feeling pleased about this. Was walking with Rachel the other day and was like, “Oh my god, I’ve been operating on the assumption that this book is never going to be published, but now it seems like it might actually happen.” 

I am so pessimistic about publishing stuff. Advances are typically split into 2-4 parts, only one of which you receive upon signing, and I mentally write off all advances until they’re actually deposited in my bank account. This book is going to be a good one.

Still working a bit on other projects. Sold a story to Asimov’s after fifteen years of trying (and 55 rejections), which has inspired me to get more short story submissions out there. Working on the book for adults (though progress on that has been slow). Exploring some other genres. And of course working on revising the YA novel. Been trying to read more. Not that I don’t read a lot, but lately I’ve been feeling the pressure of all the books I’ve never read. It’s stupid, for all I talk about how living your life is more rewarding than reading books, I still largely choose to spend my time, even when the weather is absolutely beautiful like now, sitting in my apartment and reading books. I guess the human commitment to ephemera just runs really deep. At least it’s better than playing video games, I suppose.

If you’re bored by it, don’t write it

I was going to write today’s blog post about how to organize your reading life. I had some trenchant observations to offer, apropos of my reading a few books of literary criticism. But instead of writing that post, I sat here staring at the blank screen for fifteen minutes.

Lately I’ve learned to listen to my own disinterest. Because there is no point in putting more words out there just for the sake of entertaining an invisible audience that may or may not care. I’m not saying my post on the reading life would not have been interesting, or that you wouldn’t have gotten something from it. But, for me, that is not enough. There has to be something more.

I’ve also had many thoughts lately on skepticism. Recent replication failures, particularly in the field of social psychology, has me questioning much of the stuff I thought I know in the social sciences. It turns out that even scientists aren’t amazing at determining even the correlations between things in the human world, much less the direction of causation. It’s very difficult to know anything, and I’ve begun taking all arguments about patterns, particularly those patterns that are created after looking at the data, with a lot of skepticism.* But, again, everything there is to say about skepticism has already been said. My opinions are just David Hume mixed with Thomas Kuhn mixed with Daniel Kahneman. These ideas exist pretty readily out there in the world, and anyone can find them. So what’s the point?

More and more I feel like writing the things that only I can write, and I really don’t think I’ll ever contribute much that’s new to the world of ideas. Sometimes I read essay collections, and I’m like, “Wow, this is so organized and so interesting. Maybe I should write an essay.” But then I think about all the research that’s involved, and I get exhausted and depressed. It’s only an hour or two later, that I’ll be like, “Wait a second, I don’t have to write an essay. I don’t have to write anything. I can have my own thoughts, for my own elucidation, and never write them down.”

I can’t be the first author to have thought this. Last night I was skimming Edith Wharton’s memoir A Backward Glance, and in the chapters about Henry James, she writes that it’s a pity nobody ever recorded his conversation, because he was one of the most thoughtful, interesting, and witty people she had ever met. She said this entire side of him, the joking side, never came out in his published writings and only rarely in his letters. Now…Henry James wrote alot, and it’s pretty staggering to think he was able to use language in ways he never put on paper. But the man was also a genius, and maybe he realized that while he was funny, his humor in no way matched what he was able to do in other arenas (now if you come back at me and say that Henry James’s writing is funny, I will have to disagree with you. There exists humor within it, but jokes? there are almost none).

The practice of following the thread of my own interest is one I’ve been using a lot this year. I think it’s hard when you’re used to school, where you have to write on assignment, or freelancing, where you write for money, or genre fiction, where you write under contract, or the workshop, where you write because you’ve a slot to fill. Following the thread of your own interest doesn’t come easily, because, especially early in one’s writing career, you essentially have nothing to say, or at least no idea how to say it, and so ‘following your own interest’ would more or less mean silence.

Nor is that thread a very strong one, especially at first. Usually when you tug on it, the thing snaps. And sometimes this is good. Maybe I wasn’t very interested at all. But before I learned to listen, the voice of my own interest was a very quiet one, and it was easily overpowered by the voices of fear and of ambition. It takes a lot of quietness to listen to your own interest, because it’s not very insistent, and it’s extremely willing to be overruled.

In my current work-in-progress, I had one situation that repeated itself (essentially, two different characters, in two different chapters, did something that was very similar). And it was very easy to convince myself this was a stylistic choice. Whenever I felt a sense of dissatisfaction, I was like, “But I’m doing it on purpose!”

It took faith to go back and delete the repetition and search for another answer. But the moment I had done it, I knew that it was the right decision. Similarly, in re-reading the book, I’ve noticed places where I get bored: situations that are perfectly well-drawn, but which simply don’t cut to the heart of what I’m interested about. Cutting these parts will leave gaps in the story that I’ll have to fill, and I won’t be able to say precisely why they’re being cut, but it’s still something that has to be done.

Following the voice of my own interest means, most often, not writing something. So many times over the past year, I’ve looked at the opening lines of a story or a novel, and I’ve said, “This doesn’t work for me.” Which is an easy thing to say when it’s just a line or a paragraph or a scene, but about when it’s an entire concept? What about when it’s something you’ve had in your idea box for years? What about when you haven’t finished anything in a month, and you sit down every day, and nothing comes out right? At that point there’s a very strong temptation to just force it. And I think if you’ve a very good sense of narrative structure (a much stronger sense than I), then that forced result can often be published and perhaps even acclaimed.

But the biggest damage there is not to your career or to the public, but to your own sense of what you’re interested in. I don’t know, I shouldn’t phrase this in the second person. Authors all have their own ways of finding inspiration, and many of them (including a few great ones, like Anthony Trollope) seem to profit from just churning stuff out. But there are entire years in my life (I’m thinking of 2014 to 2016, the years right after selling Enter Title Here) when I was completely unable to get in touch with my own inspiration, and once you’ve gone through a period like that, you don’t ever want to risk losing touch with yourself again.

*Human beings, when we look even at random data, can usually assemble some sort of pattern from it. For me to even come close to believing in a person’s assertion, one of two things must be true: i) they must have tested it in some way, using protocols and methodologies established before data collections; or ii) it has to fit with my preconceived biases =]

I recently read a paper book

I can’t recall the last time I read a paper book cover to cover (I think it was a Kent Haruf novel given to me by a friend six or twelve months ago), but recently I wanted to read Keigo Higashino’s Naoko, and it was only available in paper, so I purchased and read it.

The tactile quality of the paper book was undeniably pleasant. I enjoyed the feeling of pages flying from my right to my left hand. Progress through the book was a physical adventure, and I seemed to pick up momentum as I got through it. With each page, I could see that I was completing a greater and greater portion of the remaining text, and my subjective feeling was that I completed the book faster than if I’d read it on the Kindle.

Reading in artificial light was difficult. I felt like no matter how many lamps and overhead lights I turned on, the paper was still dimly lit. But reading in daylight, even with just the light from a partially-blinded window, was extremely simple and caused no perceivable strain. This was true even though the type on the book was much smaller than I’m used to on the Kindle. And I was put off by the difficulty of highlighting passages or looking up terms in a paper book. Since Naoko was set in Japan, it would’ve been most helpful to have been able to look up the various place names and cultural references.

I’m often told that people experience some form of sense-pleasure, often attributable to nostalgia, when they hold a paper book. I don’t believe that this was the case for me, but the human mind is a strange thing, and perhaps there was a deeply submerged element of that emotion within me.

All told, I was pleased by my paper book adventure. In fact, in the interim time I was inspired to inspect my wife’s bookshelves to see what other paper books I might read, and within the course of a few hours I read Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, in which I also experienced the same feeling of motion that I think is perhaps a peculiar attribute of the paper book. I am sure this sense of motion could be replicated in electronic format, but since it’s directly related to the bulk of the paper book, whereas the strength of the e-book is in its weightlessness, I think these two qualities will forever remain opposed.

I am still not certain in what situations a paper book is superior to an e-book. Sense of an Ending and Naoko are very different books. One is somewhat meandering literary mystery, the other is a metaphysical thriller, but both are quite short. I think reading a longer book in paper format would be difficult for me. The last time I tried was with Herman Wouk’s Youngblood Hawke. The book was excellent, but the print was quite small, and by the time I was done I had a splitting headache. Lately I’ve had back troubles however, and I did enjoy that the paper book can be read in a greater variety of physical positions than can the e-book, and I think perhaps for this reason a longer book would be more comfortable to read. I just wish they didn’t make the print so small (and yes I know about large print books, but the problem is that it’s the longest books that have the smallest type!) In any case, I will soon experiment further.

Getting sort of tired of all the oppression-based critique of narrative art

Have been feeling a little disenchanted lately with the literary world lately. Every book and every movie and every television show seems to get judged according to the same analysis of power relations. If a book has an orthodox (for the reviewer) view of all the possible power relations (i.e. it acknowledges every form of oppression inherent in its storyline) only then does the reviewer bother with assessing its aesthetic worth. Obviously this is only my subjective view of the current state of affairs, and I won’t seek to prove for you that it’s true. If you don’t believe me, or if you think this sort of critique is only a minority or an exception, then you’ll only find this blog post useful as a view inside the mind of a very politically misguided person.

I don’t disbelieve in oppression, and I don’t think it should be ignored. If there’s something ‘problematic’ (the most common term for when a work seems to be ignoring an oppressive power relationship) in a work then I think it should be pointed out. But while I don’t object to the political aims of oppression-based critique, I find myself somewhat in the position of a liberal from the 1930s who dearly wants to love social realism and hate the fascism-tinged Modernism, but who just can’t do it. Because although oppression-based critique might be good in political terms, I think it’s harmful to the aesthetic worth of narrative forms of art.

In my opinion, narrative art exists because mere ideas are insufficient to quantify the experience of being alive. An idea is a limited thing, it’s a set of relationships that have been fully expressed, while a good story is inexhaustible. It contains a set of relationships that can always be mined for new meaning.

I was recently talking to someone about The Iliad, and I think what makes the Iliad truly great is that you can read and reread the work and still not be sure what to think about the concept of heroic virtue. People in the story live by the adage of death before dishonor, but they also suffer for it. Achilles could’ve lived a long and happy life as King of the Myrmidons, but instead he goes to war, knowing he will die young. Although in later years its often been cast as a story about the folly of war, The Iliad is a tale that will challenge both militarists and peaceniks, fascists and socialists. The tale simply cannot be made to say what you want it to say.

And if I was to subject the Iliad to an oppression-based critique, there’d be so much to say. Achilles is a rapist, for one thing. You know Bryseis didn’t fully consent to being taken by him. And that might be fine if he was portrayed as wholly evil, but he’s clearly the hero of the piece, and even though he has epic flaws, most notably his petulance, he’s obviously also a role model. And what am I to think about this war? How can there be anything right or heroic about a war fought for such a trivial reason?

These critiques are mostly contained within the Iliad itself–though I’ll admit the book doesn’t spend much time thinking about the fate of Briseis (those sorts of musings would be left to Euripides, who truly did have a modern take on war and is astounding in every possible way)–but it’s easy to imagine an Iliad that leaned further into those critiques. It’s easy to imagine an Iliad in which Achilles was wholly a monster, perhaps one with admirable physical virtues, but otherwise clearly portrayed as evil, while Hector was portrayed as clearly his moral superior.

That’s where I fear an over-reliance on oppression-based critique will lead us. This sort of critique doesn’t have any concern for nuance. If a work doesn’t perfectly adhere to the political orthodoxy of this moment, then it’s worthless. But then what’s the point? Why bother to even open a book if I know it’ll tell me that racism is bad and that queer people just need to accept themselves and elderly people are just as capable of being heroes as young people? There is no room here for thematic nuance. Because in narrative art there is room for a complexity that we don’t have when writing an essay. When you and me are talking, we can only say “Racism is bad”, but in narrative art, there is room to write about the mayor of a small town who sees his community’s very strength as coming from its exclusiveness. There’s room to talk about a confused teen who maybe has sex with men but doesn’t know whether he’s gay or not. There’s room to talk about an older person who’s lost her mobility and can’t go out running on the beach every day like people do in commercials. This isn’t philosophy. It’s not ethics. It’s just a story.

There is a reason that so many of the stories we love have “problematic” elements, and it’s because those elements are part of what makes it good. Yes it’s terrible that villains are so often queer-coded, but why do fans love those villains so much? Isn’t it partly because so many of us associate queerness with rebellion and individuality? And yes it’s bad to use a foreign country as a mere backdrop for a white character’s personal growth, but we all travel don’t we? Isn’t there something very real about those travelogue stories? Don’t they capture exactly the way we do use foreign countries? Maybe the thing that makes you feel uncomfortable with, for instance, Lost In Translation, isn’t a problem with the work. Maybe it’s a feature.

I don’t think this is universally true. There are problematic elements in fiction that I think they’d be better off without. The Chronicles of Narnia would probably be better if Susan didn’t get banished for using lipstick or if the evil God wasn’t a thinly-veiled Allah. Many problematic elements have no aesthetic worth. My concern is not for those. My concern is for the readers and viewers who already think they know all the answers before they even open the book, and who, because of that, are missing out on the entire purpose of reading books in the first place.

For myself, I find very little in the oppression-based discourse that’s interesting. Again, not because I think it’s wrong or bad or harmful. In many ways I think this sort of discourse probably helps to cure exactly those wrongs that it’s devoted to recognizing. But to me that kind of discourse simply has very little to do with creating the satisfying and intelligent stories that are my ultimate goal as a writer.

The flip side of the heart of longing

As I think I’ve mentioned here before, the number one thing I need in order to write a book is the heart of longing. I have to feel a sense of desire in the skin on the back of my arms. Maybe it’s not something I can put in words. Maybe it’s only a set of images or a single image. Maybe it’s a memory or a song. But somehow a book has to be actuated by the kind of desire that makes people do insane things.

That’s only half the story. The other half, which is equally as hard though perhaps not as necessary, is to find their power. You know how there’s all this talk about making characters likeable? Well this is the part of the character that makes me like them: the thing that makes them bigger than life. Their power is the way that they differ from other people: it’s their sensitivity or their ruthlessness or strength. It’s the things they will do that nobody else would. It’s the wish fulfillment aspect of the book, essentially.

Pairing a character’s desire with their power isn’t an easy  process, and it often doesn’t happen until the story is pretty well fleshed out. Usually this is because any desire is, generally, pretty achievable for a powerful enough character. So you often either need to tone down their power, increase their desire, or increase the opposition to their desire. I’m making this sound like something very mechanical–something you could distill into a worksheet that’s on a perforated page in the back of a screenwriting manual–but it’s not. This is probably not something anybody else other than me could do, and even I don’t think about it in a straightforward or logical way. It’s more of a post facto assessment. “Oh, why am I having trouble writing this character? I think it’s because I haven’t yet found their power.”

Right now I’m cooling my heels, trying to put something together for my novel for adults. I keep trying to work on one of the viewpoint characters, but I just don’t have his power yet. I have his desire, but not his power. I’ll get there, but it’s a little frustrated, since sometimes it feels like if I don’t have both sides of the equation locked down, there’s almost no point in writing.

Been playing a lot of Borderlands, and Borderlands 2, and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

A few days ago I finally beat Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, which is the latest iteration of a series of first-person shooters that feature cooperative gameplay, interesting loot mechanics, a zany sense of humor, and a really striking cel-shaded graphical style. I’ve been dabbling for months with the second game in the series (the pre-sequel is the third), but TPS turned out to be significantly easier than Borderlands 2, and I beat it within a few weeks.

Of course with these games, as with Diablo 3, beating the game for the first time is only the beginning of your journey. Their aim, by using increasing difficulty modes and endless different types of equipment, is to keep you playing forever. I don’t think I’ll be doing this (who’s got the time!), but I did want to put a shout-out in here for the storytelling in the game. Obviously the story isn’t the key point here, but I did find the primary plotline, which follows the villain of the second game (Handsome Jack) and his slow descent into sociopathy, to be moderately compelling. In this game, Jack starts as a middle manager at a large corporation. His space station comes under attack, and he’s forced to recruit a team of mercenaries to defend both it and the planet below from a bunch of insane mercenaries.

As a storyteller myself, I know that it takes a lot of work to make a story that’s this simple and elegant. The recent Han Solo movie attempted a similar sort of revisionist history for Han, but they were unwilling to commit to their story. In order for Han to end up as the cynical bounty hunter of the first movie, we needed to see him go from idealistic to cynical, and they just couldn’t do it.

By the mid-point of this game, we actually sort of like Jack–he’s an everyman who’s thrust into a difficult situation, and he displays flashes of heroism at times–so it’s a shame when he becomes more and more ruthless in his efforts to retake the space station and come out on top. He’s a little bit too much into scatological humor for my taste, but it’s a video game and the target demo is 13 year old boys, so I guess I can’t complain too much

Turned in my revision yesterday. It’s a complete rewrite. Feeling trepidation

Yesterday I turned in the revision on my book. Now that I’ve (sort of) hit my deadline, I feel free to reveal that even though my editor gave me five months to do this work, I spent the first three finishing a novel for adults, so I’ve only been working on this revision for two months. I know, my wife was kind of horrified as well, but in my defense…these revisions just keep on coming, and if you don’t find ways to do other work in the meantime, you’ll never get anything done.

However when I finally turned seriously to this book two months ago, I was a little bit disturbed to find that I had serious problems with the draft that’d sold. Previously I’d just been reading my editor’s comments, which, it seemed to me, could be fixed with a substantial amount of revision, but wouldn’t require more than a month or so of work. Once I waded into the book itself (which I hadn’t looked at since the book had gone on sub last September), I found myself appalled. The manuscript was a mess. I liked the characters quite a bit, but the plot was all over the place. It was just a bunch of stuff happening because this was a book and things need to happen in a book. I literally was unable to bring myself to fully reread the manuscript. Instead after about five or six chapters, I was like…I need to rewrite everything.

So I did what an author facing a tight deadline always does in these situations. I wrote nothing for two weeks as I pondered exactly what changes to make. I don’t think of this as procrastination, I just think of it as being part of the ‘visioning’ process. In this case I knew what I wanted was to boil the book down to the essentials, and over those two weeks I thought I figured out what those were. I am a big believer in the idea that a book isn’t just words: it’s composed of concrete elements. This is why when a book is translated into another language or turned into a movie, the result is often a work of art that produces an emotional reaction which is similar (though not exactly the same) as that of the original. What I wanted was to figure out which of the elements in my book needed to be altered in order to create the emotional responses I wanted.

Ultimately, what I decided was that I needed to make my protagonist less mature, less certain, and more confused, and I needed to make the deuteragonist more mature and more certain. By bringing these two characters more evenly into line with each other, I would make their romance more believable, and I’d give my protagonist more to do, plot-wise. The plot could be driven by his wishy-washiness.

Simultaneously, I drew back on all the other plots in the book. I saw this as being primarily about a struggle occurring within my own protagonist. He himself would be the source of most of its conflict and most of its drama. There wouldn’t be an antagonist, as such, and although other characters would have their own motivations, those motivations would be deeply backgrounded within the text.

After about two weeks, I felt ready to start the rewriting, and it was not a simple process. I did have to go back a few times and alter what I’d done, and a few times I got lost in the text and had a hard time figuring out what I was working on. It’s not easy to completely rewrite a book (I’m talking about starting from page one and just typing out a new book), because a book operates on so many different levels. In this case, I was simplifying my book and making it less complex, removing extraneous elements and subplots (it’s about 20k shorter than the previous draft), but it’s still hard work to make progress on every single element simultaneously.

Normally the experience of revision, for me, is the experience of working so intensely on one element of a book that I forget the rest of it exists. For those few weeks, all I care about is one relationship or one subplot. But in this revision that wasn’t an option. I needed to make progress with the whole. Probably I’ll find, in the next revision, that I dropped a lot of balls, and I’ll need to go back and look at some of the things that were only briefly sketched out in this version. Already I’m wondering about some of the secondary characters and wondering if, in this draft, their motivations are really there.

But anyways, the editor has it now. Hopefully they like it. Editors generally want more revision than authors are willing to give (authors are generally pretty willing to put things into a book, but they’re loathe to take anything out), so I’m hopeful that my rewrite (which was inspired by my editor’s comments) will be well-recieved. But there are reasons for trepidation. Much of the voice of the original is lost. That character was very cocky and sure of himself, and that naturally translated into the voice. It was impossible to retain that self-assurance and also make the changes I wanted. The new character feels like he has less voice. He feels more submerged in the story. And part of me mourns for the old voice. I think the revision has been good, but it did come at a cost. And maybe my editor and publisher won’t like that. Sigh! We’ll see.