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Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Amalgamating work

Sheila asks:

I just finished fusing my past two NaNoWriMo efforts into a unified manuscript. I still feel it needs some (okay, a lot of) reworking before it's fit for public consumption. Any words of wisdom you could provide as I dive into this process?

Rewrites are an interesting one.

Like revenge, redrafts are best done cold. By the time you finish a first draft, you're likely to be suffering from a severe case of Overhead Projector syndrome - the device that sits on top of your skull and projects onto the page or screen what you meant to say, rather than what you actually wrote. When I finish something, it's usually months before I feel ready to edit it an any but the roughest way. I can just about manage to cut a scene that I know is no longer relevant, or go back and lay the foundations for a later revelation, but beyond that, forget it. My eyes cross trying to look at the words; I literally cannot see them. All I get is a general impression of how I intended the scene to go.

The solution to this is to leave the whole thing for a while. Do something else; start writing a new project, and leave the old one be. After a couple of months, I begin to forget enough that I can look over the draft with a slightly clearer eye.

Fusing two ideas together is another interesting thought. I have to say, I've never actually tried it. Some of my ideas do come from fusings, but they happen before I start writing. The story I'm writing at the moment, for instance, had two separate inceptions. The first was an idea that occurred to me about a year before I started writing; I thought it was a good idea for a setting, but there was no story to go with it, so I dropped it in the cauldron and let it simmer there, and for a while, more or less forgot about it. Then, a year or so later, another idea occurred to me, this one for a character situation; as far as I can recall, it occurred to me in the shower. (Why do so many people get ideas in the shower? That's a post for another day.) I said to myself, 'Well, supposing I take the character in this situation and put her into that setting; what would she do?' And, lo and behold, there was the beginning of an idea for a plot. The situations mirrored, the thematic elements were a match for each other, and there was a lot of potential for interesting conflicts. So, off I went.

But, of course, I did that synthesis before I started writing. Meshing two books together which are complete in themselves seems like an entirely different challenge. As I haven't done it, I can only speculate, but if I were planning on doing it, the biggest issue I'd expect would be a fundamental one: making the two parts mesh thematically.

Most books have a theme of some sort, a unifying idea that makes everything relevant to everything else and forestalls the reader question, 'So why are you telling me all this?' Many books get a theme subconsciously from something that's preoccupying the author at the time of writing. Two books written at different times are at risk of jarring with each other: if one book's underlying theme is sibling rivalry, and the other's theme is the difficulty of making an living in a competitive world, then they may, without sufficient dovetailing, simply jostle each other and feel like two books under one cover.

The necessity would be to work the themes so that they complemented each other. To take my example, if Book One is about sibling rivalry and Book Two is about making a difficult living, then you could rewrite so that the heroine is trying to make a difficult living to prove to herself that she's better than the sister she was always jealous of. Or you could have two siblings trying to make a living together and falling out because of sibling rivalry. Or two siblings each trying to make their own livings and complicating matters by competing with each other for personal rather than professional reasons.

Things can be made relevant to one another, but I would suspect that what may eventually emerge is a dominant theme. Some themes are simply more universal, more strong, than others. I've talked previously about Royal Storylines, stories that are so strong that they have to go centre-stage if the story isn't going to look ill-proportioned, and the same seems likely to apply to themes. You need a unifying theme; two themes makes for an odd book, and while it's possible that a third theme might emerge with the synthesis, it seems more likely that one will trump the other. I noticed as I typed that all the examples I came up with off the top of my head, for instance, placed sibling rivalry above making a living: the rivalry is the central story, and the job market becomes the pitch on which the battle is to be fought.

Given a strong central theme, the presence of other plotlines, properly dovetailed, should make for a dense and interesting book.

There are other kinds of consistency as well; one, for instance, would be making the writing styles consistent - or, if not, finding some reason why they aren't. Writers have their own style, but it still varies from book to book. This needs to be smoothed over. But the main problem I'd expect would be the necessity to become ruthless, to let go and move on. To work, an amalgam novel has to be clearly one novel rather than two; this means, in effect, that by writing it, you're killing Books One and Two and feeding them to Book Three. The original intentions of each become entirely subordinated to the needs of the final product. This seems likely to involve a lot of changing stuff you really liked because it no longer fits, one of the more painful tasks in a writer's life. One and Two are dead, long live Three.

To which end, I think I myself would more or less view Three, not as a quick job of tacking together two halves - which would be a tremendous temptation, because darn it, the first two halves are there, making it look like it really shouldn't take that much more work - but as an entirely new project, that could take longer than either Book One or Book Two to complete. I'd start over, maybe even rewrite from the beginning, perhaps cutting and pasting where appropriate, but mostly considering One and Two as plants that have to be shredded and fermented into the compost out of which Three will grow.

It can be done. George Eliot originally conceived the stories of Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate as two separate novels, but she put them together, identified a unifying theme - idealists looking for a purpose in a thwarting environment - and, adding in a whole host of other new things as well, made a single story. The result was Middlemarch.

So I'd put two signs up above my desk, or at least, put them up in my mind. The first would read, 'Be Patient'. A quick-stitch job runs the risk of reading as just that, two different stories patched up to make a respectable word count. The other would read 'Middlemarch'. Because with patience, great things can be achieved.

(...Sheila, if this doesn't answer your question, feel free to ask another one...)

Thank you for this!

I guess I need to clarify--the second NaNo was a sequel to the first one (it begins the next day after the events in the first volume) because I felt that the first one, while narratively complete, left too many questions unanswered. The 'fusing' process involved taking the first half (written as diary entries) and rewriting it to match the style of the second half (written in first person present tense.) The characters and settings remain pretty much the same.

I see what you mean about the Overhead Projector, and perhaps I should take a break from it for a while so I can rewrite more clearly. But I know there are some bits I definitely want to rework, so I may 'patch over' those to my satisfaction before sticking it in the drawer. (I've gotten addicted to working on this thing . . . is that good or bad?)
Addicted to working on it means you're enjoying it, which is a good thing. I'd ride the enthusiasm while it lasts.

If it's a sequel, sounds like you'll have fewer problems meshing the thing together - though it was interesting to speculate about what a mesh would involve, so thank you for sending me off in a stimulating direction!

The time to take a break is when you've finished a draft, but you're so sick of looking at it that you just can't stand any more. If you're still having ideas, that means your mind is still on the boil: that's something to catch and run with while it's still happening. You're still in creative phase; you may need a rest later, but certainly don't stop till you need to.

Also, don't listen to anything I say unless it seems useful. You're the king of this book; I don't know very much about it, and if what I say seems intuitively wrong, then it almost certainly is. Most advice is best considered as the comments of an amiable idiot babbling in the background; if something she says turns out to be helpful, then take advantage of the advice, but otherwise, never mind her. :-)
Ahhh, inspiration/ideas in the shower. I am convinced that there are shower fairies who come visit with ideas.

I also have car fairies. They only come when I'm driving, not when I'm a passenger.

Those are both situations in which I can't take notes! I can't write down all the lovely things they tell me.

So unfair.

But maybe that's the key. When you're in the shower or driving, of course you can't be expected to be working, so your forebrain relaxes, letting the hindbrain come out and play.
But maybe that's the key. When you're in the shower or driving, of course you can't be expected to be working, so your forebrain relaxes, letting the hindbrain come out and play.

I'm pretty sure that's it as well. Lately, I've been setting aside time to deliberately do Nothing. I just sit or lie down on the bed and when my mind rushes to all the things I have to do, I just tell myself "Well, that's nice, but I'll have to do that when I'm finished doing Nothing." (I either set a timer or do it like an appointment--from three to four in the afternoon, I will do Nothing.)

This, strangely, allows me to be more productive, because it gives me time to relax without feeing guilty about it (I'm busy doing Nothing!) and by the end of the stretch of time, I'm itching to do Something.

I use it a lot when I'm particularly frazzled and don't have time to take a vacation. I just set aside a few hours and do Nothing in the midst of everything else on my schedule.

And if the Nothing Fairies show up, you can always have a pad and pen handy to write things down . . . and then go back to doing Nothing. :)
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