As regular visitors know, I’ve spent the last 6 months (more, really) working on a big-big project, the 1000-page opus to wrap up my Eastern European crime series. It’s been hard going, but overall I’ve felt confident that the results—after all the drafts—would be worth the effort.
However, late last week I found out I’ve been barking up the wrong tree. Turns out a 1000-page novel is out of the question. Given my career thus far (fair-to-middlin sales), and my publisher’s resources, the cover price would be prohibitive, and booksellers wouldn’t order it. Certainly some of this has to do with the 250 pages I sent in as a sample, which lean a little too far to the literary side, not enough on the crime-detection side. Since my publisher is a crime publisher, this is obviously an issue.
As you can imagine, this was a shock to me. Had I known, I might have put the last 6 months to better use. I wasn’t angry, not really, just surprised. I could also see my editor’s logic—she always makes good sense.
Should I have put up a fight, to hold onto my vision of things? Given my previous post on Bob Dylan following his own way, you might think so. But I didn’t. Not out of fear, but because, when I sat back and thought about the few readers I have, I tried to look at the book from their perspective, and realized that they might find the whole thing rather tedious. I might put out a 1000-page novel one day, but slipping it within this series isn’t necessarily the place to do it.
So, being a generally constructive person, I didn’t let this get me down. I worked for three days straight, chopping what I had (around 100,000 words) down to a workable size. My plan was, in essence, to stick to the original idea, but make the story smaller—say, 400 pages—and incredibly compact. This required shrinking the section I’d written, which takes place in 1986, from 350 to 130 pages.
As you can imagine, this wasn’t easy. It required many steps, the most important being limiting the perspectives. There were around 6 in what I’d written thus far, and so I limited it to three. Choosing who would go was based entirely on whose perspective was the most engaging. I was grieved to do it, because that meant I was left with three male perspectives, and had to cut two female perspectives I was very fond of. But killing your babies is just part of the game.
Through all this work, however, something nagged at me. Trimming down a novel isn’t simple mathematics. There’s so much you have to keep track of, so much you have to feel. And I realized one of the things that was going wrong was language.When you’re writing a fat magnum opus, there’s an urge to alter your language. You know a reader’s holding a brick in their hand, and you want to communicate from the beginning how important it is to keep reading. You want them to believe it’ll be worth it. In my case, that urge led to a lot of lyrical waxing in the beginning, some of which I love, some of which I now hate.
But I persevered up through Monday night. I can do this, I kept telling myself, seeing that I’d already worked it down to less than 200 pages. Maybe I was right, maybe I could have done it, but now I’ll never know.
Because around midnight on Monday, exhausted from the day’s work, having spread stacks of pages all over the dining table to keep track of what was going on, my head cleared and I saw something entirely different. A simple scenario: A retired American couple arrives in my fictional capital for a vacation. They don’t know much about this part of the world, but they’ve been told it’s cheap, the people are very friendly, and there are pretty old churches to see. Soon after they arrive, though, things begin to go terribly wrong, and they find themselves trapped in their hotel because, outside, people are shooting at the building, and men in other rooms are shooting back.*
They’ve foolishly taken their Christmas vacation in 1989, in a country going through a violent revolutionary upheaval.
It’s good story, or it’s not—as with most fiction, the quality of the idea lies entirely in its execution. But I quickly began to see how it would then connect to my militiamen, to Emil Brod and his wife Lena, the Ministry for State Security, and all the changes 1989 wrought.
Immediately, I started taking notes, and for the last two days I’ve been writing madly (instead of posting here).
The reality now is that I’m going to have to scrap nearly everything I wrote during the last 6 months. All of that took place in 1986, and was just a preparation for the 1989 storyline that I’d only begun. As someone for whom time is always lacking, who always feels the self-imposed pressure to produce, this reality was at first hard to take.
Not anymore. One great aspect of being a writer is that when an idea is fresh, it’s like you’re walking on air. The endorphines kick in, and you can do no wrong (or, you can, but you don’t notice until the revisions).
(One could even argue that I had to go through all this to reach the fresh perspective. I wouldn’t, but that’s beside the point.)
So I’m okay. No, I’m better than okay; I’m happy. The new plan is tighter, ironically more innovative, more exciting, and—most importantly—readable! How could I not be pleased?