Sunday, September 10, 2017

Q&A: The Five Drafts of "Stranger and Better"

The dedication in Stranger and Better indicates that parts of the novel are 18 years old. How does that happen, and what changed in the interim?

I wrote the first draft between 1998 and 2001. It took that long in part because it was my first effort and I was still learning how, but also because it was 200,000 words, nearly twice as
long as the final project. Some of that was lack of focus, some of that was inability to condense, and some of that was my habit of reading 600-page novels and believing mine needed to match.

The original version had only 9 chapters. They were theme-based rather than chronological, so you'd have a chapter about Ish, a chapter about Kim, a chapter about Ginevra. All the subcomponents were mixed up, but that was supposed to be okay because it was fractal, which in the early version just meant "jumped around a lot, while folding in on itself." Each chapter began and ended with the same scene or idea, book-ending the other events. Each chapter also had a theme (quintaphones, spoonerisms, Dali paintings). Those items are still in the final product, but more scattered rather than concentrated. So those ideas broke down a little, but I think it ultimately made sense, because chronological continuity really helps follow the rest of the story.

The last chapter in particular was problematic. I had front-loaded a lot of the difficulties and angst that Martin feels, and the final chapter was supposed to be a combination of acid trip, flashback, and total re-assessment of his experiences. It was fifty pages long, two thirds of it in italics for the flashback, and very jumbled. Also, after a lot of reflection, it just felt dishonest, to paint a miserable picture and then say, "Oh, by the way, here's all this other stuff I kept from you." Some of that was supposed to reflect Martin's mood, so it wasn't so much a total lie as just what he was focused on, but it still didn't seem right.

For most of the next decade I didn't know what to do with the book. I knew it wasn't polished enough, but I didn't know how to self-edit. Maybe I still don't (maybe it's not even really possible), but I started and stopped a couple of times. Then my brother (who is an editor) gave me notes on the first chapters, and I started up again. But that still left me 7 chapters short of a final product.

In the meantime I'd been writing other books, and eventually published Chicagoland in 2013. Working with an editor on that project taught me a lot about brevity, coherence, and making sure everything in each scene is actually relevant to something.

I finally decided I wasn't doing "fractal storytelling" right, and figured the only way to sort it out was to first write the entire book chronologically, and then figure out how to interleave the sections meaningfully. So I completely straightened the narrative and cleaned it up. That was Draft 2.

Somewhere around there I realized that Martin's philosophy major needed to take a more prominent role, and decided on a quest for the meaning of life as the main thrust of the book. On top of that, I'd learned to recognize junk scenes and pointless digressions, letting me cull about 30% of the old book, while adding a new 25% in meaning of life sections. I did the same thing with a whole bunch of other scenes that were passive discussions, which were re-written to be more active. That was Draft 3.

Then I read a lot of Vonnegut one spring, and decided to introduce the concept of fragments found in a library. That introduced the section numbers and pulled the story further into pieces. Around this time I also realized the chronology had problems. I had to make Martin start college a whole year earlier in order to line up events, and then for pacing and narrative development about a third of the book shifted order, changing semesters and years until it all fit again. Thus was Draft 4.

Around there I roped in a couple of test readers, who noted the book still wasn't coherent enough and started kind of slowly. So I really played up the meaning of life, took out some more scenes that I liked but could finally recognize as not useful to the story, and then also re-inserted a flashback into the first year, so that I could open with an acid trip rather than letting the book start slowly. That made the fifth and final draft, and is where I decided to polish, beta-test, and publish.

Stranger and Better is available in digital format from Amazon ( ) and in print from most major online retailers.  

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