Sunday, October 1, 2017

"Stranger and Better" Q&A: What Didn't Make the Cut?

When you write five drafts of a book, like you did with "Stranger and Better," and also cut 70,000 words from the original version, there must be a lot of material left behind. What kinds of things didn't make the cut?

 A lot of things, obviously. Most of it junk, too. When I'm a little uncertain I tend to ramble, hoping somehow that the volume of my words will fill the space with an adequate uncertainty, and that maybe if I say enough of them, one or two will resonate. I'm terrible about writing a full page, realizing the entire thing is boring and pointless, rewriting it as a paragraph, and then recognizing that what I really need to do is delete that and replace it with a single sentence. This is particularly bad with openings (setting the scene before getting to the action), or transitions, where I know I need to get from A to C, and to do so I wedge in D-Q, while forgetting entirely about B.

That said, there were other points that I actually liked, but which I took out of the book because they weren't quite pertinent enough, or the shifting nature of the book over five drafts eliminated the point. Examples include:
  • Simpsons references. Back in 1999 I was really into the Simpsons. They are still a popular item 18 years later, but I didn't feel like I needed to use them anymore to make my own points. The only thing I kept was Polly calling Martin a kwyjibo.
  • The idea that I would start and end each chapter with two halves of a scene, or two iterations of a quote. It didn't always work very well, and was hard enough to do with 9 mega-chapters. Trying to apply the idea to a revised 40-chapter book seemed terrible.
  • Physics references. I personally studied physics in college, and it crept in to a lot of Martin's points, such as using a metaphor of billiard balls getting knocked around, and some references to the three-body problem. I had even invented a joke walk that Martin would engage in, called the Martin-step, but while it's something I could demonstrate visually, it didn't make much sense verbally and mostly confused readers.
  • I used the editorial interference to gloss over or shorten some scenes that had seemed funny, but which ran way too long. (In short, the humor density wasn't high enough, and it wasn't pertinent to the plot.) For example, the original draft had a detailed, mistake-ridden explanation of Martin's first shower, a very euphemism-heavy version of the Great Masturbator scene, and the original "how do you fold your laundry" joke ran about four times as long as the final draft. It wasn't pithy or snappy, so I either chopped it way back or just cut it.
  •  Oberlin inside jokes. I put a lot into the first draft, because I was writing for a fellow Obie. But much of it didn't make sense to outsiders, or, as time passed, was even forgotten by my classmates. Points include: the microburst of 1996, "strenuous objections" vs. regular objections, the transition between Starr and Dye as presidents, the fall poster sale, details about graduation requirements, popular local bands like Bippy and Package from Sally, jokes about the mail room, and a lot more.
  • Martin's desire to be a writer. The first draft had him wanting to get into creative writing, and finding a redemption of sorts by putting together a book while left behind after graduation. I have since been convinced that writers writing about wannabe writers is about as cliche as it gets, and in my years of noveling I'm only going to allow myself one such story, but not yet. So his failure to get into the program, his aggravations and eventual accomplishment, (some of it in a "can I win over Ginevra this way?" fashion), all got dropped. His first adviser, H. Royden Jones, was supposed to be a famous author who was trying to help but accidentally shames Martin badly in a discussion about creative writing interests, much more dramatic than the eventual conversation the two have, but so it goes.
  • A lot more drugs. There were originally multiple trips, different bonding moments with multiple friends, lots more scenes of strangeness and confusion. But while those were originally written to add in humor and fun, creative impulses, they filled too much of the book. Also, the scene with Mudd as a fractal was the original conclusion - a vision of a multitude of universes, of transcending levels, but also an acid trip. I didn't want the story to be just about the drugs, and I definitely didn't want the primary insights to come from them, so they got pushed into the background, in favor of more intellectual pursuits, like the meaning of life.
  • Play-within-a-play moments. I had an homage to James Joyce in one part, and Ish writing romantic comedy in another place. It seemed like too much material, too much of a diversion, and honestly I kind of groan every time I'm forced to read that sort of thing anyway.
  • Characters. The original version was aswarm with one-offs, cameos, freshman-vs-senior friends, and more. It might have been realistic, but it was confusing, and most friends didn't get a lot of time on the page. Ish, and Ginevra were always fairly independent, (and Leon, to a lesser extent) but among the other friends, a pool of 7 eventually turned into Polly, Seth, and James. (Poor James. I think I changed his name at least 20 times as more and more roles landed on that one character. That's more than once per year.) The tradeoff is I lost a little sense of transition, because you rarely meet your four best friends on Day 1 and keep them the whole time, but from a narrative standpoint it's a little more cohesive than adding and dropping new characters every semester.
  • Believe it or not, I really toned down Martin's lust for Ginevra. I would have said two decades ago I was pretty sensitive as to how he wrote about her, but either times have changed, I've grown, or being a father to two girls has shifted my perspective, but looking at the first draft, I feel like he was drooling all over her constantly in a fairly crude manner. At least one reader argued I ought to pump up the final draft a little ("He ought to want the girl more than anything in the world.") and I can see how that's normally part of a modern love story, but in the end I wanted Martin to be more in love with ideas than the girl, and on more than a couple of occasions he shoots himself in the foot because of his love of the truth. Such honesty might mean Stranger and Better will never be a best-seller with movie rights, but it sure as hell knows what it's about.
  • In the original version, when Martin and Ish have their final argument, Martin gives in and Ish finally calls him Dale. I liked that, but in the final draft, Ish is honestly more important than Ginevra to Martin, so he's had his "I need to be true to myself" moment before the final showdown. It hurt me to take it out, but it made more sense that way.
  • A whole bunch of deliciously crafted lines that were just too off-topic. (I've got enough of those, that may be a separate post.)
  • The Ginevra kiss scene was totally different. Originally, Ginevra tells Martin not to say anything, but he can't help but sigh her name, and that triggers a breakdown. Then in the follow-up scene, he hears a phone tick just before it starts ringing (something Oberlin dorm phones actually did), and he has half a second to hate the entire universe (running to a couple of pages) before Brent's call comes through and ruins the rest of the night for him. I intended to keep the moment that way, but in a very rare instance of characters acting up and doing their own thing, (Seriously, I don't believe in the "I want X but my character refuses to cooperate" kind of thing you'll hear a lot of authors say. I would have said I subscribe 100% to the belief the author is in charge. Now I guess it's 99%.) but in this one instance I was trying to tweak Martin's guilt about Antioch, and after I'd tuned that, I could not see anything else but the more comic kiss they engage in.
Yes, this has gotten long enough. I'll definitely save some of those quotes and a final few editorial changes for a later post.