Monday, October 15, 2007

The Fourth Draft

. . . or is it the fifth? I've kind of lost count by now. Whichever one it is, I started it today. Actually, I probably started it last week, when I arrived in the US, but I was dipping into the draft, changing dialogue and the odd setting. But this evening, after checking into my hotel in Portland, I went back to the start of THE REAPERS and began adjusting the prologue, then moved on to the first chapter. That's a proper rewrite. Anything else is just dabbling.

I've said it before, but I wonder if there isn't an easier way to write a book. Again and again I encounter fellow writers who produce perfectly good books by submitting their first draft to their editors. Perhaps they just have their act together, whereas I do not. (I'm not fishing for compliments here. I just genuinely believe that there are authors out there who have a clear picture of the book they want to write set in their heads from the start, so that the first draft is less exploratory than it is in my case.) Anyway, THE REAPERS is coming together, even if does begin with what feels like a lot of bloodshed, some of it at the hands of Angel and Louis.

A month ago, I received an interesting email, through the lovely webmaven, Heidi. It was from a woman who expressed some concern at the direction that she felt THE REAPERS was taking, judging from my occasional posts. She liked Angel and Louis, she said. She liked their humor. She was uneasy about the possibility thate her impression of the characters might be undermined by what was about to happen in subsequent books, and THE REAPERS in particular.

I thought of that email again as I was revising the first chapter. In this draft - and, to be fair, in every draft since the first - Louis is particularly cold-blooded in the way in which he deals with a set of potential adversaries. So too, to be fair, is Angel, even if he has some qualms about their actions. To me, it seemed like the natural response that these two men would have to a particular situation. They are, after all, killers, and one of the themes of THE REAPERS is the psychology of killing. I've been doing a lot of research in that area, and it's been fascinating, in a disturbing way. That research, I think, has informed (if not influenced) some of the actions of Angel and Louis in the novel. In other words, as I delved deeper into the psychology of killing, I found that the way in which I was thinking about Angel and Louis matched the reality of certain responses to the act of killing in, for example, warfare, and among soldiers.

Nevertheless, the lady's very thoughtful email raised an interesting question about the nature of a reader's relationship to characters of whom he, or she, has grown fond, and the writer's duty, if any, to those responses. It's a situation that only really arises in certain forms of genre fiction. As I think I've written before, mystery fiction is unusual in the strength of its dependence on recurring characters. Literary fiction, by contrast, uses them to a lesser degree, so much so that the latest Philip Roth book has attracted more attention than usual, I think, precisely because it represents the "last ordeal" of Nathan Zuckerman, a recurring alter ego in Roth's fiction.

Yet, by contrast with mystery fiction, Zuckerman has hardly figured at all in Roth's work. Only crime fiction (and, to a lesser extent, certain types of sci-fi, fantasy, and romantic fiction - or, to lump them all under one umbrella, genre fiction) returns again and again, on an annual basis in most cases, to a single character or set of characters. That is part of its appeal to the reader, and it is hardly surprising that a bond develops between the reader and those fictional characters, one that is frequently very loyal and affectionate. The dilemma for the author is: to what degree should he or she be influenced by that bond? The answer, to be brutally frank, is not at all, even at the risk of alienating some of those readers in the process. The writer has to be true to the characters, in bad things as well as good, otherwise they have no meaning.

So, in the course of the most recent draft of THE REAPERS, Angel and Louis behave in a way that is open to a number of interpretations, not all of them favourable, yet each represents a facet of their characters. Similarly Parker, by being seen through the eyes of an outsider, an observer, emerges as a far more enigmatic and disturbing individual than perhaps he does when his actions are explained in his own voice, but that too is not being untrue to his nature. The fact of the matter is that the way in which we want our favourite characters to behave is not necessarily the way in which they should, or would, behave, given our knowledge of their natures. They may be invented, but they are human, and they are duty bound to behave as human beings would do, or else they have nothing worth hearing to say to us about our existence.

It's now midnight where I am. Strangely, I am writing for the sake of writing. In a sense, none of this seems terribly important. Susie, who contributed regularly to the forum, passed away last week. I had hoped that she would get the opportunity to read the draft of THE REAPERS when I returned to Ireland with it, because I thought she would enjoy doing that, but it was not to be. I met her only once, after a signing, with her husband and a friend from the US. We had dinner. She was a sweet, funny, courageous human being.

May she rest in peace.

8 comments:

Basma Sharaf said...

Its not strange that you're writing for the sake of writing. I think its vital for an author to keep writing everything and anything that comes to their mind, because it always opens up new horizons. If there's something I really regret doing, it is suppressing that urge to write what sometimes seemed "unimportant". And trust me, what you wrote up there is important :) Condolences on Susie.

Good luck with the latest (if its not the last)draft :)

JT Ellison said...

It's your deliberate nature with your work that makes it all worthwhile to me, regardless of the choices you need to make. If you just blew through these drafts and tossed the books off quickly, we'd all be poorer. I may love or despise the characters actions, but they are true to the characters, and never the result of pandering to your readers. It engenders respect, and admiration, and the hope of eventual emulation, trust me.

And so sorry to hear about Susie.

Annie Chen said...

Dear John, in your blog you wrote,"The way in which we want our favorite characters to behave is not necessarily the way they should, or would, behave,given our knowledge of their natures." I totally agree with you. Now I'd like to use an example to explain why. Recently I went to see Lust, Caution by Ang Lee. The movie was about the forbidden and unspeakable love affair between a traitor, Mr. Yi, who worked for Japanese Government in pursuit of power and wealth, and China's patriotic secret agent, Wang Chia-Chi. The predator-and-prey relationship was at first full of tricks, suspicion,and uneasiness. Chia-Chi approached Mr. Yi so that he would fall in love with her and trusted her. She thought that by sacrificing her innocence and her body, she could create a better opportunity for her comrades to assassinate this evil guy. Luckily, Mr. Yi gradually fell into her trap and several times exposed himself in dangerous situations. The plan seemed to work perfectly, except she hadn't anticipated that she would actually fall in love with him! Before she was aware of it, their relationship had become full of explosive genuine passions and irresitable lust for each other.Near the end of the movie, in that critical moment when she could easily end his life, she was suddenly overwhelmed with very strong emotions of her love for him. She lost her caution and common sense, forgot her original purpose of life, and suddenly could not remember her years of pain and sacrifice were for this critical and rare opportunity to kill him and thus make great contributions to her beloved country. She was so overwhelmed with love and so touched by his love for her that she chose to let him get away. Her irrational and fatalistic decision saved his life and put herself and her comrades' lives at great risk. Sadly and not surprisingly, though Mr. Yi was deeply moved by Chia-Chi's love for him, he chose to end her life. Since he had a history of being selfish and cruel, why should he make an exception this time? This movie was very moving because it vividly depicts the complexity of human nature and human emotions. I believe many people, myself included, would like Mr.Yi to change his mind and become a better person by eloping with Chia-Chi to a far away place where no one could recognize their true identity. Over there, they could be together and lead a peaceful life with no deceptions. Sadly, in reality he can never make this kind of decision. If the screenwriter had become too sympathetic with Chia-Chi, this film would have been transformed from an art work with depth and meaning to a ludicrous soap opera.
John, you are absolutely right not to comform to the readers' impulsive wishes. And I think this article you just posted has revealed a facet of your character. It proves that when I met you in the book signing activity, my first impression on you is right: you are sincere, diligent, and affectionate. Although your literary work digs deeply into the darker sides of human nature, you have a beautiful mind, a tender soul, a strong will as well as a heart of gold. You have talents in writing and you care about people. I love your books and I love you even more.Although every person has rithts to express his or her opinions, it doesn't mean that you have to have to sacrifice your own and follow thiers. I like Rachael and Parker, and I would love them to be together. However, if in the future, out of necessity or as the story naturally evolves, you have to seperate them or make one of them disappear from your book, please go ahead and do whatever you have to do. I may feel sorry for them, but I will always be your fan. ALWAYS. One more thing. Last month, you only post one article in your blog. Could you post more often in the future so that I and the rest of your fans may have one more important and interesting thing to look forward to every week or every two weeks?
Also, I'm sorry Susie has to leave us. I don't know her, but I believe
she is extremely pleased that you remember her in a good way and cherish the time you spent with her. She must be smiling in heaven because she is not forgotten by people she cared about on earth.

Jingles Carlisle said...

This very topic (readers' expectations when it comes to their fave characters, etc.) is a huge one. Witness the lather so many fans got into over the way Karin Slaughter ended her latest Grant County novel. Her fans were up in arms, many of them unwilling even to crack the book open after hearing in advance how the book ended. They felt utterly betrayed by how Ms. Slaughter handled her characters. I, on the other hand, thought the outcome was totally in keeping with what her characters have been and become. I'd have felt betrayed if she'd sailed along, never really having those characters live realistically, in keeping with the way she'd drawn them.

Keep doing what you're doing, Mr. Connolly. You may get some fans who want Louis, Angel, and Charlie to behave in certain ways comforting to them (the readers), but many of us simply want them to be true to themselves (even if that means we find ourselves unable to see them the same way from book to book).

Transient Me said...

On a slight tangent, I read Elmore Leonard's '10 Rules of Writing' today and one of them advised writers to avoid prologues. He said:

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

I mention this because I have just stepped back from the second draft of my novel, and it most definitely includes a prologue. But prologues have been getting short shrift of late, including from agents who don't want to see one as part of your initial submission.

What are your thoughts on all this? Each to his own? What were your reasons for having a prologue, and do you think they are more acceptable in 'genre' writing?

ksuicide said...

You make some very interesting points about relationships with characters. I have stopped reading a couple of diffrent series because I did not like where the characters went. Perhaps I should give them a fair shake again, with your outlooks in mind.

RIP to Susie.

~cheers

Basma Sharaf said...

John may you pleaseeeee write some more on your blog!

Lotten said...

Hi,

It's really the first time I'm on your web page, been here before just to know what books to get. I'm sorry to say that my country (sweden) is not keeping up with me when it comes to your storys.
So I read your blog about that girl Heidi and how she felt about Louis and Angel, and I got jealous. Take great pride in your writing knowing how the boys you created are amazing. I adore Parker, but the boys (as I see it: My boys) well let me say it like this, I read every dead thing for the third time a week ago and the dialog and the feelings is still as sharp as the were the first time.
If I could change one thing, I would had let Angel kill Faulkner in The Killing Kind...
And thats why you are the writer and I'm the reader.
I would have sufficated Angel and Louis with pink pillows in la la land.
You keep them as they should be kept, thats what makes them and you great.
I wish I knew them as you do.
Thanks for charing tho :)
So boost your ego with this and good luck with your next book.

And I'm sorry about Susie

Best wishes, Lotten