On Ghosts, Revenants, and Revision
By Lawrence C. Connolly
Copyright © 2014 by Lawrence C. Connolly
Lately, I’ve been contemplating ghosts.
I don’t mean the revenants of dead people, but rather the specters of books that were never born. Titles such as Harlan Ellison’s Blood’s a Rover, a yet-to-be published book that I saw advertised for release from Ace in the early 1980s, or the Orchises Press edition of J. D. Salinger’s Hapworth 16, 1924, which received considerable advance notice in 1996 before the author pulled the rights.
Sometimes these ghosts achieve a semblance of existence, usually after the authors are no longer around to stand in their way. Such releases are almost always incomplete and appended with editorial notes to outline what might have been (or worse, finished and revised by literary continuators who claim to know the authors’ true intensions).
In the early 1970s, the always eccentric Truman Capote referred to his long delayed Answered Prayers as a “posthumous novel” because “either I’m going to kill it, or it’s going to kill me.” The unfinished book was eventually released in 1986 – two years after Capote’s death.
Other well-known books that were abandoned either by death or disenchantment include J. R. R. Tolkein’s The Notion Club Papers, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Journal of Julius Rodman, and Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger. It remains to be seen if Stephen King’s The Plant, started in 1982 and currently unfinished, will become one of these.
The abundance of such ghosts isn’t surprising, given the nature of the creation process and the fine madness shared by many writers. For us, it’s not just about getting the words right. As Patrick Rothfuss writes on his blog:
Words are just the tip of the iceberg. [It’s also about] the order of scenes, characterization, tension and subplot. I obsess about these things. I don’t want them good. I want them perfect.
Rothfuss cites these as just some of the reasons why his second novel, The Wise Man’s Fear, came out years after its anticipated release date.
In all, I think that Ted Thompson, author of The Land of Steady Habits, best identifies the reasons for such delays (and the ghosts that can result from them) in a recent article in Salon.
I think deep down we know when we’re done. There is something driving your writing, something that you might not understand, that has to be expressed for the project to be realized. If it hasn’t yet been found, or hasn’t yet been made clear, you’ll feel it and you’ll know you’re not there.
Those inner feelings are more important today than ever. In an age driven by publication deadlines and the option of rushing a work into print via a proliferation of self-publishing platforms, it seems literary ghosts are the least of our concerns.
Agent Rachel Gardner addresses this problem in a blog post titled “Quality Books Take Time.” She writes:
[I]t takes [time] to write a high quality book. I’m not talking about a book that everyone has to love. I’m talking about a book that has the basics: a solid story, well-developed characters, conflict that engages the reader, a satisfying resolution, well-crafted sentences and paragraphs, literate use of words, and a lack of typos and other egregious, noticeable errors [. . .] .
With the proliferation of self-pub, online retailers are flooded with books that contain almost none of those basics. Books that scream “vanity” and “I just wanted to get rich quick.” Books that say, “I was too impatient, or too arrogant, or too ignorant, to either learn the [. . .] most basic writing techniques, or to get an editor’s eyes on this before it went public.
Elsewhere in the blog, Rachel references a famous Paul Masson ad from the 1980s, in which Orson Welles proclaims that the winemaker will “Sell no wine before its time.”
Writers should be guided by the same dictum. They need to be honest with themselves and trust the inner voice that says This isn’t what you mean or This isn’t working or You can do better. I’m not saying that deadlines aren’t important, simply that they sometimes can and perhaps should be adjusted when the book demands it.
I spent a lot of time this summer thinking about such things.
Earlier this year, my novel Vortex: Book Three of the Veins Cycle was scheduled for a summer release. Ads appeared, review copies went out, and I began what was to be a string of summer appearances in support of the book. But even as the machinery geared up for the release, something was nagging me, a sense that the full potential of the story was yet unrealized. I suppose it would have been easier in the short term to let the book come out. Instead, I requested a delay.
Since it was the third and final act in the cycle, I knew from the outset that Vortex was going to be a challenging book. It was the place where all the narrative arcs and mysteries needed to come together, where the true nature of the cycle would be revealed and the series drawn to a close. The first version of the book did these things. That wasn’t the questions. At issue was how it did them. I didn’t want the book to feel rushed, to give the impression that characters were simply hitting their marks. Their actions needed to be fully motivated, with the revelations growing out of their decisions. To make that happen, I needed to live with them a little longer, spend a little more time exploring the potential of their lives and the reckoning of their choices.
The additional revisions took three months. The work was intense, and I admit that I worried early on that I might be conjuring a ghost. Nevertheless, within weeks, the book began to truly come alive.
I turned the manuscripts in last month. No regrets this time. The extra time was worth it, and I can now rest knowing that I have given it the fully realized life it deserves.
It comes out in November.
Lawrence C. Connolly‘s contemporary fantasy series The Veins Cycle concludes this winter with the release of Vortex. The first two books in the series, Veins and Vipers, have just been reissued in both print and ebook form. This week (September 5-10), the ebook edition of Veins is on sale for 99 cents at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Fantasist Enterprises. Fasten your seat belts, and enjoy the ride!