Next week I go on vacation for Thanksgiving, and my editor, Michael, has returned Death by Cliché 2 just in time for me to have one sleepless week to get it done. I’ve already done one pass on it, and he’s told me that he’s happy with my edits. I’ve addressed his issues. After this pass, it will be ready to go to proofing. I could probably just accept his edits, but I can’t not do a full pass. So I’m doing 53 pages a day until it’s done.
But I hit a chapter last night where we still have a disagreement, and I thought I’d talk about that today because he’s a great editor and he’s letting me make the call. I usually go with everything he says, but I’m sticking to my guns on this one, and I think I need to discuss why.
The chapter in question is 11. The thing is presented, on the surface, as a joke. The chapter quote has the narrator making the comment that he’s surprised that I’ve made it that far into the book without writing a scene in the POV of the weather. Then I present, you guessed it, a scene in the POV of the weather. After that, the narrator makes a joke about how that whole chapter was a shot at him and we move on.
Michael thinks it reads like a Wikipedia article.
It’s written in that slightly self-indulgent style of much of the first book, which is largely absent from the second. That is a clue. It feels largely out of place in the book, which is another clue. I think it will stick in the craw of the reader a bit, which is the intention.
I think, when we’re working on these things from the inside, we sometimes look at them backward. We’re challenging everything and we say, “This belongs.” “This doesn’t belong.” That’s almost always right, but every once in a while, the fact that something doesn’t belong is the whole point. Look a chapter 3 of the Grapes of Wrath (I'm not comparing myself to the Grapes of Wraith, but bare with me). The famous turtle scene. It’s the very incongruity of that scene that invites analysis. It’s Steinbeck saying, “I’m doing something here, pay attention.” Not every bit a symbolism of literary artistry needs to draw attention to itself, but when the book is a comedy about gamer jokes, it doesn’t hurt to send up a flare.
I listen to a lot of podcasts by Corey Olsen, the Tolkien Professor. I hope that one day he and his students will read my books, or people with minds like theirs. I want to challenge them intellectually and literarily, as well as engage them humorously and emotionally. I want them to have some layers to unpack. I’m trying to tell a good yarn, yes, but that has never been all I’ve been doing.
Don’t get me wrong, I cut a lot things because they legitimately didn't fit. There are about five-seven chapters that didn’t make the cut. At least one of them was one of the funniest chapters in the book, in my opinion, but it didn’t support the narrative, and all the ground it covered was better covered elsewhere. Funny alone isn’t enough to get you in. Every chapter has to do double or triple duty.
And there’s one last reason. When Death by Cliché originally came out in 2006, it included a prologue. The editor didn’t like the prologue, and it was the first note I ever got from him (being the prologue). I don’t like prologues in principle, and this was my first published novel, so I caved instantly. I cut it, and the 2016 version of the novel was published without it.
Here’s what happened in that prologue. Two “giants” (meaning giants in the gaming industry) met around a miniature gaming sand table and invented fantasy wargaming. During it, it’s implied that the universe fractures, and that the game they are playing becomes the first of the many worlds like the one Damico falls into in the first chapter of the book. It’s not a strong implication, but it’s there, at least in this line:
“The first giant circled the table, the gears turning in his mind. He reached out and with a finger, touched the 40mm figure on the wall. For just a moment, he thought it looked afraid.”
It ended like this:
"Words have power. Words have meaning. Words can create and words can destroy. A man can say, 'A day that will live in infamy,' and begin the events that would save a continent. A woman can say, 'Let them eat cake,' and not know she’d just catered her funeral. Quantum physics shows us that a single observation can split our universe into countless realities.
How much more can a man do with a word? How much more with five?
'Play the game, wizard-boy,' the first giant said."
Now, it’s hard to prove a negative, but I’ve had a lot of complaints in the current version of the novel that it’s never explained how Damico ended up in the game world. I’m going deeper into that in book two, but I never had that complaint with the 2006 podcast version.
This isn't exactly equivalent with the issues with chapter 11 in book 2. Chapter eleven doesn’t explain something left unexplained if I cut it, but there’s that part of my mind that’s whispering that the book is something more if I leave it in, for the people willing to dig and put in the effort. For the people who aren’t, it’s 487 words of me committing to a joke about pissing off the narrator of my own book, which isn’t the farthest I’ve gone for a joke, by any stretch of the imagination.
So other scenes died so that one lives. Michael doesn’t like it, but he knows I do, and he’s giving me the call, and I’m keeping it. Here’s the thing. I’m not keeping it because someone will get it one day and think better of me. If people think well of me, they will think well of me for the humor, or the surprising and inevitable ending, or the way I handle the PTSD aspects of the book. I’m keeping it because someday someone’s going to read the book a second time, hit that passage, and get it, and feel a sense of pride as they figure out was the passage really means. They will feel better about themselves.
That’s why we put layers in books. Not because pulling them apart makes the writer something more. We put layers in books because taking them apart shows the reader that they are brilliant and witty and wise. It rewards them with the greatest compliment that a writer can give back to a reader.
Quiet, dignified applause.