Reader Question: Letting Things Die

MCMTuesday, August 4, 2009

I am going to try this thing called Reader Questions for a while, since I have some interesting ones that come up from time to time. Today's is about letting things die. Prepare your cleavers!

How do you decide what stories or characters you are going to write about, and which ones you have to let die without being written? I have been working on a book for four years, and I cannot figure out how to make it work. Should I just give up?

This is from Josh, whose last name I will withhold because it seems appropriate. This is a question I actually get a lot (which I find funny, because evidence would suggest I don't let ANYTHING die), but nonetheless...

I like to do something I call Literary Darwinism. It's pretty simple, really: I have, in my head right now, about 30 or so distinct stories that are largely unwritten. Hundreds of characters, all in various stages of development, all waiting to come to life. Most of my ideas are not written down, but those that are have been written as short stories or half-finished books over the past 18 years. Of all those ideas in my head, I think The Vector is only the second one to fully mature to something you can see.

What happens to the rest? They die horrible deaths and get merged with each other to become stronger. I have one character who you've only recently met, and he's been in my head since I was 14 years old. Now, your typical character at 14 isn't that well-formed, if only because you haven't lived enough life to really mess them up properly. So (aside from some half-done novels), he hasn't done much of anything except bounce in the ether, waiting to find his story.

At one point in the recent past, he almost came to life in a very different incarnation. He was going to be good at his job, with a history in the military, and ready to kick ass. The story I imagined for him made perfect sense, and I was getting excited to write it. Then someone asked for a sci-fi story, and one thing led to another, and the character ended up dropping out in favour of someone more suited to the role. Same background, different personality. The original character floated around in my head again, and I only recently pieced together what I wanted him to do.

The original story I imagined him in, way back when I was 14, was about a strange kind of Prohibition, missing politicians and dead women hanging in closets. It needed work, but once my older-and-wiser mind took a close look at it, I could see how it would update. I borrowed some elements from other stories in my head (making their respective characters cry) and beefed it up as much as I could, and then... I put it on the shelf. This was the end-game, not the start of the story. I needed to write a series of prequels, leading up to that one. He needed time to breathe before he went on his Biggest Adventure.

So Josh: you can give up your book, but don't give up your book. If you decide to shelve it, don't read it again. The things that stick on your mind are the things worth keeping, and the things you don't remember are the things you're best forgetting. At some point in the future, you'll think of what's left in your memory, and you'll say: "Wow, if I just added a pink elephant, it'd be perfect!" and I think you'll find the result will be more to your liking.

Oh... that character I've been nursing all this time? He's a private eye with terrible luck, and while YOUR first experience with him is "Fission Chips", mine is called "2 Blue".

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