Category: commentaries

Family Relations: Memory Thief Chapter Nine

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Welcome to another behind-the-scenes look at The Memory Thief. We’re up to chapter nine, and it’s another chapter that actually didn’t change a whole lot between the first draft and the final version. I thought about just skipping over the chapter because of this, but I wanted to talk a bit about why I think the chapter didn’t change.

For those of you who don’t feel like actually getting out the book and rereading the chapter, I’ll remind you: it’s where Benji steals his parents’ memories of the reasons for being mad at each other.

It’s interesting to me: when I started writing the book, I had no intent to explore family relations as a sub plot. It wasn’t like I started out thinking, “Benji is the son of parents who fight a lot.” I didn’t know who Benji was. Instead, I knew I wanted Benji to be at the fair and to go off on his own, where he’d eventually meet Louis. I needed a reason for him to want to go off by himself. The one that I ended up going with was that his parents were fighting, and he wanted to escape it.

I could have gone with many others, however. Maybe his parents were just the type of people who’d let him wander the fair on his own. Perhaps he got separated from his parents in the middle of a crowd. He could have been there with his friends as part of a group. Any one of those reasons would have been perfectly acceptable, but I went with arguing parents. Maybe it’s because it’s something I’d had experience with. I didn’t have a definite reason for doing it.

But because I chose that, it established a few things about Benji. First, he had parents who didn’t get along, and second, he disliked it enough that he wanted to escape it.

Once those items were set, then it only made sense that as soon as he had the ability to steal memories, he’d use it to try and “fix” his parents. There was no avoiding that choice, as an author. It’s a thread I just kept following to see where it ended. In a middle draft, Louis appeared in Benji’s Dad’s Memory Library, come to warn Benji against stealing those memories. But even with that warning, Benji still did it. At that point, I just knew that’s what Benji would do.

Characters define themselves by their actions and thoughts. Early on in a story, when we don’t know them, they’re able to do just about anything, and the audience won’t question it. They’re getting to know the character. But once that character is established, then the options grow more limited. You can force them to act a certain way, of course. As an author, you can write anything. But the audience won’t believe it unless you set it up properly. In the middle of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout could suddenly go all Child’s Play on everyone, killing everyone in the scene. But people wouldn’t buy the change in her character.

This is one of the main reasons I end up ditching so many of my plot outlines about a third into the book. I made the outline before I really knew the character, and I’ll have had them make a big choice that they end up not wanting to make. At that point, I either need to go back and rewrite their character to make it work, or I need to have them change their decision. I typically have them change their decision. I know and like them by that point. Who am I to force them to do something they don’t want to do?

Anyway. I just found it interesting that one seemingly simple choice right at the beginning of a draft could end up having such big implications later on in the novel. The whole book ended up having family relations play a big part. In fact, because I’d started with that as the main conflict, I decided to end with that being the final conflict to get resolved. (More or less.) It helps bring closure to the story.

That’s it for this week. As always, thanks for reading!

The Whispers: Memory Thief Chapter Eight

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Welcome to another chapter annotation, a chance for me to tell readers a bit about the writing process that went into THE MEMORY THIEF. As always, this will have plenty of spoilers, so don’t read it if you haven’t already read the book.

Now we’re finally to the point where it’s all new territory. Chapter Eight was written entirely fresh for later drafts. In fact, it didn’t appear until the fifth draft, after my editor got back to me with her first round of revision notes. (Yes. That means I’d done four drafts of the book before I even sent it to an editor.) In the letter, she noted:

The idea of each person’s mind looking like a different library that reflects that person’s personality is fun and provides for interesting set pieces. One important addition of world building would be increasing the stakes of memory thieving by incorporating a kind of ticking clock that only allows a person to be in someone’s mind for a short amount of time before they are stuck there and go brain dead (or some other potential problem). This would increase the intensity and urgency for every memory-thieving scene that we have with Benji.

Up until this point, the Whispers didn’t even exist. Jordan (my editor) rightly noted that it really had a detriment on the tension of Benji could just dart into a Memory Library whenever he felt like it and be safe. It was a like a giant “Pause” button just hanging over everything, waiting to be used. It also meant that he could really dink around whenever he was in a Library. Take his time. No pressure at all.

Of course, it was up to me to figure out what sort of form that “ticking clock” could take. At first I considered making it just that: a literal limited amount of time a Memory Thief could be in any one Library at a time. Jordan’s suggestion of imminent brain death was definitely appealing as well. But I rejected those ideas for one main reason: I wanted the book to be creepier. During each revision, I did my best to “up the creep” factor and bring the novel more in line with my original concept of Disney Horror. I discovered I don’t naturally do this. I have to really focus on writing scary scenes, and even when I believe I’ve done a good job, when I go back to read it through, it was never scary enough.

A ticking clock might scare someone with a phobia, but at that point, there was nothing visceral about the book. All the conflict was pretty much cerebral. I wanted something people could think about. Actually see. Actually run away from.

The Whispers is what I ended up with.

I’m a Robert Jordan fan, and I’ve read Wheel of Time multiple times through. In that series, there’s a thing called the Black Wind, a terrifying something that first manifests itself as incoherent whispering. I always thought that was high on the creepy scale, and perhaps that’s some of what I drew on for the Whispers. But where Jordan takes them in a different direction, I fused that idea with the shadow demon things we now see in the first book.

I was very pleased with how they turned out. I didn’t know much more about them than the basic idea when I started writing this chapter, and I discovered a whole lot “in scene.” It’s my favorite way of brainstorming.

The Whispers are playing a big role in the sequel at the moment. So many readers had questions about them. They ended up being one of the things that caught people’s interest the most. I’d definitely say they were one of the best late additions to the book, and they’ve given me a whole area to play with as I further explore the world of The Memory Thief. What are the Whispers? Where do they come from? Those are questions that were on my mind as I approached the sequel.

Anyway. That’s all I have time for this week. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more . . .

All About Louis: Memory Thief Chapter Six and Seven

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Welcome to another chapter annotation for THE MEMORY THIEF. Up this week? A bit of discussion on Louis as a character, along with some info on how he changed over the course of the book. As always, this is intended for people who have finished the novel, so I’ll be talking about the ending and everything in between. Don’t read if you don’t want spoilers.

In the original draft of THE MEMORY THIEF, Louis is a kind old man who dies at the end of chapter six, as he does now. But the big difference is that he stays dead. There was no “remnant” of him left to instruct Benji. He gives his ability and knowledge of how to be a Memory Thief to Benji all at once, and he’s gone. Benji just has all the information at his mental fingertips right off the bat.

This was problematic, because it made it so Benji had to sort of think through things that he technically already knew. It was very clunky, and made for big chunks of exposition that didn’t work at all. To fix this, I made Louis show up as he does now in Chapter Seven in his afterimage form. (My ode to Obi Wan.)

This helped in many ways, because it gave Louis a bigger role, and allowed him to have more one on one time with Benji. It also let Benji get a crash course on how to use his abilities in a way that makes sense and is interesting. As a matter of fact, I ended up having  Louis play an even bigger role after that first draft. He would pop up now and then at sporadic times to comment on what Benji was doing and to give him advice and input. He ultimately helped Benji through the depression trap Genevieve sets for him late in the book, and disappears there.

On the one hand, that was great. Benji had a great relationship with the old man, and when Louis finally disappears, it made a big impact on him. But it presented other problems. The biggest was that Benji had help throughout the novel. He had an expert on hand to conveniently show up and offer solutions to whatever pickle Benji found himself in. This ultimately proved to be too much. It didn’t feel like Benji was solving any of his problems, which cheapened the feel of his victories.

In the end, Louis stuck around for a chapter, and then disappeared. Worse yet, we discover later in the book that Louis had been a real jerk years before. (Something which presents bigger implications. How much do Memory Thieves get warped by their ability? Is it inevitable? It corrupted Louis. It corrupted Genevieve. What will happen to Benji?)

So Louis ended up having quite the range of experiences over different drafts of the book. I think we ended up in a good spot, but I do miss some of the interactions he and Benji had way back when.

As a side note: I wonder how many readers noticed that Benji’s name connects to Louis. I’m doubting very many, since a lot of readers appear to be pronouncing Louis’s name the French way, like King Louis. I always thought of it being pronounced like Lewis. And back in Chapter One, Benji’s mom yells at him and Kelly. “Benjamin Clive and Kelly Joy Lewis” (Truly geeky people will get the reference there. His parents named the twins’ middle names after CS (Clive Staples) Lewis and his wife Joy.) But anyway. Benji’s last name is the same as Louis’s first name. Make of that what you will.

The Snowball Effect: Memory Thief Chapter Five

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Welcome to another chapter annotation for THE MEMORY THIEF. This week, we’re up to chapter five. As a reminder, these are really intended for people who have already read the book and want to find out more about the process I went through to write it. In other words, plenty of potential for spoilers.

I mentioned in an earlier annotation how I’d turned Chris into Kelly, eliminating Benji’s best friend, and giving him a twin sister, instead. (I promoted his younger sister in the first draft, Kelly, to full twin status.) This chapter really highlights the benefits of that earlier decision.

In the first draft, Benji goes home after he and Chris meet Genevieve for the first time. He tells his little sister, Kelly, some bedtime stories when she can’t fall asleep. The next day, he heads into school and discovers Chris has forgotten who he is, so he goes to Genevieve and confronts her in a scene that plays out mostly as it does now.

On the surface, that doesn’t sound like too huge of a switch, but when you look at the impact it has on Benji, it becomes clear how important it was. For one thing, having Kelly be right there with him at home (in the revision) means that he has no escape from the problem of Genevieve. In the original draft, Chris makes the call to go back to Genevieve on his own. Benji shows up at school the next day and finds out about it in class. It’s upsetting, but sudden.

In the revision, he’s stuck with the problem. Kelly’s there, in his house, deciding what to do. She comes to his room at night, letting him know she’s going. He talks her out of it, but then she goes anyway, and so he feels personally guilty that he didn’t try harder. Better yet, he wakes up and sees she’s missing. He has the whole morning to dwell on the problem and stew in it. He doesn’t know where she is or what happened, so when he gets to school and finds her, he’s relieved.

Only to find out she’s forgotten he exists. It’s one thing to have your best friend forget you or be mean to you at school, but to have your own twin do it? I think that raised the stakes in many different ways, and I loved the change. Through this process, a series of small changes can really snowball, so that by the end of a revision process you have an entirely different book.

Sometimes when I’m writing, I’ll start off thinking of the book as a riff on a movie. One novel, TARNHELM, was almost a straight up YA adaptation of The Maltese Falcon for the first draft. That’s where it started, but as I wrote it and revised it, the changes kept stacking one on top of another, until by the end it was drastically different. (If only it would get published one day, so you could see!)

I always have to remind myself that, at least for the way I write) the first draft of a book (or even just the premise of the book to begin with) is only the first step on a path that leads me to the final draft, which might end up somewhere very different than I first thought. For me, that’s one of the main reasons I write. To explore that path and find out where it ends up.

Family Relations: Memory Thief Chapters Three and Four

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It’s Wednesday, and that means it’s time for another chapter commentary on THE MEMORY THIEF. This week, I’m doing two chapters at once, mainly because in the original draft, chapters three and four were just one long chapter. They featured the introduction of Chris, Benji’s best friend (who ultimately became his twin sister. Talk about a convoluted past.)

In the original, there’s no talk of divorce. No scene with the parents shouting at home that night. Instead, we have Benji telling Chris about Louis, and then the two of them walking home after school, followed by walking over to the fair to see Louis, and running into Genevieve for the first time. That part plays out as you see it in the present book, for the most part. The biggest difference is that detour to Chris’s house for a pitstop on the way to the fair. It did feature a description of that house that I was particularly proud of, so I’ll give it here, just so you can see it:

We reached Chris’s place, an old Victorian with a turret and everything. Green, and built back in 18whatever. A long time ago. When we were younger, we used to go through the house, knocking on walls and checking for loose floorboards. A house that old had to have some secrets: hidden gold, secret passageways. Those were standard issue things two hundred years ago, weren’t they?

We never found any. But we still thought that was more due to the secrets being that well hidden, rather than them not existing at all. There was this spot under the staircase where I was sure the floor was six inches higher than it needed to be. Chris’s Dad wouldn’t let us saw into it, though. One day.

Nothing elaborate, but I liked it.

Anyway. As the book evolved, family took on a larger and larger part in the plot. Some of that came from making Chis into Kelly, but I decided I really needed the parents’ divorce to be a real, tangible thing. We didn’t see too many actual examples of his parents fighting in the first draft, so I added the scene at night which turned into chapter three.

My editor and some readers questioned why the potential for divorce would be so upsetting to Benji and Kelly. It’s a common enough thing these days, they reasoned. Why would it be so terrifying? I didn’t budge on it, though. I think that for some kids (especially kids who know full well that their parents fight a ton), the unknown is one of the scariest things they can come up with. Nothing’s more unknown than having your family broken apart. It’s easy to come up with worst case scenarios. Even in bad situations, it can be comforting to already be familiar with the pain than to try and figure out how you’ll respond to the pain that’s coming. It must be worse, or at least that’s what you assume.

Having lived through a divorce as a child, I could personally relate to what it could be like, and I’d had experience with friends’ families going through divorce later on. It’s very traumatic, no matter how common it might be. So I stood my ground. But I had to have more scenes (at least one or two) where the parents were actively fighting. It’s one thing for Benji to tell the reader he’s afraid of divorce, but that lacks a real punch. Show the parents fighting, and show the subject coming up, and then show his reaction to that, and it makes more sense that he’d be worried and upset. We see it firsthand, and so we believe it.

Sometimes it feels like the job of a writer is to do mean things to good characters, all in the name of good tension. What can I say?

Writers can be real jerks.

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