Category: commentaries

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.

Getting to the Action: MEMORY THIEF Chapter Two

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Welcome back to another chapter annotation, where I talk about the work that went into the writing of THE MEMORY THIEF. Up this week? Chapter two, the first introduction to Memory Thieving.

It’s interesting to me (and maybe others, though no one’s noted it yet) that there’s some overlap here between VODNIK. After all, the extended sequences with Lesana showing Tomas what happened to her in the past are essentially the same thing as what Louis shows Benji in this first chapter. I even use similar ways to describe the experience, with both Benji and Tomas feeling strange as they’re caught in a different body, able to view it all and experience everything, but not able to take control of the scene. Like puppets.

So the question could easily be asked if the two are more than just coincidentally related. I don’t have a hard answer for it, but I’ll say that I recognized the parallels when I was writing the memory scenes, and I went out of my way to make sure the two lined up properly. A lot of what I write is done by gut feeling, and only later on do I figure out what my gut was trying to tell me to do. Usually it’s a pleasant surprise, and so I try to follow my gut whenever possible.

As for the memory itself, the scene Louis showed Benji changed from the first draft to the last. In the first draft, Louis was on one of the ships that stormed the beaches on D-Day. It was a basic ode to Saving Private Ryan. I switched it from a ship to a plane mainly because it felt more exciting. More like something a twelve-year-old would find interesting and cool. The nautical version just didn’t have the same punch. It was also much shorter: about half as long. I decided to lengthen it to increase the attention the memory received. I didn’t want it over too quickly.

Other than that, the chapter got tightened a fair bit. In the original, Louis and Benji end up chit chatting for quite a while about memories and how Louis’ business works. This is necessary for me as a writer, because I’m often finding out what’s going on at the same time as my narrator, so I need to have those scenes to have it all make sense. It’s almost as if my characters are explaining to me how their world works. Once I’ve heard all of it, however, I usually have to cut those scenes out. It’s important for me to hear, but it’s not that important for you to read, if that makes sense.

I’ve tried plotting everything down to the smallest detail. I’ve tried plotting things generally. In the end, I almost always switch things up and go into the blank areas of the map, so to speak. One of my main motivations when writing is the same as it is when reading: I want to find out what happens next. If I’ve already plotted it, then I already know it, and why in the world would I want to write it in that case? So instead my first drafts can wander from time to time as I feel my way forward. Which is all fine and good, until I get to the revision stage and have to correct some of those wanderings.

This is especially important in the first few chapters of a book. That’s where I meander the most in my first drafts, and it’s where the reader most wants to get things going and have the plot zip along. As long as I keep this in mind when I’m revising, it usually all works out fine in the end.

When Characters Get Erased: Memory Thief Chapter One

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Welcome to the first chapter commentary for THE MEMORY THIEF. I’m going to be doing these periodically over the next while as we gear up for the sequel (coming summer 2018!). I’ve done these for my books in the past (VODNIK has a series of them, as does CAVERN OF BABEL). Basically, I take a look at each book chapter by chapter, talking about changes I made to the novel or how characters came to be. Sometimes there will be some deleted scenes. Sometimes I’ll use a point to talk about writing in general. Whatever takes my fancy. Why? Because I like doing it.

Anyway. Here we go:

In some ways, a fair bit changed in this first chapter when you compare it to the first draft. Most of that is on a macro-level, though. The actual events of the chapter didn’t change too much at all. The book opens with Benji’s parents fighting. He and his sister sneak upstairs. They get in an argument with school bullies. Their parents find them and yell at them, and Benji takes off. He goes around the fair, finds the Memory Artist’s tent, and goes inside. The end.

But in the first draft, Kelly is seven years old. Five years younger than Benji, and very much not his twin. When I first wrote the novel, it was designed with my son in mind. Bits and pieces of this are throughout the book. At the time, Tomas had just gotten a Swiss Army Knife for Christmas, and he loved that thing. So Benji has one too, and it plays a key role in the book. Tomas was also best friends with a kid at school. They did everything together, and they’d practically grown up together. In the novel, Benji has a best friend named Chris. They were also inseparable.

Until one fateful day in the editing process, when Chris was completely erased from the novel, and Kelly was magically made into Benji’s twin. Sorry Chris.

Why did I do this? Mainly because I wanted to cut down on the number of characters. The novel had a number of supporting characters, but most of them were fairly weak to the plot. When you find yourself in that situation, often the solution is to combine characters together. That lets the remaining ones play a bigger role. (In the first stages of plotting for the book, there wasn’t just one Memory Artist in the tent. There were about seven of them. A whole troupe. In fact, the original idea was to have the book play out in sort of a Time Bandits tribute. It was called The Memory Thieves. This lasted for all of three seconds. Long enough for my agents to hear the plan, smile graciously, and say no. Definitely the right call.)

So Chris was swallowed up by Kelly.

Why didn’t I have it the other way around? Because family was an important part of the book. Strengthening that focus by making Chris part of the family helped draw that out some more. If Chris were in trouble. why should Benji’s parents really care? They’d worry about him a bit, but they’d have other things to focus on. If it’s their own daughter, on the other hand, the expectations are very different. Why have Benji’s twin be a girl and not a boy, though? Why not make it so that Chris is adopted into the family and Kelly’s killed off?

Because I try to make an effort in my novels to include as wide a range of character ages and genders (boy/girl, at least) as I can. Simply so I can have readers be able to relate to different characters over the course of the novel. This actually goes back to the first creative writing class I took from David Farland. He had a lesson on this, and it’s stuck with me. When I have the choice of making a character a boy or a girl, old or young, I try to mix things up if possible. That’s probably why in VODNIK, Katka is a girl, as well.

A few notes on names. Benji is named after my best friend in first grade. I can’t remember his last name, sadly. But I know we did a lot together, until I moved. Chris was named after another close friend I had at the same time. Sorry you got cut, Chris.

The bullies (who weren’t really bullies in the first draft, but rather rambunctious kids) were named after the Deacons Class I was teaching at the time. (12 and 13 year old boys at church.) (I switched up their first and last names, to protect the innocent.) Of course, when they were in the first draft and weren’t actually mean people, this was fine. As the book went on, they became real bullies, but I left the names because lazy. In hindsight, I feel a bit bad about that. I don’t like to name mean people after real people. If it’s any consolation, guys, you weren’t really bad to begin with. You just got turned to the dark side somehow in the editing process.

Finally, the other real change to this first chapter came by making those bullies actually chase Benji. In the first draft, Benji storms off from his parents . . . and then wanders around the fair on his own, just kind of chilling and eating cotton candy. This didn’t do much in the way of adding tension, so I upped the ante by having him trying to escape a beating.

I like having the book start out with Benji’s family, as I feel like that’s the emotional core of the novel. It ends with his family as well, if you think about it. A big part of the novel is focused on Benji wanting to “fix” his family, and (SPOILERS!) it concludes with him realizing it can’t be fixed with a magic wand. They have to fix themselves, and it’s going to take hard work and effort and cooperation to do that.

Go figure.

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