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.