Ah, Death in the Modern Day at last. The appearance of Death’s handy guide to killing in Vodnik came as a surprise to me. I hadn’t started writing the book with a plan for it to ever come into play. I didn’t even know it existed. So why did it appear?
For a couple of reasons. First off, Tomas and Katka were dealing with things they had absolutely no idea how to really handle. In the original draft, Katka and Tomas consult a whole bunch of different fairy tale books looking for ideas–that’s all they could think of to do. So I had them go to a library to look for more information. Once there, Tomas comes across a reference to a book that’s held in a branch he doesn’t recognize. He asks the librarian about it, and she has no clue what he’s talking about.
Long story short, there’s a magical library beneath the city center, and Tomas has to find a way in to get the book. And then he has to deal with a dwarf librarian (who has his beard in a bun) . . . As I recall, that’s about as far as I took that storyline. I was having to make too much new material up, just so that I could get Tomas in contact with a book that would help him.
So I just had him get the book ex nihilo.
Which of course meant I had to figure out where that book had come from, but that led to other, better answers.
Once I’d decided that what he got was the handbook for death, I had to decide what exactly the handbook for death looked like. One of my favorite musicals is “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” If you haven’t seen it (and you should–I love the Robert Morse version), it’s about a window washer who comes across a copy of a book that teaches him how to . . . do what the title of the musical says. The books is authoritative and direct, with a simple tone that implies any nincompoop could handle what it’s saying. (And wouldn’t you know it? The musical turns out to be based on an actual book–I love research! Just found that out.)
I wanted to capture that feeling, but contrast it with a book that’s so convoluted and hard to understand that the tone just becomes infuriating to a new reader. I actually rewatched the musical a few times to get the feel down, and I’d rewatch it whenever I started to lose it. The opening paragraph of DitMD is very much a direct parody of the opening paragraph of HtSiBwRT, but the two books obviously diverge a lot from there.
Another interesting (to me) note: the illustrations of the reaper dude in the book were very much a last minute addition. As Isaac Stewart was designing the book, he came up with the idea to have a little critter as the mascot (so to speak) of the novel. He put the reaper dude in at the front of each chapter and on the t-shirt of Tomas on the cover.
This was a great idea, but I had one problem with it: the reaper guy was nowhere in the novel, so it felt forced to me. However, because I liked the idea, I came up with a simple solution: write him in. And he was a perfect fit for the illustrations in DitMD (which originally had no illustrations). Win win.
In the end, I’m very pleased with how the book within a book turned out, and it’s been fun to see how many people have really liked it, too. It went from being a simple plot device to being one of the main elements of the novel (especially once quotes from it were incorporated as chapter bumps for each chapter).
(This is also one of the reasons why I try to never compare my first drafts of a new book with the last drafts of a book I just completed. So much gets added in during the revision process–at least the way I write. Comparing one to another is like comparing a lump of clay to a finished pot. You just can’t do it.)
NOTE–The Karate Kid image at the top was for a piece of medieval fighting I was going to discuss in this chapter’s commentary, as well. I ran out of time and space, though. Sorry for getting your hopes up . . . )