I recently did yet another editing polish of Dharma Bum and the Shield of Athena, my third novel. Proofreading this manuscript has been something of chore — I’ve had it proofed by two other people, but every time I open the document, I seem to spot something else that we didn’t notice before. (The side effect is that each time I edit, it gets shorter; the manuscript is now 17,000 words shorter than the first draft, mostly through a ruthless paring of every unnecessary word.)
Having done that, I was thinking about the story, and a couple of points I want to examine.
Morgan Geddes, the protagonist of Dharma Bum, started as a plot device in my first novel, Double Yellow Line. Double Yellow Line was originally intended as the adventures of Jo McCormick, a rather broadly drawn character of boisterous personality and mechanical inclination. Along the way, the story grew to encompass Jo’s mother, Gwen, a middle-aged civil rights attorney, and her younger sister, Jean, a film student. Morgan was the story’s femme fatale; she’s sleeping with Jo throughout, until Jean realizes that Morgan also had an affair with Gwen several years earlier.
Until fairly late in the game, I had never really considered Morgan’s motivations. She was, again, the femme fatale, the sexy and vaguely malevolent mystery woman. However, about two-thirds of the way through the book, during a scene between her and Jo, I abruptly realized that I did understand exactly why Morgan had done everything she did, who she was, and what she would do next. In that jarring instant, she ceased to be a device and became an individual. I realized in that moment that Morgan had her own story. I didn’t know what it was, but I had a distinct sense of its scope, and of Morgan’s profound sadness and loneliness.
The next thing I wrote after Double Yellow Line was Deidre Tanaka Does Not Speak Japanese, whose protagonist emerged fully formed in my head about a month later. Deidre was assertive and very demanding, and her story shunted Morgan to the background, but Morgan was still always there, waiting patiently.
I’ve said before that I have strange relationships with these characters. It’s comparable in many respects to having a friend or acquaintance with whom you only interact online. You may never hear their voice or see their face, but you can get to know them remarkably well. You come to know their expressions, their inflections, when they’re being serious and when they’re being sarcastic. Such friends occupy much the same mental space as fictional characters; like fictional characters, you develop a mental image of them, their world, their friends, etc., but a lot of it is interpolation and supposition. The main practical difference is literary characters are not necessarily interactive, at least not in the same way.
Just as not all online acquaintanceships are created equal, I have distinct relationships with different characters. Deidre is like one of those people who talks at you, without ever letting you get a word in edgewise. Jo essentially talks to herself, although I can eavesdrop. Jean McCormick is one of the few with whom I could have a real conversation, if she were so inclined. Morgan is another matter. I think theoretically I could converse with her, but she’s uniquely evasive and it wouldn’t be a very productive exercise. It’s not in her nature to disclose any more than she wants to, and her penchant for stubbornness puts even Deidre Tanaka to shame. Morgan was mostly silent while I was writing Deidre Tanaka, occasionally reminding me she was still there, but waiting until I was capable of giving her my full attention.
I didn’t know Morgan’s entire story for a long time. The shape that I sensed from the beginning was always there, but there were a number of critical pieces that I didn’t discover until quite late in the process. That, too, was a fascinating experience. It was quite different from stumbling through the early versions of the first book, where I didn’t know what I was doing. The pieces were always there, even if I couldn’t see them. Even now, though, there are things I would have a hard time articulating. The logic of when and why the ghost appears throughout the story is a major example — it was clear early on that there were specific triggers for it, but I’m not sure I could coherently explain to you how it worked. (Some people who’ve read the manuscript have offered their theories on that point, but the best I could say is, “Yeah, that sounds plausible.”)
Perversely, the part of the story that I understood at the start proved to be the most complicated to write. That was the opening, which incorporates some of the events of the end of Double Yellow Line. The first two chapters were complicated by the need to present those events in a way that would make sense to people who hadn’t read the previous book, without boring to tears those who had. As a result, they involved a lot more conscious deliberation than the rest.
I don’t think deliberation is usually a productive way to approach writing fiction. Deliberation belongs in the editing stage, where you look at what you’ve got and sort it out. If you approach the writing with a lot of deliberation, you’re likely to end up with something stiff and artificial, trying to squeeze the narrative into a preconceived framework — rarely a good thing. Worse, it may tempt you to pursue an agenda, rather than the story.
I am very wary of fiction that has an agenda. I suppose it has its place in the realm of satire, but I have little taste for didacticism, even when I agree with its points. This is why I tend to dislike science fiction, particularly by self-styled futurist writers. If they have something to say about the future, I’d rather read an essay than watch them try to shoehorn it into a story. The former might be interesting; the latter tries my patience. Furthermore, my experience is that characters have their own agendas and what you think the story is going to be about is often different from where it ultimately goes. If you try to force it to match your preconceptions, the results are frequently disastrous.
I will admit to following at least one minor agenda in the opening chapters of Dharma Bum. The story opens with Morgan picking up a girl in a bar in West Hollywood. I had some reservations about starting there for a number of reasons, not least that it may make Morgan less sympathetic than she already is. I kept it in part because it serves a meta-textual purpose, separate from its narrative function.
I’m well aware that writing these stories already put me on shaky ground when it comes to representation and cultural appropriation. Compounding that is the fact that not only could Morgan be seen as something of a “Hollywood lesbian” (femme, model-gorgeous, expensively dressed), her actions sometimes verge on the predatory. By contrast, the woman she picks up is an ordinary person with friends, an ordinary, working-class job — a culture, if you will — where is clearly an outsider. In a sense, the sequence is a disclaimer, pointing out that while Morgan is a lesbian, she is not lesbians; she is a character, not an editorial statement on lesbian culture. A lot of the other characters in the story are suspicious of her actions and her motivations, sometimes for very good reason.
The only other place in the story where I made that kind of editorial decision was in regard to Agatha, Morgan’s erstwhile girlfriend. Agatha’s presence in the story constitutes even more shaky ground, since she is a transwoman seen through the perspective of a cisgendered protagonist — something that will undoubtedly rub some readers the wrong way. I made two editorial decisions in regards to Agatha. One was minor: During a conversation between Agatha and Morgan about the idea of cosmetic surgery, Agatha tells Morgan, rather acidly, that it’s not up to Morgan to decide what is and is not okay for Agatha. In the original draft Morgan had a rejoinder, which I deleted in editing because I felt it undermined Agatha’s entirely valid and rather trenchant point; it was better, I thought, to give Agatha the last word. The second was a somewhat larger point. Morgan asks twice about Agatha’s birth name, something that many trans people consider obnoxious if not actively upsetting. I made the decision not to ever answer that question because I didn’t want to validate the idea that Agatha’s identity is in some way counterfeit. (Indeed, the fact that Morgan asks it in the first place reflects more about Morgan’s own impulses toward self-invention — and duplicity — than it does about Agatha. By her own admission, Morgan’s persona is a set of overlapping disguises and obfuscations, whereas Agatha has shed her own masks.)
I should say that most of this is my interpretation of the characters’ relationship as it emerged. When Agatha appeared in the story originally, I had only a vague idea what her role was going to be and my many of my initial assumptions proved to be off-base. My feeling is that the characters are who they are and to a large extent, I simply have to roll with it. My function, as writer and self-editor, is not plotting or characterization so much as staging. I don’t get to consciously choose what the characters do or (for the most part) what they say or think, but I can control what’s shown and what’s not, where to come in and where to cut. It is akin to being the director of a movie you didn’t write.
That puts me in a somewhat awkward ethical position. My ultimate responsibility as an author is to the emotional authenticity of the characters and their actions. As an author, it’s fine if you don’t like what the characters do — sometimes I don’t like it myself — and the most serious charge is “S/he wouldn’t do that.” On the other hand, I am concerned about not seeming to endorse ideas that cause me more and ethical problems. This is a frequent problem for writers in various mediums and genres. For instance, some espionage and procedural dramas are written by people who are quite liberal politically and very concerned personally with the impact and implications of the War on Terror. The problem is that the need to have a tense, exciting, gritty drama each week requires a steady stream of terrible threats of exactly the kind the right uses to justify the war on terror and its attendant abuses of power. As a result, stories of that kind end up far more reactionary than their creators clearly intended. It’s entirely possible to have a work that is narratively excellent and politically suspect — just ask Leni Riefenstahl.
My editorial challenge, then, is to respect the decisions of the characters without endorsing ideas that I don’t support. I’m perfectly aware that many of the ideas I do support will still rub people the wrong way, but if I must be pilloried, I’d rather be pilloried for something I believe in.
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