In Part 1 of the History of How It Ends, I talked about where the idea for the novel came from.
In Part 2 of the History of How It Ends, I talked about what drove the writing forward and the genesis of some of the character names.
Part 3 is all about the editing. This will likely be the longest and most difficult part to write about, since this was the toughest part of putting How It Ends together.
When the final chapter of How It Ends was written, polished, and published on Silverthought, I took a big deep breath. It was more a sigh of relief. I couldn’t believe that I had actually completed what I’d set out to do, which was write a full length novel. But that relief was short lived, because I knew, written and published as is, the novel was a clunker.
How It Ends needed major work. I had characters I didn’t need, scenes that didn’t belong, an internal time frame that had continuity problems, the list (in my head) ran on and on. In short, the final first finished product of How It Ends needed editing. Stephen King talks about this process in his really great book about the craft of writing, appropriately titled On Writing. It’s one of my favorite books because it has such a conversational approach to the craft, and whether you like him or hate him, he knows how to tell a story. King will be the first person to call himself “America’s Schlockmeister”, a name he once claimed he loved. I don’t know if he still does. Regardless of his “titles”, his advice on writing and editing is fantastic, partially because he gives the first draft of your novel permission to suck. He says that once you sit down with it and begin to go through it, you’ll find all kind of things wrong with it, including continuity holes “large enough to drive a truck through.” This was the case with How It Ends.
While the keyboard was still cooling, I discussed the idea of having Silverthought’s print division publish the finished novel when it was complete. Paul, owner of Silverthought, and I talked about it several times, and I was on my way toward doing that, but eventually changed my mind. More on that in a later post. Before it got to the point of printing, however, it needed to be edited.
Mark Brand, who was then even more deeply involved in the day to day operations at Silverthought, was the first editor. I spent some time cleaning up the novel, moving pieces around, patching holes. I sent this revised version to him. He went through the first compiled version and came away with a lot of notes. I took these and started to execute on them, but stopped. It just wasn’t working. I tried to get the novel into a shape I liked and kept failing. I couldn’t get basic things like plot and character to work correctly. I was writing more and more connective tissue to band-aid over the problems. It wasn’t that Mark’s direction was bad or that he offered poor guidance. He went through the novel and offered a lot of great advice, provided a ton (literally hundreds) of notes with in Word document. But it still wasn’t working for me. I wasn’t able to pull the damn thing together in a way that satisfied me.
At some point, and I can’t remember how the transition happened, my good friend Russell took over the editing. I think part of this was due to the heavy time commitment Mark had to devote to Thank You, Death Robot, the second Silverthought anthology, and the first for which he was entrusted as the primary editor. Russell had become an associate editor for Silverthought, so it was still being managed “in-house”. Plus, Russell had read so much of my prior material that he knew my writing style and what I was (and was not) capable of very well by that point. It also didn’t hurt that he was one of the most widely read science fiction fans I’ve ever met.
This transition should have gone smoother. But it didn’t. Because in the middle of my current iteration of rewrite, I changed styles. Nothing makes an editor work harder than when you hand the a revised version of what they’ve already read and it’s nothing like what they’ve already read. The blame for this style change can rest squarely on the shoulder of Cormac McCarthy. I finished reading The Road that fall and the way I wrote suffered as a result. Suddenly everything had to be McCarthy-ized. I stripped sentences down. I made the book meaner. I removed nearly all the punctuation, including of course the quotation marks. It was a fire-sale on my previous style and everything had to go. Though he never complained about it, I imagine Russell probably took a look at the new version of the manuscript and thought “What the f—?”
These changes were completely unnecessary and totally my fault. I lacked any kind of confidence in my own style. I wanted to make How It Ends a Novel, not just a novel. All this change totally stalled me. I couldn’t get past them. Every time I touched How It Ends I felt like I was breaking it a little more. I questioned everything in the book and every change I made. I rewrote the beginning I don’t know how many times. It got more and more frustrating and I grew to hate the book. I couldn’t even look at it.
My frustration over the editing of what I now saw as a steaming pile reached a point one particular evening. I had finished the latest rewrite of the first few chapters and had fired it off to Russell. It was about seven in the evening. He was supposed to call me the evening and discuss it. But I was done. I hated everything I wrote, wanted nothing to do with it, and was ready to move on. I had a paper copy I’d printed out they I was red-penning, and the soft copy on the computer. I made a decision. By about seven-thirty, if I hadn’t heard from Russell, I was going to throw the paper copy in the trash and delete the file from my machine.
Russell ended up calling me around seven-fifteen. We talked a little bit about how it was going and I told him I hated everything I wrote and was ready to call it quits. It was at that moment that Russell saved How It Ends from execution. As I finished stating emphatically that I hated the latest rewrite, he said something along the lines of, “That’s funny, because as I was reading it I was thinking to myself ‘This is the best stuff Scott has ever written.'”.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t shocked. I was. Russell went on to explain what he liked about it, which was largely in the characterization. I can’t remember how he described it. It was something about them being vividly drawn, or something like that. I do remember one of his descriptions. He said of the character of Brain Coleman, the smarmy college professor that Anita is dating, that he wasn’t drawn as a villain, because he definitely isn’t in the story, but he’s also not supposed to be a terribly likeable character without the reader flatout hating him. Rather, he’s “drawn as a douche-bag, and you let us revel in his douchey-ness without us hating the guy.” I think that might be a direct quote.
That evening was both the lowest and highest point in the process of editing How It Ends. It still took me another couple of years to get it done and completed. I work slowly, am prone to distraction, and often times can’t get over the mental hump of having to open the file and work on it some more. But if Russell had not called when he did, when I was feeling like an absolute failure as a writer, and had he not said what he said, How It Ends would never have happened. Editing was still an uphill process after that, as it took several more years to complete. But that evening phone conversation gave me enough power to pedal up the hill.
Tomorrow: Finally done! And now what?