So, with permission, I’m going to talk publicly about something which has been going on for a while. Jeff VanderMeer asked me some time back if I’d be interested in collaborating on an incomplete novel project of his called Heart of the Beast. We had some basic process discussions, cleared things with our respective agents, then he sent me a stack of material, which I promptly filed and did nothing with due to the pressure of other deadlines.
Finally Beast‘s time came roughly slouching round, and I pulled out a three ring binder, a small spiral notebook, and several dozen loose sheets of paper of varying sizes and colors. This has been utterly fascinating.
First of all, it’s like reading a literal palimpsest novel. The binder contains a more or less coherent draft of about a third of the plotted book. The small notebook and the loose sheets contain overarching plot notes, character notes, earlier and later drafts of specific scenes (including handwritten, typescript and laserprint), doodles, diagrams, arrows, reflections, notes-to-self, and random impositions of completely unrelated material. In some cases, I was able the read the same scene four or more times, from original jotted notes to extensive handwritten draft to early, marked-up typescript, to fairly mature draft on printout. The sheer physical experience of going through this has been marvelous. It’s a novel in a kaleidoscope, a hall of mirrors time-slicing Jeff’s thoughts and intentions over the span of many years. If it were somehow possible to publish a book in this form, the experience would be amazing. Unsurprisingly, the closest I’ve ever seen to this being done in a published book is the original Prime Books edition of VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen. (Which, incidentally, is one of my favorite books, ever.) And yes, I own a copy of that edition.
Secondly, all that material has done an incredible job of inserting Heart of the Beast into my own headspace. I generally write from fairly straightforward outlines, and draft almost exclusively in reading order. This is true even when I have intricate or out-of-sequence plots and structures. It’s just how my brain works. This material is pretty much the inverse of that, like a drunkard’s walk across a spiralled plot structure and one writer’s scattered thoughts over a number of years and iterations. Yet it’s building the story in the book place in my writing mind. Which means Jeff, and his notes, are teaching me a great deal that’s new to me about how to approach writing. Perhaps the most revealing are the self-critical marginalia. Comments on how certain sentences are crafted, or the way certain characters should be sharpened and interrelated. His interrogations of the connections between characters, events and setting, much of it invisible in backstory with respect to the proposed text, are fascinating and illuminating. It’s as if I picked up the gloves of a foreign craftsman, and have inherited some of his art in donning them.
Third, as a result of these factors, I find myself considering my own process far more carefully. The degree of preparation and forethought Jeff has put into this book is a completely different entrée into the text than my organic upwellings of story. Of necessity, I’ll be following his process into this collaboration. But I am very interested to see how much of this I can adapt to Sunspin when I reapproach that book after the Tourbillon revisions.
My current plan is to tackle this book starting more or less now. We intend a much shorter first draft than is my wont, probably not even 100,000 words, so I expect to be done well before the end of February. (I could be wrong, this process could send me on a loop away from my usual text-on-the-page pattern.) Then it will go back to Jeff, and I’ll move on to revising Tourbillon during March. April will be a month to catch up to short fiction, and then in May or June, I should be on to Sunspin, which will likely take me most of the rest of the year, since I’m looking at a 600,000-700,000 word first draft. All of this along with the diplomatic thrillers with my Dad, some collaborative work with
More dispatches from this process as it unfolds and I learn and learn. But for now, Mr. VanderMeer’s Beast awaits me.