Every once in a while I like to go beyond a simple status update and give you a look “under the hood,” showing what goes into the process from concept to finished book. (And that reminds me, I’ve got to do another “ideas that got cut” article at some point.) Which makes it a great time to talk a little about Ghosts of Gotham, coming from 47North Publishing in April!
Ghosts is something new. After writing over a dozen books in three connected series all wrapping up with a universe-breaking trilogy, “new” was something I badly needed. It’s a self-contained story with no connection to anything else I’ve written, set in its own continuity. It’s also a conscious attempt at evolving as a writer. I started out writing pulp fiction (and still do, with the Faust and Harmony books), and there’s nothing wrong with that — pulp is fun! But it isn’t enough.
(Friends of mine are aware of two facts: one, I am obsessive about my work, and two, I am emotionally incapable of being satisfied for more than a few passing breaths here or there. I am amazed and grateful that they actually put up with me.)
Ghosts of Gotham is fantasy, but don’t expect a Faust-style urban fantasy action adventure. It’s more of a character piece and a slow-building dark mystery (but when the magic does show up, oh boy, watch out.) Think more along the lines of Neil Gaiman (not daring to compare my skill with his, just tone.) The book is a nightmare, and a love letter.
So, here’s that “under the hood” bit, where we get into the rough mechanics of writing. For months I’ve quietly been working on a follow-up to Ghosts, another self-contained story set in the same continuity. (The idea we’re working with is a series of one-shots with light connections, all charting the secret occult history of New York City.) It’s done, my publisher has it, and yesterday we had a meeting.
And that’s a problem.
The story’s solid, the characters are engaging, there aren’t any truck-sized logic holes, it’s fine. Perfectly publishable. But. But it’s supposed to be the follow-up to the book we’re hoping will be a landmark in my career as a writer. Fine is not good enough.
Sometimes you absolutely need a new perspective. My editor walked me through it, point by point. A little too fast to get to the “good stuff” here, when subtle menace would have served the story better. Too little mystery here, too little magic there. And I don’t mean the in-story kind, but the kind that wraps around your brain and makes a story linger long after you’ve closed the book.
There’s also a structural problem; the sequel involves buried secrets from the Revolutionary War, and I carried the story with extensive flashbacks to 1776. And they just don’t work. Each one jars the reader out of the narrative and leaves the modern-day characters, who they’re really supposed to care about, in limbo. The flashbacks gotta go, and since they involve key plot points, it’s not like I can just rip the chapters out.
We came to a final decision: the entire book needs to be restructured. Out of a 130,000-word draft, maybe half is salvageable, and the rest has to be re-outlined, re-thought and re-written from scratch.
Am I going to do it? Bet your butt I am, because fine isn’t good enough.
But god, this hurts. William Faulkner once said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” The words have to serve the story. It doesn’t matter how much you love a subplot, a scene, a single line of prose: if it’s not working, it has to be cut. That’s part of the editing process, and I’m used to it; not a single one of my books has reached your hands looking just like the rough draft (nor should they, editors are vital.)
Now? I’m looking at cutting entire characters, people I adored. Historical scenes I spent weeks researching. Chapters I loved writing. It’s…kind of a depressive day over here. And a hopeful one. This process sucks and it hurts, but the end result is going to be a sequel far stronger than it ever would have been otherwise. I’m up for the challenge.
And with that, I should get back to work. Have a great weekend!