Here’s a secret. Authors cheat. We cheat all the time. Constantly cheating. For instance, Damico’s personal history is pretty much my personal history with a few exceptions. Lifting my backstory started as a joke and turned into a major cheat. Another cheat evolves out of the fact that you don’t want to put a factual error in a book. If you write that people in Switzerland speak Swiss, it doesn’t matter if all the characters involved would honestly think Swiss is a language. It isn’t. You need to hang a lantern on that somehow. So Damico’s memory is about 15% better than mine. If he’s complaining about a Star Trek: TNG episode in book 4 of DbC, I have to go back and watch the episode to discover that, no, it wasn’t Worf who said that line. It was O’Brien because Worf had left Starfleet in the season finale the episode before and O’Brien stood at his post for those 40 or so minutes of story. I’d forgotten that. A better ST:TNG fan would be offended by that error, especially coming from the mouth of someone tearing down the episode, and so I had to get all the other details right. So I cheat.

And there are other cheats, that are just good process. We call them editing. Most editing is just very creative cheating. Finding creative ways to get around abusing the words “just” and “turned” and “was”. Finding that creative solution you had at the end of the book and rewriting the beginning of the book and pretending you had it all along. Stealing a good idea from Writers’ Group (which isn’t really stealing, since it was given freely, but the Writers’ Group could be called one big cheat, couldn’t it?) Cheating. You could make that argument that all good processes are really just cheating, codefied as best practices.

I just finished those 80-110 hour weeks I do when I’m editing a novel. In this case the second draft of DbC 4. The book turned out to be in better shape than I had any right to expect. In the end, it mainly boiled down to establishing connections.

When I started that book, I knew there would be a super weapon since it’s based on Star Wars (or more directly Hidden Fortress, the movie that inspired Star Wars). But I didn’t know what the weapon was until I’d made it about halfway through. I knew what it did, but not the actual Weapon itself, so I couldn’t give clues to its identity. So at the halfway point, maybe a little further, I figured out what the Weapon would be, but I didn’t have a lot of experience with the particular thing. Damico would, of course, after I edited his backstory (cheating!). So I brainstormed it at my game group, which had at least two people with a lot of experience with the thing in question and one of them came up with the connection to lemonade stands. I would use lemonade stands, in an absurdist manner, throughout the book to foreshadow the Weapon’s real nature and a few real die hards out there would figure it out (or get close enough) and feel good about themselves.

Of course, I didn’t have any lemonade stands in the first half of the book (because that would be pretty absurd), so I had to make sure I found places to add them on my way through, and I’d added <<Lemonade Stands!!!>>> as a note at the beginning of the first chapter to cascade through my edits.

The other big problem the book had (and might still have, we’ll see how the second round of critiques goes), has to do with the epigrams. Howard Tayler made a joke during the second book that spawned the running gag in the fourth book’s epigrams, which turned them into one giant meta-joke/story that doesn’t pay off until you’ve read both the chapter quotes and the novel all the way through. Around chapter 15, I started getting notes from critiquers where they’d say things like, “These are funny, but distracting, and I’ll stop commenting on that now.” Basically, they all gave up on pointing out the problems with them and trying to fix them right around a third of the way through. Then, around chapter 39, I have a line in there where they all said, “Wow. Okay, I’m interested now.” Unfortunately, that’s near the end of a 50 chapter book.

The secret of that line is that it intimately connected the epigrams to what happened in the main story of the novel in a way that didn’t seem possible previously. And by the end, I think they all agreed that the payoff was worth it, but that they wouldn’t have taken the whole journey with me if they hadn’t been forced to by the nature of a critique group. I think the general attitude was, “I like what you’re trying to do here. I hope you figure out some way to pull it off. Good luck.”

So. What did I do? I cheated.

I stole a page from The Empire Strikes Back. Hopefully, I did it well enough to work. In The Empire Strikes Back you have two plots, one very exciting (Han and Leia being chased and almost captured or killed at every turn) and one very boring (Luke and Yoda talking philosophically about the nature of reality). The way the screenwriter pulls you through that second plot is by mirroring the first. Han and Leia almost die in a cave. Luke goes into a cave, etc. He borrows the tension and excitement from the first plot and you feel it in the second, even though that second plot, on it’s own, hasn’t earned it. I tried to do that when plotting the epigrams, but I just couldn’t make the parallelism work (I wanted every epigram to hit the same story beat as the chapter itself, but that didn’t happen and I see now that wouldn’t have solved the problem anyway). So in the final edit, I went through and I foreshadowed that big line in Chapter 39. I found ten or so other lines in the epigrams and I purposely found places to mirror them in the text of the chapters themselves, although never in the same chapter as the quote. So even the least astute reader should see, by chapter four, that there is a direct connection between the two, and while they won’t know what it is, I’m hoping the puzzle of trying to work it out will carry them through and keep them from giving up (or at least have them shrug and give me the benefit of the doubt, for those who don’t enjoy cracking puzzles but would rather just watch them unfold).

And on the matter of Lemonade Stands? One final happy bit of happenstance?

The opening dialog, first bit of dialog that happens (chronologically, at least)? It’s Lotianna in a desert, waxing poetic about the thing she misses most. The thing she misses most? Lemonade. I didn’t even have to add that in. It was like I planned that to be a thematic thread from the very beginning.

So sometimes you cheat. Sometimes fate cheats for you.

Or maybe I just cheated by twisting everything in this post to be about cheating. Anyway you cut it:


The next installment awaits...
Slouching Towards Amazon: LTUE Post Mortem