Maps in a mirror, p.113

Maps in a Mirror, page 113


Maps in a Mirror

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  There were other patterns, of course, that I might have followed: The success of “Ender’s Game” might have led me to write more military-training stories, for instance, or I might even have attempted a sequel at that time. Instead, true to a view of storytelling that I did not become conscious of until long after, I looked to the character’s role in his community in order to find the essence of the tale.

  I should point out, too, that I thought of “Ender’s Game” as a successful story only in an artistic sense—I knew it worked, but because it had not yet been published, I had no idea whether it would be popular.

  When I set out to follow that same pattern, I knew I had to come up with another way for my new child-hero to be exceptional. I’d used military talent with Ender; why not musical ability for my new hero? From there it was a fairly simple matter to come up with Ansset, Mikal’s Songbird; though the plot doesn’t follow “Ender’s Game,” the lifeline of the character certainly does.

  I wrote “Mikal’s Songbird” quickly, and knew all through it that this story was alive the way “Ender’s Game” had been alive. It was still hot from xeroxing when I stuffed it into an envelope and mailed it to Ben Bova.

  A couple of days later, though, in rereading the story, I knew that there were serious problems. This didn’t bother me—I was excited about the fact that for the first time I actually understood narrative well enough to see the flaws. So I did a substantial revision of the story, and then sent the new version to Ben, with a letter asking him to toss the first version and look only at this one.

  Within a few days I got a cheque. Ben had bought the first version, flaws and all. At that moment I knew I had a career—not because I had found a repeatable formula, for in fact I had not, but rather because I had found a road into that place inside myself from which true stories arise. For a long time my stories have grown out of childhood and adolescence, probably because that was the role in life that I best understood—it was not until Speaker for the Dead that I was able to work with truly adult characters, and even then the story was heavily populated with unusual children.


  What Ben ended up publishing was, of course, the revised version of the story—he had simply bought the first version before the second one arrived. From the start, however, and at every step thereafter, the story of Ansset was continuously derived from previous versions, expanding and growing every time I went back to it. Every version represents another stage in my self-schooling as a writer of narrative.

  Even in the writing of the novel Songmaster, I was consciously “at school.” I knew that Hot Sleep was a failure as a novel (though, ironically, it remained my best-selling book until the publication of the novel Ender’s Game); in order to overcome my dread of a novel’s sheer length, I had conceived Hot Sleep as a series of novelettes, not a true novel. I was also beginning to realize that A Planet Called Treason was rushed, sketchy, abrupt, not a smoothly flowing work. In other words, I still didn’t know how to write a novel.

  In order to try to understand how a novel worked, I carefully examined Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift. I ended up, alas, with little intellectual understanding of the novel form, but the sheer reading of the book gave me a feel for a novel’s pace. It was as if reading Humboldt’s Gift set my metabolic rate; then, when I sat down to work on Songmaster, I was able to keep up that same rhythm of event, language, and scene. No one reading my work will ever accuse me of being Bellowesque; nevertheless, his novel was my touchstone in discovering how to write a true novel.

  As a result, Songmaster was my one story with explicit connections with other works, a clear pattern of growth and change that paralleled my own. Expanding it to a novel may have come from a commercially-minded editor’s suggestion to my agent, and my own source for the story’s idea may have been a deliberate mining of my own previous work, but it ended up as a story I believed in passionately—and the process of writing it was a kind of training ground for my career as a writer, just as my characters Ender and Ansset had to go through training to become a person capable of surviving.


  The next “short” work I adapted into a novel followed quite a different pattern. Roy Torgeson had asked me for a fantasy story for his Chrysalis anthology series, and I began developing Hart’s Hope from a map I had doodled and an idea about somebody whose magical power was the negation of magic. The story grew in the back of my mind while I worked on finishing the first draft of my novel Saints and a production revision of my historical Mormon play Father, Mother, Mother, and Mom; when Saints and FMM&M were finished, I turned with relief to a fantasy tale as an antidote to the rigours of historical writing. However, having just finished a sprawling novel of a thousand pages, it’s hardly a surprise that Hart’s Hope began growing out of control. Before I had finished the novella, I knew exactly how to turn it into a novel; I sent a copy to Barbara at the same time as my submission to Roy, and she soon sold it as a prospectus for a novel. While the novel version went through a couple of major rewrites over a period of years before it finally was published in 1983, it remained substantially the same story as the novella—the novel was not so much an expansion of the novella as the novella was a compression of the novel.

  The same is true of the novel Wyrms and the novella “Unwyrm.” I was writing “Unwyrm” for George R.R. Martin’s Campbell-nominate anthology series, and as I wrote it I discovered that it simply would not stay under 40,000 words. The novella that George ended up buying was a cut-down version that removed several important plotlines; I finished the novel version only a few weeks after the novella. (The collapse of Blue Jay Books killed the anthology, so that “Unwyrm” never appeared in print.)

  So neither Hart’s Hope nor Wyrms represents an expansion on the order of Songmaster. The “short” version in both cases was very long, and in both cases I knew it would be a novel before the novella was completed.


  The novel Ender’s Game is the only work of mine, besides Songmaster, that was truly expanded from a short work that I had not intended to expand. Indeed, I had never expected to do anything with Ender Wiggin again. A friend had once urged me to write a sequel to “Ender’s Game,” but when he suggested possible storylines, they were lame enough to convince me that a sequel was impossible.

  In 1980, though, I was beginning to work with a novel idea with the working title Speaker of Death, a sketchy idea about an alien people who periodically mauled each other in devastating wars that were, without their realizing it, their means of reproduction. The truth would be discovered by a human character whose job was speaking the truth about people at funerals. I couldn’t make the idea work, however, until suddenly it dawned on me that the Speaker should be Ender Wiggins as an adult. Who better to understand the impulse that made a species nearly destroy itself than a man who had once inadvertently destroyed another people?

  At once the work began to come to life. In 1982 an outline was ready to offer to a publisher. It was explicitly a sequel to “Ender’s Game”, which remained my most popular—and most anthologized—story. Barbara offered it to Tom Doherty, the former publisher at Ace who was starting his own company. For financing reasons I got a request to hurry and write a draft of the book before the end of 1982; I complied, but in the process learned that this was going to be harder to write than I supposed. There was more to my story than one human and a bunch of aliens. I was getting involved in creating a human family in whose lives Ender was deeply involved. And the story simply wasn’t working. I didn’t know how to write it.

  A few months later, I realized why. In order to make Ender viable as a character in Speaker of Death, I had to expand on the meaning of the events in “Ender’s Game.” I had to deal with the transformation of Ender Wiggin in the aftermath of his xenocide. And to do that in Speaker of Death meant picking up the story right at the end of “Ender’s Game,” showing Ender’s self-discovery and his transformation into a Speaker. Then I
’d have to skip three thousand years and begin an entirely new storyline. It was impossible!

  So when I happened to run into Tom Doherty at the ABA in Dallas in the spring of 1983, on impulse I proposed to him that instead of the horribly deformed Speaker that was emerging, all the problems would be solved if I went back and rewrote “Ender’s Game” as a novel, incorporating into it all the changes that were needed to properly set up Speaker. Tom promptly agreed, and on a handshake I was committed to my second expansion of a novelette into a novel.

  Just as I had studied “Ender’s Game” in order to write “Mikal’s Songbird,” now I recalled my experience with Songmaster in order to figure out how to write Ender’s Game. I decided at once to begin Ender’s Game much earlier than the novelette—to start when Ender was still with his family.

  In a way, this was analogous to starting Songmaster when Ansset was in the Songhouse; but it was also a radical departure, because instead of having a protagonist who was completely cut off from his family—the standard adolescent hero of most Romance—I was now committed to creating a hero whose connections to his family were still very much alive. I hardly knew how to begin; and so I mined my own life, looking back at my relationship with my older brother and sister as I had thought it was when I was about ten years old, then exaggerating it extravagantly in order to make it a justification for much of Ender’s behaviour later on. (I couldn’t very well use my childhood as it actually was, since my actual childhood produced, not a twisted military genius, but rather a bookish homebody.)

  As with Songmaster, by the time I got back to the point where the novelette should have been inserted into the novel, the character and milieu had changed so much that only the first sentence of the novelette was usable: “Remember, the enemy’s gate is down.” However, I felt not a qualm about losing the novelette itself—I had known all along that it would be unusable because of my experience with Songmaster. In fact, I was delighted, because this proved that there was far more going on in the novel than I had ever conceived of when writing the novelette. And when I got to the payoff scene, where Ender discovers that he has been fighting the real war, not a simulation, I knew that there was still one more payoff to go—the final chapter, entitled “Speaker for the Dead.”

  Ironically, though, this duplicated one of the structural flaws in Songmaster—once again, few readers could understand why there were still so many pages left when the story was clearly over. Even this flaw didn’t bother me. I had a master’s degree in English by now, so I knew how to excuse it in literary terms: I was making the reader go through the same kind of revision of the meaning of the story’s past that Ender went through. Ah, how the tools of criticism allow us to justify the lapses of our art!


  Besides expansions of short works to make novels, I have also revised my first two novels. Part of my motive was simple literary self-defense—by revising them, I disarm critics who are apt to scorn them, because I in effect am saying, “I know they weren’t all that good.” But much more important to me was the fact that I still cared about the stories. Jason Worthing and Abner Doon of the Worthing stories and Lanik Mueller of A Planet Called Treason were once important enough to me that I wrote books about them; just because I now knew more about writing books didn’t mean that I should care less about the stories I had told back when I was a novice.

  Hot Sleep and Capitol, I felt, were bad enough that the need to fix them was almost an emergency. Even though they were still in print and still selling rather well, I was able to persuade Susan Allison to withdraw both books and allow me to replace them with a single work to be called The Worthing Chronicle. Little did either of us know how hopelessly uncommercial the result would be—but I still regard it as one of my best works, and I’m grateful to her for allowing me to publish it.

  The flaws in Hot Sleep had arisen from my feeble attempts to control the vast sweep of time involved in the story. With The Worthing Chronicle, I unified the story by containing it within a frame, the story of a village whose life had been deeply affected by the outcome of the whole Worthing story. In effect, the new novel was the story of how people are transformed by stories—a circularity that still delights me. It’s a series of fictions and dreams and memories all bound up so closely together that it’s impossible even within the story to say what is real and what is now. The process of adaptation was exhilarating—but, as with Songmaster and as would later be true with Ender’s Game, hardly a sentence from the original books remained in the new version.

  Indeed, if there is anything that I think is the key to successfully transforming one version of a story into another, it is to completely discard the first text and develop a new text that contains the same story—the same causally related events—but enriches them with new characters and relationships, new and richer milieux, and many more ideas than the original version contained.

  That’s why I was so frustrated by the fact that St. Martin’s Press, in its eagerness to capitalize on the commercial success of Ender’s Game, insisted on going back to press with a new printing of A Planet Called Treason before I had time to write a completely new version. I had long harboured an ambition to return to the tale of Lanik Mueller, but this time tell it in third person, with many more characters and subplots that would make it one of my deepest novels instead of the shallowest. To my outrage at the time, Thomas Dunne would not relent and allow me to do the ideal version of the book. Instead, all I had time to do was revise the opening and edit heavily throughout the book. The result was a novel that, while no longer embarrassing, was far short of the ideal that I had harboured in my imagination. The book remained in first person and continued to follow the same narrative line, with no new characters or events. It was and remains quite frustrating, but at present I have no plans to go back and revise it ever again—if for no other reason than because there is no reversion clause in my contract with St. Martin’s (the result of signing a contract as a naïve youth without an agent), so that the same publisher would own any revision of the book. Besides, a third version of the same book is certainly too absurd to contemplate.


  My most recent venture into expanding a shorter work was my novelization of James Cameron’s film The Abyss. The problems of novelizing a screenplay are enormous—they are made virtually hopeless in most cases by the fact that the novelizer is forced to work from the screenplay alone, and the screenplay is not a viable story. A screenplay is only a plan for a work of art, like a fresco painter’s cartoon; it is not until director and actors interpret the script that it becomes a finished story.

  The only reason I agreed to do the novelization was because Jim Cameron was as determined as I was to make the novel a viable work of art in its own right. Unlike most novelizers, I had complete access to the film itself, and to all of the screenwriter’s research material. Even more important, however, was the fact that Cameron allowed me to do to his screenplay what I had done to “Ender’s Game” and “Mikal’s Songbird” in order to expand them—I went back before the beginning of the original story and developed the earlier lives of the characters.

  This time, however, I could not go as far as I had with my own work, if only because when I got to the point where the film began, the words and events of the film had to be used exactly as they stood. (We take pride in the fact that this novelization contains every word of significant action and dialogue that actually made it into the film, besides occasional extra scenes that I wrote.) Nevertheless, my preliminary chapters, including a chapter about the early life of a non-human character that quite properly did not end up in the final book, became the root of the novel.

  When I gave the early chapters to Cameron, he immediately called them “backs-tory,” the information about characters that never shows up in a film. I was content to have him regard those chapters that way. After all, he liked them well enough that he showed them to the actors, allowing them to help shape their thinking about their roles. But
to me, they were not “backstory,” not background at all. Instead, they set up fundamental questions in the readers’ minds, questions that are not resolved until the end of the book. The film is structured as an adventure story that is taken over by the strong relationship story contained within it. My novel, however, is structured as a character story from the beginning, so that to me, at least, the novel is truer to the tale both Cameron and I wanted to tell than the film is.

  I don’t call this a flaw in the film, but rather a limitation of the cinematic form; and Cameron would certainly dispute my conclusion that the book is “truer.” Perhaps this idea is merely my way of making the book my own even though the bulk of it is a retelling of someone else’s story. One thing is certain, however—if this novel transcends the limitations of most novelizations, it is because I went back to the time before the story and added new material that transforms the meaning of the events in the film when we finally come to them.


  Even my Tales of Alvin Maker—Seventh Son, Red Prophet, Prentice Alvin, and the yet-unpublished Alvin Journeyman and Master Alvin—began as a shorter work. As I studied the works of Spenser with Norman Council at the University of Utah, I determined to attempt for my people something of what he accomplished for his: create a verse epic in the vernacular. Of course it was a mad enterprise from the start. Who reads long poems anymore, especially narrative poems? Especially poems written in a folky mountain-country voice:

  Alvin, he was a blacksmith’s prentice boy,

  He pumped the bellows and he ground the knives,

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