The President governs by tweet. The media report by soundbite. The social discourse is carried out on Facebook through memes and headlines. We are stones skipping across the surface of a lake, without awareness of the depths below or the ripples that spread from each of our points of contact.
In 2017 I wrote a book, 60,000 words long. It is a Science Fiction novel about a world where all communication is telepathic. Humans land there and have adventures. They marvel in the richness of the telepathic sharing of feelings, images, and memories, and struggle with how to communicate with the beings they encounter. They are overwhelmed by the depth of emotion shared by the local creatures and fall in love with them. Other stuff happens too.
Writing the book was a very rewarding experience, and I was very proud of the result, which I submitted to a publisher. It was rejected without comment. Friends who read it liked it. A few made critical comments which were helpful. A couple pointed out that I did a lot of telling, rather than showing. My dad said “that was really complicated.”
There are six main human characters in the book, and six secondary ones. Most of the original version was dialogue. The story was plot driven, and I used dialogue to advance the plot. Often my choice of who would say something was arbitrary. I had no character outline for any of the characters, so it didn’t matter who said what. Later, after I had concluded the writing of the plot, I went back and added some back story for the main characters, but I did nothing to develop them in the story line.
I put the book aside after the publisher rejected it and went on to another project documenting the stories of Mayan elders in Guatemala. It was a year after finishing the original version when I picked up the novel again. First, I wrote out short little biographies and character studies of each person on the crew. Then I sought out technical advice on some of the science I had used for the story. I began to rewrite, deliberately adding more description of the environment, more inner dialogue from each character, and more personal, character driven interactions between the characters. I worked to eliminate as much external narration as possible and replace it with the experience of the characters.
The original 60,000 word novel came to me very easily. I skipped over the surface of the story, from plot point to plot point until I reached the end. This time, I am investigating each landing, and how it affects the surface of the story. I am looking down into the depths below each event and character to give more substance and dimension to the story. It is harder. I have to keep track of all the nuances of relationship and the interactions of the characters with each other and their past. I am on track to turn my original 60,000 words into 100,000. I have a friend who is reading the original ahead of my rewrite who is very good at catching inconsistencies and who helps me work them out in weekly meetings.
Skipping across the surface is easy, and can be fun, but in the end you don’t have much. How many of the old friends from high school that you connected with via Facebook do you really know? How many of the issues you argue about do you really understand in depth? Do you see the ripples caused by your landings? Are you cognizant of the infinite expanse below and around you? It is hard and complicated to strive for full awareness; so much easier just to throw out a tweet or share a snarky meme. The thing is, our country won’t have a story worth reading if we don’t get back to awareness and consideration of substance, nuance, and character. It’s time for a rewrite.