Prelude to a revision

PRELUDE TO A CHANGE OF MIND. Cover detail from the out-of-print third edition.

In the wake of ConDFW in February, I came home determined to remain optimistic. Interest in Dvarsh, An Introduction had been low, even after taking account of the convention’s disappointing attendance. Lessons and sales are both positive results, and if the latter were few, the former may yet be pearls of great value. One lesson was that I must produce new editions both of previously published fiction and of Nod’s Way as quickly as possible. Reasoning here is that greater context for the language will add value to its reference.

Nod’s Way seemed, at first, the obvious choice to push into production. A small book with planned heavy reliance on the language in the new version, it is both a cornerstone of Dvarsh culture and a system of divination play with a living constituency. Laying out a plan of action, however, made clear that it is also a conceptual machine with an abundance of moving parts. Quality control in the development process will take more eyes than mine, unavoidably, and that is not yet possible. When it starts, Nod’s Way will not be the fastest book out of the gate.

The next candidate was my first novel, Prelude to a Change of Mind. A peculiar little book, properly a long novella rather than a novel, its main character spends the first three quarters of the tale confined to bed. It is, at once, an adventure, a series of philosophical dialogues, a reconsideration of ancient legends, and a love story. It also lays the groundwork for the entire Habdvarsha universe. Poorly served by editors of previous editions from three different imprints, it has, nevertheless, managed to leave tracks in the world of slipstream fiction. The publisher of the second edition told me that on the basis of this book I should consider myself “a successful cult novelist.” My joking response was, “Does that mean sales justify keeping it in print, but don’t expect any royalties?” This turned out to be exactly what she meant. Oh, my misaligned humor!

One reader who bought a copy of the third edition at a convention stayed up all night, read it straight through, and sought me out the next morning, enthusing, “This book is an undiscovered classic.” Another reader contacted me recently to say that she had picked up a used copy, edition unspecified, and decided she had to write because she cannot stop thinking about it. Her note was the final push that raised Prelude to current top priority.

Sitting down to begin its revamp, I imagined it would be a walk. After three editions, each edited by a professional editor, with my own substantial revisions between the published versions, I thought it had to be in pretty good shape. Then I opened the file.

Aspects of the third edition were, in fact, well done. The plot is exactly what I want it to be. The episodes are well conceived, setting is solid, and much of the dialogue will pass through intact. Structurally, even the narrative beats are dead right. Passages marking those beats were another matter. The verbal ligatures were placed exactly where they need to go, but the words chosen for these small, essential elements were overwhelmingly amateurish throw-aways, mere awkward gestures. The result was an otherwise pretty good story acted by sock puppets instead of characters. From the first chapter, it was clear that before anything like polish was possible, the book required a thousand minor surgeries.

I have a hypothesis about how this came to be, and I blame it all on poetry. For years before turning to fiction, I was an active and dedicated, if never very competent, poet. I accumulated a body of about three dozen published poems during that phase, maybe a few more. Reviewing them now, I would say three, possibly four, should have ever seen light. The rest are not worth the paper on which they decay. The only prose I had published prior to undertaking a book length fiction consisted of political screeds for various socialist and anarchist rags, and some inconsequential cutesy poop. In other words, I had no training for the new undertaking. Prose fiction and poetry are two distinct linguistic modes. The number of writers fluent in both is vanishingly small, and I was never fluent in poetry.

Fine, so that is what editors are for, right? Unfortunately, in an extraordinary case of negative synchronicity, all three editors tasked with hacking my manuscripts into shape were poets. Not one had written prose fiction. Understanding grammar and punctuation is a far cry from knowing narrative and characterization in your guts. Countless times I have advised academics, “If you’re going to teach novels, write one. You don’t even have to show it to anyone, but write one and it will change forever how you read the novels you teach.” Until now it never crossed my mind to require the same of an editor. I’ll never work with another who doesn’t have at least a complete draft in the closet. That’s a privilege of starting one’s own imprint.

Current status of Prelude to a Change of Mind is that the first pass, with all the surgeries, is complete. It sits now ready to begin what I thought to do when opening the file. The new text has simmered for a week while I have put out a newsletter and drafted this blog. Tomorrow, May Day, my favorite day of the year, the next step commences. I shall dance with the spring and the revolution. Allons-y!