What do you do when a character takes over your book?
(and she fires the AI Machine who used to run things)
My manuscript started out simply enough, all 500+ pages of it: the narrator, main character, and more-or-less hero was an Artificial Intelligence (AI) Machine. From early days, he was in charge: the AI Machine narrated each of the other characters’ stories, he steered the plot and kept it moving (or not!), he made weighty comments on the dismal state of the world, and explained (cryptically) how he would fix it. And I never planned for “him” to be a “he”; the last thing I needed or wanted was to have a “he” of an AI Machine figuratively ride to the planet’s and humanity’ rescue, not when the other main characters were women and LGBTQ people each trying (and apparently failing) in their own way to overthrow patriarchy. But I could do nothing about it: this increasingly irritating, hyper-detail-oriented, beginning-to-border-on-messianic AI Machine with a good-sized ego was a “he”, that was that, there was nothing I could do about it.
Around four months ago, my manuscript was “finished”. (I don’t write from outlines, nor do I engage in “rough drafts” and “final drafts”, so I am compelled to put “finished” betwixt those annoying air-quotes; that’s all I’ll say for now on the subject of how I write, I promise you a future blog post/story on the topic.) I printed out the 210,000 word text, I sat down with my all-wrapped-into-one-beautiful-package trusted editor, 100% honest critic, and partner, and we commenced reading this behemoth. After a couple hours, I went out to get some wine. A few hours later we needed to get more wine. That night beer was a necessity (we were so grateful there was a Späti next door to our flat). Three days later, we had slogged through all of it. It wasn’t … so terrible. I mean the content was pretty good, there were a few passages that impressed even my partner enough she happily circled them and gave them cute little stars. And around page 150, the plot genuinely started to get interesting (“can’t I start by sending my agent Chapter 8 first?”). But even I had to admit, wine or not, that when an author repeatedly dozes off while listening to her own text, this is not a promising sign.
The long-and-short of it, here was a manuscript that (surprise?) sounded like a text written by an Artificial Intelligence Machine, and not one who was trained to write like Tennessee Williams, or either Fitzgerald, or any one of the Bronte sisters, or even Theodor Fontane, for that matter not even Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. No, the text genuinely read as if it were written by the AI machine’s operating system. I must say it captured the machine’s inner-self to a tee (well done, me!).
I wasn’t exactly demolished, but I was seriously bummed. We set the text aside; it was time for a break. We binge-watched a K-drama (an excellent one, by the way, the English title is My Mister, I highly, highly recommend it). We watched several documentaries. We watched another K-drama (at a minimum of 16 episodes, these series can fill up a nice amount of time). We read mountaineering autobiographies, and more mountaineering autobiographies, Shipton (ahead of his time), Messner (wrote the same book 50 times), Benuzzi (now this one, No Picnic on Mount Kenya, is a really fun read you can’t put down, and actually has little to do with mountaineering). I cannot explain my fascination with mountaineering autobiographies, it’s just a thing. We watched another K-drama, or two — alright, I think it was four — six. What was meant to be a couple day’s break from writing became a couple weeks and before I knew it, it was getting awfully close to a couple months. I didn’t have writer’s block, not exactly — I just could not deal with that AI Machine anymore. He had become that guy who would join you and your mates from work for lunch, but then you and your mates realize he monopolizes the conversation, always has the answer, talks a blue streak, and your lunches have ceased to go down well, so the rest of you setup lunchtime rendezvous at odd times in obscure pubs where that guy will not find you.
And then it happened. “M” had always been a main character, but not the main character. (The main character was “L”, who is the AI Machine’s architect, designer, builder and programmer. L is also M’s ex, well they’re kind of exes) In fact other than the AI Machine (I’ll start calling him “R”), M was the very first character I ever set down to paper (in German; that is her first language). M is a stripper, but she started out as a mathematician. M was set on an academic career, but because she would not compromise her principles, she got fucked over by her dissertation adviser, black-listed from academia, and wound up in a job she didn’t want, but where she could “stare patriarchy squarely in the eyes and in the teeth”, as she puts it. I needed to work on something, and in M’s case, I could never figure out where her story should begin, it’s like her story was in a kind of loop. So one morning a little over two months ago I sat down and decided to try and sort out M’s story by letting her introduce on a clean piece of paper (in this case the “paper” was a blank LibreOffice document). What came next shocked me, it still shocks me. M began writing a blistering critique of R’s manuscript! And her critique flowed, I mean I couldn’t put it down. M tends to the sardonic, she does not suffer fools. She could handle R, she’d known him for decades, she detested him at first, begrudgingly accepted that he might be all right after all, and eventually M and R became close friends — as equals. M wrote 86 pages, her life story as it were, it is sincere, moving, funny, appropriately witty but not snarky. I always liked M, I found her the easiest character to relate to, the kind of person you could chat with for hours and feel only minutes had passed, and now M and I are really close. Really close.
It wasn’t just that M set down her story so effortlessly, so clearly, so antipodal to R the AI — no, M took over the manuscript. She gave R the boot and never looked back. She has become my collaborator — on equal terms, M would never agree to do it any other way. She has not become the “writer” of the other characters’ stories, but she has become their merciless editor. M knows where to cut (I wouldn’t say she wields a cleaver, it’s more of a santoku knife), she knows where to amplify (sparingly), she knows how to move the story forward, and M knows how to handle R. Thank you, M. Thank you.
And I, unavoidably, have taken on some of M’s habits. Not stripping or pole dancing, thank gods, I am a total nerd on the dance floor to say nothing of the pole. M is a disciplined writer and editor. I tend to write at all kinds of random times of morning and day and middle-of-the-night. Not M. She starts promptly at 10:00 a.m. (woe to me if I’m late, even by a few minutes), writes til 1:00 p.m., takes a lunch break, resumes at 2:00 p.m., takes a break at 3:30 (usually to buy cigarettes), then writes from 4:00 until 6:55 p.m., allows 5 minutes for file backups, and she is through at 7:00 p.m. sharp. The rest of my time is my own. I suppose she doesn’t write nights, because she can’t, that’s of course when she’s working.
About the cigarettes — I’ve never smoked before in my life. I have been a vehement anti-smoker, my father smoked two or three packs a day (and somehow lived to a ripe old age anyway), I found his habit disgusting, as did the rest of my family (my mother always made him smoke outside; he did finally quit when he was 60, he fell off a ladder, broke both feet, and couldn’t leave the house for six months. I still marvel at my mother’s ability to sniff out my father’s friends in their attempts to smuggle him smokes). And since M took over? I still don’t believe I smoke, I know it’s M who smokes, but there is no getting around she smokes using my lungs. M is a one pack-a-day smoker. I am a zero pack-a-day smoker. Now M is an uncompromising editor, but she is a genuinely sympathetic and reasonable person, so she agreed to meet me in the middle, 10 cigarettes a day, give or take. We inhale — half of the time.
Thank you M, for everything. Thanks to your work, dear M, my manuscript is one-third finished, as in ready-to-send-off finished.
Wouldn’t you know, this is the one time, and I mean the one time, M has allowed me to encroach on her “morning shift”, to write this blog entry? Of course, it does make sense. I just looked at the clock, and of course I know why I’ve been getting antsy the last few minutes. It’s 10:08 already.