Some more detailed thoughts on having finished Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned.
Finishing the first draft of any book is always a weird experience. You're elated that you got it done; you're exhausted from the work required; you're full of both apprehension and anticipation at having to go back and face your own words again.
What gets me most about the experience of having just finished Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned is how this whole thing was originally meant to be a more lightweight escape hatch from a project that was getting too ponderous and humorless for its own good. And by "humorless" I don't mean "bereft of jokes", but lacking in spirit, zest, humor. The book would have been no fun to write. It would have been like sucking on sand.
Once I faced up to that fact, I switched to another project I'd had sitting on the shelf, one that quickly became AONO, and which came together with shocking speed in the wake of that decision. It also turned out to be a lot more involved than I'd originally thought it would be. I was guessing it would be around 150K words, maybe 175K tops. It ended up being 228K. It's entirely likely it'll shed a few pounds during the edit process, but I'm coming to terms with the fact that the concept behind the book and the ways I used to explore them are just plain all the more suited to a longer book.
One nice positive side effect of that: Admitting to such things complements by existing tendency to take an idea, tell a single, sustained story about it, and then close the book on it (pun intended) and move on to something else. The way this story ends, you could write more stories in the same universe, but I'm not going to do that. I've talked about this before, many times, and I always come back to the same reasons. For one, life's short, and I've got other things I want to talk about. I don't know how long I'm going to live, or how much of that time I'll be able to use to write. Also, any story I take up is ultimately about the people in it. Once I've done the arc for them that I want to do, they don't need me telling their story anymore.
I'm not actually all that upset that something intended to be a fast little romp turned into a mini-epic. Maybe that was what it really deserved to be, anyway. I keep thinking of the discussion John Cage and David Tudor had at one point around the pieces they were doing for piano. Despite all their attempts to take the composer out of the equation, things still ended up sounding melodic. I thought, maybe that's just us. The human being always tries to see a story and hear a melody; let's work to become conscious of that fact so that we're not fooled by it. And while we're at it, let's make the stories we tell and the melodies we play as good as possible.
Something else that comes to mind. One of the games I play with any of the books I've finished is the "percentile score", which is a way of saying how closely the end result fulfilled the expectations I had for it. It's not a game I take very seriously, but I have fun playing it anyway.
E.g., Summerworld I think hit about 90% of what I was aiming for with it, because it was a relatively short book with a modest scope. Tokyo Inferno, about 70%; I struggled with the idea I had vs. the incarnation of it. The Four-Day Weekend, about 80-85%. Welcome to the Fold, about 75%, but I think it was the 75% that mattered the most. Vajra, about 85-90%, and that was really something because the damn thing turned out to be so big. And with AONO, maybe 80%. I want to goose that up a little further during the edit process.
You can see a pattern here, right? Nothing ever gets to 100%. Expectations and ambitions and such are all so nebulous and fluid to begin with. Plus, every book is always perfect when it's nothing but an idea. I've long believed that's one of the reasons why some people talk forever about the book they're going to write but never actually write it, or spend forever polishing it without ever saying "OK, it's done, I'm'a get this thing off my desk so I can go to Dave & Buster's!" Things that don't actually exist are critic-proof — but they're also reader-proof. Lousy tradeoff, if you ask me.
I'm pretty proud of AONO, even though I know it still needs work to get it closer to where it can be. But there is a practical limit for how much time I can put into such things. In programming, there's a curve for how much work yields how much performance improvement for a given program. If you attack the biggest bottlenecks first, you get major improvements in performance. Once you clear that stuff out of the way, though, it gets harder and harder to speed things up, and after a while you reach a plateau beyond which all the other work you could do, barring some massive paradigm-shattering breakthrough, is only going to yield negligible results. The same goes with edits on a story: once you find yourself at a point where you're nattering over whether to take this comma out or leave it in, stop. You're as done as this stuff gets in this lifetime.
Last of all, this particular experience hammered home for me the importance of a story being character- and personality-driven. I come up with some fantastic, mind-melting, eyeball-popping ideas, but if they don't come with a person attached to them, nothing happens. The idea lies empty, like an unrented office building, until the right tenants move in and I can get the lights on. This time, I had the right people and the right idea out of the gate.
Other Lives Of The Mind