Mon
Jun 6 2011 3:00pm

Neither Fish Nor Fowl, or, How Down Got Dirty

WARNING: excessive editorial honesty ahead. Proceed at your own risk.

Editing Down & Dirty almost drove me mad.

You’ve read the book by now (if not, shame on you for reading this part first—there’s a reason we call them Afterwords, you know). I hope that you enjoyed it. Many of the stories are first rate, as good as those in any other volume of the series. There are some fabulous scenes, characters, moments. The rise and fall of Typhoid Croyd. The murder of Kahina, among the most chilling ever depicted in Wild Cards. Modular Man’s battles against the reborn Snotman. Water Lily’s enslavement to the vile Ti Malice. And more…

Good stories are enough for an ordinary anthology, no doubt, but shared worlds demand something more, and Wild Cards was meant to go a step beyond even shared worlds. Our intent was always for the books to be more than just a collection of individual stories, however excellent. We called them “mosaic novels,” and set out to make the whole more than the sum of its parts.

Usually we succeeded…but not in this case, I fear.

The Wild Cards books were plotted in groups of three. “Triads,” we called them. Each triad had its “overplot,” the main story thread that bound the three books together. But each book also was intended to have its unifying theme, and of course every individual tale had its own plots and subplots as well. So we were always working on three levels in Wild Cards, at minimum.

The overplot of our second triad was Gregg Hartmann’s quest for the presidency, which would climax in the sixth volume, our second full mosaic, Ace in the Hole. The two preceding books needed to set the table for that, and put in play certain characters and plot threads to be paid off in volume six. And below the overplot, on the volume level, the WHO world tour was the spine of volume four, Aces Abroad. In Down & Dirty, the gang war between the Gambiones and the Shadow Fists was originally meant to occupy center stage.

But when our rough outline for the second triad was delivered to Bantam, our editor balked. A gang war was too mundane for a SF/Fantasy series, she objected. It was trite as well; gang wars were a staple of movies and TV shows beyond count, they were old and tired. We tried arguing that our gang war would be rather different, since the Shadow Fists and the Gambiones would be using aces and jokers to settle their differences rather than car bombs and tommy guns, but to no avail. Our editor at Bantam insisted that Down & Dirty needed something else, something that was more distinctly Wild Cards than a fight for control of New York’s underworld.

I believe it was Vic Milan who came up with the answer, when half a dozen of us got together at Melinda Snodgrass’s house to brainstorm a solution to the crisis. Viruses are notoriously prone to mutation, he pointed out. What if xenovirus Takis-A was to mutate into a form capable of re-infecting aces and jokers? Such a mutant strain would put all our major characters at risk, not to mention throwing the whole city into a panic. The idea seemed to offer all sorts of juicy dramatic possibilities. Roger Zelazny stepped forward to offer the Sleeper as the source and carrier of the mutated virus. And thus “Typhoid Croyd” was born, Bantam was satisfied, and Down & Dirty had itself a new spine.

The problem was, it still had its old spine as well. We could not simply forget about the gang war, after all. Kien and his Shadow Fists were on stage, as were Rosemary Muldoon and the Gambiones. We had conflicts to resolve, storylines to pay off, loose ends to tie up, characters whose further growth and development hinged on experiences that were supposed to befall them in the book…during the gang war. Moreover, while some of my writers responded enthusiastically to the new Typhoid Croyd overplot, others showed no interest, preferring to write about the Mafia and the Shadow Fists as they had been planning all along.

My contributors were also deeply divided over when the book should take place. In Aces Abroad, the Stacked Deck had taken half a year to complete its circuit of the globe…during which time all of the aces and jokers on the junket had been absent from New York City. Some of my regular contributors had sent their characters on the tour; others had kept theirs at home. The first group wanted Down & Dirty to open after the travelers got back; the second bunch thought it should take place simultaneously with the tour. Life in Manhattan was not likely to stop just because a few people were out of town, they argued; Down & Dirty should tell the tales of what took place at home while the travelers were way. Yes, the others countered, but many of our most popular characters had been delegates on the tour. Did we really want to leave so many of our stars out of this volume? The readers would be expecting Dr. Tachyon and Hiram Worchester and Chrysalis and Puppetman, we ought not disappoint them.

Both sides made valid points. So with the wisdom of Solomon, I decided that I would solve the dispute by splitting the baby. The first half of Down & Dirty would take place while the tour was away, the second half after the Stacked Deck returned home. Volume five would thus overlap volume four, but would also carry the action forward, to help lead up to volume six. All my writers were happy.

If there are any aspiring editors reading this, take a lesson. Anything that makes all your writers happy is probably a bad idea. Your goal should always be to make your readers happy.

As the manuscripts started coming in and I sat down to assemble Down & Dirty, problems soon became apparent. The chronology was pure chaos. Story X had to come after Story Q, but Story Q took place while the tour was gone, and story X after it came home. Story Y followed both of them and led to Story Z, but Story Z had to go before Story X, or else a certain subplot made no sense. My own Turtle story had been written with the idea that it could act as a bridge between the two halves of the book, which would have worked fine…except that several other writers had done the same thing. Which should go first, which second, which third? No matter how I arranged them, these episodic stories ended up jerking the readers back and forth in time.

I was out in Hollywood during all this, and I spent most of the weekend sitting all alone in my office at Beauty and the Beast, reading and rereading the stories and arranging them first one way and then another. Nothing worked. By Sunday night I was almost ready to toss the manuscripts up in the air and print them in the order they landed (the New Wave approach). Almost, but not quite.

Instead…well, if you’re read the book, you know what I did instead. Considerable rewriting was involved (my happy writers became unhappy very quickly), along with an even more considerable amount of restructuring. The only way to give Down & Dirty anything approaching a beginning, middle, and end (preferably in that order) was by pulling apart some of the stories, and arranging the sections in and among the other stories and each other.

From the very beginning, we had used two very different structures for the Wild Cards books. The climactic volume of each triad was always a full-blown mosaic novel, a six-or seven-way collaboration wherein all the storylines were woven through each other, to make a seamless (we hoped) whole. However, that structure was so difficult, demanding, and time consuming that we would only attempt it for one book in three. The other volumes were more conventionally organized into individual stories joined by sections of interstitial narrative that worked to link them all together into a whole. Beads on a string; the stories were the beads, the interstitial was the string them turned them into a necklace.

Down & Dirty started out as beads on a string, but the chronological confusion caused by my compromise required me to turn the book into something that was halfway toward being a mosaic novel. It worked after a fashion, I suppose; Bantam seemed happy enough, and our readers as well.

But the book will never be my favorite. The jerrybuilt organization offends my sense of structure. And the plot is all over the place. Some stories are built around the gang war, some are about Typhoid Croyd, some try to juggle both, while others ignore almost all these goings-on to pick up on the Ti Malice and Puppetman threads from Aces Abroad. It ain’t elegant, and I like a little elegance in the way a fiction is structured. The truth is, Down & Dirty is not quite finny enough to be a fowl, and not quite feathery enough to be a fish, so it neither flies nor swims.

My mistake was trying to please everyone, to find a compromise for every crisis. In hindsight, I should have either fought Bantam on the issue of the gang war, or else jettisoned it entirely in favor of the new Typhoid Croyd idea. Trying to deal with both at once, while simultaneously moving forward the Puppetman overplot that would be so crucial in the books to follow, was an invitation to chaos. I should also have settled the chronology issue one way or the other. That’s why us shared world editors get the big bucks, after all; for making the hard decisions. Instead, I tried to give all my writers what they wanted, and the book suffered as a result. Sometimes, when you cut the baby in half, all you get is two half-babies.

We all stumble from time to time, especially when trying something different…and Wild Cards was nothing if not different. We live and learn as well, however, and I learned some important lessons from Down & Dirty that would make me a better editor in the future. I would never make those mistakes again.

(I would, of course, make some entirely new mistakes, but those are tales for another month).


George R.R. Martin is the author of the Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin’s present home is Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is a member of Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (he was South-Central Regional Director 1977-1979, and Vice President 1996-1998), and of Writers’ Guild of America, West.

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