Up ‘n’ Changing …Everything? A Writer Rewrites

I’m still not fully sure what in tarnation I was thinking, rewriting around 30,000 words in a week, and so very close to a critical e-book deadline.

And yet, on January 3, when I reread my second novella in the Menagerie Mysteries series, The Moon Is Not My Name, I’d had a sinking feeling that I couldn’t shake off. A sense that something was very wrong, and very much needed to be rectified at once.

Why?

Because it read in one of the worst ways a book could read.

It felt… dull.

More specifically, that earlier version of Book 2 seemed to lean far too heavily on its critiques of neoliberalism, and to skim over all the fun parts that should come with a murder mystery involving wildly alien aliens (some of which had eradicated humanity!), and a miserable AI rendered from a 2040s movie detective (who just learned what he really is in the first novella!).

Now, granted, I think everyone who knows me, and knows my writing, also knew to some extent that I was never going to write a “straight” SF mystery. It’s just not in my blood! I like big, chewy questions about social-contract theory, and parameters of justice, and the nature of the self. Metaphysical mysteries, baby — bring ’em on!

As such, if you look at the Goodreads page for Third Planet Fall Down, you’ll find a range of wonderfully thoughtful reviews — many of which happily revealed to me a readership fascinated by my worldbuilding. These were the folks who enjoyed the book’s study of Irian Empire: the Ir themselves, the ‘prism’ system, the idea of the Board, and other core species and ‘players’ on it.

I will NEVER have as generous a Goodreads page again. It was a very kind, supportive thing, my thoughtful readers did!

However, as a couple of my wonderful early readers also noted, that first story’s surface-mystery is not the core of the tale — which clearly surprised and stymied people who were there for the case.

Yes, by the end of Third Planet Fall Down, Pax Murillo solves a case of on-set sabotage by offering his alien handler the one, slender observation he’s capable of at the time, considering his limited circumstances… but he also comes fully into an awareness of himself: what he is, what the Ir are, and what’s happened to humanity.

Because that’s the real mystery for Pax Murillo, and Book 1 is all about him solving it.

Book 2 is different.

Book 2 also has a mystery in it — a dying Irian, oh my! — but it’s more about Murillo reckoning with what he learned in Book 1. Now that he knows he’s a fabricated identity, now that he knows all the people dearest in his life aren’t real, now that he knows that he’s still the closest thing the slaughtered human species has to a conscious representative… Where does that leave him? What does he do next? Is his very existence an abomination? Would ‘death’ be best?

And so, while he’s trying to solve the surface case this time — namely, to figure out who in the Archives has brought real death to a species that routinely reverts back to base genetics — Murillo’s also working on the mystery of who he’s going to choose to be, now that he has the choice at all.

In order to advance that ‘mystery’, though, I also needed to explore quite a few different points of view (care of my alien suspects) about information acquisition, storage, and dissemination, along with different approaches to upward mobility within singular or multiple lifetimes.

And that, I think, is where my first version got bogged down. I had so much ideological ground to cover — a novel’s worth, easily! — in around 35,000 words, and I had leaned too much into the socioeconomic critiques… losing Murillo’s far more critical, personal journey in the process.

Be that as it may, though…

The novella was also 35,000 words, and the upload deadline for Amazon was January 8 at 7pm EST. And if I missed that deadline, even by a minute? Pre-orders would be automatically refunded, and I’d be blocked from setting up further pre-orders on Amazon for a year.

So, what in blazes could I do about my misgivings, on January 3?

A funny thing happened the very next day, though:

On my birthday, I pulled off a sci-fi mystery Choose-Your-Own-Adventure on Twitter (which you can read here, if you missed it), and boy howdy, did the writing of that beast come easily! It was fun, and I was having fun while writing it — even if it, too, also had some clearly meta content attached!

And so, that evening, I thought to myself: Why can’t I do the same with this second novella? Why not channel that feeling of letting go, and letting the writing be fun, into a rewrite of this book, too? Come on, M L, I told myself: You already know all the ‘beats’ a story like this should have. You know the stereotypes you’re subverting. You know the characterizations each suspect needs to get across.

You’re just missing the ‘jazz’.

So, I took a leap: the kind of leap, mind you, that I would never have taken before I started this journey into self-publishing. I took a leap, because I knew that I was the only one who could control the quality of my content when self-publishing, and I… ‘jazzed’. From January 5 to January 8 I rewrote pretty much the whole novella, keeping only a few bits and pieces from the original.

And would you believe it? I made Amazon’s upload deadline (with my revisions! the editing read-through!) with half an hour to spare.

I certainly couldn’t believe it, not all at once — not until I saw that I really was on the verge of making it happen. I’ve written that fast, that intensely, only a twice before: once, when rewriting the script for Prometheus in three days because the movie bugged the heck out of me; and far earlier, when writing my first “trunk” novel in my early 20s — around 84,000 words in 16 days.

As you can imagine, then, this was a whirlwind of a 3.5-day writing session — not something I recommend for one’s sleep hygiene, physical activity regimen, or diet!

However, not only was it fun, it was also affirming.

Why affirming? Because that whole process of creative control and emergency intervention reminded me that I knew what kind of story I was trying to tell, and that I knew what was needed to tell it well.

I knew both these things so hard that, on January 3, when first looking over what was supposedly my near-finished draft of a novella for January 12 publication, I’d heard that flat-out “NOPE, THIS ISN’T IT” inside my head and… I’d trusted it. (Trusted the action plan I then developed, too.)

Now, that said: for folks who read Book 1, and who’re looking forward to reading Book 2, I’m still going to recommend that you buy The Moon Is Not My Name from Gumroad, where all profit goes to me, the author, and where you can choose whatever format you’d like.

(Heck, take all three formats! I’ve also fixed the issues the EPUB version had for Third Planet Fall Down, so it should have no trouble rendering title and cover content on a Kobo now.)

Why Gumroad, and not Amazon, for the moment? Well, because while I am mightily impressed with myself for rewriting and revising the novella that fast, I’m still a pragmatist — and more importantly: Amazon’s backend kindle-book previewer wouldn’t load properly on Friday, so I couldn’t give the document the SUPER SQUEAKY epub-rendering review that I wanted to, before sending it on to Amazon’s mysterious internal approval-and-upload process.

As such, I’ll be going back to the rewritten novella on January 11 (with a few days’ fresh eyes!), to double-check that it looks good and clean in all formats: to make sure that visual components are clear, that the title and page breaks are perfect, and that the text itself is as sharp as possible.

On January 12, I can then upload this sparkly new version to Amazon, where it will take 2-3 days to be processed like the last one was… but in the meantime? Well, because not every e-distribution website is as fussy, anyone who bought the book on Gumroad will have the super-polished version in hand right away.

So! That, my friends, is where this learning process finds me: Two novellas into the world of self-publishing e-books, I went from agonizing over a handful of typos in my first book in mid-December… to risking it all on rewriting the whole second novella in a matter of days.

And I really hope that risk pays off.

I hope you find the version of The Moon Is Not My Name in your hands / e-readers to be a far more balanced and engaging sequel — even if it will still be a cerebral mystery, like the last!

But hey, if not?

If all that added work only yields a flop in some grand new way?

Well, that’s the nifty thing about “whole lifetimes”, isn’t it: You get to keep using them — if you’re fortunate, and if you’re keen on it — to grow.

That, at least, is the lesson both I and Pax Murillo learned during this last rewrite.

May your own creative ventures find you learning in ways that surprise and delight you, too.


M L Clark discusses “levelling up” by listening to a gut feeling that something was Not Right with a draft — and rewriting it last-minute.


M L Clark is an author of speculative and science-fiction stories (some of which you can find at Clarkesworld and Analog), and a reviewer of SF&F books and films for Strange Horizons. Clark’s four-novella SF-mystery series, Menagerie Mysteries, is now available for download or pre-order. Third Planet Falls Down released on December 14, 2020, on kindle , Kobo, and Gumroad. Book 2, The Moon Is Not My Name, launches January 12, 2021.

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