Speaking to My Past Self

Eolyn portrait

Portrait of Eolyn for the 2nd edition; artwork by Thomas Vandenberg

Have you ever been told to think about what your future self would say to you?

I’ve never actually received this advice, but I’ve heard it given, usually to young people who are facing important challenges or decisions. I suppose people who give this advice do so because it’s worked for them.

Me, I’ve always been a little skeptical about being able to predict what my future self would say about much of anything. So, I’m more inclined to rely on my present instinct, and on the advice of family, friends, mentors, and colleagues, when I’m up against a tough or complicated moment in life.

Recently, however, I’ve had the very interesting experience of speaking to my past self. Revising Eolyn for the second edition became just that: A dialogue with the author I used to be, five (and more!) years ago when we first published the novel.

Here’s some interesting trivia: The second edition of Eolyn is about 40 pages shorter than the first. I’m proud of this, and somewhat surprised. I mean, I knew one of my goals was to turn out a tighter manuscript. But 40 pages?? I definitely exceeded my own expectations.

Not all of that is due to a reduction in word count. I did shave about 6000 words off the second edition. That sounds like a lot, but when you’re looking at a manuscript of 120k, it’s not really. You’d be surprised how many unnecessary “the’s” can be found in one story. And like many authors, I have a tendency to use more words than I need to get a point or an action across. Example:

“He turned and clenched his fists” could be written more simply as “He clenched his fists.” (“Turning” in general is a wasted action in stories; I try to delete the word wherever I find it.)

There were, of course, entire scenes that got the ax. But this didn’t always affect word count, as I wrote several new scenes for the story as well. Still, 6000 words is 6000 words. If we assume about 250 words per page, that accounts for about 24 pages of the manuscript.

What about the other 16?

Well, here’s the interesting part. Those 16 pages can be accounted for, almost precisely, by the consolidation of chapters. The first edition of Eolyn had about 60 chapters; the second edition has 45. The Battle of Aerunden alone comprised about half a dozen chapters; all have now been collapsed into one. If you estimate half a page of white space at the beginning and end of each chapter, that means 15 blank pages have simply been taken out of the book. No fiddling with the word count necessary.

Working with my past self has been a positive experience, all in all. There were passages that I thought needed changing or deleting that Past Me fought vigorously to defend. Other places where Past Me was uncertain, but Present Me was able to tell her, “No, that’s a strong moment after all. Leave it as it is.”

Eolyn Portrait first edition

Portrait of Eolyn for the 1st edition, released in 2011. Artwork by Jesse Smolover

The best, of course, was when we came to spots that Past Me was never really satisfied with, and Present Me was able to propose an exciting and workable solution. We are both particularly happy about new scenes for certain characters, such as Corey and Renate, and the overall tightened look and feel of the prose.

All in all, I have to admit I’ve enjoyed working with Me. Narcissistic, I know. But Past Me, while a little nervous about my judgement of her style, was open to change and willing to work hard to polish up an already well-polished story. And Present Me was happy to see that her first novel, written all those years ago, has withstood the test of time, even under the eyes of her own worst critic (Me).

After all these years, Eolyn continues to be an engaging story. While we found many places that benefited from tweaking, at the end of the day, the most important thing I was able to say to Past Me was this: “You’ve written a worthy novel. Take pride in your work. You deserve it.”

That was a very nice thing to hear.

The Un-Success Story

lb_10438_sarahhoggle_presskit-235x300A couple months ago, I watched a documentary about the life of Jim Henson on PBS.

I grew up with the Muppets and always admired the artistry and imagination of Henson’s enterprise. It was interesting to have this behind-the-scenes look at Henson life, and to learn about the personal and professional struggles he dealt with.

One of the moments of the documentary that stuck with me was a very brief discussion of Labyrinth, one in a long string of movies that Henson made.

Labyrinth was a disappointment in Henson’s career. The movie did not succeed at the box office, bringing in only half the amount that it cost to produce. Henson was deeply disappointed by this, and perhaps as a result, Labyrinth would be the last full-length feature film he made before his unexpected death in 1990.

It took almost thirty years before I learned from that PBS documentary last autumn that Labyrinth was considered a failure. Frankly, I found it hard to believe. I remember seeing this movie when it came out. I enjoyed the artistry, the adventure, and the endless string of very clever moments.

JarethLabyrinth was one of the very few films of that era that featured a young woman as its protagonist: Sarah, played by the lovely and talented Jennifer Connelly. The film was bold in its assertion that the only thing a young woman really needed to outwit a devious, powerful, and rather sexy Goblin King was a healthy dose of determination.

The movie resonated with me, in a deep and lasting way.

I’ve since discovered that Labyrinth resonated with a lot of other people, too. It’s one of those films that turns up in conversation every so often, and it is always remembered with fondness.

When David Bowie passed away last weekend, the first thing many of my friends did was sit down and watch Labyrinth, so they could enjoy Bowie’s iconic portrayal of the Goblin King once more.

When a local cinema announced it would be showing a quotable Labyrinth as a benefit for cancer research and in honor of Bowie’s passing, the event sold out within hours. I snagged a ticket, of course. Sunday evening, I enjoyed a theater packed full of people who could quote every line and sing every song of this “failed” two hour fantasy.

Reflecting on the history of Labyrinth brought home to me, once again, the disconnect that often exists between commercial success and artistic impact. I don’t have a solution to this reality, or even any real understanding of the reasons behind it. All I can offer is the enduring observation that time and again, works considered a “flop” on commercial grounds nonetheless hit a deep chord with a large number of people and end up coloring our imaginations for generations to come.

It saddens me that Jim Henson died without knowing his “failure” would become a cult classic, cherished by many for decades after its initial release. Sometimes I wish there were a way to rectify the market measure of success so that it would align more consistently with other measures that are perhaps more profound and important.

But the whims of the market aside, Labyrinth is a testimony to the legacy of the risk-taker, to visionaries like Jim Henson who aren’t afraid to push boundaries in their efforts to show us new worlds and possibilities.

Money comes and goes, but imagination is forever.