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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Da Vinci rewrite: postmortem

In the late 70s or early 80s the comedian and talk-show host Dick Cavett, in his autobiography, said that in his comedy career he always found it easy to write material for other comedians but hard to write material for himself. He could write a joke on any topic or theme, and put it in the style of the comedian concerned by getting into the persona of that comedian and letting the joke come out in that person's voice. Cavett gave off-the-cuff examples, "writing" jokes for Jack Benny and Bob Hope, maybe a couple of others. As a writer for Jack Parr on The Tonight Show, he could crack off his week's work in a couple of hours in one day. But when it came to writing material for himself, he agonized. What was his persona?

(I remember one of Cavett's own jokes: "When I was in college I got in some blind dates with some very unattractive girls. On this one date--you've heard of a face that could stop a clock? My date had stopped sundials.")

Well, I've had a faintly similar experience with my little rewrite job on scene 1 of The Da Vinci Code. When it's not your project it's easy to breeze through. One reason, I think, is that the decision to do the project in the first place has already been made; someone has assumed liability for the validity and value of the project. Someone has already answered the question, to his own satisfaction, "why this?" So the material is a given. The rewriter can relax and just play with what's already there.

So for me the rewrite was pure fun, not something I slaved over. I did my "thinking-through" the revision, such as it was, here in my blog, then just sat down and dashed something off yesterday.

By bedtime I had gone over it a couple of times and tweaked it a bit--the way I do with my own material, changing and deleting bits on each read-through. Can't resist. Maybe it would be useful to mention these tweaks, to give an idea of my thinking.

I remember only two (I think that's all there were). The first was down in the paragraph where I had Langdon saying "What's this about? Am I under arrest?" I deleted the first question and just had him ask the second--the one that counts.

The second tweak was in the bottom paragraph, where I had Langdon wonder about his family back in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That bugged me even as I was writing it--the inclusion of "Massachusetts", a purely expository addition, to let the reader know we're talking about the U.S. and not the U.K. It seemed pretty clear that Langdon was an American in any case, although of course he could, theoretically, be teaching at Cambridge in Britain (assuming he wants a pay cut!). But soon he will be talking with a cop, and it would quickly come out that he's a Harvard prof. So I cut "Massachusetts".

Looking over it this morning, the next thing that's bothering me is the way I introduce the character's name. I have nothing against--and everything for--simply giving the name early, as Brown does himself by making Langdon's name the first two words of chapter 1. But in this case I have the concierge addressing him by name in paragraph 5 (which I believe is motivated), so strictly speaking giving his name in paragraph 1 is not necessary: we're getting it twice on the same page. If I were to work it further, I would cut his name from paragraph 1 (using good old he), let his last name come out when the concierge calls, and let his first name be revealed in the interview with the cop. This way, exposition comes in a natural way, from the flow of motivated action--always preferable, even for a seemingly small and obvious thing like getting the name of your character to the reader. Don't get me wrong: I dislike "cute" efforts to conceal the character's name and bring it out in the action; but here I feel that its occurrence is soon enough and natural enough to make it work. Also, by holding back his name, it makes Langdon's sense of disorientation more immediate--maybe he doesn't remember his name at the moment. We're not just watching him, we're experiencing along with him.

Oh--I found another tweak I did. I broke out the sentence "Five sharp raps sounded on his door" into its own paragraph. It's more shocking that way--gives it the prominence it deserves.

Found another: In paragraph 19, "Hold on!" etc., I changed the word said to added for his line "Gotta put some clothes on." This to me gave a little more quality of afterthought to this line, as well as suggesting a quieter, sotto voce quality. It also provided a bit of variety from the workhorse said (although, again, I have nothing against said and usually dislike efforts at "elegant variation" in using other verbs for this one).

Looking over the rewrite now, I see the usual wordiness of a first(ish) draft, and would prune out more if I went through it again. I'm not totally happy with the exchange between Langdon and the concierge--there are a couple of nonsequitur-ish aspects that arose as a result of deleting and rejigging while I was drafting the material. They are subtle, not noticeable to others, perhaps. But part of the goal is to make it so that events and information are happening in a motivated, connected way, so that the right information is being delivered at the right time. Each character is responding to the situation as it has just unfolded to that moment. An example: I moved around Langdon's checking of the time, finally settling on putting it after the concierge's telling him that a policeman wants to speak with him. Notice how this feels natural? "A cop wants to talk with me--what the hell time is it?" The weirdness of the hour is an index of how serious the situation is. It works for me, anyway.

There: some real inner workings of the writer's mind in the act of writing. Speaking for myself, this is fun!

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  • I actually took it for Cambridge UK, but since the important point is his fear for his son, it doesn't matter if the motor bike crashed in the UK or Massachusetts.

    By adding the arrested/jail part, you hightened the tension. Upsetting a conservative religious group (as in the original) doesn't get you into jail in France.

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