Ellen Booraem: Class of 2k8

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This is part of a year-long series about those intrepid newcomers, The Class of 2k8. To help marketing efforts for debut novelists, these 28 novelists have banded together to create a group marketing effort.

Ellen Booraem: Class of 2k8

Unnameables
Harcourt Children’s Books
October 1, 2008
ISBN-10: 0-15-206368-4
ISBN-13: 978-0-15-206368-9

Character Assassination

As we learned years ago in The Godfather, sometimes the only solution to your problems is to off someone.

I revised The Unnameables five times: twice before it sold to Harcourt Children’s Books, and three times at the urging of Harcourt’s amazing (and endlessly patient) Kathy Dawson.

Kathy is a phenomenal diagnostician. She didn’t propose that many direct solutions—instead, she proposed paths to solutions, leaving it up to me to do the walking.

For instance, at one point Kathy said she wanted to know more about my characters and setting before crisis loomed, and had I considered starting the book earlier in time? Two revisions later, the original first chapter was Chapter Six and I knew things about my setting that had been hiding in my hypothalamus. That knowledge changed the book in ways I never could have predicted.

But Kathy’s most jarring suggestion was to get rid of two main characters, a suggestion so radical that it left me breathless.

The book at that time was called Medford and the Goatman. Kathy suggested getting rid of the Goatman.

The book had two villains, siblings Deemer and Constance Learned. She suggested getting rid of Constance.

These may sound like direct solutions, which I just said Kathy didn’t traffic in. But it was the indirect effects—what happened in my brain while playing around with Kathy’s suggestions—that transformed the book.

The Unnameables takes place on an island settled in the early 1700s by disaffected European colonists. The settlers’ early survival required a focus on “useful” activities, and over the centuries this focus became an obsession. When the book opens, in modern times, everything on Island is named for and restricted to its Use, and so are the people.

Our hero is a foundling called Medford Runyuin, whose meaningless name and unknown background isolate him in the community, and who can’t stop himself from carving Unnameable objects. Enter the Goatman, a nameless wanderer who calls the wind but can’t control it. When the Goatman spills the beans about Medford’s carvings, he sets events in motion that change Medford’s life—and his island—forever.

In the draft she saw first, Kathy saw that the Goatman was insufficiently integrated into the plot—Medford’s story could proceed perfectly well without him. Why not just eliminate him?

Horrified but dutiful, I drafted a Goatman-free synopsis. To my amazement, I extracted the Goatman as smoothly as a pit from a ripe avocado. Unfortunately, most of the book’s charm and humor went with him. I emerged from the process determined to interweave his story with Medford’s to such an extent that even Kathy couldn’t disentangle them.

It took two revisions to solve the Goatman problem. Several characters remained underdeveloped, notably the villains. Kathy suggested saying goodbye to Constance and giving her lines to Deemer. I experimented, expecting to find that I couldn’t eliminate such a brilliantly conceived character. Instead, I discovered things about Deemer that made my jaw drop, things that should have been obvious from the start and were already there between the lines.

One of the oddest things about writing fiction, I find, is that the solutions always turn out to be right there in your text if you just squint at them right. As a rule, I do my best squinting in the shower or waking up from a nap.

Sometimes, though, character assassination has the same effect.

Read more about 2k8 authors

March: Jody Feldman
April: Zu Vincent
April: M.P. Barker
May: Sarah Prineas
June: Daphne Grab
July: N.A. Nelson
August: Laurel Snyder
September: Nancy Viau
October: Ellen Booraem
October: Kristin O’Donnel Tubb
October: P.J. Hoover
October: Courtney Sheinmel
November: Stacy Nyikos

1 Comment
  • Jody Feldman
    October 2, 2008

    Regarding solutions within the text: I am suddenly finding that to be so, so true. Lots of great stuff in here, Ellen.