Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Justine Conundrum

by David Ellis

I’ve had a couple of interesting things happen with regard to my latest book, THE HIDDEN MAN. One is just a lesson I learned, which I will share briefly. The other one has become a debate in my mind that I’d ask for your feedback on.

And before that, I guess I should give one of those trendy SPOILER ALERTS! This entire blog will give away a minor surprise, by which I mean, not the “final” plot twist but something you will learn somewhere around page 41 of the book. (I hate that, by the way; I like to have internal surprises, before the final twist, but it makes it a lot harder to promote the book, because you’re afraid to say anything in the promo. Most of the reviews and blogs that describe my protagonist give away the early surprise.)

First, the lesson. Let’s just say, if you’re going to have little girls who wind up dead in one of your books, make sure that, before choosing the names of those dead girls, you (or your wife) have passed the child-bearing years. Or, pick names for those dead girls that have absolutely no chance of making a short list for your own children’s names.

I already announced recently the birth of my new daughter, Julia Grace. Love the name, and it’s kind of a family name, and I wouldn’t trade it now for anything … but our first choice for a name was the name of a dead girl in THE HIDDEN MAN. I was informed, by no less a literary giant than critic David J. Montgomery, that I absolutely, positively could NOT name my daughter after a recent dead girl in one of my novels. Bad karma, said he. As always, my wife and I follow everything Mr. Montgomery says. (Except that one piece of advice, a couple years back; strawberry jelly, Barry White and silk sheets are not a match made in heaven, Dave.)

Now for your help. I did something in my novel that confused people. It was a flashback, and it involved a child named “Justine.” Without giving too much away, people weren’t sure whether Justine really existed or was a figment of my protagonist’s imagination. The artist in me was very disappointed in myself. I should have seen that potential for confusion, because even my editor called my attention to it. But I missed it. And I have received somewhere between 50 and 75 emails from fans saying, “Loved the book but I was scratching my head ….” The absolute last thing I wanted was for readers to be confused on this point, to be scratching their head. This passage in the novel was NOT, by any means, integral to the novel. It could very easily be discarded.

So, my plan is to tell my publisher to take out those couple of paragraphs from the paperback edition. Solve the problem. But then the artist in me heard a knock on the door. The person knocking was a very rare visitor: The promoter in me.

50 to 75 people emailed me about the book for this reason. 50 to 75 new email addresses for my mailing list. 50 to 75 people with whom I had a brief conversation, all of them grateful for the personal reply and, presumably, walking away with positive feelings. The math would say that with the higher paperback distribution, that could be 400 to 500 emails from new readers next year. Keep in mind, this passage, while confusing, really doesn't affect the plot at all. That's why I was so mad at myself ... but also why you could make an argument that it's no big deal.

So, dear friends, fellow artists and promoters, I ask you: Who wins? The artist or the promoter? Do I take out this confusing passage in the paperback edition or leave it in?


Anonymous said...

It was extremely interesting for me to read that blog. Thanx for it. I like such topics and everything that is connected to them. I would like to read more on that blog soon.

David J. Montgomery said...

Julia Grace is a beautiful name! Of course, MY daughter is still named after the dead girl....

I think you should leave the passage in, but not for either of the reasons you mention. I think a paperback reissue of a novel should be the same as the hardback. I think it's odd to change things, although I know it does happen. But if you change passages, then people have read two different versions of the book, and that's just weird.

It's fine to fix a typo or if a name gets inadvertently switched or whatever. But no changing plot points, even minor ones.

So I say: leave it like it is.

As for my other advice...I said JELLO not jelly. Sheesh.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

I'm going to take the other side. If you have an opportunity to make a minor change that you think will make the novel better, you should do it. Filmmakers make changes for the DVD (and posterity) all the time. I suspect more people will be upset that they were confused by this point then will be outraged that the text of the hardcover and the paperback differ in some minor way.

Barbara D'Amato said...

I agree with Kevin. Go with your Inner Artist.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

I should have said, "More people will be made happy that you clarified the point than will be upset that the paperback differs slightly from the hardcover. Why do I have to be so negative all the time?

Sean Chercover said...

Dave- I added a very short scene to the final chapter of TRIGGER CITY for the paperback edition. I did it simply because I felt that it added resonance to the ending, making for a better book.

I don't think a few hundred names added to your email database is worth it. The reason they're writing, after all, is because something bugged them about the read. No way to measure, but how many readers end up feeling less satisfied by the read, because of that 'head-scratching' moment, and don't write to you?

IMO, the goal is always to publish the best book you can.

David Ellis said...

Interesting thoughts, everyone. Thanks. I thought everyone would be saying the same thing here. For the record, I am most likely going to change it.

Darwyn Jones said...

My thought when I first read this was, "Wait, he knows there's confusion about a certain area and he wants to intentionally leave it alone for the purpose of continuing the confusion?"

I'm glad you're changing it. I just couldn't reconcile it with the goal of writing the best book possible.