Writing a great draft (by crucifying my darlings)

What do the people below have in common?

solzhenitsin

John McCain

Jk rowling

Heracles

Bertrand_Russell_1950

Dalai Lama

In other words: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, John McCain, J.K. Rowling, Hercules, Bertrand Russell and the Dalai Lama.

Answer: They are people whose “lives” or stories I have cut from the second draft of my book manuscript.

Now, I am entirely aware that seeing these people on the same list is bizarre to begin with. What could they possibly have done in the same book–my book-in the first place? Why would I cut them out now? And who might be left?

I’m not at liberty to answer these questions right now, but I will say this:

Good writing and editing is in part about “crucifying your darlings,” as Ed Carr, one of my editors at The Economist, once said to me. And I have decided–boldly and without regret–that my book will be better with fewer lives.

Less is more, in other words. The total word count has stayed the same, but I have gone much deeper into the characters I have chosen, and have done a much better job weaving them together into precisely the narrative about success and failure that I am trying to produce.

I am very happy with the story that’s emerging. This, to me, is the fun part. How absurd that must sound to everybody else.

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Postscript on McCain

Read David Grann in The New Yorker on what I consider an epic, a Greek, a heart-rending tragedy: the transformation, under pressure, of a great man, John McCain.

This is a man who was once “more at peace when he was losing” and who, above all, was afraid only of one thing: losing his honor.

Thinking in terms of the underlying idea for my book, I can’t help but wonder whether his (unexpected) “triumph” in the primaries was in fact the great “impostor” of his life, leading to an all-encompassing “disaster.”

(To those of you who are new to this blog, those words are from a Kipling poem that inspired my entire book.)


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Obama

My three-year old has been yelling “Obama” all day at kindergarten.

So it’s finally over. Enough with the blogging about it now, for a while (and back to my book). But, because it is a historic moment, this last post to mark it.

From us at The Economist, two pieces:

1) Congratulations to the winner, with a warning about the burden of high expectations. And perspective:

This week America can claim more credibly that any other western country to have at last become politically colour-blind…. America will now have a president with half-brothers in Kenya, old schoolmates in Indonesia and a view of the world that seems to be based on respect rather than confrontation.

2) Condolences to the loser, who used to be, and may be again, a man to like and respect, but who became tragic:


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More on parents and success

Thanks to Freda Zietlow for pointing me to this piece in the Wall Street Journal on the dysfunctional families of future presidents.

As you guys already know, in one chapter of my book I’m looking into the subtle and unsubtle ways that parents influence the future success and failure of their children. Hamilcar played a huge role in the life of his son Hannibal (my main character), and not just while Hamilcar was alive.

Now, the Journal‘s Sue Shellenbarger has this to say about US presidents and their parents:

The families that have produced U.S. presidents … show a striking tendency to be deeply flawed. The childhoods of past presidents have been marked to an unusual degree by absent fathers, mothers so overinvolved that they could easily have been the original helicopter parents, and in some cases outright dysfunction…

Childhood events that would destroy most children seem somehow to spark greatness in leaders-to-be, says Doug Wead, author of two books on presidents’ families. As two candidates with highly unusual family backgrounds vie for the presidency, Mr. Wead even sees Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama — to different degrees and in starkly different ways — fitting a pattern he describes as “Mama’s boys with absent fathers who were perceived by the sons as high achievers,” he says….

Some presidents’ families have been famously dysfunctional. Thomas Lincoln abandoned 9-year-old Abraham and his sister, 12, for several months in their frontier cabin right after the death of their mother, while he went to find a new wife, says Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author most recently of “Team of Rivals,” a book about Lincoln. When Thomas finally returned with their new stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston, the couple found them “wild — ragged and dirty,” seeming barely human, the stepmother later wrote…

In another notably troubled family, Bill Clinton’s father died before Bill was born; his stepfather was a womanizer and an alcoholic who beat his mother, Virginia, according to biographer David Maraniss. Although Virginia, a warm, nurturing woman, made her son the adored centerpiece of the family, President Clinton said later that he often pined for his birth father…

Even the McCain family, with its tradition of distinguished military service, fits the pattern of an absent father and an overinvolved mother who fills the gap, Mr. Wead says. Sen. McCain’s father was a respected four-star Navy admiral and commander of Pacific forces in the Vietnam war, but he was mostly absent from home during Sen. McCain’s childhood. Sen. McCain reflects pride in his father and was taught to regard his long absences “not as a deprivation, but as an honor.”…


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Sarah Palin: barracuda borealis

Maureen Dowd

Maureen Dowd

I’m trying to figure out how I feel about Maureen Dowd’s column in the New York Times today, half of which she writes … in mock Latin!!! That’s right. The language of Cicero and Caesar–and, of course, of my guys, Fabius and Scipio–to analyze Ioannes McCainus and Sara Palina.

You loyal readers will know that I am all for the classics, for various reasons including this one and this one. Perhaps Dowd’s column helps. Still, how close to a gimmick she comes, from a writer’s point of view. I get it, but I studied Latin for four years.


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If the whole world were the electoral college….

I rarely digress from the two threads of this blog (the writing of my book, and book-publishing and book-writing in general), but this is just too fun.

We at The Economist are running a global election for US president. You vote as part of your country. Each country has a specific number of votes in the world’s electoral college, according to the same formula that America uses in its own electoral college.

So go check it out, and vote.


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A lot about fathers

So I’m staring at the two books that have just dropped from the pile (a tall one) onto the floor, and they are titled: Faith of My Fathers (left) and Dreams from My Father (right).

“This boy is really doing his civic homework during an important election,” you may be saying. Actually, no. I’m doing research for (no surprises) my book.

You see, these two–Obama and McCain–made me think of my main characters, Hannibal and Scipio. No, it’s not because Obama is half African (I’ve explained here why I don’t think that Hannibal was “African” in that sense). No, it’s not because McCain has “something Roman about him”, as a friend of mine said, referring to McCain’s martial honor code. And it’s only a little bit because both pairs were formidable rivals and opponents.

It’s because Hannibal and Scipio, if they had written books, might well have given them the exact same titles.

Hannibal lived his life as he did, one could argue, because he inherited a “dream from his father,” Hamilcar. Hamilcar had fought the Romans in the First Punic War, and felt humiliated when Rome won, and wanted revenge. He even made Hannibal, when the boy was nine, swear an oath to keep the “faith of his father”. (100falcons has a nice write-up of it here.)

Scipio could have said the same. He had the same name as his father, Publius Cornelius Scipio, and fought in his father’s army against Hannibal, when Hannibal seemed invincible. His father and uncle later died in battle against Hannibal’s brothers, Hasdrubal and Mago. Scipio, too, was keeping the “faith of his fathers” when he rose at a precocious age to become Rome’s leader and last hope.

So, fathers clearly matter. Or perhaps only for sons? For Amy Tan, it seems to have been her mother who was the important early influencer.

Lots to ponder. Lots to ponder. The role of background in life choices, goal-setting, Success, failure….


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