The Tangled Web We Weave

[June 2010] In 1997, I had the chance to read Bag of Bones by Stephen King in manuscript. This was the first time I’d ever read one of his first drafts, and the experience of plowing through that huge stack of loose pages is one that I remember fondly.

When the book was released a year later, I noticed something unusual. There was an entire subtext in the novel that hadn’t been there before. While doing research for The Stephen King Illustrated Companion, I learned that King’s wife, Tabitha, made a suggestion that led to this change.

In the opening pages of Bag of Bones, the protagonist’s wife, Jo Noonan, drops dead from a brain aneurysm outside of the local pharmacy. The resulting book deals with Mike Noonan’s response to this unexpected loss. However, on page 14 of the first draft, the autopsy reveals that Jo Noonan was pregnant. In the margins, Tabitha King notes: “Do this differently. Pregnancy test” and  “Does he find pregnancy test in purse or in prescription bag?”

In the second draft, instead of learning about Jo’s pregnancy from the autopsy, Noonan asks the assistant ME whether she was pregnant. (The two manuscript pages are reproduced side by side in The Stephen King Illustrated Companion). Though it’s a subtle change, it plays into the book’s theme of secrets. In the first version, it was possible that Jo didn’t know she was pregnant. In the revised version, though, it’s clear that she suspected it was possible, but hadn’t told her husband. Why? Her actions lead Mike to suspect that she might have been having an affair. All this from one little note in the margin.

What impressed me was the way King was able to weave this new subtext of suspicion into the manuscript. It was a delicate surgical process. A sentence here, a paragraph there, a rewording or a change of tone somewhere else. It wasn’t a radical rewrite—and yet it was. It added another layer of depth to the book. Some day I’d like to do a thorough analysis of how this was done.

I was reminded of this by my work on a novel in progress. I finished the first draft a while back and gave it to my agent for his feedback. In my first draft, a character is seriously injured at the end of the first chapter and spends most of the novel in a coma that becomes a persistent vegetative state until ultimately the protagonist has to deal with turning off life support. I thought this subplot would be a way of developing his character. However, my agent suggested that we never got a chance to see the injured character alive for more than a few pages, and we didn’t get much of a sense of the lost relationship that plagues the protagonist throughout the book.

So, my idea was to keep the injured character alive and reserve the attack until later in the novel, when it might have more emotional impact. However, that means that in the second draft I have to weave in someone who previously was stuck in a hospital bed on life support for hundreds of pages. I have to give her things to do and delve more deeply into her character than I had intended. I can’t just stick her in at random the way they injected Forrest Gump into historical scenes or restaged scenes in Lost to show that Nikki and Paulo were present.

Unlike those two scenarios, my character is a perturbation. Otherwise she remains as lifeless as if she were still comatose in the hospital. A cardboard standup figure placed at convenient places throughout the book to remind people she still exists.

As you might imagine, that means a fairly radical revision in the second draft. Though the overall plot remains mostly the same, the means of executing that plot is different. The protagonist, instead of moping around because his on-again/off-again girlfriend is in limbo, must now interact with a living, breathing, animated character. She’s going to have her own agenda that will sometimes align with his, but not always. It’s a new conflict.

The process is both daunting and exciting. If done properly, I think it could dramatically expand the novel’s depth. It’s not quite the delicate surgery King did in Bag of Bones. It’s more like taking the entire book apart and reassembling it with new parts that force me to reshape and perhaps even dispose of some of the existing parts.

I knew the story in its original form for so long that it’s difficult to adjust to the new status quo. To force myself off the beaten track and into new territory, I wrote a brand new opening chapter with a scene that doesn’t appear in the first draft. It’s a bit like writing an alternate history version of my own book. In the (real?) story, the character is severely injured on page 10 but in this new, alternate version of “reality,” she gets to live out more of her life. She might even survive the entire book. I’m not sure of that part yet. I’ll let you know when I get there.

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