Killing your 18th c specialist darlings

My imaginary English Department was overstaffed, according to fictional administrators. Unfortunately, the first readers of my novel ms said the same thing. One of those professors, everyone said, has got to go. And it was pretty clear who had the least seniority.

I hated firing the poor guy. Jay’s specialty is not, in real life, my favorite literary period. But my character taught what’s called the long eighteenth century, and was the only tenure-track person between the Renaissance and the Romantics. Milton shoring up one end! Austen and Blake straddling the other!

Fictionally bound to a traditional coverage model, I dug in at first and made his presence bigger and more distinct. Turned out he was a burly blond dude from the midwest, young, a little ADHD, the kind of person who sits at your desk and snaps your stapler open and shut when you’re talking. He was shocked, shocked, to realize some colleagues did not regard his specialty as instrumental in the earth’s rotation. He also had a boyfriend in D.C. and a mermaid-shaped lamp in his office. Aside from an occasional panic attack about tenure, he was kind of oblivious, and happy.

I’m clearly egotistically invested in my own world-making, because disappearing him seemed SO MEAN. But I finally sharpened my weapons this week. It felt less like eviction than murder, the science fictional alternate universe kind where no one admits the lost person ever existed. His frozen appetizer pastries vanish from the potluck. Someone else has to spew crackers at the secret meeting and keep time at the public one. A bunch of lines never get spoken, or come out of someone else’s mouth, with fewer exclamation points. And when a crucial piece of information comes in via text alert, it now vibrates the phone of his former partner in crime, the other tenure-track member of the department, Camille. She’s lonelier these days.

Writing this novel was a whirlwind of serious fun. Revising it has required way more hard thinking and finicky patience. This is not an especially long or ambitious ms (80,000 words, one narrator, chronological, and obviously using a kind of workplace I know well–I wasn’t sure I could do it at all, so my plan was straightforward). Yet there are inevitably gears inside gears, so every small alteration requires days of labor, and there have been a lot of small alterations. The bigger ones–changing pacing, replotting–well, they’re that much tougher to implement. You writers of long forms, man: hats off. My experiment was worthwhile even if it goes nowhere, because I’ve learned so much. This poet is now vastly more appreciative of the novelist’s labors.

And how in the hell did anyone do this before the advent of word processing? I guess Jay would know.

Rest in peace, fictional character, now residing only in this blog post. I know the novel’s better off without you, but still, buddy, I’m sorry.

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