Round Peg, Hexagonal Hole… No, Pentagonal. No, Heptagonal!

by David D. Levine

I’ve often said that writing for Wild Cards is as close as I’m likely to get to working in television. As with a television series, in addition to your own creations you are working with characters and settings invented by other people, an existing backstory which is already out in the world and can’t be changed, and fans who will call you on your errors if you mess up. There’s certainly room to innovate within a single story (episode), but it has to function in the context of the rest of the book (season) and some things you might want to do may have to change or be eliminated for the sake of the larger story arc. And, whether or not you are in the same room as the other writers, your work and their work impact each other and you have to communicate with them and approve of those interactions.

Working in the Wild Cards universe is also like writing for television because George R. R. Martin and assistant editor Melinda M. Snodgrass both have a background in television, both having served as story editors and producers as well as writers, and they bring that experience to bear when editing the Wild Cards books. They are two of the best editors I have ever worked with; their sense of character, story logic, and the rhythm of dramatic beats are unparalleled. George in particular has an amazing ability to spot the one place in a story where a tiny change, properly carried through with all its ramifications, can make the whole story collapse and reshape itself into a new and more effective configuration. And, of course, George seems to have the entire history of the Wild Cards universe in his head.

Editing, of course, is something that is generally completely invisible to the reader. So I’m going to give you an example of how editing made one of my stories work better and fit into the rest of the book.

The process of writing a Wild Cards story begins with a pitch. Once the book has been contracted with a publisher, George sends out a description of the book’s setting, flavor, structure, overall plot, and theme to the whole Wild Cards consortium. The writers then submit pitches — brief descriptions of stories and new characters that might fit into the book. Sometimes these new characters are the main or secondary characters of a writer’s story; others are “redshirts” and other secondary characters invented for this book who are intended to be shared among multiple stories, and (as the name “redshirts” implies) may not survive to the next book. George and/or the book’s co-editor, if any, then looks over the pitches and decides which ones will go forward. Often there are requests for changes at this stage.

Lowball, the 22nd Wild Cards book, was the second of three books in the “Fort Freak triad.” As the middle book in a trilogy, it was intended to build on the characters and ideas introduced in Fort Freak and set the stage for the climactic events of the third book, High Stakes. The basic concept for this book was this: jokers are going missing, in Jokertown and elsewhere, and appearing in a bizarre and disturbing series of “Joker Fight Club” DVDs. The detectives of New York’s 5th Precinct investigate, and the videos turn out to be coming from somewhere outside of the world we know. The first request after the book was contracted was for pitches for the “interstitial,” the long story which is split into multiple parts and forms the spine of the action.

I decided to pitch for the interstitial: a story entitled “Eel Trap,” in which a new character called Eel — an honest hard-working Chinese-American boy with a fishy face, electrical powers, and criminal elements in his family — winds up being dragged, step by step and against his will, into the criminal “joker fight club” operation, which is headed by the demonic Gatekeeper (originally seen in Ace In The Hole). But when he learns that the DVDs are part of a horrific scheme to turn the planet Earth into an eternal fight club, generating negative energy forever for demons from another dimension, he rebels and helps to bring the whole operation down. This pitch was not accepted, in part because the Gatekeeper character was also being considered for another project (which never did come to fruition, but them’s the breaks), and the spine of Lowball wound up being something completely different.

But I also pitched a non-interstitial story, entitled “Cry Wolf,” about my character Eddie Carmichael aka The Cartoonist. I originally created Eddie when I was pitching for the revised Wild Cards Volume One; his underground-cartoon-like creations were originally designed for the milieu of the 1960s. George preferred another pitch of mine, which was eventually published as “Powers,” but he really liked Eddie and suggested I repurpose him as a contract sketch artist for Fort Freak. I did so, and he was accepted into the canon as such, but though he was referred to a couple of times in the book Fort Freak he didn’t actually appear on the page. Anyway, my “Cry Wolf” pitch was accepted, with some modifications. Also, the character Eel from my interstitial pitch was accepted as a redshirt, though he was changed from a Chinese-American guy with a good heart to a nasty Russian thug, and also gained the ability to morph into a real giant eel.

So I set to work on “Cry Wolf,” and all the other writers accepted into the book started working on their stories at the same time. We all had the basic idea for the book, and a very rough sketch of the interstitial, but there was a Catch-22 in that the interstitial depended on the other stories and vice versa! We answered the open questions as best we could in our drafts and corresponded via email as our stories developed. We sent those scenes in our stories in which other writers’ characters appeared to those writers for approval. I used my own revised character Eel (now The Eel) as one of the thugs who pursues Eddie. And then the deadline came, as deadlines always do, and we all turned in our first drafts to George and his co-editor Melinda.

Some months passed, and then George got back to me with his comments on my story. He liked it, in general, but there were a few loose ends and miscues that needed to be addressed, places where the characters and pacing could be strengthened, and suchlike. He also suggested changes in Eddie’s age and in the way his power worked, and a replacement of some anonymous background characters with established Fort Freak detectives. There were also, as expected, some changes to be made to make the story fit in with the rest of the book… notably the two detectives I’d written interacting with Eddie on the case. “You did a nice job with Razor Joan and Shades,” George wrote. “However, no one else is using them… in fact, I don’t think they are even mentioned in the rest of the book, aside from your story.  So in the interest of tightening the mosaic again, let’s make the detectives in this scene Michael Stevens and his brand new, just promoted partner, Francis F.X. Black.”

It was a very interesting writing exercise to replace those two detectives with two different detectives. The scenes remained the same, in terms of the information conveyed and its effect on the plot, but not only the names and pronouns but every single action and speech had to be examined and revised. Even the way the character signed Eddie’s time card required a different verb (Razor Joan “slashed” her signature across the bottom of the card, Detective Stevens “scrawled” it). In this case I was working with existing characters, created by others, so there was prior art showing how they should move and speak. But if you imagine doing this in your own work — how would this scene be different if I replaced this character with a different character? — it might be a good way for you to interrogate yourself about how your characters differ from each other. If you could drop in one character in place of another without changing the scene at all, that probably indicates that the characters or the scene could be strengthened.

I sent in the revised file. A few weeks later I got a note from Melinda: “At the moment I only have one minor change in your story. Because of time constraints and the way the story is laying out Mike Cassutt and I will be handling the bulk of the investigation. Mary Anne will focus on her personal story. So, it will be Franny who calls in Eddie, because he’s been assigned what the precinct initially believes is a minor case of missing jokers. Franny is young, and sweet and earnest, very much as you have him.  He plays tough very poorly.  He’s also under a lot of strain because he’s been unfairly jumped over the heads of fellow officers, and he’s rather a pariah in the precinct.” This change meant that Detective Stevens, Mary Anne’s character, was essentially off the case, so many of  his lines and actions would have to be given to Franny.

The differences were interesting. Razor Joan was caustic, Detective Stevens was cool and professional, but Franny was sweet and naive; many of Razor Joan’s lines worked well in Stevens’s mouth but had to be changed completely for Franny. For example, here’s the first telephone conversation between Eddie and Razor Joan:


“This is Detective Lonegan at the Fifth Precinct.  We need a sketch artist right away.  Are you available?”

“Uh, yeah.”  The response was automatic.  As a freelance artist, he couldn’t afford to turn down work.  “I can be there by nine.”

“Eight-thirty.”  Some people might have made it a request.

“I’ll do my best.”


Here it is with Michael Stevens:


“This is Detective Stevens at the Fifth Precinct.  We need a sketch artist right away.  Are you available?”

“Uh, yeah.”  The response was automatic.  As a freelance artist, he couldn’t afford to turn down work.  “I can be there by nine.”

“Make it eight-thirty.”

“I’ll do my best.”


And here it is with Franny:


“This is Detective Black at the Fifth Precinct.  We need a sketch artist right away.  Are you available?”

“Uh, yeah.”  The response was automatic.  As a freelance artist, he couldn’t afford to turn down work.  “I can be there by nine.”

“Could you make it eight-thirty?”

“I’ll do my best.”


Some other changes were required because the emphasis of the case had changed; in the drafts where Razor Joan and Detective Stevens were investigating the case was a string of kidnappings, but when the book was revised to put Franny in charge it was downgraded to a missing persons investigation, with the true severity of the situation not revealing itself until later in the book. This confluence of changes is not coincidental: when brand new detective Franny was put in charge (required because of the changing availability of some of the writers) it no longer made sense for the case to be a significant one. But this change was actually beneficial to the book! By lowering the apparent stakes at the beginning, it made the increase in tension and significance over the course of the book greater.

This kind of back-and-forth between character and plot is typical in Wild Cards and also in my own writing. Any change in a character (replacing one character with another, or changing a character’s personality or motivations) requires re-considering all the plot points involving that character, and a significant change in plot may imply a change in character motivations or personality before, during, or after the change.

Worldbuilding, too, is often involved in this dance. In this case the world was well established, but in short stories I often find myself modifying the technology or magic system to either respond to a change in the plot or make a desired change possible. And those plot changes can impact the characters, which may in turn affect the plot and setting.

Sometimes I will invent a little detail — just an offhand mention of some creature or material or personality tic, just to make the world or character feel more real — and then find later, to my own surprise, that it’s significant to the plot. Is my subconscious mind planting that detail because it knows it will be needed later? More likely the detail is just made up on the spot, but my subconscious keeps it in mind and brings it forward for me when I need an answer to a plot problem. Either way… thanks, brain!

When does this stop? When do you stop changing the plot in response to changes in the character, or the worldbuilding to support the plot? In the case of Wild Cards, there’s always a deadline (and despite any complaints that people may have about George’s writing speed on the Song of Ice and Fire, he always makes sure that the Wild Cards train runs on time). And when I’m writing my own stuff on spec, there comes a time when you say “okay, this is done.” Learning to recognize when the point of “good enough” has been reached — when you’ve filed enough corners off of that square peg that it can be crammed into the round hole labeled “ready to submit” — is one of the things that differentiates a writer still learning her craft from one who’s getting ready to publish. But I’m still learning.

Speaking of which, I hear the editor clearing his throat. So off this goes.