Thursday, July 28, 2011

International Sh*tty First Draft Week—Day 4

The fourth and final Guest Author in the Sh*tty First Draft series is Alexander Chee, author of the novel Edinburgh. He has been at work on his new novel, The Queen of the Night, for several years. Since there is no cover art for The Queen of the Night yet, here is the cover of Alexander's previous novel, Edinburgh:

What a Tangled Web We Weave...

Revising The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

This is one of The Queen of the Night's oldest sections, and dates from March of 2004, a first draft. I revised it and eventually discarded it, though most if not all all of the themes here are at work in the novel still—a love triangle with at least one other hidden triangle inside of it, i.e., a secret other third party. The royal insignia, that is still significant in the novel, but differently.

The novel is about a young woman who is in sexual and artistic bondage to an older man, who uses her for various purposes, sexual, romantic, political. When I say bondage, I mean, he bought her from a brothel, paying off her contract. He is a tenor singer and a spy, and was looking for someone who had already been discarded, who he could then discard as he wanted to, when he was done with her. But in the process of his use of her, he eventually makes her over into a singer also, a soprano, and he falls in love with her. Or at least, that's what he believes. Because who wouldn't fall in love with someone who basically did whatever you demanded, and had to, in fact, because he owned you?

But by the time the tenor realizes this, he has lost her to a young composer, and she is intent only on escaping him. In this scene, she's preparing to go and preview parts of an opera the composer has written on a commission from the Russian empress, who intends it as an entertainment for the young Alexander's birthday. She is creating the lead role in it at the composer's request. She and the composer are preparing for the trip, which allows them a moment together—they are each with other, more powerful lovers. This trip allows them to sneak off together.

But the cufflinks will offend the empress, or at least, that was the intention when I wrote this first draft. That a gift which was first an affectionate one, from the prince to the tenor, then became an offhand one, practically a discard tossed to a mistress, who should have refused it. But she didn't, she kept it, and then it became an affectionate gesture once more, and obeying the gift's precise instructions. But this, I decided, would bring about what they sought to avoid, albeit unintentionally—the discovery of and sundering of their affair.

In that early draft it was the beginning of Chapter 8.

I'll say that I wouldn't be surprised in the least if I returned this to the draft, or some of it, but for now, neither version is in it, and I hope it's instructive. When I take something out of a draft, it's often because it doesn't belong where I put it---but it still belongs somewhere. So I save it.

They had been the cufflinks of the young Prussian prince, the beautiful young prince, who was now the beautiful young king. He had sent them to Niemanns, the tenor, after one of his performances, along with a cross he still wore on his neck when he offered me these. They were ivory swans on a sapphire field and set on white gold.

The young tenor at that time a lover. Of us both, as I would learn.

Was there an audience with the prince, I asked.

He made no answer. I blushed.

Take them, he said. Don’t you like them? Take them. Just don’t wear them in Germany.

I did as he asked.

He had found me at the Pillon, in my swan mask. He took me from there and set me up with his friends in an apartment near the Paris Opera; for him, really, though the others found it convenient. He was the one who paid for my voice lessons, took me to see the great operas, and in them, the great divas. He was the one who brought me to see the Lucia at La Scala that made me reach for all of this, who laughed afterwards, when I imitated her on the street. They think you are her, he said, of the passersby staring, as if perhaps I was the woman I imitated⎯for I did look like her, though younger. I remember how I laughed at him. Do you really think so, I said.

20 years later, when the composer needed a pair for our audience with the Russian Empress, I brought them out, thinking they would bring us luck. He examined them carefully. They’re lovely, he said.

Don’t wear them in Germany, I said.

Alexander Chee is the author of Edinburgh. He blogs at Koreanish.

To mark the conclusion of International Sh*tty First Draft Week, INTERN will be holding a Sh*tty First Draft contest tomorrow (Friday) open to everyone! To enter, simply post an excerpt from your own sh*tty first draft in the comments of tomorrow's post. INTERN will randomly select three winners—because the whole point of a sh*tty first draft is to write first and judge later.

Happy drafting!


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