There he is, of course. The man himself. Mr Ernest Hemingway, holding his ‘edit this’ gun. Hemingway once wrote, “The first draft of everything is shit.”
Well, I’ve just finished reading the first draft of my technothriller, Flashback. Is it shit? Before I answer, I’ll wave the usual caveat lector: The primary aim of this blog is to capture the contrary genie of the writing muse, and the next few paragraphs will, perhaps, not be all that interesting to the general reader. Writers, be my guests.
First Impressions: High-altitude
Right. Good. I’ve spent a good four months of my life writing the skeleton of a story. The first thing I want to know about the book is whether it is viable as a book at all. Does it have greater artistic merit than a similar weight of used toilet paper?
The answer is ‘just’. Beneath the surface of this 125,000-word string of typos and ‘Write this bit when the research is done’ lurks a decent book. Far below that level, way deep down, there might even be a good book. But I don’t even want to think of the work necessary to disinter it. Certainly it will involve a call to Phil off Time Team.
A first draft is like collecting together snazzy components — a spanking-new hard drive, a swanky keyboard, a bit of love — throwing them into the air, and then inspecting the pile to see if you’ve made a Macbook yet. (Excuse that simile; it’s quite possible that I’m morbidly obsessed with Apple products.) A draft is like building an aeroplane without any testing (but you’ve seen lots of other aeroplanes), climbing into the cockpit, waving hopefully at your girlfriend, and tipping off the edge of a cliff.
Is there a theme? If so, does it work?
A week back, I harangued Haruki Murakami (it’s OK; he wasn’t listening) for pursuing a theme that was poisonous to a fundamental component of narrative fiction: the protagonist as a driving force. It appears that the theme of Flashback could fall into the same category. Here’s how I tried to get around the problem: We have a time traveler — Saskia Brandt — who is well aware, being from the future, that the actions and decisions of all those around her are completely determined. However, she refuses to accept this; that makes her human. Another character, also from the future — known only as Kirby — similarly becomes aware that all the actions of those around him are determined. But he — being in his own ‘present’ — thinks he is immune. That is, while all those around are zombies, he alone is ‘alive’. The result? This provides the foundation for psychopathic behaviour; for him, a man is a puppet. Not a human. The strings can be cut with impunity. So the theme is about the different reactions to in-your-face evidence of the impossibility of free will. Does it work, considering that free will is crucial (imho) for a narrative to sustain itself? Well, I think so. At least, this theme is what a reader might induct from the way the story unfolds.
Are the Characters Compelling?
I can’t stand fiction where the villain is just plain bad. I want the villain to be the hero of his own story, and I think that the villain of this piece (the very same Kirby) is well-motivated. Throughout the draft, I asked myself: Could I rewrite this story from the perspective of the villain and make it believable? If so, he’s a good, well imagined character. If not, start again. This wasn’t a great challenge in the sense that — at least in my head — characters in my fiction are not characters but people. (Once, an early reader of Déjà Vu told me that he thought one of the characters was a stereotype. I was piqued. Not because, for him, the fiction had not worked. I simply thought, “Bastard called Saskia a stereotype!”)
The main character, Saskia Brandt, is drawn from my first novel, Déjà Vu, and I know her well. (That said, Flashback is not really a sequel; Saskia is the only common character.) She behaved brilliantly throughout the writing process, and I always wanted her the scenes. But does she work in the first draft? Yeah, basically.
The other main character, Jem, is more problematic. Her story is one of will she/won’t she redeem herself. This means the reader is introduced to her as a fairly reprehensible character. Since she is followed closely through long sections of the book, will readers care when she is in peril? Right now, I don’t know. A thriller usually works when the peril is overt, life-threatening and clear. If Jem is not compelling — i.e. the reader is indifferent to her plight — Flashback is going to fall on its fat arse.
I’ve surprised myself by, I think, not doing too bad a job of the love affair between Saskia and Jem. Due to a chromosonal imbalance, I am, it appears, male, and I did not think it would be very easy to pull off a convincing description of a female-female relationship. But I’m happy with it. It’s possible that the relationship hasn’t worked at all, despite my impressions; I’ll learn that when my happy few (beta-testers) take a look at the manuscript. I like to throw in at least one risky element into a piece of fiction, and this is the risk in Flashback. At best, the lack of a believable relationship between Saskia and Jem would make it difficult to appreciate what one would do for the other; at worst, it would make the story laughable, and smash the careful fictions to smithereens.
Is the story too complex?
This is another problem. My fiction always has asked a lot of the reader. (I nod in the direction of Hemingway insofar as my goal is economy at all levels of the story, from the words up; I also like scenes where the elephant in the room barely gets a mention.) Quite frankly, the story is too difficult to understand at this point in the drafting process. Hell, I don’t understand it all the time. “Diamond? What diamond? And how did that guy survive getting sucked out of an airliner at cruising height? Expatiate, Hocking.” Fortunately, the narrative is pretty airtight, and I think I can flag up the significant bits without resort to Da Vinci Code-level bullshit like, “As you know, Bob, an anagram is a nonword formed from the jumbled letters of a real word.”
So these are my initial impressions based upon a first reading of the first draft. I wasn’t wasting my time by writing it, but I’ve got a shit load of work to do. If I worked full time on the manuscript from this point (and I can’t, since I’m also working on Proper Job, and I have an idea for a ‘literary’ novel, God help me), Flashback could be reasonably complete by Christmas. By then, my experiment to see whether I can make any money from writing may be at an end. I’ll keep a record of the major changes I make to the manuscript as I go on. Is, as Mr Hemingway suggests, the first draft of Flashback shit? No. But it isn’t far off. It’s more like…vomit. The one per cent of inspiration has come and gone. Now it’s time to get sweaty.