★ The Amber Rooms: Thoughts on the First Draft

Yesterday even­ing, I expor­ted the first draft of The Amber Rooms — Saskia Brandt novel three — to my Kindle with a plan to read it quickly and estab­lish how much work it needs prior to pub­lic­a­tion. I have, delib­er­ately, com­mit­ted myself to a 2012 pub­lic­a­tion date for the book. This gives me space to re-draft three (maybe four) times, on the assump­tion that a single draft­ing takes three or four months. (I’ll have the energy to work about half an hour, per­haps an hour, when I come home from the day job.)

What is a first draft? Hell, what’s a draft? Back in the day, when writers pro­duced long-hand manu­scripts and had them typed up peri­od­ic­ally, it made sense to think of each draft as a com­plete revi­sion of the last. Some writers — Ken Follett, I know, did this — would not even look at the pre­vi­ous draft when writ­ing the new.

We’re more advanced these days, of course. Our type­writers have Apple logos.

The Amber Rooms. Hmm.

I note that I aban­doned the novel, with a heavy heart at the indif­fer­ence of pub­lish­ers’ reac­tions to books one and two, in September 2008. Even then I had the idea that I was going to retire from writing.

The draft I’m read­ing is quite tightly writ­ten. The first half, I remem­ber, was revised when I came up with a cooler idea for a begin­ning about two thirds of the way through. I could prob­ably release it for the Kindle tomor­row and it would be work­able as a story. However, it has the poten­tial to be a much bet­ter novel than either Déjà Vu or Flashback.

So what’s good about it?

First, the lan­guage passes muster. There are no clichés and each sen­tence deserves to be there. I’m get­ting on for hav­ing writ­ten a mil­lion or so words of pub­lish­able fic­tion. By this point, Hemingway, Chandler et al. are now con­struct­ive rather than crit­ical ghosts. I find it easier to cre­ate and manip­u­late tone. I know when a slow­ing down of the nar­rat­ive works as a rest for the reader without sac­ri­fi­cing over­all pace — or, at least, I think I do.

Second, the story is reas­on­ably com­pel­ling. There are nuts and bolts to be tightened here and there, but each scene is a scene — that is, it advances the story — and the research (which is some­what more osten­ta­tious in this novel, as it is set in Russia, 1908) con­trib­utes to the milieu without dis­tract­ing from it.

So what’s bad?

Right now, the book is some­what ema­ci­ated. I’ve pared it down to essen­tial con­nect­ive tis­sue. While this gives it pace for the most part, there are one or two points — in par­tic­u­lar, an escape scene at the begin­ning of the novel — that are far too brief. It works too much like a mont­age, or notes for a novel.

Talking of mont­ages, I’m head­but­ting the ceil­ing of my tal­ent again: I find it dif­fi­cult to con­ceive of story bey­ond the con­fines of the medium that I’m most com­fort­able with. That medium is, para­dox­ic­ally, cinema, not lit­er­at­ure. Too often, I’m present­ing the story as shots and describ­ing beats with the eye of a cine­ma­to­grapher. I have to get away from this. It does make the story very read­able but I need to remem­ber the par­tic­u­lar advant­ages of the novel as a form. (I will be doing this later in the draft, as I settle down.)

One example is where our heroine, Saskia Brandt, arrives in St Petersburg pur­sued by three ‘watch­ers’ from the Tsarist secret police. She travels quickly from horse bus to trol­ley rather too much like Jason Bourne. And when I describe the moment she loses the last of her three watch­ers, whom she leaves hand­cuffed to a rail on the trol­ley, the fram­ing reads like a story­board. It’s effect­ive, prob­ably, but there is too much sleight of hand about the whole thing. Hemingway could do this without being super­fi­cial; I should be able to do it too, given time and thought.

Let’s get geeky: metaphor.

The meta­phor­ical lan­guage of the novel is often wonky in a first draft. When the book is fin­ished, and I have an idea of its iden­tity, I know which meta­phors are cor­rect and which are not. For instance, there is a meta­phor early on in the novel in which Saskia thinks of time passing through her hands like a rope, too fast to grip. I don’t know why this is a good meta­phor for this point; but it is. Other meta­phors are com­pletely wrong. An inab­il­ity to choose the cor­rect meta­phor is the hall­mark of a bad writer (or at least a writer who has sub­mit­ted a draft too early). One of the dif­fi­culties with select­ing the right meta­phor is that it can­not be done con­sciously (for me, any­way). It must be done ran­domly, a bit like Arthur Dent pulling out let­ters from the neo­lithic Scrabble bag in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. They’ll get stead­ily more appropriate.

Looking back, the meta­phor­ical lan­guage of Déjà Vu and Flashback seems to revolve around mir­rors, blood, old wounds reopen­ing, iden­tity, and the con­nec­tion between help­ing someone and the phys­ical cost of that help (ampu­ta­tion; “Take my hand,” and so on).

As you can tell, I’m prob­ably more inter­ested in this stuff than the mech­an­ics of hav­ing the story work as a thriller. However, it must work as a thriller first or the meta­phor­ical brick­work will fall. That’s the job of the second draft — to get the plot work­ing. Third draft — plot plus meta­phor equals story. Four draft — finesse.

Maybe.

And, always there is the chance that the book doesn’t work at all; that it will die on stage. In a way, that makes it more excit­ing. Everything, abso­lutely everything, is on the line.

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