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.
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.