Late Drafts

A few months back, I was run­ning a sem­in­ar on lan­guage devel­op­ment. The sem­in­ar exam­ines phon­o­logy, syn­tax, semantics — all the object­ive bric-a-brac that we cog­nit­ive psy­cho­lo­gists like to talk about when we talk about lan­guage. Midway through the intro­duct­ory ses­sion, I stopped to ask if there were ques­tions. A mature stu­dent asked, ‘I don’t see how all these things relate to lan­guage itself. You know, as a cre­at­ive, breath­ing thing that people use to express what they are about.’

Silence on my part. I looked over their heads, out the win­dow.

I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘that’s prob­ably a really stu­pid ques­tion.’

Some of the stu­dents laughed.

No, it’s the most import­ant ques­tion you could ask in psy­cho­logy. There isn’t any answer that I can think of.’ I paused again. ‘No, psy­cho­logy isn’t good enough to answer that yet. It prob­ably nev­er will be.’

What you have, in psy­cho­logy and in fic­tion, is an object­ive lin­guist­ic frame­work that attempts to describe the mind. It omits the sub­ject­ive. That is, it has noth­ing to say on what it is like to be in pos­ses­sion of a mind. There are those who believe that an object­ive frame­work is suf­fi­cient for a sci­ence of the mind like psy­cho­logy, but I’m not one of them. And I think this prob­lem applies to fic­tion. How do we, using an object­ive, lin­guist­ic frame­work, provide a sense of what it is like to be our char­ac­ters?

Imagine this. Imagine that.

How do you brush your teeth in a Swiss gar­ret in 1907? How much does a piece of cheese cost in a Zurich mar­ket? How anti-semit­ic are cer­tain groups?

But what is it like to be a char­ac­ter? The nov­el is an object­ive record, and the read­er con­jures some­thing sub­ject­ive from this. What will they con­jure?

These are my thoughts as I fin­ish The Amber Rooms, join the dots, spend some time being someone else until it’s all over.

Postcards from the Edge (of St Petersburg)

In 2008, I wrote an entry on this blog entitled The End.

About a year and a half ago, I fin­ished the second Saskia Brandt nov­el, Flashback. My thoughts for the third one centred around Imperial Russia. I was par­tic­u­larly inter­ested in pla­cing Saskia – who derives her advant­ages from an almost dir­ect con­nec­tion between her nervous sys­tem and the Internet – in a situ­ation where she could have no real advant­age bey­ond her know­ledge of the future.

I don’t remem­ber much about the exper­i­ence of writ­ing that book, The Amber Rooms, so it’s inter­est­ing to con­tin­ue read­ing this entry.

[The Amber Rooms] was a pleas­ure to write. I wanted to pro­duce some­thing that reminded me of Alistair MacLean, where the story’s struc­ture reflects a heist and the read­er not entirely informed about how much the prot­ag­on­ist knows. To help get this right, I plot­ted much of the nov­el in advance.

I think about my life at that point. In short: Publishers weren’t buy­ing my books; I felt redund­ant as a writer; I knew I would soon aban­don my goal of writ­ing books. That aban­don­ment — that real­isa­tion of the tox­icity of my situ­ation — was brief. I am writ­ing again. However, I con­sidered The Amber Rooms to be a last waltz. The manu­script would remain on my com­puter, keep­ing the unpub­lished Flashback com­pany, while I turned my back on the one thing I do very well: write.

The point of writ­ing a book, I sup­pose, is to get it pub­lished. I’m not con­fid­ent that it will be picked up by a pub­lish­er – not because I lack con­fid­ence in the book, but because the second book hasn’t found a pub­lish­er yet. The third book isn’t likely to shift if the second one hasn’t.

And:

Do I think I deserve to be pub­lished? No. That’s too strong. I mean this: I don’t write books so I can put them in a draw­er.

Let me turn back to an earli­er entry. This is dated 1st November, 2007, five days before my birth­day:

At the moment, I have some ideas that refuse to tes­sel­late. I hope my gentle read­ers won’t be offen­ded if I don’t go into them in too much detail. Suffice it to say that I’m read­ing some excel­lent oral his­tor­ies of women anarch­ists in 1870s Russia. An intriguing archi­tec­tur­al folly known as the Amber Room will fea­ture.

I have stood in the Amber Room. The Russian gov­ern­ment would prefer vis­it­ors not to take pic­tures there, so I did not. But I stood with­in it. I stud­ied its pan­els and frowned into its mir­rors. I closed my eyes and breathed in; it did not smell of pine, which was unex­pec­ted. The moment I remem­ber most clearly is my girl­friend look­ing at me as though she loved me. So we made it to the Amber Room. This strange thing I do — fic­tion — has not been quite des­troyed by my fail­ure to con­vince a tra­di­tion­al pub­lish­er to take a chance on it.

I tried to ima­gine Saskia Brandt reflec­ted in one of those tall mir­rors between the amber pan­els.

I made it to the end point of the cre­at­ive pro­cess for Flashback. That is, I got the book to read­ers.

Yesterday, someone in America called Suki read Flashback and wrote:

Hocking does not make a mis­step in this beau­ti­fully con­struc­ted nov­el, and when his tal­ent for plot meets his tal­ent for prose, the res­ult is extraordin­ary. I look for­ward to the next Saskia Brandt adven­ture!

On the 17th March, 2008, I wrote:

So what is it? What’s the story, Saskia? Why are you stand­ing on the threshold of the Amber Room, and what does it have to do with going home?

The story is…well, it’s anoth­er adven­ture. All stor­ies are adven­tures. And going home.

St Petersburg
Sailing into St Petersburg via the Gulf of Finland — 6.30 a.m., 23rd August 2011

★ 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.