Saturday, 29 November 2008

Companions and Allies

I asked a number of people to look over The Eyeless for me – they’re credited in the book, and absolutely every single one of them immeasurably improved the story, and if you’re not named specifically in this blog, please don’t get offended – your freebie copy is, even as we speak, in the post! It’s no exaggeration, for example, to say that Jon Blum gave me both the best joke in the book (the ‘down the pub’ one, when you get to it) and one of the best scenes (‘begone, shift!’).

A lot of the time, people would say things I knew already, either deep down or just because they were obvious. This is often the most helpful criticism of all – a lot of what a writer does is, as I’ve mentioned, papering over cracks and he needs to know what he’s got away with. There were a couple of plot logic things I’d been avoiding thinking about, but everyone agreed I had to address. The blurb for the book – which I’d written pretty much when I’d started – talks about the weapon at the heart of the Fortress and asks ‘What is the true nature of the weapon?’. This was a very good question. I knew what it had done, I knew what it looked like … not its ‘true nature’. As with so much science fictiony stuff, you want an explanation that’s both bizarre, over-the-top and yet which is simple enough to get your head around. It would be difficult, for example, to build a ringworld or an ansible or a transporter or whatever, but it’s simple enough to explain what they are and what they do, and why it would be cool to get your hands on one.

Another problem … and I think this is pretty common with a lot of writers: faced with a second half of a book that was a problem, I just went back and refined and revised the stuff I’d already written. It was something to do, but every time I polished the beginning of the book, the gap between the lovely first half and the scrappy second half just became more and more pronounced.

I think it was Lloyd Rose who first pinpointed that there were two distinct problems I was facing in the second half. The first one I knew, but was too close to the story to see as a big problem: I’d set up an interesting group of characters, then had the Doctor just walk away from them – it was essentially a bit of a waste. The second was something I hadn’t spotted at all, but which was absolutely fundamental. Plenty of stuff was happening to the Doctor – quite big emotional beats, real challenges and so on … but they were just happening very episodically, there was no real sense of things getting harder for him, or any development at all.

The mistake I’d made is something I’ve already talked about here – the idea of the protagonist and his choices. I was giving the Doctor a sequence of physical challenges, and these were getting trickier and trickier. The emotional beats, though, were all at one level (broadly ‘gosh, how will I beat this physical challenge in time?’). Part of this is the problem with the Doctor as a character generally – he’s a thousand years old, he’s been through so much. It’s hard (arrogant, even) to imagine that your story is finally the one that really puts him through the ringer or threatens to break him. He’s resistant to any kind of change, really – even when something extraordinarily traumatic happens to him (Rose leaving is the best example recently, perhaps ever) he should be back to being the Doctor pretty quickly. He’s not all that different in The Runaway Bride, and three episodes into the season, when he mentions Rose to Martha and it’s still a sore point, it feels a little ‘off’, I think.

Mark Clapham noted the places where the ‘influence’ of The Subtle Knife on my book was straying into legal territory and wondered if the characters were a little too ‘normal’, given their circumstances. Mark Jones and I had a long phone call where we talked through the plot logic of just about every element of the book, including – again – the psychology of the other characters. Kate Orman and Lloyd Rose set me straight about when the tenth Doctor wears his glasses.

Everyone asked why the Eyeless were called the Eyeless.

The second half of the book began snapping into place, but it took a long time. It’s quite intricately plotted – very tightly focused on the Doctor, but with stuff going on close by that’s affecting the action. At every stage, there’s a tension between moving the story along and dwelling on things.

I had my own notes, too. Three pages of my big notebook were taken up with bullet points that needed addressing – these were often big things or just references or lines or words I wanted to fit in the book somewhere. Many of these look pretty obscure:

‘Sunlight = plants’
‘Handful joke’
‘why no survivor guilt’
‘No H in “Antony Gormley”.’
‘callous to boys, not girls’
‘how Eyeless can see?’
‘Casino Royale’
‘Civilisation Zero?’
‘Museums rotting’
‘Urban jungle’

OK … the upshot of this was that I had to completely restructure the second half of the book, and there was a lot to fit in there. The irony is that I recently re-read the synopsis now, and it’s pretty much exactly the same as both the first draft and the published book.

I’d got a second draft I was relatively happy with by March 10th. I think I could have got away with this version of the book – it was the first complete draft. For the first time, the ending felt satisfying - although it still wasn’t quite right. I sent this revised version to people, saying that it was ‘still missing that special sauce’.

I also had a secret weapon. Phil Purser-Hallard. On the Jade Pagoda mailing list (which is all about the Doctor Who novels – in theory at least: be warned that the list once got into a fight over whether the argument they were having was circular or, as one person suggested, triangular) PPH’s reviews of my books were always incredibly perceptive and constructive and eventually I realised that if he reviewed my books at the manuscript stage, I’d end up with much better published books. I only emailed Philip the book when it was at this stage, because I knew I wanted a fresh eye on it. As ever, I got another great list of tweaks and suggestions.

Oh, and you should track down The Vampire’s Curse by Mags Halliday, Kelly Hale and Philip.

A piece of television has hundreds of people making direct creative contributions, it’s actually quite tricky to see ‘authored’ TV – Doctor Who, of course, is now an exception. But even shows with ‘showrunners’ whose names you know aren’t created by one person, not even one writer. The Eyeless is ‘more me own work’ than a television episode would be – even so, there are dozens of people on the production side – editors, copy editors and so on … and plenty of people who were happy to give me their time and perspective while writing. Thanks, everyone.

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