Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Meanwhile, back at The Eyeless

Okeydokey. Writing The Eyeless had been very smooth, but now I’d hit a structural problem, and this can basically be summed up – spoiler free – by saying that the middle of the book was proving to be better than the big finale I had planned.

I’d whizzed through the book at this point, and at one point seriously thought I’d have it all done by Christmas. Bear in mind that my deadline was June – and the secret editors never like to share is that these deadlines always have a little bit of a buffer built in, because writers are prone to miss deadlines. When I handed one of my first professional magazine articles in, the editor said ‘this is on time, it’s about what you were briefed to write about and it’s the word count we agreed’. I said something along the lines of ‘well … duh’, and he told me ‘no – if we only get one of those, we’re happy’. Note that ‘well-written’ doesn’t factor into that.

But now it was mid-January and I’d stalled. I’d kept writing … I now had about two-thirds of the book, but I wasn’t that happy with the last couple of chapters and I only had a scattered impression of where I was going. I knew I had structural problems, I knew I'd be throwing out a lot of what I was writing, which I always dislike doing (This sounds strange - but there are two basic writing techniques, I think: writers who throw down twice as much as they need onto the page, knowing they'll carve away at it and get it into shape; or writers who only commit things to paper when they're broadly happy with it, so end up putting half as much as they need, then adding things to get it into shape. I'm definitely the latter.).

Structural problems usually aren’t the result of something external like Vampire Science suddenly having to lose Grace. It’s usually something the author realises isn't working about their book. The Alsa thing I mentioned last time is quite a good example. Changing her role in the book changed a fair amount of other things. I wrote earlier about how a story is about choices – we see far more of her choices, the reasoning behind them and so on. All that meant that she had to be in different places at different times and all of that has knock on effects.

The first ten days or so writing The Eyeless, I was writing stuff that was setting up the story and it was fairly straightforward. It’s not a spoiler to say that the opening section has the Doctor arriving and doing a little bit of exploring. Now … there was a complication. In a normal Doctor Who story, there’s a companion, and it’s the perfect set up: an older, experienced character can answer all the questions the companion has. And because the companion is an audience identification figure, unless the range has temporarily gone a bit mad, the questions the companion asks are the ones the audience would, if they were there.

The Doctor is travelling without a companion in The Eyeless. The easiest thing to do would be to have him meet someone early on who can act as a sort of temporary stand-in for a companion. I wasn’t interested in doing that – I had an opportunity to have the Doctor alone, and hooking him up with someone would cancel all that out. And I didn’t have the option the TV series has exercised a couple of times, now, to have a stellar celebrity guest star as a one-time companion.

But I’d known all along that the Doctor wasn’t going to have a companion, and that was all part of the plan. You’ll see how I got on when you read the book. The irony was that my writing slowed down once I got past that phase and to the easy bit where the Doctor met up with other characters.

In the synopsis, this was a fairly brief encounter – the Doctor would meet them and move on. Even when I was drawing up the synopsis, though, I suspected that this would be an area of the book that would expand. It always happens – there will be some part of the story that just comes alive and presents all sorts of dramatic opportunities. Then there are always parts of the synopsis that seemed like really great ideas that would fill fifty scintillating pages which you realise you can cover in one chapter, one scene or even a single line … if it needs to be in there at all.

One thing that dropped out – I originally wanted the Eyeless to have a caste system, with clearly-defined roles. One would be a pilot, one would be a telepath, one would be a leader, some would be warriors and so on. That’s completely missing from the finished book for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a bit of a rubbish science fiction cliché. I’m not saying it couldn’t be done, or hasn’t been done - there’s meaty stuff to be had about ‘we’ve all got our part to play’ and individual v society stuff, which are nice big themes for any book, and already part of what my book is talking about. I was originally going to explore that using the Eyeless characters. Those are still themes of the novel, but there were just better characters to tell that story with.

Second, though … it was just taking far too long to explain the set up. I was literally creating a convoluted problem for myself, then taking forever to solve it. The problems in the rest of the book are fairly straightforward and easy to relate to real life. I’ll probably write a SF novel at some point where there are aliens with a strict caste structure – one of the great things about writing is that you end up recycling your old ideas sooner or later but it’ll be a book all about that.

My big structural problem came when it became obvious that the people the Doctor meets are actually big identification figures … and that one of the problems with the book was that there were precious few identification figures.

It coincided with me realising that the bulk of the second half of the book wasn’t going to work. Remember that bit with the big grabby robot arm thing in Planet of the Ood? That hadn’t been shown at the time I was writing The Eyeless, but the whole of the second half of the book was going to be like that – relentless action. It was something I knew would be a challenge, and not quite right or sane for a piece of prose. There’s a piece of received wisdom that there has never, ever been a great car chase in a novel. I can’t think of one. I’d probably look in Ian Fleming to find it. The idea was to take something that would work really well in a movie and try to make it work in a book.

Yeah … it quickly became obvious that I couldn’t get it to work. Whenever I tried, what I was doing sounded like the subtitles for an action film.

So … I had a couple of problems. The action bit didn’t work and I wanted to expand the role of the people the Doctor met. The problem: the location of the story switches, definitively moves away from those people.

And, for the first time, it was a problem for me that the Doctor didn’t have a companion. In a normal Doctor Who book, the narrative can be in two places at once – the Doctor in one location, the companion in another. That’s actually what happens in most Doctor Who stories.

The Eyeless is more like first person narration, in a way – the Doctor’s in virtually every scene. Which has the advantage that it feels nice and immediate and that you're in the heart of the action ... but the disadvantage that it's hard and vaguely boring whenever you cut away from what the Doctor's doing. I suspect I'm not the only person who has been reading a Doctor Who book and decided to skip ahead when there's half a chapter about the colonists (or whoever) and the Doctor and companion aren't in that bit. It's called Doctor Who, not The Colonists.

Originally what I planned was for the Doctor to be in and out of the Fortress pretty quickly … that had to change. The air car chase sequence that I’ve dropped from pretty much every Doctor Who book since Cold Fusion got dropped again. Alsa’s new role was working nicely, and helping to show off the Eyeless themselves. To be honest, what I was writing was OK, and would have made for a functional Doctor Who book, but … well, this was my first tenth Doctor book, I had plenty of time, and I wanted it to be special, if I could manage that.

This wasn’t exactly a looming disaster, but I was finding it frustrating. So I sent the book out to a few people, hoping they’d be able to tell me where I was going wrong.

Thankfully, they did …

1 comment:

Daniel said...

Lance - yes, I had my own "well, duh" moment. When I delivered "80s Pop" to A&B, my editor commented on how pleased he was that it was on time, to the word count and not full of glaring spelling and grammatical howlers. I dared to venture that, surely, this is what one expects of a professional writer? He went on to tell me various (no-names-no-pack-drill) stories of manuscripts where, no, it sadly hadn't been the case. He said manuscripts like mine were the exception, not the rule. And this is the *commissioned* stuff we are talking about!

It was quite an eye-opener for me that people could get to that level of professional work without a certain level of professional*ism*.