May was a busy month.
I delivered the official first draft of The Eyeless to Justin on May 16th.
I say official first draft because … well, these things are hard to define. Back in the day, an author (or his or her secretary!) would type out a manuscript and it would be a very solid, defined thing. Now it’s a computer file, and I went back and forth changing as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted.
For the record, Justin was getting a fourth draft, I think:
By the end of December, I had just about everything done but the ending. I sent it around to people and waited for feedback from them – in part because I needed that feedback to help crystallize that ending for me.
By mid-March, I’d got a much better second half and an ending that worked but which I wasn’t completely happy with.
There was a much stronger draft by the end of April, thanks in large part to all the people who’d read it and commented. The ending was a lot better, but still not quite right.
By 'ending' I really mean the 'third act' - the whole last bit of the story, where all the cards are on the table, all the plans are in the open and reaching a critical point. Every Doctor Who story has one - in the olden days, it was the whole last episode. Now it's that last, frantic ten minutes or so. I say every Doctor Who story, but Mark of the Rani just sort of stops. So every Doctor Who story but one has one.
One of the things I wanted to avoid was what I’ll call the ‘The World Is Not Enough’ problem. There are two main baddies in that movie. They kill off the most interesting one first, then the last act is Bond beating the less interesting one. And, as it turns out, in an extremely dull way – literally they push a prop back and forth until the bad guy dies. I really have three sets of antagonists by the end, and spent a long time juggling the order in which – spoiler alert – the Doctor sorts them out.
I wrote one ending and it was literally, almost word for word, the ending of Watchmen. Which has a great ending, but one with the slight disadvantage - for my purposes - of not being something I wrote.
There was also a separate question of the actual last scene. I had four or five different versions of this, all basically the same scene, played differently. These were nothing like the end I'd described in the synopsis - that no longer fit the book. In Doctor Who there's always a problem with this last bit - you want the Doctor back in the TARDIS, ready for his next adventure. If you're not careful, you end up finishing with a pretty redundant bit - the Doctor and companion walking back to the ship saying, effectively, 'well, that was exciting, wasn't it?'.
Around May 10th, it came to me exactly what the very last scene needed to be. This, though I say it myself, had everything – a nice echo of some things Russell Davies wrote (no, it’s not someone shouting ‘Paul McGann doesn’t count!’), the Doctor doing something clever only the Doctor can do, a sense of the story coming full circle to an extent, and a real sense of closure. A real ‘eureka’ moment, and quite a relief.
As is the way with these things, once I knew what to write, writing it was pretty straightforward. It quickly expanded to become the whole last chapter - as I was already bumping against my wordcount, I then had to go back and did a bit of trimming to fit it in. This sounds blithe and untroubled, but I’d been trying to find this last scene since the end of December, getting increasingly worried. Writing endings is a little like doing a balance sheet, it all has to fit together and add up, while leaving nothing out. Some of my favourite authors are hopeless at endings, and I think it’s because they’re reluctant to leave the wonderful world and the characters they’ve created. I understand that, certainly.
It’s also because life never has neat endings. One of the best endings of anything, ever, is the end of Our Friends in the North. It feels like a culmination of the thirty year journey we’ve been on. Superbly written, and expertly performed by Christopher Eccleston, the guy who went on to play a famous doctor on the telly. (Indeed, nowadays, as it also stars Daniel Craig, Our Friends in the North feels like a story not even Paul Magrs dare write – the Doctor and James Bond growing up in the sixties as Geordie best friends). If you nitpick it, then the end only feels like things have changed, but it's incredibly cathartic and emotional. And now I've said all that, I can’t find it on YouTube, so just … y’know, buy it on DVD. It's worth it.
Endings are tricky, and I speak from experience.
Now … I know I run a risk with this blog. I’ve been on the internet since 1991, and I know that it’s an information-driven economy here. I’ve given people information about how The Eyeless was written. I am genuinely worried that I’m tainting the evidence, that the people who’ve read this know the second half took a while to write and this will affect how they read the book. It's very easy to let what you know about the author or the circumstances the book was written in colour your reading of the book.
Just look at how people let their ... well, often their prejudices, affect what they think of Russell Davies' work. It's all gay, it's all atheist, it's all Welsh, it's all just so ... tall. I know Russell Davies wears glasses, but does he really have to impose a bespectacled Doctor upon a family audience? I'm very, very suspicious of this way of seeing novels or movies or telly. We all wrote essays in school that said things like 'Shakespeare clearly thought that ... ' but ... well, we can't telepathically commune with the dead.
Obviously, by this logic I can't presume to tell you what Russell Davies thinks. Speaking as a poststructuralist, technically I can't even presume to tell you what Lance Parkin thinks. In the end, though, what I tell you here or what Russell Davies says in The Writer's Tale is ... well, not half as important as what we're telling you in the stories we've written.
I went through a process to write The Eyeless, I had to identify, define and solve problems. Part of my job was to make the final book seamless and untroubled and to make that process pretty much invisible. If you ever go 'that was a great bit of direction' or 'what a great special effect' ... it wasn't. Not in the normal course of things. Reading should be a bit like driving a car - if you can hear the engine rattling, something's gone wrong. We're all very savvy and postmodern and meta and well-informed now ... but the paradox of my job is that, at its root, what I'm trying to do is to distract you from the mechanics of what I'm doing and leave you with a purely aesthetic experience. And, surely, I get bonus paradox points for announcing that in a blog about writing the book.
These are the risks we take in the age of DVD commentaries and making of discs. I hope that the people who’ve read this far are the sort of people who appreciate a trick all the more if they know how it’s done. David Copperfield once said that the difference between a Vegas audience and the London audience was that in Vegas, they look at him when he started flying overhead, in London they look past him for the wires, but they end up clapping louder. I hope you're a London audience.
Anyway, I sent the book to Justin.
Within a day or so, Justin was able to send me the cover (which I’ve talked about before in this blog). At first, I got a PDF file emailed to me, but I soon got a nice glossy copy posted to me. I’ve always frame these, which means, by now, I’ve got enough book covers to fill up a fairly sizable wall.
The Eyeless was announced around the 25th, and I started this blog on the 27th. I spent six months knowing I was writing a tenth Doctor book without being able to shout about it!
The book wasn’t finished yet, though …