On Writing: What Second Drafts can do for you


After completing the First Draft of Tempus Expletive, I put the book away for three months, needing to establish some space before I looked at it again. I made a start on another novel, which I didn’t continue with, the novel I’m trying to get myself properly into at the moment, as it happens.
When I came back to start the Second Draft, I had not gone very far at all before I realised that I had committed a major oversight in internal logic.
In Fugitive I’d introduced the idea of parallel Earths, and the idea that too many time-trips to the same place/time ‘softened’ the barriers between different versions of them and created the danger of accidental slippage. And I’d used an inversion of the same situation to create the conditions for  the crossing between parallel worlds in Infinitive.
I used the same basic scenario at the start of Expletive: Jack and Alison are back at Old Trafford for that Roses Match again, taking care to avoid themselves from different times, but falling foul of an encounter with themselves from a different Earth.
This had always been intended to turn them towards other, more facetious uses of the Time Machine as a process that would culminate in Alison being left behind, but I realised, on re-reading the First Draft, that I had taken for granted that Jack and Alison returned to “Earth-1”, when if I were being consistent, there was not only no certainty of that but rather the opposite.
Up to this point, my Second Drafts had been refinements on an established story. Sharpening, tightening. Adding lines in the first half that foreshadowed (subtly) what happened in the second half. This was the first time I faced a major re-writing of my entire plot in order to make it workable.
I’m going to take on trust that other writers, faced with a similar concern, would do what I did and seek to salvage as much of their existing work as they could. Given my approach of developing the story organically, if I were to simply throw in this new development and start from there, this would no longer be a Second Draft.
How, therefore, could I accommodate this new notion within my existing storyline?
It was relatively easy to interpolate the respective realisations of Jack and Alison that they were on the wrong Earth, and the subsequent decision to do nothing about it in the short term, but that was just a stopgap. How to make that play out?
Let me digress at this point to sing the praises of Gene Wolfe, probably the best writer on the planet at the moment, and a writer of infinite subtlety whose novels always contain considerably more between the lines that are written than what is merely revealed by the surface of the page. In the case of the justifiably legendary and sublime The Book of the New Sun tetraology, this consists of a completely different and far more significant story than the one being narrated.
I’ve not written about Wolfe directly in this blog (out of a sense of inferiority both as writer and critic/interpretor), but he was my inspiration for what happened next.
I wanted to be a better writer (I still do, and always will). I wanted to be able, in some small measure, to live up to Gene Wolfe. And it seemed that in my limited fashion I could now do so, by introducing an ‘overstory’, a separate tale of which Jack and Alison were unaware, but which encompassed their own misadventures and overtook them.
It had to be Roland, of course, Roland who I’d left out of this book in order to keep company with Jack and Alison, but who would never allow himself to be eclipsed in this manner, and who would prove to be a hidden hand in forcing a resolution now required by this new plot development.
In terms of re-writing, for much of the way I needed only a line here and there that could be read a different way when Roland stepped out of the shadows – or the smog, to be technical, but the revelation of this overriding plot took over the final fifth of the story, overtly interfering, extending and deepening the book, allowing me to create a justification for that awkward explanation for the original baddy going improbably bad again, and creating a second and forceful context for the ending – which remained as written in the First Draft, give or take the polishing.
This was an object lesson in being prepared to abandon large parts of your story if its internal logic forces it upon you. Just because you’ve written a story a certain way in its first draft, it doesn’t mean that you’re stuck forever with that, that you can only polish and revise from then on. I learned that I was technically capable of revisiting and substantially reshaping the internal reality of my story, that I was not bound to follow it.
Writing is a collaboration between yourself and your characters. You still can’t make them do what they don’t want to do – or can’t – but you can reform reality around them and let them respond to a different set of circumstances.
I also earned myself a new technique, this idea of revelatory knowledge, of a character knowing something all along that they have simply chosen (for good reason, naturally) not to bring up before the moment in which its production changes perspectives. Something that makes you suddenly look twice at a character that you think you’ve known all along, but who has been keeping something hidden. It’s a technique I’ve used in my next novel, appropriately enough in a section of the Second Draft that was a substantial insertion of new material.