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.

On Writing: The Tempus Trilogy – part 3

The third Tempus book was always the most loosely conceived. I wrote about half a dozen different versions of the opening scene, which deliberately took things back to where the Trilogy had started  – at Old Trafford in August 1980 – but I never had a working title, and I had only the skeleton of the story.
But it was only during the writing of this book that I settled on the idea of The Tempus Trilogy and finally assigned names to the first two books. Tempus Fugitive was obvious, Tempus Infinitive reflected the parallel world theme and, given the rhythm of the names and the general breakdown of everything that I planned, it was clear the final book had to be titled Tempus Expletive.
It was the only book of this trilogy to be written primarily by my new approach of trusting myself, or my subconscious, to put all the pieces together. It was also a departure, in that the central pairing would now be Jack and Alison, not Jack and Roland – who was relegated out of the story, except for a deus ex machina cameo at the end of a phone.
I even knew that I was going to switch to using Alison as the narrator, it being pretty self-evident that, as she explains in the book, she was not going to let Jack tell her side of the story.
There were certain elements that I knew to the story: the opening scenes cutting off the sport motif, Jack and Alison’s new relationship, using the Time Machine as a way to get into the cinema for free, the decision to go to a Beach Boys concert as a celebration, and Alison being stranded as a result of being swept into some sort of drugs raid.
And I knew that the Time Machine had been stolen and that Jack would be forced to accept unwanted help from an unreliable source, and also that Alison would be able to get back from being lost in time far easier than Jack (this latter element came courtesy of another former close friend of mine who, when I was discussing an inchoate version of the plot, said, “Escape is always more interesting than rescue.”)
And I knew the Time Machine would end up destroyed, though not without a deliberate conundrum being left. This last was my own private loophole, the way back in in the unlikely event that I would ever want to write a book 4…
Having Frankensteined the best bits of all the early versions of the opening scene together (they had none of them gone more than a couple of pages, but every version had something in it I liked), I began to forge ahead.
The book contains one big, long-planned in-joke: the boss whom Jack suspects fancies Alison is me, the firm where she works is the firm I was with at the time, as were the people, and even the marathon is real, albeit advanced a year (in reality, it took place in 1986 and I completed 12 miles in difficult circumstances that don’t bear repeating here).
I was aware that the beginning of the plot was slow in arriving, but once it did, the story rapidly achieved the complications I had in mind and worked through to my designated conclusion. On the way, a couple of things arose.
The Beach Boys gig proved to be a bust. Even with the advantage of the Internet, I couldn’t find evidence of a Sixties Beach Boys concert in Manchester (and there was even less chance of Jack being able to dig out details with 1985’s resources). Most writers would just have made one up, and there’s nothing wrong in so doing, but I can’t work that way. Because I write against a realistic background, I’m compelled to be as accurate as I can. No Manchester Beach Boys gig, no story.
Besides, it suited the deliberate mundanity of these three books. It’s great being able to go to specific events in the past, but if you don’t know when and where these specific events occurred…
Actually, it worked to my advantage, because my substitute idea was so much better, in terms of both plausibility and character. Like most Mancunians of my era, I grew up hearing about the legendary Twisted Wheel club, the birthplace of Northern Soul. A lot of research was necessary, trying to capture enough of the essence of the place to suit my needs.
(I realised early on that in all the years I’d known of the Twisted Wheel, I’d never known where it was. My ‘disco years’ – roughly 1975 – 78 – took place mainly at Placemate, on Whitworth Street, Fridays and Saturday nights. The glorious irony of all those years of ignorance was my discovery that the Wheel’s second and final home was the same building: Placemate used the Wheel’s premises!)
That also introduced another of those ‘gifts’ from my subconscious. Alison’s cousin Elsie was just a throwaway character, a device to equip her and Jack with authentic Sixties clobber, suitable to their planned journey, as well as the chance to add another voice, this one North Manchester (I have always lived in East and South Manchester: there’s a difference).
It was not until I had Alison trapped in 1969 that I realised that it was all too perfunctory for her to simply work out how to escape and leave, and that it would be altogether better to show her interacting in 1969, emphasising her general competence, especially as a contrast to how Jack was floundering and helpless ten years earlier. It was only then that I realised why I’d really introduced Elsie.
One final thing about the First Draft: my set-up demanded I reintroduce my big baddy of Fugitive. The problem was that he had now to become a reformed character, yet he still had to revert to his original status. The explanation I came up with didn’t satisfy me. I couldn’t work out how to explain it without marching into the book as an omnipotent narrator which, as these books are first person, was out of the question, and it’s rather metaphysical nature meant that the characters couldn’t explain it for themselves (only Roland, maybe, but he wasn’t here, was he?)
I was never happy with it, but this was the First Draft. I could look at it again when I came to write the Second Draft.

On Writing: The Tempus Trilogy – part 2

For many years, any thought of a sequel to the first Jack and Roland book – a long way off being written – consisted of a single, snappy sentence.
In the mid-Nineties, I was in a very unhappy job, for which writing was the escape that made life tolerable. As I’ve described, I wrote three non-fiction books, and then finally started on fleshing the eventual Tempus Fugitive out into more than just a detailed outline.
On a couple of occasions, I talked about it at work, describing the plot-line, which seemed to go down well with my genuinely interested listeners. One of them, however, having listened to my account, agreed that it was entertaining, but he thought it would be better if, instead of my proactive ending in which Jack had to make a choice between the Space-Time Continuum and his own personal gratification, my evil protagonist defeated himself, by altering some Great Sporting Moment that prevented himself from being born, and thus undoing all his interference.
I smiled indulgently, and forbore from making any comments along the lines that a) I had been developing this story for something like fifteen years at this point and certainly considered that I knew very much better than anyone else how to end it, b) that his ending was anti-dramatic and rendered my hero’s struggles ineffectual and ineffective, and c) that his ending was an SF cliché of tremendous proportions.
We authors can get pretty touchy about people interfering with our unwritten works.
But I owe my colleague thanks for his attempts to persuade me, because, a few minutes later and still marvelling at his temerity in trying to overrule my storyline, a moment of inspiration based on that very suggestion blossomed into more than half a sequel, and a point of entry into a third volume.
This ‘villain brings himself down’ notion certainly wasn’t going to happen in Fugitive, but it could happen in a parallel world, an Earth 2, in which Jack would never suffer the consequences of the decision he has to take because he never even gets to know of the villain (whose undoing of his own existence automatically seals a closed time-loop leaving no-one the wiser about the interference he doesn’t now cause).
So, with every Jack in every parallel Earth all rushing to Headingley at the same time, in the confusion, two Jacks wind up on the same Earth, Roland’s attempt to undo the mistake would backfire, leaving our two heroes crossed over.
Jack1 would find himself on an Earth where Alison had been his loving girl-friend for nearly a year, and Jack2 would find himself on an Earth with a virginal (so to speak) Alison to conquer.
I don’t know whether, in that first flush of creation, I fully understood what I’d created but I still think that one of the greatest human dilemmas ever recorded in print is the apprehension of the nervous male virgin about to go to bed for the first time with the woman who’s been sleeping with him for the last eight months.
All this arrived in my head in one go. It was incomplete and inconclusive, but there was a comprehensible structure to it, and I knew that it would end up reversing the ending of the first book.
Which was where the door opened to Book 3, in which…. well, let’s leave that for the moment.
Moments like this are, sadly, rare, but they are moments of gold for the writer. It’s like fellwalking, when a long ascent up a featureless landscape suddenly gives way to a vista of unseen valleys and peaks, an unsuspected country. It’s the knowledge that you have a story, something to draw out of yourself, but something with a shape already seen.
It is, literally, a vision, and it is a fantastic feeling to see something like that, full of possibility.
I worked out the idea, to the same degree of detail with which I had pre-plotted Tempus Fugitive. It’s working title was the entirely too literal The Two Jacks, and I was a surprisingly long way from the moment of inspiration that led to it being re-named Tempus Infinitive.
Once the first book had been finished, according to my Four Draft method, I transferred my attentions to book 2. I started a new pad, made sure my (blue) pen was full of ink (not that I was superstitious in any way, but I found I could only write in blue ink). Things went well. The writing was fluid and fluent. I had written something like 12,000 to 15,000 words, and had gotten Jack1 into Earth2, and about to undergo the ordeal of sitting down to tea with a family that was almost, but not entirely identical to his own.
Then my much-loathed job came to an end at the Easter weekend, and on the Easter Monday I went off to the Lakes, for a day’s walking and an evening’s football. As I’ve previously related, I came back with the germ of Even in Peoria in my head, and the future Tempus Infinitive went into indefinite suspension. I didn’t have any idea just then that it would be for over a decade.
It was a very weird feeling to come back to the book after such a long time, especially knowing that my working methods had so radically changed. But I still had the detailed outline, and even though I had become accustomed to working more fluidly now, I determined I would still use it as my template.
My first concern was whether I could recapture Jack’s ‘voice’, which I was pleased to discover was not difficult at all. He was still there in my head, as was Roland, and their exchanges still crackled, even in a parallel world which was frightening exact;y because it didn’t seem to be different at all.
Except, of course, for Alison.
Of course it wasn’t the book it would have been, had I not had it overruled in 1997. I had been married for almost a decade in between, and even though the relationship had not lasted, I remembered enough of the early feelings to invest both this book, and its successor, with emotions that I would otherwise not have known to channel. The ending in particular would not have been possible if I had finished it in 1997.
As for the gap, I know where it comes, roughly. Considering that for ten years there was a line at which phase 1 ended, it’s remarkable that I can’t identify it now.
I don’t recommend that sort of thing, but it’s nice to know that I could do it.

On Writing: The Tempus Trilogy – part 1

With three complete books under my belt, I decided I was ready for fiction, and so I moved on to what was then still going under the working title of The Infernal Device, but which, many years later, would be renamed Tempus Fugitive, when the series of which it was the first was re-named The Tempus Trilogy.
I maintained the same approach: a longhand First Draft, a Second Draft transcription, a Third Draft revision, part red pen, part Apple Mac, and then the Fourth Draft process of sharpening sections that didn’t really work.
It took me – guess what? – about six months, but at long last an idea that had first come to me over fifteen years earlier was on paper.
Up to a point, it was all true.
I did go to the August Bank Holiday weekend Old Trafford Roses Match in 1980, and I did meet an attractive young woman from Oldham, with whom I spent two scorching days watching a fantastically narrow Lancashire win, and I did ask her out and she agreed. Exactly as happens in Tempus Fugitive.
In real life, she was going away on holiday in a couple of days and gave me her telephone number so I could ring her when she was back, but when I did, she was much less enthusiastic, so the rest of the book was made up (including the Time Machine. Sorry).
(Oddly, I met her again several years later. I’d gone to see Billy Bragg at the Apollo on a bitterly cold New Year’s Day evening, with my mate Dave. Coming out, we bumped into a work colleague of his, and her boyfriend. They were parked in the same street as I so we walked back together. The next time I saw Dave he said that Diane had asked him to send her apologies for ‘standing me up’ that time. As I’d only actually been stood up once, and this more recently, I wondered what the heck he was talking about, until the penny dropped. I’d never have recognised her, and that had nothing to do with the fact that she was dressed very differently for Ancoats in January than Old Trafford in August!)
Quite why I decided to use my experiences of that weekend, I no longer remember, but something was born between with the conjunction of this (sadly) out of the ordinary experience, and an old in-joke between a couple of old school-mates.
What would you do if you have access to a Time Machine? Where (or I suppose it should be when) would you go first?
I’d always said that if they ever invented the Time Machine, the first place I’d want to go would be Old Trafford in 1956, to see Jim Laker become the (then) only bowler ever to take all ten wickets in an innings. So I applied that to my adopted scenario.
The idea developed very slowly, over a couple of years, but in retrospect there’s an analysable logic behind it. For one thing, the use of Time Travel to visit a cricket match, however famous, obviously militated against any kind of official, scientific or authorised setting, which in turn led to the need for a back-street inventor (with a level of scientific knowledge that could correspond to my general ignorance). This would, in due course, lead to Roland, my ‘hero’s superior older brother.
Then there was the question of what should happen once I got Jack to 1956. Getting there and watching the match might please a few cricket die-hards, but as a story it did not go any further. Almost by default, the only way to progress this notion was to find that, once back in time, things didn’t happen as the history books had it.
Accepting that premise, the next question was obviously why would history change? Was it an accident, brought on by inadvertent interference by the hero that altered the timeline, or was it deliberate, an act of sabotage? Having read little but SF (and comedy) for the whole of the Seventies, I was well aware of the trope against changing the past, though Chaos Theory had not yet been invented to justify the improbably widespread effects on history of treading on an insect. Ans, as Roland would put it, if not in such specific terms, what possible effect on history could it have if Laker took only nine wickets instead of ten?
There seemed to be considerably more mileage in having someone deliberately changing the past, and having determined on that, if the history being changed was a sporting feat (not even, you may notice, the result of the game), however famous, the story pretty much had to be a comedy.
What it then needed was an ending. Who was behind all this, and more importantly why? Somewhere along the line I conceived of my ending, with its villain and the indelible ties to my opening scene, creating a colossal choice for Jack to have to make to bring the story to its anticipated conclusion.
And no, I am not going to be any more specific than that. Only a very small number of you have actually bought the book (Shame! Boo! Hiss!) and given that it’s a pretty clever and unique ending, if I say so myself, I’m not giving it away for free.
It took a long time to get this structure fixed in my mind and, as it happened, even longer to write it, but I eventually managed to draw together a clever and unusual plot, which making good use of my experiences that weekend with Diane as a springboard that, eventually, controlled the whole story in a way impossible to foresee when I first decided to cannibalise them.
As I stated above, my scientific knowledge is minimal. I cobbled together my theory about Time Travel from the real life phenomena that I’ve experienced countless times: losing something on my desk that is absolutely not where you put it when you look for it, but which, half an hour later, is exactly where you looked and did not find it. My explanation that it had slipped into the future via a wormhole was fanciful, but it fitted exactly the story as it was growing.
The main problem was, not long after I had actually completed a First Draft, which a friend of mine with a more scientific bent had read and enjoyed, I discovered by accident that scientists were investigating wormholes as a possible source for Time Travel.
It was sheer coincidence, and one that I found obscurely disappointing. It was one thing to come up with a completely implausible and utterly ridiculous explanation for Time Travel, whose complete unlikelihood was in keeping with the book’s general air of improbability, but to be overtaken by serious scientific investigation actually diminished the book slightly for me. If anyone ever read it, I would appear to be grounded in fact.
At this stage, The Infernal Device (which I had taken from my old mate Steve Callaghan’s description of the Subbuteo accessory that enabled you to elevate free-kicks and corners) was a one-off, though I had long since had the first line of a sequel (“Hey Roland, can I borrow the keys to the Time Machine?”). It was a great first line, but that was the entirety of it. No story, and not a glimpse of a concept.