Deleted scene #1: The Black Sea

3 August 2015
Luckily the editing process isn't quite this tedious

Luckily the editing process isn’t quite this tedious

As promised in my most recent blog post, I’m currently hard at work redrafting my novel the Arkship Ulysses for what will absolutely, definitely be the final time. Probably.

In the meantime, I thought it might be interesting to share with you some of the scenes which never made it into the final cut.

As with any long-form piece of work, writing a novel often involves a lot of trial and error. It’s difficult to know exactly where a story is going when you sit down to write it and of course that inevitably results a lot of extra material which never sees the light of day.

How much extra material you ask? Well let me put it this way: the first draft of my novel completed in December 2012 was about 250,000 words long. The second draft, completed December 2014 was 160,000 words long.

Yeah, that’s a lot.

Now before I do this please be aware of a couple of things:

  1. The writing in these extracts isn’t fully polished. This is very much a work-in-progress here so expect to see a lot of repetitions, redundancies and other writerly ticks that the editing process normally takes care of
  2. These scenes no longer have any place in the book. It’s not like you can easily slot them into some place in the novel and have them make sense. Unfortunately things have moved around so much by this point that these scenes no longer fit without significant re-writes to their entry points.

All clear? OK so without any further ado I give you deleted scene #1.

Deleted scene #1: The Black Sea

Click here to read Deleted Scene #1: The Black Sea (PDF).

This ‘scene’ (actually 4,000 words long, which is long enough to make it a chapter in its own right) is the telling of an old Earth legend. The story Susan tells Stuart in this chapter is a simple one but it’s one I’ve always had a soft spot for because of how thematically resonant it is with the rest of the book as well as with Stuart’s character arc as a whole.

It also tells us a lot about the back-story of this world without being extremely in-your-face about it. I’ve always liked it when the world building of novels is done by the reader as much as it is by the writer and this story is, I feel, a perfect example of this. When you read it you get a real sense for the role of faith in people’s lives and how the citizens of the Ulysses perceive their religion as well as the catastrophe which stranded them among the stars in the first place.

As you can probably tell from the way I’m talking about this scene, I really like it a lot and I honestly wrestled with it a long time before finally deciding to delete it. Despite how much I enjoy it, it is ultimately 4,000 words of what is essentially filler and I can’t really justify that in a book that’s already well over its recommended length.

Anyway, if you’re interested in keeping score, this scene would have taken place during what is now Chapter 24: The Metapath. It even ends in a very similar way.

I hope you enjoy it.


How I write

26 June 2012

It’s time for one of those inevitable posts which always appears on a writer’s blog at some point: that of the writing process.

How do I write my books?

It’s a very personal question and as any writer will tell you, there’s no right or wrong way to go about it. Hemingway did his writing while standing up, Truman Capote did it lying down, James Joyce did his while wearing a milkman’s uniform and Victor Hugo did it while wearing nothing at all. Steven King was drunk for most of his books, Aldous Huxley high on mescaline. Flacherty O’Conner wrote for two hours a day, Brandon Sanderson writes for 12, and it’s a well-known fact that James Paterson hires a team of ghost writers to do most of his writing these days.

Me? I’m what you might call a ‘note writer’. I tend to imagine my stories from beginning to end like a film being played out in my head and simply jot down what I’m seeing. At first, I don’t worry too much about the quality of the writing itself. My brain has always worked faster than my fingers, and I’ve found over the years that if I spend too much time at the initial stage worrying about matters of style then I lose something of the essence of the scene. The first time I write something, I want it to be as clean and bare bones as possible. All plot points and characterization, dialogue and brief descriptions.

Here’s an example taken from about two thirds through the book:

There is bluster on the other side of the door. Charles’s voice: “…can’t see why it can’t wait. Damnation, can’t a man even get ready for his own evening in peace?”
Door slides open. There he is. He is half shaved and looks ridiculous. No chin, fat neck. Towel in hand. Bit of foam in his ear. I slept with him, Ruth thinks feeling revolted.
He takes one look at the room and understands. “Ah…” He’s a fool but he’s not stupid. “What’s the meaning of all this?”
“You.” Brian advances on him. “I want a word with you.”
Terrified, Charles slips around the other side of the table, running from him.
Simon (rolling his eyes): “You’d best go with him Charles.”
“I will not! I’ll be damned if some hooligan is going to just barge into my home and start ordering us about.”
Rachel: “That hooligan is the ship’s Second.”
“I don’t care. I’m not on duty.”
Brian tugs off his badge of rank and slams it down on the table between them. “I’m not here as the ship’s second. Right now, this hooligan is nothing more than the father of the woman you raped.”
Silence.
“I beg your…”
“SIT DOWN!”
Charles sits.

As you can see it’s nowhere close to publishable right now. The characterisation is rushed, the dialogue not fleshed out. It doesn’t even use complete sentences! Right now it reads more like a series of bullet points than a piece of prose, a shopping list of events that need to be included in roughly the right order. For all this, however, you can already see that the flow of the scene is in place. The key moments are all there, marked out clearly for a future version of me to flesh out.

The benefit of this method is that Past Me (who wrote this about a year and a half ago) could focus himself more on the actual elements of the story itself. It’s a fast way of writing and Past Me was able to write the entire novel this way in just over two weeks. This then frees up Present Me to focus on the writing craft itself, content in the knowledge that the action and pacing has already been fixed. Considering the often inconsistant writing schedule I follow, not having to worry about these things is a real blessing, let me tell you.

Present Me then rewrites the same scene like so:

There was a sudden commotion on the other side of the door. Ruth thought she heard Samson’s piping voice followed a few moments later by the deep booming bass of another she recognised all too well. “…can’t see why it can’t wait,” the second voice was saying. “Damnation, can’t a man even enjoy a round of cards in peace?”

Charles, she knew at once with a heavy feeling in her stomach. The man she had slept with. She stiffened at the sound.

The door slid open and there he was, dressed in a rust coloured smoking jacket with matching gumboots and a pair of baize breeches well past their prime. Ruth took one look at him — at the overcooked sausage of his belly and the ridiculous moustache hanging to his nose — and felt herself go cold inside. He was at least twice her age, a huge kettle-bellied man of too much chin and not enough neck who stank of old socks. She remembered how he had looked lying in bed next to her, the blankets pulled up over his naked maggot-white body, and shuddered.

She must have been really drunk.

For all his faults, Charles wasn’t stupid. One look at Ruth’s father and he swallowed, understanding flashing plain into his face. He tried backing away but there was nowhere to go. He was well and truly trapped.

He tried to put a brave face on things. “What is the meaning of all this?” he demanded.

“You,” her father told him. He advanced on the man and Charles darted away with a girly shriek. He slipped around the other side of the dining table, quick to put it between him and her father. From the mirrored walls, the image of the two of them staring each other down from across the table echoed itself out into infinity. They were like twin bookends with nothing but space in between. One tall, the other fat. One furious, the other terrified.

Her father jabbed a finger at Charles. “I want a word with you!” he announced and Charles fell so far back against the wall that he threatened to merge with his reflection.

“You’d best do what he says, Charles,” said Tracey’s father.

“I will not!” he replied, the very picture of puffed up affront. “I’ll be damned if some hooligan is going to just barge into my home and start ordering us about like… like…” He took a breath. “This isn’t on I tell you!”

“Unfortunately, that hooligan happens to be the ship’s Second,” Rachel told him. Even under the woman’s carefully schooled face, Ruth could see how much that fact rankled at her.

Still Charles was unmoved. “I don’t care!” he announced, arms folded across his huge chest. “I’m not on duty!”

“And neither am I.” There was the sound of tearing cloth and suddenly Ruth’s father was holding his badge of office in hand. He slapped it down on the table between them like a formal challenge and leaned across it towards the cowering Charles. His mouth was a rictus of teeth. “Right now, this hooligan is nothing more than the father of a woman you raped.”

There was a moment of stunned silence.

It was a moment before Charles was able to speak. “I beg your…”

“Sit down!” he thundered.

Charles sat. Despite herself, Ruth couldn’t help but feel a small tug of satisfaction at the sight.

So there you have it and, by gosh, look at what a lovely shade of purple my prose has suddenly turned.

Yeah, I don’t mind telling you that this first attempt is wildly over-written. Actions are repeated far too much for their own good (Ruth feels disgust or terror in her stomach so many times I fear she has indigestion) and in a couple of places the whole ‘he said, she said’ thing jars with the flow of the scene. You can also see that I’ve altered a couple of details. In the first version, Charles was fresh out of the bathroom, but in this one he’s been entertaining guests. A small difference, perhaps, but it’s that sort of thing that Future Me will have to be aware of when he later makes his edits.

But at least the scene is written now and Future Me should have no problem going back through it and smoothing back the prose to a style that is more in keeping with the rest of the story. After this will come a final detail check, in which Future Me will go through the whole book from beginning to end to make sure Present Me hasn’t contradicted himself from chapter to chapter. I have a file on my computer which is filled with literally hundreds of notes to this effect, with everything from big things “Nathan has brown hair and wears a necklace of teeth around his neck. Very handsome. Smiles a lot. 27 yo” to tiny matters “Priesthood – capital P, priest – small p). I also have a timeline that I check against as well, though this is proving somewhat slippery since Past Me and Present Me keep disagreeing over the exact order of events. (I don’t know why we’re even bothering. Future Me is totally going to kick our asses.)

Due to the tough constraints of my teaching job, I usually don’t get to write during the day. Likewise I tend not to write at the weekends since I prefer to use this time to catch up with my long-suffering fiancé. This gives me a narrow window of time during the week in which I can actually write.

Specifically, one day.

One, free, 8-hour day devoid of lessons, in which I can sink my teeth into my work and grind through the next chunk of my notes.

I like to write first thing in the morning, while I’m still awake, though I’m prone to procrastination so I have to make sure the internet is switched off first. I write my notes in long hand but use a laptop for the rest. I can write pretty much anywhere but I prefer to do it in bed before I’ve got up and started my chores for the day. My aim is for one chapter a week and considering my chapters average 5,000 words, this means my mean writing speed is little over 700 words a day. Not bad for someone who only gets to write once a week.

So there you have it. My secret is out. Hopefully when Present Me becomes Future Me, I’ll be able to show you the next stage in this process, but until then if you have any specific questions regarding my writing process, feel free to ask a question in the comments and I’ll try to get back to you as soon as I can.


Writing update: An Analysis of the Bunks

4 August 2011
OK, so I’m going to do something I don’t normally do today and show you a short extract from my writing. Please remember that this is only a first draft at the moment so it’s slightly overwritten in places. It’s also an extract taken from approximately a third of the way through the book, so it mentions a lot of places and characters that will be no doubt unknown to you. I only mention this so you won’t think me a hypocrite following my latest post… which in a way I am, but there we go.
An inspection at a Nazi concentration camp: This picture was the direct inspiration for the extract below.

The inspection was called just for Brian. At his behest, five bunkees were chosen at random and dragged before him in the security lodge next to the bunks to answer his questions. Were they involved in the riots? Did they know who was involved in the riots? Had they volunteered for shiftwork recently? Did they know anyone who had volunteered for shiftwork recently? One by one they stood before him, each a mirror image of the last, heads down, cloth caps in hand, some of them openly trembling.

These men aren’t fit to work, Brian thought with a flash of annoyance as they mumbled their way through their answers. They were more skeleton than man, each with the same shaved head and simple duds of woven haircloth. They had the shapes of men well enough: head, arms and legs all where they should be. When you spoke to them, they turned their heads to listen and their eyes were full of understanding. When you told them to move here or do this, they responded as flawlessly as if they were machines. But when they spoke…

“I don’t know no’ing m’lord. Honest. It all happened when I were sleepin’, I swear it.”

Their answers were all the same.

Brian sighed and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. He tried to ignore the snorts of contempt coming from the other officers sitting at the table with him.

“That’s five for five,” Commander Hathaway sneered from his left. The young master-at-arms lounged back in his chair, his nightstick tap tap tapping against his thigh as he glared at the bunkee before him. “Anymore of this and we should just turn it into a drinking game.”

“Only if you’re buying the drinks, sir,” joked Lieutenant Whittaker from his right.

Brian ignored them both. “Bunkee 65211C: you’re telling me you slept through the biggest riot this ship’s seen since Gellar? You slept through the deaths and the gunfire? The alarms didn’t wake you?”

The bunkee squirmed under the barrage of questions but to his credit he stayed firm. “I were tired m’lord,” he insisted. “God’s honest truth but I were. I were working all that day. Scrap metal sorting. Tough work. I just wanted sleep.”

“That so?” It was an easy enough story to verify; Second Lieutenant Whittaker was here today for this very purpose. As master of the Book of Summons, Whittaker had access to all of the bunk’s records going back over the last 50 years. Births, deaths, which bunkee went were and why and for how much, it was all recorded within those neatly printed ledgers.

Whittaker flicked through the books with a practised ease, his blunt finger trailing down the lists of figures until they came to rest on the right one.

“Here it is,” he confirmed. “Day shift. Maintenance work. Scrap metal.”

“Pay?”

“Two extra ration credits.”

A pittance. Still, it showed that this bunkee wasn’t lying and that was something. If there was one thing more contemptible than a bunkee, it was a bunkee who tried to pretend he was better than he really was.

“Very good. Bunkee 65211C: please take off your duds and turn around.”

Again, the bunkee responded as quickly as if Brian had just pressed a button on a machine. There was no modesty, not even an attempt at resistance. The bunkee simply unbuttoned his duds and stepped out of them as they tumbled to the floor. In moments he was naked.

A skeleton, Brian thought again as he looked him over, and not a particularly good example of one either. Like many bunkees, this latest specimen was a wretched thing, his growth stunted by years of malnutrition, his legs bowed slightly and his back twisted so that his left shoulder sat higher than the right. His skin was a sickly, lifeless film of flesh, pocked all over with bedsores and old whip marks turned hard and shiny with age. Even his cock was a twisted, tiny thing, the hair around it a thatch of pale, fragile hair that looked almost transparent in the harsh overhead light.

And to think there are people on this ship who are scared of this like. The only person likely to be scared by this wretch is the wretch himself. “All right 65211C, get dressed,” he commanded. He was done with looking at bones.

Alright, so straight away you’ve probably noticed the flamingly obvious parallel between the ‘bunkees’ in the extract above and the Jewish people during the time of the Second World War. Yeah, it’s pretty damned transparent isn’t it? I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it actually. Being neither Jewish, Polish or over the age of 65, I feel like I’m coming across as the writerly equivalent of Godwin’s Law (if any discussion goes on for long enough, the the chances of the holocaust being brought up becomes 100%). But, unfortunately, it’s true. The bunks = Auschwitz. I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing or not.

Now, in my defence, at no point when writing this novel did I ever think to myself “You know what would be great? A novel all about the Jews during war-time Poland… IN SPACE!!” Why? Because no one wants to read that book and I certainly don’t want to be the one to write it. It’s crass. The golden axiom is to ‘write what you know’ and (thank God) I know nothing of what it was like to live in that hell-hole knowing that every day could be your last.

Instead, my vision of bunks came about through an entirely organic process, a series of logical steps that evolved over several years. Essentially, my thought process went like this:

  • The Ark-ship Ulysses is a huge ship but it can’t get any bigger.
  • When the ship was launched, it was running at pretty close to full capacity.
  • The events of this novel take place 1,000 years from the time of the ship’s launch.
  • That means… well, that means a lot of babies being born during this period.
  • A lot of babies on an already full ship = nowhere to put them = space shortage.
  • Space shortage = communal living.

Thus were the bunks created. I envisioned them as starting out as a purely temporary thing. Essentially, a large communal living area where the people could be held and looked after until a more permanent solution could be found. The problem is, there is no permanent solution for over-population short of killing off the excess. Over the generations, this situation would only get worse.

A big problem would be jobs. Since the ship only needs a crew of 10,000 to remain operational, I realised straight away that this means a lot of people sitting around doing nothing. You would end up pretty quickly with an ‘us vs. them’ situation. There would be the educated officers who operate the ship and keep everyone alive and there there would be everyone else… essentially walking mouths good for nothing more than cheap labour and odd jobs. The officers would get the better quarters, of course. They would be prioritised with better health care, better education, better wages. After all – they’re the ones doing all the work! The bunkees would get the leftovers.

Over several generations, this difference between the officers and those inside the communal living space would become all the more obvious. The people of the bunks would start to resent the officers lording over them. They would become lawless, unruly.

At the same time the officers would start to fear the bunkees. Instead of policing them as they had before, security would exist just to keep that horde of people away from the civilised parts of the ship. Over 400 years… you end up with the equivalent of Auschwitz In Space.

Here’s a description of the bunks taken from near the beginning of the novel:

Once, people would have referred to spaces like this in terms of numbers of football pitches or aircraft hangers. It was a gigantic space, almost 500 metres from end to end and a full 20 from ground to ceiling. It was so massive, that if you stood in the middle of the main thoroughfare and looked towards the far wall, you could see the curvature of the ship as the ground bent away to kiss the ceiling. And all of it was filled with nothing but beds. Row after row of steel frames stacked three, four, five high. Ladders and catruns, hastily assembled from reclaimed girders, crisscrossed the frames like layers in a cake. Curtains of cloth marked out one person’s territory from another but over the years the lines had become blurred, distorted, so that in places it was impossible to say where one row started and another finished and in other places they no longer looked like beds at all. For every bed there was a blanket, a bucket, a spoon and a bowl. For every bed there was a ration of three cups of water a day, 150 grams of bread, two bowls of vegetable stew and a mug of oil. There was no privacy. There was no escape except to work. They called it the bunks and it reeked.

The years had left their mark on this place. Alleyways had been carved between the rows. Beds had been unbolted from their original positions, shifted and butted up against one another to become store fronts and bazaars, whorehouses, restaurants and latrines. It was an entire world in miniature, and somewhere inside it, Stuart knew, lived the remnants of his family, the once proud Leightons.

An electrified ghetto fence ran across the front of the room, sealing away that hive from the foyer in which Stuart now stood. Around him, armed officers moved with practiced precision, truncheons in hand. Over by the wall, a handful were rounding up volunteers for day shift work.

“All right now. Day shift!” Hathaway called through the ship intercom, his voice hard as a whip as it echoed through the steel canyon around him. “We need 3,000 of you gutter rats for grunt work in the arboretum and 200 of you for… ah, scrubbing down fuel lines, now doesn’t that sound nice? First come, first serve. Pay – two credits. Twenty minutes for lunch. Time wasters will be shot. Thank you.”

Stuart saw everything in one glance and felt himself go cold. He saw the beggars pushing themselves up against the ghetto fence. He saw the cold, uncaring officers who watched them with jaded eyes and passed cruel jibes among themselves. He saw the listlessness, the suffering. He saw the crumpled shapes piled up on nearby carts that could only be dead bodies. But it wasn’t the things he saw that were the worst part. It was the smell: like piss and rot and sweat and death. And the noise. Being inside the bunks was like being inside a nuclear explosion.

Am I justified in writing about this subject? I leave that for you, oh people of the Internet, to decide. Certainly, when I first realised the parallel between the Jews and the bunkees I tried to downplay it. I was worried some readers would think I was deliberately glorifying the violence of the holocaust or using it for the sake of simple shock to somehow propel my book sales. But over the last few weeks I’ve started to realise that this isa story that needs to be told.

Jews In Space it may be, but the simple fact is that as a writer – and a science fiction one at that – my job is to explore human nature. It was human nature that led to the Nazi’s rising to power in the first place. It was human nature that led to those same Nazi’s ‘following orders’ and leading to the almost complete extermination of an entire race of people. Human nature does not change. We must never be so foolish as to think that the holocaust was a historical fluke.

My hope is that by writing about the bunks, shocking as it may be, I am reminding people of the inherent selfishness, prejudice, suspicion and sense of self-preservation that lies at the heart of every human being. When used in the hands of a wise man, such features are a boon. But during times of crisis, they can lead to our darkest hours as a species.

If science fiction as a genre exists to hold a mirror up to society and show them a reflection of itself then this is the part of that society that I would like to show. It took me a long time to realise this and even longer to decide if I was qualified to write it. But at the end of the day, I feel I am. Because I too am human and those same flaws exist inside me. It’s very easy to look back on the times of the Second World War and simply condone it all with a wave of our magical ethics wand, but the fact is if the same set of circumstances came around today, the holocaust would happen again. That’s a fact. To deny it is to deny human nature.