Back to Square One

13 May

I gather that the expression ‘back to square one’ derives from the early days of British Broadcasting.

In the days before television, they had to think of a way to cover sporting events without pictures, and one of the ways to do this was to divide the football pitch into numbered squares. This allowed the commentators a very quick and easy way to tell the listeners where things were happening on the pitch.

In the course of using this system commentators were often heard to use the phrase ‘back to square one’ and the phrase seems to have caught on as a way of saying that things have gone badly and a fresh start is required.

The reason for this particular phrase coming to mind is because I’ve spent the last six months or so working on the first draft of a novel manuscript and I’ve reached a point where I think I’m going to have to go back and start again.

To provide a little background, this story is intended to follow on from the two I’ve already published on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and it’s proving to be a bit of a problem.

Essentially it’s another everyday tale of vampire folk trying to make their way in the modern world without being a/ discovered by the human population or b/ getting killed as a result of some devious plot carried on by others of their own kind.

The basic premise is that vampires live in highly territorial Mafia style families, each family being based in a major population centre. Before the development of modern cities vampires would have lived itinerant and largely solitary lives because it would have been almost impossible for them to hide their nature and activities in a small community.

What I have retained from the various traditions about vampires are things like being repelled by garlic, silver and direct sunlight (specifically UV light) and drowning very easily in fresh water. In addition I have retained other traditions about vampires being charismatic, having exceptionally acute senses and being physically powerful and resilient. Having said that, I don’t go for vampires crawling up and down walls or turning into bats etc.

I have avoided some of the other traditions about vampires i.e. being repelled by religious symbols, mostly because it raises too many inconsistencies.

In particular would vampires be repelled only by Christian symbols or would any religious symbol do? (It’s worth bearing in mind that I’m really not sure that followers of other religions use their symbols in order to repel evil in quite the way that Christians have tended to do).

There would also be the question of what it was about the symbol that repelled the vampire. Would it be some inherent power of the symbol itself, or perhaps the spiritual power of a divinity, or then again, maybe it would be the faith of the person wielding the symbol. These questions may seem trivial, but the way you choose to answer those questions does make a difference to how the plot might develop.

For example if you want to say that a religious symbol has an inherent power all of its own, then a chance configuration of objects that happened to form a cross, for example, would be enough to repel a vampire. This might work quite well in a comedy, but I didn’t think it would work very well for a story that was intended to be mostly serious.

If the power of a religious symbol stems from divine power, then it may raise theological problems of why this divine power had to wait for someone to brandish a religious symbol before acting against the vampire and this is liable to open the whole theological problem of evil. Maybe theodicy could provide the basis for an interesting novel, but it’s not one that I would be inclined to write.

If the power of the religious symbol stemmed from the faith of the person holding it, then there’s a question about whether or not the symbol is actually needed. Does faith really need a symbol in order to work?

You can argue that Stephen King addressed this question in Salem’s Lot when Father Callahan confronts Barlow, the vampire, and ultimately fails because he won’t relinquish his crucifix. The implication seems to be that had he given up the symbol of his faith, he would have been able to fend Barlow off with the reality of his faith.

Any or all of these questions might be interesting to pursue if you’re religious, but I’m not, so I tend to avoid them. I tend to follow in the footsteps of Anne Rice and Whitley Strieber in making my vampires pretty much secular and undeterred by religious symbols and rituals.

Where I differ from Anne Rice and Whitley Strieber is in the way that their vampires (most of them anyway) are so conflicted about hunting humans. I suppose this might be partly because both authors have written books from the point of view of vampires and they felt this was necessary in order to make their protagonists sympathetic. Or then again, maybe they simply wanted to explore the dilemma that comes from being obliged to kill in spite of one’s moral qualms.

Either way, I find all this hand wringing and agonising a bit wearing (this in spite of my respect for both authors on the whole).

I prefer to use a model based on natural history instead. In nature we find that most apex predators are superbly adapted for their role as killers, both physically and psychologically. They tend to be powerful, fast, agile and gifted with a superb array of senses. In psychological terms apex predators are often intelligent (even great white sharks have recently been shown to be more intelligent than was previously believed). They are often capable of forming close bonds with members of their own species and sometimes with individuals from other species (think of dogs and humans, obviously, but there are also documented cases of coyotes and badgers travelling together in order to hunt co-operatively).

Having said this no apex predator has ever shown much empathy for their prey (except for some humans) and, in general they show no regret over killing. If anything, apex predators show every sign of enjoying the process of hunting and revelling in their kills.

I take the view that vampires would be similar in their emotional makeup. I think that they would enjoy hunting for its own sake, as well as for the practical benefits of securing nutrition. I think they may value their prey, in some sense, but that they wouldn’t lose much sleep over killing them. I also think they would do as most predators do and select the weak, the old, the young and the stupid (or at least the marginalised and vulnerable) because this is simply the most practical way of selecting your prey. (Any sensible predator will pick the most vulnerable prey to hunt because it’s safer and easier, but because vampires hunt humans, they will also want to select those individuals who won’t be missed, they won’t want to draw attention to themselves by taking out prominent citizens).

It also seems that most apex predators are pretty conceited (I spend a lot of my time with cats and maybe that’s distorted my perception on this point) and I think vampires would be too.

Harking back for a moment to the issue of the secular nature of the vampires I write about, another aspect of this is the fact that if vampires were repelled by religious symbols, this would imply that they are innately evil. I wanted to avoid this implication. I prefer the idea that vampires are predators, and therefore dangerous, but not necessarily evil.

Unlike lions and tigers, for example, they are moral agents and are therefore capable of being evil, but the morality of their behaviour varies, within the parameters set by their physical, emotional and intellectual needs and abilities. In other words some are morally better than others and most of them are a complex blend of good and bad qualities, just like humans.

Following on from this, one of the persistent themes that has inadvertently emerged in the course of writing these stories has been how badly we, as human beings, often treat each other. This wasn’t a conscious decision, but it fits the overall nature of the stories and it will continue in the third (and hopefully last) instalment.

So this brings me to my problem. The first of these novels started off as a first person novella that owed a lot to The Quiller Memorandum by Adam Hall and a rather obscure post Godfather Mafia film called The Don is Dead (Anthony Quinn was the best thing in it). I wasn’t very happy with the outcome and I tried to turn it into a screenplay, which also didn’t work very well. Some years later I took the basic ideas and some of the characters and wrote The Familiar. (It went through more than twenty drafts, many of them major restructurings before I was reasonably happy with it).

Mistress of the City, which is the sequel, had also had a previous incarnation as a failed screenplay, but in this case I was a lot happier with the basic story so while it needed a bit of adapting it didn’t need as much radical chopping and changing to turn it into a novel I felt comfortable with.

I suppose this last episode is suffering from the fact that it’s completely new. It’s never had a previous incarnation and I suppose I’m just having to work harder at cobbling the various plot strands together.

Initially I just did as I’ve previously done and started at the beginning, working towards an ending I’d already worked out.

Whenever I start writing any story I always have the main characters, most of the main story points and the ending worked out in advance. I’ve read that Stephen King tends to start at the beginning and then see where the story takes him, picking out important themes as they emerge.

Obviously, this would only be in the first draft and I dare say he does his share of revising and rewriting before he sends it off to his editor/publisher/agent. But I suspect that this might explain why the endings to his novels are often so weak in comparison to the rest of his writing, which is why I always try to have an ending to work towards before I start writing. (Which doesn’t mean that I don’t revise, or even completely change my original ending before I’m finished).

After a while, I stopped trying to develop all of the subplots simultaneously and concentrated on one major plot line. This seemed to work for a while, but then I reached a point where I felt I had to go back and add in the other plot lines before I could finally get to my preordained ending.

That seemed to work for a while, but then I got to the same point again and realised that I was close to the end but the first draft was barely half the length it should be.

My first drafts are often pretty short. I tend to concentrate on dialogue and basic directions for the character’s actions, then I go back and add in more description, but generally just enough to create a sense of place and to help orient the reader.

I never write extended descriptive passages because I’m not convinced I’m very good at them and because I suspect a lot of readers tend to skim over them anyway. As a rule description is part of the furniture of a story, it takes someone like Charles Dickens to make descriptive passages a positive asset to his storytelling and I freely admit I’m nowhere near his standard.

So my first draft is too short and even although I know it will expand as I rewrite it, it still won’t be anywhere near the right length. I’ve also realised that there’s another plot line that has to go in and, although this will help with the length, it means going back to the start and trying to interweave another subplot into the mix.

I should stress that this new plot line isn’t something I’ve just made up to pad the thing out, it was always meant to be there and I’m really not sure why I didn’t add it in earlier, it’s actually pretty important to the overall design of the novel.

I suppose this isn’t really a disaster, in a way it’s not even that much of a setback. It’s just that I don’t normally work this way and I’m finding it a bit disconcerting.

I suppose what I also find a bit disconcerting is that fact that I’m writing the third in a series of stories that I’ve been reasonably happy with so far. I really don’t want this last story to be a weak add-on. I want it to maintain whatever standard I’ve managed to achieve so far. (I make no claim to be some kind of literary writer. I write because I like it and I’d be quite content to be reasonably competent hack).

I don’t have too many illusions that Mistress of the City would stand very well on it’s own. I think it builds on The Familiar, but it definitely depends on it as well, so I don’t mind if this novel doesn’t stand independently of the others, I just want to avoid it being a let down.

So it’s back to square one and maybe this time I’ll manage to wind up with a complete first draft.

The trick is to get it written. Once you’ve done that, you can start thinking about how to get it right.




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