I’ve written about lots of stuff whilst writing Answer, but I’ve written very little about actually writing Answer. This is largely because all that time I could have spent writing about writing Answer was more productively put to use actually writing Answer. Keeping up? Good.
But now Answer is finished (and totally available on the Amazon Kindle store) I feel more inclined to sit back and take a look at the process of writing the damn thing. Consider this a bit like one of those ‘Making Of’ featurettes that come with DVDs (mainly to justify the price of said DVD). It’s like an Answer bonus feature. It’s probably going to come in two parts, because no one wants to read me rambling on for thousands of words all in one go.
There may be some slight spoilers. Nothing major, of course, and I highly doubt that anyone is all that bothered anyway.
So, Answer. I don’t remember exactly how I came up with ‘the idea’ for Answer. A lot of it I definitely made up as I went along, but I did start writing with a fairly solid idea in mind. Like most of my ideas, it was probably gestated in the back of my head over a good few months of absorbing other people’s ideas, but I think the main components of Answer are everything by George Orwell, a chunk of Ayn Rand, and half the storyline of Metal Gear Solid 4.
(An Answer mini-game could be to read through and try to spot all the Metal Gear Solid references. It might make the whole thing even more entertaining.)
I originally envisaged Answer as a film script. Well, I envisaged the story by itself first, but began working on it as part of the screenwriting module of my MA. I have somewhere in the annals of my computer a complete scene-by-scene breakdown of Answer The Movie, and about the first 10 minutes of a screenplay.
Answer would have made a pretty dull film. I realised early on that the nuances of the technology I had developed for the story – the grand and mysterious Nanetic Network – would have been an absolute bastard to get across on screen in an interesting way (they were an absolute bastard to get across in prose form as well, but more on that later.)
So I decided to develop the idea as a novel. I think I had always intended to write it as a novel, but shoe-horning it into film format saved me having to come up a whole new idea for my film module, and actually meant I got to round-table some of the ideas and characters really early on, which massively helped develop the subsequent novel.
The upshot was that I now had my screenplay scene breakdown to use as a framework for the novel. I thought this would be helpful in the development of the novel version (I could treat the process more as a screen-to-page adaption), and I also thought that this meant the planning stage was already done.
I was wrong on both counts. Turns out screenplays and novels are not remotely the same in structure or presentation. I think I worked this out several months into writing.
I submitted the first three chapters of the book, as well as a report on the process, as the final dissertation for my MA. These first chapters were highly polished, redrafted countless times, and had the structure of their every sentence agonised over. They were well received by the staff on the course.
Pleased with my early reception, I set out to write the rest of the novel with the same degree of care and attention to detail. This didn’t work. Again, academic writing and prose writing are two very different disciplines, and trying to write prose with the analytical style of an academic is a pretty horrible way to write something creative. I spent too long agonising over paragraph length and whether my choice of words was suitably clever, and not enough time actually writing the bloody thing.
So initial progress was slow. Real slow. This was exacerbated by the fact that my writing discipline was poor at the outset. I spent much of the year after uni looking for work, not finding work, finding work I didn’t like, and on the whole thinking too much about money and not spending nearly enough time writing.
I’d not written anything even remotely on this scale before, and my two-hour writing days made the process seem dauntingly huge.
It also became apparent, about a third of the way in, that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. Key plot points that I’d sort of sketched out in the back of my head suddenly had to actually become compelling prose. I realised that for much of narrative, I didn’t really know what was happening.
The result was a terrific amount of wastage. Entire plot arcs were drafted and discarded as the narrative skewed back and forth trying to find some semblance of coherence.
There was originally an antagonist called Artur Rezanov, a religious fanatic living in London’s Slums, who was intended as a sort of counterpoint to the slick corporate menace of primo badman Donovan Dresden.
I wrote a large chunk of prose, I believe over thirty-thousand words, about this character, having him encounter the protagonist, Ethan Ryan, and set in motion events that led to the climax of the second act, a climax that occurs entirely differently in the finished novel.
It just didn’t work. The word-count was rocketing upwards without any sign of resolution – I was having enough trouble trying to outline events and ideas introduced at the start of the book, and instead of tying these into a strong narrative thread, I was introducing new characters, new ideas, and new complications.
It became horribly unwieldy. I made two really big mistakes in the development of Answer. The first was overreaching myself – I wanted to write a book that was at the same time hard (or at least firm) science fiction, an emotional thriller, and a political statement. Perhaps one day I will write a book that is all of these things, and it will be fantastic. But as my first novel? It was way beyond my reach.
The second really big mistake was that I didn’t actually know what the central conceit of the story was. The whole thing is based around uncovering the secret of the Nanetic Network, but at this sticky half-way point, I didn’t know what the secret was myself. Or rather, I’d decided it was about three different things, and it really needed to be one thing.
I took a short break from writing. I re-read what I had written. I assessed its strengths and weaknesses. I assessed my strengths and weaknesses. Then I binned loads of it.
The Rezanov character went, as did his entire accompanying story arc. Lots of the big speeches went too. Answer is still quite big on its speeches, but in its previous, world-conquering form, it would preach for entire chapters. I’d estimate that over fifty thousands words were simply scrapped. That’s enough for a whole other novel. But it didn’t work, so it went.
What worked was the pacing. It turned out I’m quite good at writing suspense-and-release, less good at grand impactful statements. So the thriller elements came to the fore, and much of the technology and politics were pushed to the back. Those elements are still there, but now they serve the thrust of the narrative, rather than the narrative, the theme and the tech all fighting for space. I think the novel is better for it.
I also sat down and really planned the bastard out. I restructured what I’d already written, and wrote a run down of every single scene that was to come. It took a long time, but when it was done I knew exactly what was going to happen, exactly how many chapters there were going to be, exactly what I had left to do. It suddenly looked achievable.
And I started properly working on it. This was now the summer of 2011, I was living back in Northampton, I had a quiet period where I didn’t have worry about work or money and had very little to distract me from writing.
When I started writing for full days, the first draft was finished surprisingly quickly. I typed ‘The End’, had a celebratory cup of tea, and pretty much immediately set about the process of editing.
The process of editing is not fun. And with a manuscript as unwieldy as Answer had become, it was majorly not fun, and took a seriously long time. However, I feel I’ve written enough words for now, so let’s call this Part One. Part Two will consider all the joys of the editing process, as well as an appraisal of the finished novel, what I’m happy with, what I’m not happy with, and lessons learnt for next time. Trust me, there are lots.