Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition

Isn’t every story a conflict of sorts?

And, come to think, isn’t every mind?

I happened to be listening to a little something about Star Trek, while making a bit of a mess in a fair old project of mine besides writing for a change. Someone mentioned one of my favourite characters in all its lengthy canon: McCoy, and they put his purpose very well: to oppose everyone else’s initiative, to question and to annoy. No surprise that I like him! He’s just the kind of character that’s the most fun to write.

But I wonder who’s playing his rôle in Alpha, or Proteus. This will be one to look out for when I give them their much needed read. It’s a flat kind of story that has no argument, not least the kind who is personified, smiling back at you.

However, I thought something deeper. In a pretty big sense, Madala is her own opponent. And so too is her brother. We all have a bit of our opposite inside us, a psychological conceit as old as eastern philosophy and I dare say many a western tale as well. But some of us suffer it harder than the rest. Some people are born to struggle on the inside. Some of the more compelling people I’ve met, no less. I think we all have it to a degree, but that fire doesn’t always blaze as bright. It can truly drive a mind to the edge of the world, for better and, alas, for worse.

I don’t know quite how well I’ve written that side of Alpha’s leading brother and sister. In all honesty, it’s make or break. They tease it out of each other so very badly that I’ll have failed if I can’t get this working. The heat of the contest they fight between themselves for their lives is Alpha’s urgent heart. And yet that’s not the layer I mean the most. Rather, I want to see Madala’s doubt. I want to understand Katerina, her human alter ego, that brief while she’s on the page.

Alpha’s time is coming. I know that. Reading through its predecessor Proteus lately, finding a name for every piece, I could still well remember what I meant as I wrote it. But for the first time, I sensed a little altitude. A better vantage over my faulty words. A place to be, when their brutal rain must come. To write is to cut. To tell is to hear yourself as your self again. To speak, I’m afraid, is to sing.


The Wars of the World

Be glad we’re not a hundred years ago. All the more today.

I’ve always found it hard to get my head around the Great War. Monuments to it cover Europe, including every village and town I’ve ever been. Such was the loss, and the horror. It was huge, merciless, and ultimately so sadly pointless that it deserves its euphemistic subtitle with dark perfection: The War to End All Wars. But what was it for? What was the cause? Who in their right mind prosecuted such a thing? Why were we so mad keen to burn our nations to the ground?

It wasn’t all about a prince whose car took a bad turn one day in Sarajevo. Nor was it just an almighty clash between opposing alliances who wanted one another destroyed. I learned about it during the tail end of the Cold War, when the current day was easy to confuse with the past. But empires allied with republics in that conflict. There was no war of ideologies. Not a consistent one, from the start. Instead, it really was perhaps the hideous act of naked hubris that it appears on first sight. A grab gone wrong, big time.

I have much to learn from it.

Specifically, the First World War was fought by one tactic above all else: concentration. It was the supreme creation of the industrial age. Never before could we cart about so many people, and so much firepower, as quickly and on such scale. So that we did. Over and over again. To hurl them at the enemy in overwhelming force. If only he could not muster just the same thing in return. Instead, we found that defence had the better over offence through most of that nightmare of a conflict. The fronts held. Only the death tolls made much progress before the bitter end.

Absurd as it sounds to say, the generals who did these things were broadly right. No one had fought like this before. Their principles were valid, in a sorry way. Either side could overrun the other if only their massive attack was sufficiently obscene. The fact we had cavalry men fighting battles of trenches and machine guns was no surprise, as technology moved on ahead of tactics. It always does. Fighting yesterday’s war isn’t so much an indictment of fools as it is a truism of time’s arrow.

A recurring image in my work, which has no shortage of them, is the opposing swarm. Jocaster’s story throughout Alpha, right back to his childhood, is enemy after enemy, united to attack him, using the only advantage they have on their side: sheer numbers. There’s something truly archetypal in one figure opposing the horde. The individual, alone, against the sea. I didn’t realise it at the time, but Jocaster was right out of my unconscious. He is a vision of the universal hero, albeit an enigmatic one undecided between the alliances of legend, good and bad. His struggle against his many foes is the monomyth, as I happened on it, without a compass.

I’m well of the opinion that villains are people too. They always appealed to me the most, when I enjoyed stories, for as long as I can remember right back into my youngest days. They were the ones who made things happen in so many sloppy tales. What kind of hero just reacts to other people? In the better stories, the baddies were the stars, no matter what the hackneyed morals tried to tell. They were the most visibly human. They had their reasons, and their tragedy. Hardly a surprise then that I came up with a hero and a villain in the shape of one single character, surrounded by his own little cast of no better and no worse. Making Jocaster believable, making him someone you sympathise with for as long as I can, that’s a vital test of Alpha. I’ll get a good sense of what I’ve managed in the first draft when I read it, looking for this very point. You know as good as I, that there is no first book without princes.

The ultimate lesson of the World War One, that still holds today, is the way to end that kind of war is to develop nukes. I’m quite serious that their invention in 1945 is what we have to thank for saving us from more of the Kaiser’s bloody sequence throughout the last century and beyond. Make no mistake, there were more genocidal cranks in charge of nations after Hitler, but only his name remains as loaded, as the last one to try for global dominance the fast way, before the bomb. Nukes made major wars unwinnable, in the quickest possible fashion. And so we’ve had but little wars ever since, speaking relatively of course. The Cold War passed, but our weapons aren’t going away any age too soon. We remain a world blessed by its own potency to strike.

Quite what happens when we find some way to overcome our ultimate offensive force, and wars of supreme conquest become viable again, well, I think we’d all be lucky not to find out. It will surely happen, at some point. History does not bode well for the disruption, whatever it may be, so long as men are still but men.

I wonder if I’ll write it?


Chops

Way back, before I started all this, I had ideas aplenty but never could get far when trying to write them down. It’s a mighty frustrating place to be. You get the feeling that you’re chock full of the good stuff, that you need to get it out of you and into the world, and yet when you do you find, to your amazement, you are quite mute.

Huh?

I’m quite convinced this is the biggest obstacle to so many who try to write. In some quote I cannot seem to find online, Hunter S. Thompson once described it as a fear of the infinity in a blank page, pure and uninterested in every other thing you may have written. All the worse, then, if you’ve not. Starting is a nightmare. It’s white page after white page, all the way down. You might have thought you had a solid idea, but when actually sitting there, right at the face of the beginning of your work, well, you’ll have doubts, all right.

You’ve got to earn your chops.

There’s a great cycle to life and art and creativity. In a certain vital sense, some things really are born again every single day. We all start at the beginning so many times throughout our lives we’re quite oblivious to the pattern. Sure, there’s a difference between making art and brushing your teeth, but both of them work better once you’ve learned. And both of them need done tomorrow, no matter what you do today.

For someone who hasn’t published any one thing I can point to, quite yet, I’ve written a fair old lot of words. Most of them suck. Most of everything sucks. And, the cause behind the problem, you can never quite tell which ones, not when they’re still up close. My memory is strong, and I’m blinded by the vision still alive and well that I was trying to write, the experience of writing rather than what I actually did. You’re sold, always sold, on what you’ve just made. Yet that is the way to crap out a dull old turd. To get above the rubbish, you’ve got to kill the things you’ve made. They’ll only get better when you try.

That’s why I’m relieved to take a little summer break from Alpha. I kicked it off pretty good back in January, and went at just about the clip I intended for the first month or so. Even then, I knew that the pieces weren’t perfectly matched. I could feel the wobbles and creaks of the way I wrote my characters, and the jolts from scene to scene. But it didn’t matter. I kept going, as is the only way, and I finished it in July. I had written them, my characters and worlds were alive! These citizens of my mind, free at last, for me to see their flaws and mine.

First draft is a wonderful, god awful thing. There is no more pure creative experience than the first. That’s the one where you put your skills to their most brutal test. You’re navigating, trying to find the path from place to place you always thought you knew, until now. You’re bringing things into existence, straight from scratch, regardless of the pictures and the notes you made, and all the things you thought were research for this act. You’re naked, you really are, right before the blank. That’s all there is. That’s all you need. And it’s all you have. First draft is the place where you swing from high and low, tumbling around with your work like an adolescent tryst, at once warring and romantic. First draft is first love.

I know that Alpha’s draft is rough. So it should be. I bit off more than I ever should have done with this tale. Some forgiving part of me sees all the clearer now why it took so long for me to face it, and make it real. There’s a book in there. An imperfect, downright broken one, but it is there. For as much of a catalogue of notes is worth, this is better. First draft is the best ingredient there is for second draft, and third. Just add blood, sweat and tears, right?

In truth, I’ve no idea how many drafts there are between me and publishing this book of mine. But I shan’t skimp them. In fact, I’ll need to learn to appreciate that new pain for what it is: another kind of chops.

My plan for Alpha, when I get back to it in some months, isn’t just a spruce up. I’ll be cutting words — whole scenes I suspect, and enjoying the fact — but Venus doesn’t lie waiting in that rock. There’s whole things I’ve forgotten. Pieces of the story, tastes of the environment, and likely even characters quite entire, remain to be made right. Remain to be made in the first place! I’ll be messing with the whole thing in a pretty big way, I think. Certainly, that’s what I feel needs done. I know I can do better than what I sense I have. And I know nothing’s ever right on the first attempt, not when you can take a second.

Daunting, sure, but I am also looking forward to it. All the better than playing god is playing god’s director!

If I’d been better prepared, Proteus would be first draft complete as well. Surely I had no sense it would take longer than the story proper! Anyway, there’s quite a lot to its draft already, and I’m torn between taking Marie’s pen and pushing forth with it, or going back and practicing my rework skills before they come to Alpha.

Proteus was my backstory that went quite awry. I’m only very vaguely aware of where it’s heading, as you may well tell by giving it a read. (A task I must make easier with an index, as I made for Alpha’s first draft.) Marie’s first person perspective was a great little trick to get me started, but I took her place too literally and have written too much detail as a result. Proteus is quite a tale in its own right, as I discovered in its craft, and I need to pull the reins on it to have a chance to reach the end. I had that unnerving sense as Alpha’s Act IV slid askew when I met it, and for quite the same reason. Much to gain, then, in practicing this kind of repair work.

I can sit here and listen to Kira Neris all I want, writing about writing as I so often do. But it’s this fearful work that counts. This liberating slog, this beautiful mess, and, in the end, the very best thing that I do. I’ve a ton of work to make good on yet. And I welcome it, just as much as I wriggle away. It’ll show, and that’s all the reason I need.

If it comes too cheap, it ain’t chops.


Alpha’s First Draft

Done at last, here is the first draft, all laid out, of the first book of this whole project. Alpha: The Book of Princes.

I took six months to write all this, so there’s a fair bit in here. It won’t be perfectly consistent, as I made some turns along the way, but there’s nothing substantial to throw you off. No promises that every last bit of it will make the final draft, of course, as I aim to cut it down to size and maybe add a few things I forgot entirely, along the way. But this is the body of the book. This is the story I’ve had in mind for longer than is wise for anyone! And I am a fair bit proud that it’s laid out in words, at last. Not the final ones, but the first.

Act I

Alexander’s Awakening
Playing Dice
Half a Million Times the Speed of Light
The Prisoner’s Dilemma
Mother’s Nature
A Certain Little Prince
Ancient Histories
The Stars of Our Sisters
Fate’s Interception
Her Boudoir
With Child
The Colour of Your Mind
Necessary Fiction
When Spies Come Home

Act II

Barnard’s Littlest Nebula
Meeting in the Aisle
Unfinished Business
A Glasgow Kiss is Just a Kiss
Swords Off Orion
Sympathy With the Devil
As the Brother, So the Sister
That Sharpest Edge of Instinct
Rhymes With Struck
The Danger in Emergence
The Power of a Thousand Sons
Looking Up From Rock Bottom
The Crimson Queen
Princes
The Mind Sea
What She Had Made
Second Lease on Life
Brat’s Got Yarbles
Medusa
Drifting
Betwixt
Tomorrow Never Knows
Hey Joe
Where You Gonna Go?

Act III

Intercept
Queen Madala
Earth’s Fine Crescent
Brother Nature
The Last Light of Dying Day
And a Woman
Our Immortal and Beloved
Isis Weeps for Thee
Jet Twilight
At the Centre of that Sphere
The Charge to Zero
Beyond the White Line
The Magnitude of Vengeance
The Final Moment of Her Life
Not Chaos, But Abyss
Silent Distance
Pyramid Song
Black Hearted Angel
Some Equal
Shooting at the World
The Daring Fireball
Destroyer of Worlds
Child in Time
The Princes Met
The Eye of the World
White Light, White Heat
The Other Prince
A Parting Gesture

Act IV

The Journey to a Distant Home
Return to the Parting Stars
Andala’s Smile
On the Lawn
The Girl With Kaleidoscope Eyes
Another Kind of Power on Andala
Nothing Lasts the Pyre
An All Too Familiar Ceiling
Our Man in Ayanakert
Dissent Wears a Smile
Nude or Not
The Lady in Red
Fairy Godparents
Farewell, My Child Among the Stars
The Gift of an Impossible Princess

Unprepared as I am, to a fault, I’m surprised now that I see them laid out by the fact that Act IV isn’t much longer than Act I. It felt like it! I forever go long the further into a draft I go, as Proteus surely shows. Speaking of which, I suppose I’ve found my next project. No forgetting the tale within the tale, which I left almost on the verge of its true direction. As, no matter its original purpose, it’s there to let me explore this little world. Where I like best, sometimes, without a sensible limit!

I’ll be reading through all this again, when it makes sense to. And I shan’t forget my notes of ideas fumbled while writing them. I’ve no idea how many drafts this book will take to do, of course, but I’ve a sense that in some ways I’m done, but in others I’m so very barely started.


The Gift of an Impossible Princess

And so, Alpha’s end.

The lights were low aboard their home, as the dragon flew between the sapphire stars of night. Alexander checked the house, alone, on his way to bed. The cockpit glowed darkly, as the ship shot through space, calm upon its course. They were going fast, but not so quick the system couldn’t handle it. Sixty thousand lightspeed. The instruments were as dark as constellations of suspicious stars, green and much too regular. He let them flicker to themselves, against that constant sky; so slowly moving, no matter speed.

He walked through the livingroom, looked down the little staircase and paused for a moment, then turned off all the lights. Between the Earth and Andala, far from either one, were the most important people in his life, safe aboard this little ship.

Carl was sleeping, and Christopher sat with a screen in hand, reading much too closely to want disturbed. Alexander passed on by to his own room, where Katerina lay in bed.

"All done." He said as he approached her. "You awake?"

She was not. She had her back turned, the fresh bed sheets hanging from her side. He pulled them up a little, as he climbed in their big old bed to join her. She looked so small, there in the theatre of their bedchamber amidst the stars, that he always feared she might catch cold without him. But her shoulder was already warm to touch.

Alexander pulled his laptop from the side table, and flipped it open on his knees. His fingers danced a shortcut on the metal keys and the screen was blank but for a cursor. He wrote.

Sunday? Monday night! It’s been an unusual past few days. To say the least. I haven’t a clue quite where to begin, in fact. But let’s start at the beginning.

Apparently, Katerina, who I love, is from another world! I ought not hold that against her. She had her reasons not to tell me. But it is quite a shock, I will say. And it is the truth, I soon discovered.

His wife breathed loudly, quite asleep beside him. He played with her rich red hair, which he swept behind her ear.

I still can’t believe it. How could you? But it’s very real indeed. She has all the powers the Andalans do. In fact, she has more than most of them. She’s not just one at random. She is the sister of the king.

Katerina turned a little, and her heavy breathing became a snore. Alexander looked at her and grinned.

A princess! My goodness. And it’s worse than that. Or bigger, I should say. As little Christopher, my dear son, is their prince and bloody heir.

I can’t help but feel the fool in this predicament. Wouldn’t you? My beloved wife has played me for one, if you look at it that way.

But I won’t.

Seeing what I’ve seen this day beyond all days, I pity her for what she’s been through. She never chose to be born who she was. And no one asked her what she wanted until she left to take it for herself. I can only begin to imagine what her past life must have been like. If today’s glimpse was anything, it was horrid! No, I forgive her lying to me, I really do. Let’s concentrate on what matters, and where we’ll spend the rest of our lives. The future.

He smiled, impressed by his own nobility. He could see what others couldn’t see for pride. He was a man of intuition, he thought to himself, his fingers resting on the keys for whatever thoughts came next. As his wife, and impossible little princess turned to face him, and, quite unconscious, slapped him gently on the cheek.

Before I started writing his words for him, he wasn’t quite as long. But they have the time now, at that speed. And I’ll see to trimming Alexander’s epilogue just as I do every other bit of my own.

I suppose that’s the conclusion then, of my shitty first draft! Half a year since I started it, and much longer in the making. There’s something not right about the feel of it in my mind, and so I find that I’ve a lot in common with my diarist Alexander. I’m suspending judgment, as it is only wise to do, and my eyes are on the next future, where he too dreams to look. In my case, it’s the great rewrite. In his, it is the rest of his life.

Tradition maintains that you should stick a first draft in a drawer for a few months, to let it savour before you come back with the knife. Of course, what’s really changing is your mind. The difference between reading what you’ve written and reading what you’ve really written is a matter of how strong the memory of the event remains in your mind. It’s nigh impossible to let the words be themselves when you still know precisely what you meant to say with them.

My own memory is typically pretty long lived. Far as I can tell. I hope this doesn’t translate into poor editing when I get there. But first I think I’d better spend the meantime on something useful. Return to the background work of making Anatara? Perhaps. Proteus again! Maybe, as that story’s far from done. I could indeed tend to most everything I was writing about here before this year, it’s all unknowns, looking for a push. But there is another matter that is closer to the front of my mind.

This first draft needs stitched up! I’ll set around some links. And, all the better, slice and dice the body for myself, so that I can read it side to side as well as top to bottom. I want to read each character’s lines as they’re said. I want to see the structure, and what is missing. I want to step aside from the work I did, and see the work I’m yet to do.

So he’s right, if I may be too.