One year ago, I finished the first draft of my magnum opus, the Arkship Ulysses. Despite what you might think, this was not the crowning moment of glory that I was expecting it to be. In fact, it was more akin to that feeling you get when staggering across the finish line in a marathon and realising you don’t have to keep running anymore.
‘Exhausted,’ would be a good word to describe it. But I felt frustrated too.
You see, by that point I’d been writing the book solidly for well over two years (it was, in fact, the reason I started this blog in the first place). It was a novel I’d had going round my head for almost 15 years before that; a novel I’d been tinkering with on and off for as long as I’d been calling myself a writer.
And yet, despite months of dragging myself through draft after draft towards that ever-elusive end goal, despite days spent shirking my day job so I could sit in a café and tap away at my ever-growing manuscript, I still found myself unhappy with it. The draft I finished last year contained some of the best stuff I’ve ever written, but the story itself felt messy and over-complicated – a confused tangle of ideas and characters that never truly felt as though they were gelling into a cohesive whole.
Let me tell you: it pains me to admit that to you.
I mean, I love this book’s setting. I adore the characters I’ve created. But no matter how hard I tried, I could never seem to get the two things to work together as well as I wanted. I would put these characters which I loved into a setting I adored and I would say to them, “Go! Do things!” only to watch those very same characters kind of amble about aimlessly like a bunch of drunken goldfish swimming round a bowl. (Not that Goldfish come in bunches, of course, but you get what I mean). No matter what I did, I could never seem to get the characters to do anything that was both plausible and interesting and my novel just seemed to flounder along, growing exponentially in size as it struggled to find its purpose.
Time and again I found myself going back to those early chapters, fiddling around with the timeline and shoving characters around just to try to get it to work. But it never did. The plot lines remained oblique; the heart of the story elusive.
The theft of my laptop last December was the final straw. In a fit of pique, I declared the first draft done, handed it over to a couple of people to read and then moved on with my life, ready to marry and learn how to drive and all that other good, wholesome 2013 stuff.
Now, one year later, I think it’s time to go back…
The Initial Idea
The Arkship Ulysses started out as my answer to Star Trek Voyager.
I realise that makes me sound like the biggest dork in the world, but you need to realise what I mean when I say ‘answer’. You see, I’ve been a huge fan of Star Trek for as long as I can remember. I grew up watching it on TV. I collected all the toys. I built ships out of Lego. I filled the margins of my school textbooks with my own homemade star ships. In many ways, it was my first introduction to the world of SF and it was almost exclusively thanks to this that I became the fan of SF that I am today.
Star Trek Voyager, however, was different.
I was 12 when it first aired and I remember the build up to its pilot episode as being this almost torturous wait. Here was a Star Trek show that promised to be like no other. It’s premise was fascinating: a ship stranded on the other side of the galaxy, lost in an uncharted realm of space surrounded on all sides by enemies. No back up. No relief. The fractured and demoralised crew would be forced to survive using nothing but their own wits.
So strong was the show’s premise, in fact, that I was almost halfway through season 3 before I realised that I hated it.
The show was terrible. I’m not going to go into exactly why it was so bad here (if you’re interested, there are many great places you can go to find out exactly why it sucked so bad) but for me, the biggest problem was that there were never any consequences to anything that was happening. I was expecting to tune in each week to witness the crew being pushed ever closer to their limits. I was expecting to see the ship break down over time, both in terms of its physical condition but also in terms of the mental well-being of the crew, who would become fractured towards one another over time. I expected to see the formation of distinct cliques: those who agreed with the Captain and her Holier-Than-Thou decision to strand the ship in the Delta quadrant and those who just wanted to go home. Fights would break out between officers during their off-duty hours which would then spill over into their workdays. The crew would constantly be on a knife-edge with each other — forced to work together so they don’t all die but willing to stab each other in the back at the first possible opportunity.
In short, I wanted what Battlestar Galactica would later prove to be.
Instead, we got aliens of the week and the occasional diatribe about how much life sucked now the crew couldn’t have unlimited coffee. Every week the ship looked as factory fresh as the week before and despite there only being 150 crew members on board at the start of the series, we still never got to hear about any of them outside the main seven.
I felt robbed. And so my childish mind decided to rectify the situation…
Draft #1 — The Anti-Voyager
One evening, after a particularly bad episode of Voyager (I believe it was the one with the Macroviruses, though I could be wrong), I sat down with an old exercise book and started plotting out my own version of the show.
Straight away, I decided to do away with any idea of my ship ever getting home as I felt it was precisely this lingering promise of an eventual return to Earth that was at the root of so many of Voyager’s problems. Without going into it too much, there were waaaay too many episodes of the show that revolved around the crew discovering some strange Space Phenomena that might bring them home, only to have their hopes dashed at the last second with a single press of that reset button.
This, believe it or not, doesn’t make for gripping TV.
In my version, I decided, there would be none of that. My ship would be huge – a city in space – and it would be stranded much further from home than the piddly Voyager: 500 years instead of just 70. In fact, I decided that our main characters would be the descendants of the original crew meaning they knew nothing of the Federation and the Earth except what their ancestors had told them. Over the years these people had slowly lost sight of their Federation principles. They had become feudal and aggressive towards one another. The very idea of returning to Earth was just a vague fairytale told to children; a fantasy none of them really believed would ever happen. All any of them really cared about was bullying the other alien races in that part of space and ruling over them as kings.
I should probably point out that I’d just finished reading The Savage Stars at around this time, which definitely had an impact on the feel of that early draft. Suffice to say, there was a lot of sex in it… horribly written, adolescent sex that I shudder to read these days.
Anyway, not many ideas survive from that early draft to the present day. The only exception to this is the names of the main characters, which remain the same even now: Michael the Captain, Susan his confident, Brian the chief engineer, and Stuart Leighton the only sane and level-headed man on the entire ship.
Unfortunately, I never got very far with that first draft. I think even back then I realised my story was far too derivative of Star Trek to ever be more than a passing curiosity. For my next draft, I knew, I would need to make my creation a little more unique…
Draft #2 — Exploring the characters
For my second draft, I decided to relocate the action to a space station. Partially, this was because I was a big fan of Deep Space 9 at the time and anything that made my story closer to this and less like that terrible Voyager show, was fine by me. Mainly, though, it was because I wanted to do away with the whole idea of having ‘aliens of the week’ in my novel. I wanted my story to be insular and concerned only with the politics and relationships of the crew rather than what was going on outside the ship. This was, after all, the thing I was most missing from Star Trek Voyager.
Very quickly I decided to create a civil war among the crew, with the space station itself split right down the middle between the loyalist faction who still answered to the Captain and the rebel anarchists who wanted… something else. I never did figure out what separated their ideologies.
Anyway, this was the draft that created the aristocratic House-based system that still exists to this day. Since resources would be extremely limited on a space station, it made sense that those in power would try to hoard the lion’s share for themselves. This, logically, would then create a system of Have vs. Have Not. A class-based society, in short.
It was also this draft that created the Bunks and the Unspoken who lived in them. I realised that unless some sort of draconian birthing system was put into place, the cramped living space available on a space station was going to fill up with new babies very quickly and those babies would need to go somewhere: why not into a labour camp where they could benefit all of those aforementioned Haves?
I’ve talked in detail about this idea before, so check out this article if you’re interested in hearing more about my rationale behind this.
Anyway, I got much further with this second draft than I did the first, reaching well over 30,000 words before ultimately stopping due to a sudden realisation that I had absolutely no idea where the story was going. Also, I was still borrowing far too heavily from Star Trek for my liking and by that point, I was drifting away from Star Trek anyway and into the territory of other things that interested me.
Things stayed that way for many years. I went to university, wrote a couple of other books in the meantime and generally forgot all about the Arkship Ulysses. Then one day, I had an epiphany – an epiphany which set off a chain of niggling ideas in my mind that wouldn’t go away until I had dived back into the book…
Draft #3 & 4 — The Addition of Loss
I’ve already written about those ideas before. It was a simple idea really, inspired by a combination of Warhammer 40,000 fluff and my religious education but it completely changed the way I felt about the book.
The idea was this: remove the aliens completely. Remove the planets. Remove the resources. If my ship is going to be stranded in the middle of nowhere, why not go all out? Space, you might have heard, is pretty damned big. Why not make it empty as well?
My ship would be an island of life floating in a gulf of nothing. Literally all alone and next to no hope for the future. There would be nothing for the crew to look forward to but when they looked back at the past, they would see only the things they had lost. In this way, the crew would exist in a kind of never-ending now. A purgatory between alive and dead.
Through the Ulysses, I planned to show the fragile transient state that we all exist in. Though the Ulysses, I wanted to highlight the importance of keeping one’s faith if only to have something to distract you from the terrors all around. I wanted to show that death is inevitable and that the extinction of our entire species is just a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’. And yet, despite this, we still get out of bed each morning. We still continue to try.
Now that’s a pretty bleak theme to explore right there but it’s an important one too. For the first time, I felt I had an idea of what my book was actually trying to be. I still didn’t know what was going to happen in it, but I sure as hell knew how I wanted the reader to feel while reading it.
For this draft, I changed the focus from the Star Trek model of looking at individual characters, to focussing instead on whole families: a much broader canvas to paint on. Two families quickly rose to the forefront in my mind: the family of Brian the engineer, who was suddenly finding himself on the rise and the family of Stuart Leighton, who had recently lost everything.
By exploring these two families in juxtaposition to one another and their relationship with the puppet Captain supposedly in charge of it all, I realised that I finally had a story to tell.
The only problem is… Well, it turned out I underestimated just how big a book like that would need to be. A story of two families over the course of generations? I mean, we’re talking War and Peace size here and most first time authors are lucky if they can get a book longer than 100,000 words out the door.
It I wanted to see the book published, I would need to cut it short. The logical move was to cut the book into segments, but that of course meant accelerating a couple of plot points in the early part of the story in order for there to be an appropriate dramatic climax at the end of the book. And this need for a climax in turn destabilised the balance of the early chapters and required the addition of new problems that needed to be resolved. And so on.
Every change added months to the writing time. I would be forced to work each change backwards into the novel only to then work forwards once more and find that, again, the final draft was far too long. In its current state, my book comes in at just over 150,000 words, which is good — much better than I ever could have expected — but both too long to get published and also far too short to do its themes justice.
The result is a tangle of plotlines and character arcs that feels both rushed and over-complicated at the same time.
It needs to be simplified.
Draft #5 — Finding my focus
So now we’re up to the present day.
This week is a quiet one for me and so I’ve decided to go back into my novel once more, this time with a vengeance. I will be posting chapters up here on my blog as I write them. Please feel free to read them and give me what feedback you can. I am always happy to hear your ideas, no matter how stupid you might think they are.
Only after the entire novel is up here and finished will I take it down from this site, print it all off and then send it off for publication. Hopefully it won’t take two years to do it this time.
Some changes are already clear to me: I’ve decided that I will need to reduce the number of viewpoint characters in order to make the overall experience more focused. The casualty will be Brian’s family, which will be removed from the story altogether. In their place, Stuart Leighton’s plot will be bolstered up instead, making him the narrative focus of the book.
Other changes will also be needed but I’m not sure what they are right now. Suffice to say, I’m sure there will be more than a few stumbling blocks along the way but still, this is something I need to do. This book means a lot to me. It’s been going round my head in one form or another for over half my life now and I owe it to these characters I’ve created (as well as to my own sanity) to get it done and done right this time.
Back to the Arkship Ulysses I go once more. Wish me luck! I’m going to need it…