A year after my first failed attempt at a novel, I was at it again.
This time the stakes were higher – my school career was drawing to a close and I was faced with an uncertain future. I hadn’t picked a university. I hadn’t even picked a subject to study. I had vague ambitions of taking a gap year and travelling, but I had no job to pay for it. Clearly, my only option was to become a bestselling author.
For the first time, this was a serious ambition. I was all too aware of my past mistakes and was going in with a plan this time. Well, perhaps ‘plan’ is too strong a word, but I had least had a rough outline in mind, a core cast of characters and a few key plot points I knew I had to hit along the way.
Inspired by Andrew Cartmel’s Doctor Who novel, Cat’s Cradle: Warhead, with its worryingly believable depiction of corporate greed and societal rot, Yesterday’s End was my attempt at a taught and gritty sci-fi flavoured war story.
It was set in a near-future Britain in which swathes of the armed forces have been sold off to private defence contractor New Wave Security. The corrupt government, which is virtually indistinguishable from the multi-national that owns New Wave, faces being forcibly ousted amidst a storm of civil unrest.
In an effort to reassert ‘national stability’, New Wave troops are ordered to seize key urban centres throughout the country, leaving the remnants of the nationalised forces to lead a makeshift resistance with outdated equipment and no formal leadership.
My story followed a squad of these rebels who, cut off from their convoy during an incursion into enemy territory, are forced to take shelter in an abandoned tower block where they must wait for a rescue squad that may never come. Isolated and demoralised, the group begins to fracture, leaving their commanding officer, Captain Brondle, struggling to maintain order. Here’s a brief taste:
“The world was full of strange noises; a cacophony of whirling cries, hollow booms and shattering concrete crammed for space in the air, already thick with dust. It poured in from the roof, sweeping past him down the stairs as he fought his way into the open. The sky was full of giants, stampeding past him in a glory of power and speed. He ducked as one of them turned lazily over onto its back above him, sliding down beyond the edge of the roof, pulling a trail of fire and shrapnel behind it. An attack drone. The noise of its death was enough to drown out the charge of its fellows for a few seconds. Brondle watched their procession over the estate towards the smoking mass of the harbour. Once again, the bombs began to drop.”
If this all sounds terribly exciting, let me set you straight – I ran the premise straight into the ground.
Nor was it something I could have fixed because, lurking at the heart of the book was a flaw that was fundamental to my writing at the time – I hadn’t realised that a story and its characters should be indivisible.
Instead, I saw the plot as a roller coaster track and the characters like the trains that ran on it – they had to follow all the ups, downs and twists that the story threw at them, but they were only ever along for the ride.
Thus, I approached the story with a very compartmentalised view, dividing it into ‘character bits’ and ‘plot bits’, but never letting the one advance the other.
A subsequent mistake was splitting the squad up and spreading them throughout the tower block on separate duties. I thought I was providing the story with a little variety when I was actually robbing it of dialogue and conflict. Consequently, the narrative shifted from one squad member to another with each passing chapter, delving into their thoughts, their fears, and their memories of life before the war. I tried to make each character as interesting as I could, but the results were pretty clunky – the leader with a crisis of conscience; the PTSD victim slowly losing his mind; the violent criminal just waiting for a chance to strike out, etc.
Between these bouts of amateur psychology, I soon discovered another problem – until either New Wave or the rescue squad arrived, there was nothing for anyone to do and I found myself having to engineer one threat after another to keep the story moving. At one point, for instance, a rabid dog infiltrates the tower block. Later, the squad is forced to venture into the sprawling council estate outside, only to discover that the residents have devolved into feral cannibals, complete with tribal face paints and motorised hunting chariots. Contrived, to say the least.
But there are still a few things I got right. The backdrop of the war, which should have been front and centre, is pretty well painted. You never see a single New Wave troop, for instance. This war is impersonal and undiscerning, and fought at a great distance by people sitting in comfortable chairs, staring at computer screens. Unmanned drones patrol the skies, picking off anyone foolish enough to stray outdoors. Missiles drop from the clouds like fire and brimstone, as though at random.
I also proved to myself that I could finish a draft, even if I did become so frustrated with trying to make it work that I chose to wrap things up early by having a giant tank appear and blow all my characters to smithereens. I was at least able to trace a logical path from beginning to end, and that counts for a lot.
In the hands of a more experienced writer, Yesterday’s End could have been a winner. But I’m willing to bet they would have had their own failed manuscript stashed away at home.