There is an old military maxim that I find is generally true in most situations - far more is learned in defeat than in victory. Nowhere is this more the case than when it comes to writing; I find that the books that were the hardest to write - that, in some cases, I failed to complete - were far more instructive than that ones that came most easily. (Not that I object when I get a ‘Ghost Ship’ or an ‘Aces High’ that almost write themselves, of course…) I suspect that any writer will tell you that this is the case.
When I first began to seriously work on what would become the ‘Battlecruiser Alamo’ series, back in 2011, the form it was taking was very different to what eventually ended up in print. I’ve got those early drafts lying around somewhere, and I’ll have to dig them out at some point - but the general gist was that the ‘Battlecruiser Alamo’ was an obsolete ship with a commander who had been posted there to put him out of the way, who ended up taking charge of a thrown-together battle group in the aftermath of a ‘Pearl Harbor’ to get home - my model was the Asiatic Fleet in the early days of the Second World War, as I recall. I won’t go into any more details, because I might actually end up writing it someday.
Which is one of the main points I am making. Those first three drafts bore little or no resemblance to ‘Price of Admiralty’ other than sharing the same series name, and that the lead’s last name was ‘Marshall’. (It was ‘William Marshall’ for a long time, and I think ‘John Marshall’ in one iteration; ‘Daniel Marshall’ was a far later decision, indeed after I had started writing the fourth draft, the one that clicked.) A few bits and pieces were cannibalized for later books, the gas giant dogfight, for example, but not much other than that.
Was it a waste of time, then? Absolutely not. There is an old saying that you have to write a ‘million words of crap’ before you can expect to do anything good, and I think the spirit of that is probably about right. Another example - Logan Winter, originally the lead in a pair of long novellas in a ‘space noir’ setting. I enjoyed writing them, but they were well behind where I am now - to the point that I have no intention of releasing them without major revisions, except perhaps as a ‘freebie’ at some point. The character, however, I was able to salvage and drop into Alamo, even retaining certain elements of his backstory, and he’s played a significant role in four Alamo novels up to this point, as well as having his own in the shape of Spitfire Station. Definitely not a waste of time.
So we come inexorably to my latest project, the Crusades book. I finished the draft yesterday, and having read it again...I don’t think I’m going to release it. I swung, and I missed, and it happens sometimes. While none of the Alamo novels have had anything like the tortuous start of Price of Admiralty, certainly there have been occasions where I had to start from scratch after writing half a dozen chapters, realizing I was on the wrong road. Usually because I was rambling too much at the start, rather than getting to the point - in one case, and I won’t say which one, I removed the first three chapters and replaced them with a paragraph of description and three lines of dialogue, which essentially served the same purpose. (As a rule of thumb, if I find something boring to write, it’s likely that it’s going to be boring to read as well. Which is one thing if it is a couple of paragraphs of necessary exposition, but something else if we’re talking about a couple of chapters.)
Where did I go wrong? Well, the book is too short, and it doesn’t have enough plot to it. Somewhere along the road I danced between what should have either been a fifteen-thousand-word novella, or a seventy-thousand-word novel that needed two more point-of-view characters and a lot more meat to it. I found the setting I had locked myself into rather constraining, which was also a problem, and thinks were either moving too fast or too slowly...a strange situation, really. There is a lot to this book I like, some of the scenes, some of the dialogue, but it doesn’t make that cohesive a whole. None of this means that I won’t revisit it, write that second draft that will turn it into something a lot bigger, a lot grander, of course, which is another reason for not releasing it - I can strip a lot of the content out for a theoretical ‘new book’ in the line.
So, I spent two weeks on this project - not counting the research, which was a lot of fun in its own right, and definitely not wasted time - and I learned a hell of a lot. First of all, I learned that I really have found a novel length that I’m comfortable at in the 70-80k area. Sufficient time for me to complete a book in a reasonable time, but long enough that I can build in the intricacies that I enjoy, and I think that’s an important compromise. I learned a huge amount about structuring research, and the format in which I like to work. (Short version - lots and lots of bullet points. For the long version, read 'Writing A Western In Thirty Days'.) That’s going to be vital in the future.
What is next on the list, then? Well, I have two projects in mind. The most important at present is of course my work on the next Alamo, ‘Not In My Name’. This one has been postponed about five times in the last year and a half, and was originally meant to be the second ‘Spitfire Station’ novel, though its shape has naturally changed considerably since then. Between them, ‘Aces High’ and ‘Not In My Name’ are intended to set the tone for the next twelve Alamo books, and I’m looking forward to getting started on that next week; on the list for this week is some work on the outline, character lists, that sort of thing. This one will be on sale some time around the middle of September.
In the longer term, I have my other big historical project, and one thing that it certainly cannot be accused of is a lack of scale. I want to tackle the campaigns of Alexander the Great, starting with his accession to the throne of Macedon and going some way into the chaos and confusion that followed his death. This would take the form of - gulp - eighteen novels over three years, each of which at the usual ‘Alamo’ length, going by my current outline. Three POV per book, though the identity of those characters would likely change from book to book, and none of them would be Alexander himself. I want to look at the stories of those surrounding him, about which we have surprisingly little historical detail. More on this - probably a lot more - later on, but this one was always the ‘post-Crusade’ project, and I think it might have been moved up by a year or so.
Well, I guess I’d better get to work...