I found something unexpected on my hard drive yesterday, working scenes from my first draft of “The Spindle of Necessity.”
“Spindle,” as you may know, is a Doctor Who story I wrote for a Big Finish Short Trips anthology in the spring of 2007 in which the sixth Doctor goes on an adventure with the Greek philosopher Plato. The published version, which appeared in The Quality of Leadership and Re:Collections (the Short Trips best of volume), is written in the form of a Socratic dialogue.
The first draft was nothing of the sort.
I had a peculiar vision for the story in mind. What I wanted to write was something like Fritz Leiber’s “Lean Times in Lankhmar,” but I’m not as funny as Leiber, nor anything approaching the prose stylist that he was. Suffice it to say, the first draft wasn’t Leiber-esque, either.
What it was was something I didn’t particularly like. Nor did I especially enjoy writing it. But it was conventional, I thought I could make it work, and I kept plugging away at it. The Socratic dialogue, as strange as this sounds, was an act of desperation. I thought I could buy myself a little time to get the conventional story right, only I never ended up needing to because people liked the Socratic dialogue and thought it worked.
I never finished the first draft. If you know the story as published, the first draft got as far as Plato and the Doctor meeting the Greek fates at the base of the axis mundi. To be honest, I didn’t know what happened after that point. That was, in my mind, the “third episode cliffhanger,” and it would somehow resolve itself in some way. It wasn’t until I wrote the Dialogue that I knew how the story would end.
For curiosity’s sake, these are the two files I discovered yesterday. Both date to early April 2007. I don’t remember writing these. These were things I threw together in Notepad, probably while I was working on something else, and then I integrated them into my working document, fleshed them out, and built off of them. They’re not terrible, but I look at them and they’re trying too hard. Though I want to bleed some red on them, I’m presenting them exactly as they were, with their random spacing and punctuation. Both come early in the story, when Plato has met the Doctor.
File the first:
Plato’s eyes darted from one side of the Street of the Gods to the other as he pressed his way through the crowded street. Hungry, he stopped at a street vendor and bought a spiced sausage and a loaf of bread, then retreated to a quiet corner between two stalls to eat his lunch in peace. He leaned against the side of a stall, felt it give slightly from his weight, a sure sign of poor workmanship, and took a bite of the sausage. He chewed it slowly, lost in thought, when out of the corner of his eye he thought he spied his quarry. There, perhaps fifty yards away, stood a blond man in a crowd gathered around one of the many mystics of the Street. Though Plato could not be certain it was the Doctor, intuitively he knew it had to be — the man had his back to him, but his hair was as long, curly, and unkempt as it had been two days earlier, and the man towered over the others in the crowd just as he had towered over Plato and the magician. Plato pocketed the bread, dropped the sausage to the ground — Egyptian meats never sat well him — and made straight for the blond man.
The priest closed his eyes, and a hush fell over the crowd. “Doctor…” Plato whispered.
“Shhh,” the Doctor whispered, his upraised index finger to his lips. Plato nodded and fell quiet.
The priest took breathed deeply then exhaled slowly. “The word of the mighty Osiris, whose word is true, has been passed down from generation to generation. Gather round, and I shall tell you today the story of the extinction of the Utchat — the Eye of Horus — and of the dimming of the moon on the day that the two brothers — Horus and Sutekh met in combat.” The priest’s acolyte beat once on the drum. “The mighty Sutekh, god of the desert, murdered his father Osiris. His brother Horus, god of the sky, sought revenge for their father’s murder, and he challenged Sutekh to combat for their father’s body.” Again, the acolyte beat once upon the drum. “Sutekh and Horus met in the Valley of the Kings, in the shadows of the Great Pyramids. Sutekh called upon the desert, and a mighty sandstorm blotted out out the sun and the sky.”
Plato looked away from the priest and at the Doctor instead. “What is this? What’s he saying?”
The Doctor’s gaze never left the priest. “He’s telling a story from the Book of the Dead. Quite a different version than the one with which I am familiar.” The Doctor frowned.
What was this combat? It was the combat which took place on the day when Horus fought with Seth, during which Seth threw filth in the face of Horus, and Horus crushed the genitals of Seth. The filling of the utchat Thoth performed with his own fingers. “I remove the thunder-cloud from the sky when there is a storm with thunder and lightning therein.”
What is this? “This storm was the raging of Ra at the thunder-cloud which [Seth] sent forth against the Right Eye of Ra (the Sun). Thoth removed the thunder- cloud from the Eye of Ra, and brought back the Eye living, healthy, sound, and with no defect in it to its owner. “Others, however, say that the thunder-cloud is caused by sickness in the Eye of Ra, which weepeth for its companion Eye (the Moon); at this time Thoth cleanseth the Right Eye of Ra. “I behold Ra who was born yesterday from the thighs of the goddess Mehurt; his strength is my strength, and my strength is his strength.”
“But why would people worship Sutekh, a god of death?”
“Some Greeks venerate Typhon, do they not?”
“Madmen,” Plato said quickly. His eyes narrowed. “Typhon is not a god of death. Hades is. Typhon is…” Plato fumbled for words.
“Typhon is what?” the Doctor prompted.
“A monster. The enemy of everything the Olympians represent and rule.”
“A being of destruction, then.”
Plato nodded. “He sought to overthrow Zeus and the Olympians. He desired to bring chaos to the universal order.”
The Doctor inclined his head slightly toward Sutekh’s priest. “There will always be people who favor the chaos, who worship destruction and death. Sutekh, Typhon, a thousand other names, it doesn’t matter.”
“But why? The world we live in may be imperfect, yet signs of true perfection exist.”
“Do they indeed?” The Doctor smirked.
“The gods created the cosmos, they brought order to the chaos. The human body reflects the perfection of the cosmos as do all things, living and inert, yet all things are in themselves imperfect.
File the second looks to me like an attempt to build off of the first paragraph in File the first, as the bit about Plato and his sausage is copied over verbatim.
For the next two days Plato wandered the length and breadth of the Street of the Gods, hoping again to encounter the mysterious Doctor. He spent no time listening to the mystics and the preachers; the crowds listening to them held his quarry now. On the first day Plato noted with wry amusement that the conjurer unmasked by the Doctor had returned to his stall, making the same demonstration of returning to life a dead animal — a rat instead of a chicken, however — and Plato amused himself by observing to see exactly how the trick was performed. Sure enough, the Doctor’s brief explanation the day before pointed Plato’s attention in the proper directions. Once the demonstration was complete, Plato resumed his search of the Street of the Gods for the Doctor, observing carefully every person who stopped to listen to the mystics with no sign of the Doctor. As the sun fell in the afternoon he retired to his rented lodgings in a run-down neighborhood near the docks.
The second day Plato slept late. Too much wine the night before, he thought, as he dressed for the day. It was nearly lunch time before he reached the Street of the Gods, and as he had neglected breakfast he stopped at a street vendor and bought a spiced sausage and a loaf of bread. He retreated to a quiet corner between two stalls to eat his lunch in peace. He leaned against the side of a stall, felt it give slightly from his weight, a sure sign of poor workmanship, and took a bite of the sausage. He chewed it slowly, lost in thought, when out of the corner of his eye he thought he spied his quarry. There, perhaps fifty yards away, stood a blond man in a crowd gathered around one of the many mystics of the Street. Though Plato could not be certain it was the Doctor, intuitively he knew it had to be — the man had his back to him, but his hair was as long, curly, and unkempt as it had been two days earlier, and the man towered over the others in the crowd just as he had towered over Plato and the magician two days before. Plato pocketed the bread, dropped the sausage to the ground — Egyptian meats never sat well him — and made straight for the blond man.
Plato came up on the man from behind, jostling the crowd that had gathered around a raised alter from which a priest garbed in a black robe looked out upon the crowd. Plato noted with some curiosity the two acolytes who stood to either side of the altar — they wore enormous headdresses which resembled stylized jackals’ heads. He continued to push through the crowd, hoping to reach the man he took to be the Doctor unawares, but he tripped over the foot of an Egyptian woman just as he reached the man and he fell. He felt a powerful hand grip him by the arm — ”Steady there,” Plato heard — and the man pulled him upright.
“Oh, it’s you,” the man said, an obvious hint of disapproval in his voice.
“I’ve been looking for you, Doctor.”
The Doctor shook his head and turned his attentions to the priest. “Whatever for,” the Doctor said with not a hint of a question.
“I’m on a quest, Doctor. I need you.”
“A quest for what?” said the Doctor, a tone of annoyance in his voice.
“The axis mundi.”
The Doctor threw his head back, and though his mouth never opened Plato knew the Doctor was laughing at him.
I have no idea what I was thinking with that last sentence. I’m not even sure that’s anatomically possible.
In April and May 2007, I thought the first draft of “Spindle” was terrible. I reread it a few years ago, and it wasn’t as terrible as I remembered. It needed work, and with more effort it would have worked, but I could feel that my heart wasn’t in it. To give you a comparison, I spent six weeks working on the first draft, to the tune of 9,000 words. The submitted draft, which was the Socratic dialogue, was 12,000 words (later edited down to 10,000) that was written in three days. To be fair, the first draft worked out a lot of the problems I had (except for the ending), so that when I started writing it as a dialogue I didn’t have as much work to do. But still, the differences in productivity between the first and final drafts are telling.
For what it’s worth, this is how the first draft began. This dates to March 1, 2007:
Socrates was dead.
For crimes against the city of Athens Socrates was placed on trial. For four days he argued his case before Meletus and a council of Athenian citizens. On the charges of treason and atheism Socrates was found guilty and sentenced to death at his own hands.
Not the most inspiring of beginnings, is it?
The point of all this is, beginnings are hard. Even when I’d moved on to later things in the story, I kept coming back to Thebes to get the Doctor’s meeting with Plato right. The blank page, the blank screen, they don’t fill themselves, and sometimes the words we put down on them are terrible. Mind-bogglingly awful. Hindenberg-level disastrous, even. But disasters give us something to learn from and build off of. For me, my disaster led to a Socratic dialogue. No, I’m not happy with these sketches, but they got me somewhere, and that’s the important thing.
I’m not even embarrassed by them now.