The ‘Ship of Theseus’-style book I’ve been working on for 17 years

My author blurb is going to be very cliché, once I finally get books published, and have inside jacket covers that require me to actually have an author blurb.

You see, I’ve been writing for longer than I can remember. It feels like the kind of thing you should say to a circle of strangers, and they all say ‘Hi Rewan’ back to you, and then it’s someone else’s turn to stand up and confess that they’re a writer too. It started off as a few words with friends at a party. Now it’s a chapter-per-day habit.

It’s unavoidably true, though. My parents have video footage of me as a pre-schooler copying out stories (I think it was the Meg and Mog books) from memory. My favourite primary school teacher slipped me extra exercise books on the side for me to fill with writing and drawings. At school, that is. I didn’t have to meet her in the park in a long coat where we’d ‘accidentally’ mix up our identical briefcases. I used to have other old notebooks packed with stories.

Fast forward a bit to secondary school. I was about 14, and bored in a science lesson (odd, because I like science). I had a spare notebook on me and so I wrote at the top of the first blank page: Chapter One. I didn’t know what was going to happen next. It’s like I was aware that what would follow was a novel, but I had I no conscious notion of my intention to create such a thing.

I wrote a few pages in that science lesson. The teacher must have thought I was taking the most detailed notes of any pupil ever. When I got home I typed them up, printed them out again, and put them in my school bag. I read them some friends, who liked them, and that was all I needed to keep going.

I’m 31 now, and I’m still working on that book. Well, sort of. Strap in, peeps, this is where it gets complicated.

The Book of Theseus

The ship of Theseus is a thought experiment related to the metaphysics of identity. The premise goes like this:

Theseus and his crew return from Crete in their trusty ship. Over hundreds of years the Athenians maintain the ship, replacing parts as they get broken or decayed by time and weather. Eventually, a point in time arrives where not one single element of the ship is an original component of the one sailed by Theseus. Is the ship still Theseus’s ship?

There’s a common variant of this thought experiment about your grandfather’s axe. The handle breaks and is replaced. Later the head breaks, and is replaced. Is it still your grandfather’s axe? What’s particularly brilliant about this is that the grandfather’s axe problem is actually itself a perfect example of the Ship of Theseus question. Every element of the concept has been changed, yet thematically it still presents the same question.

Oh, and this was also discussed when Vision fought White Vision in WandaVision. Who says superhero stories can’t be intellectual?

So the short version is that virtually every element of my novel had changed in the 17 years I’ve been working on it (on and off, I might add). Is it still the same book?

The story of a story

But why is it so different? Well, for lots of reasons. I’ll try and lay out it’s development chronologically.

The first thing to remember is that I was 14 when I started it. I did what every young writer does when they first start out – I basically ripped off (unwittingly) my hero: Sir Terry Pratchett (not a Sir at the time, though). The book I wrote was a comic fantasy and had such a Discworld vibe it even had the footnotes.

This lasted for a few years until two things happened. The first was that I reached about 18, and became sure enough of myself to realise that I didn’t want to live in the shadow of a great. I wanted to be my own writer, not simply a knock-off novelist trying to do the same thing as someone super successful, only worse. I took a conscious decision to move away from that particular style, although of course I’m proud that Pratchett’s influence occasionally shines through (although maybe not in this book – more on that later).

The second reason was that I began to mature to the point where much of the original concept no longer appealed to me. If this were a Discworld novel, it would be one of the first few. The premise was silly and the plot was thing. It was, just like how Neil Gaiman describes The Colour of Magic, a series of jokes strung together, and not very good jokes.

I tried to make it more grown up. I gave the characters backstory and feelings. It went from being silly to being emo, full of the kind of melodrama you’d except from a young writer beginning to struggle with their mental health (something they wouldn’t realise was happening for a few years yet).

But there was a glaring problem at the heart of the novel: I was trying to bend it into a shape it just wouldn’t fit. The main character and the premise could never work in a more serious, darker book. They would always be out of place. But I didn’t realise this just yet.

I actually finished this version of the story. It was about 100,000 words long, which is about as long as a business card compared to most fantasy novels. I then started working on a sequel, little realising just how important those first few pages would end up being for my journey as a writer.

I’ll have to dig back through the dozens of different versions of the story to find out exactly how old I was when I finally realised that the main premise, and therefore the main character, simply wasn’t working. With a heavy heart I decided to let both go. But now I had a gaping hole in my story, and a desperate need for a new main character.

I thought about all the characters I had in the book. Who would be the most interesting to focus on? Who had the best story to tell?

The answer was somewhat surprising. The new hero of my story wasn’t one of the other main players in the novel. They weren’t even in the novel.

They appeared in one scene of the sequel. I honestly can’t remember how much of it I wrote. In fact, it might be that this scene is the only scene I’d written on the second book. But, when thinking back through all the characters I had at my disposal, she was the one who captivated me.

The thing about writing a novel is that you tend to create at least one new problem for each one you solve. (Incidentally I’m struggling with exactly this at the moment as I continue working on this book; in giving the main character more agency I’ve sent her, and an important secondary character, deeper into danger than before – which, of course, is actually quite a good thing). The problem I’d solved was that the story needed a new main character. The problem I’d created is that the new main character needed a completely different story than the plot I already had.

I didn’t just want to drop her into the middle of someone else’s plot. It wouldn’t have worked, anyway. The previous main character was more of a warrior, happy to pitch in with a sword when things got tough. My new main character isn’t like that. She’s a master tactician who excels in manipulation and subterfuge. In her mind, if you’ve had to draw a sword, you’ve already lost.

So I needed a different plot. I actually set out with a specific goal in mind, which was to emulate the feel of the film V for Vendetta. I watched that film a few times before I realised something about it: it feels very action-heavy, but actually it’s not. There are only a couple of action sequences in it. It’s the intensity of the dialogue and the strength of the characters that makes it feel action-packed.

That’s what I wanted to do: write a story where two people locked in a battle of wits could feel as intense and breathtaking as if they were fighting with swords. That was the story my new protagonist deserved.

This is probably the moment that the original book ceased to be and I began working on something quite different. Much of the setting was the same and quite a few characters crossed over into the new story, but nonetheless I had a new protagonist and a new plot.

This version of the story I completed. It was around 100,000 words long, and I should really go back and read it. In many ways I think there is something ‘pure’ about it; it’s a rough but honest attempt to achieve what I wanted to with my new main character and plot.

The book was finished! Or so it seemed. I even showed the opening chapter to a few agents at the Winchester Writers Festival. They liked it, but said it needed work. ‘Follow up with us when you’ve edited it,’ they said. I never got around to doing that.

Why? Here things get a little less clear. Up until this part in the story of my story it’s clear that the changes I made had very strong motives behind them. The plot was too childish. I didn’t want to just emulate my hero (Pratchett). The main character wasn’t working. And so on.

But now, and I sat there trying again and again to fix that first chapter, and working my way through the rest of the book as well, I had a nagging feeling that something just wasn’t quite right. This wasn’t the same as the times before where I had known that something wasn’t quite right. This was just a feeling. A feeling that I hadn’t told the story I needed to tell. Both my main character and my story had so much more potential than I had mined. They deserved better.

Perhaps I just had ambitions beyond my ability at that time. I think a big part of the problem was that, back then, what I was developing (without realising) was a very character-driven scenario. But up until that point I’d been more of a plot-focussed writer. Character development wasn’t something I was particularly good at.

Incidentally, the science fiction novel I drafted in university has had the same problem. Both of these novels have haunted me for years, because I’ve never been able to come up with a story that I feel does justice to the characters. It doesn’t feel like the story I should tell, the one I could tell, if only I could find out how.

A big part of this problem is that I am a perfectionist. I mean that in a bad way. Not in the way people do when they use it what they think is a clever answer to interview questions about their weaknesses. My weakness? Oh, I’m a perfectionist. I’m just too good at everything. No one ever says, I just can’t help but steal printers. I mean in the sense that I expect too much of myself, constantly fall short of those unreasonable demands, then berate myself for being useless.

And so I’m open to the possibility that maybe the problem wasn’t with my story, but with me. The first book in a series of novels is often weak. The phrase ‘don’t start with the first one’ is a common one uttered by even die-hard fans of the authors. As much as I love Discworld, I’ll admit that I don’t really like some of the earlier instalments, especially the first book, The Colour of Magic.

So perhaps I was aiming too high? Maybe the first book in the series doesn’t have to be perfect, and that it would have been better to get it out of the way and develop my craft by writing more instalments of the series, not agonising over the first one in such detail and for so long?

It’s certainly something I try to keep in mind as I am working on the current version. But we’ve jumped forward a bit. How did we get from me feeling like I just wasn’t telling the right story to having another draft in progress?

Now that’s an interesting question. It ‘happened’ last year, but really I think it was just the culmination of a lot of years of practicing crafting stories. You see, I’ve also been working on other books over the past ten or so years. And I’ve learned a lot while doing them.

So one day I sat down for another attempt to finally tell the story I’ve been wanting to tell. I began mapping out some of the key story beats, and every time I got stuck I’d think of all the possible ways the situation could evolve. Often when plotting you ask yourself what would the characters do in a particular situation. I took the pressure off myself to provide the perfect answer to that question by just thinking about what they might do.

The other thing I tried was being brutal with the story. Not in terms of what’s in it, but in terms of how I treated the material. Character not quite working? They got cut. Struggling to find the purpose of a particular aspect of the plot? It went.

It meant making a lot of hard decisions, but the result of this was that I finally removed some of the main things that had been holding me back. I’d been trying to work against the natural flow of the story, making it go to places it didn’t want to go, or shouldn’t have gone. Once I had the courage to do that, it became much easier to map out a plot that really did justice to the goal I was trying to achieve.

All that’s left now is to write the thing. I’m currently around 75,000 words into the first draft of this new plot. It will need significant reworking, but I am determined to make this version of the plot work. It’s more important now for me to get this book finished and out into the world. I want to spend my time on new projects, even if that’s more books in this series or something completely new. I want the excitement of something fresh, something completely new even to me.

By my calculations this first draft will be 175,000 words long. I will make changes to ensure I’m telling this story to the best of my ability, but I won’t allow myself to make changes to the actual story itself. This is the plot. I’m happy with it. I shall have to live with whatever I have produced come the end.

Seventeen years is a long time to spend working on a single project, although I have spent that time working on several other projects as well. I don’t consider it time wasted, but I do want to conclude this project now. The reason I’ve persevered for so long is because I really want to tell this story, and because I think the characters in my head deserve to have their stories told. I’ll never achieve this objectives unless I finish the book and start sending it out.

Guess I’d better get writing then, hadn’t I?

Header photo by Janis Fasel on Unsplash

3 thoughts on “The ‘Ship of Theseus’-style book I’ve been working on for 17 years”

  1. I wonder how many of us writer folk are sitting on a grandfather’s axe of a story we’ve been messing around with since our youth or younger. I’ve certainly got one of my own! My latest draft (completed, I dunno, a little under a decade ago, maybe?) bears almost no resemblance to the tiny chapter book I typed up at age 11. And even that latest version — though good in many respects — is still, I fear, a bit too shallow and racist to be its best self. I from time to time mull over potential changes I could make to strengthen the book, though I don’t know when (if? No, surely /when/) I’ll get back to actively working on it again. There’s just a special place inside the creative heart for a project that’s grown up alongside you, y’know? No matter how many problems you uncover as you level up in your craft.

    1. You’re right, it’s probably quite common. Thanks – that makes me feel a lot better at taking a ridiculously long time to finish writing a book! It definitely has a special place in my heart, for all the grief it’s caused in refusing to be completed.

      Let’s check back in in another decade and see if either of us has made any progress…

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