I'd seen a hologram of my withered lungs, and heard the doctors tell me I only had a few days left. So when Katherine arrived at my bedside, I couldn't help reflecting that she was the last woman in my life. It had ended a year ago; she preferred the aliens' company to mine. But still —
"Kath, would you kiss me?"
We had not parted on kissing terms. Nonetheless, she bent down and kissed me with an echo of our old passion. I savoured the closeness, the taste of her, as her long dark hair tickled my neck. Now I had a chance to exorcise the resentment I'd hoarded since we split. Katherine was my last love, and I wanted to reconcile with her while I still could.
"The Final Ascent" is my second-oldest story. It took 12 drafts over a span of 27 years to reach its final form. Unlike some writers, I hardly ever "trunk" (i.e. abandon) a story. Instead, with grim determination, I just keep rewriting and rewriting until it sells, and most of my pieces do sell eventually.
The first draft of this story dates from 1992, before I officially even started writing. (I usually date the beginning of my writing career to 1997, when I began taking it seriously, but there is a small amount of pre-97 juvenilia. The notes on "Successful Delegation", my oldest story and first sale, give a bit more background about my early days.)
As a newbie wannabee writer, my first story ideas were very abstract. The seed for this particular story was: "What if aliens had an afterlife?" At the time I didn't have enough experience to see the difficulties involved in turning such a notion into a story — e.g. the lack of any clear characters or stakes — but of course you only learn to become a writer by writing, and making mistakes along the way.
My initial attempt at this idea was a comedy. The first draft opens with: "I run the most popular suicide spot in Dalmaria." Even as a complete beginner, I knew the importance of starting with a hook!
The narrator goes on to explain how he lives on a planet where the natives have an afterlife. One human scientist investigates this. Through vivisection, he locates a particular organ that he calls a "ghost gland", which can be transplanted into other animals. In order to enter the aliens' afterlife, he transplants the gland into himself, then commits suicide.
I know it doesn't sound like a comedy, but it's genuinely funny. In order to write these background notes, I went back to that original draft and read it for the first time in twenty-odd years, having forgotten everything about it, and I found myself laughing several times. That version does have a zest and energy to it.
But it also has problems. The narrator is merely an observer, who has no personal stake in anything that happens. He spends the first half of the story describing the setting and the background, with numerous barely-relevant sidetracks. When he eventually reaches the core of the matter, he simply summarises the scientist's notes, interspersed with a few quips. Everything is second-hand. The entire story is exposition, albeit humorously delivered.
Back in the day, I submitted that draft to Interzone, and received the following rejection note hand-scribbled at the bottom of a copy of the magazine's guidelines: "Hmm. The story is witty and well-written — the final flourish really made me laugh — but it's a bit too much of a 'set piece'. A plot needs more dynamic confusion and tension — usually. But it's not at all bad. Try this elsewhere, and feel free to try us again."
I didn't try sending that draft elsewhere. Back then, Interzone was the only significant science-fiction magazine in the UK, and in those pre-email days it was a non-trivial task to submit to American markets. Besides, at that time I wasn't even a writer; I was focusing on music. It was several years before I started writing seriously, and took another look at this story.
In 1998, now officially calling myself a writer, I dug out the old draft and revised it. The new version removed some of the humour and digressions from the first draft, but didn't replace them with very much, and didn't solve any of the structural problems. I showed it to a friend, whose critique came back: "Who is the story about? I can't tell.... What is the story about? Very unclear.... The story needs a tighter focus. Go on a mass trespass across the Duke of Westminster's mazy acres if you want to ramble." I reluctantly acknowledged the truth of these criticisms, and never submitted that draft anywhere.
I will spare you a blow-by-blow account of the next ten drafts. Suffice it to say that, as I learned to write, I learned a few basic tenets the hard way. For instance, if a story's premise is an alien afterlife, then the narrative needs to describe it, and the protagonist needs to be in it! I also learned that some ideas are suited to shorter stories, and other ideas to longer ones. This turned out to be a longer one, which is why the finished version is more than three times the length of the first draft.
Of course, the problem with longer stories is that they have fewer available markets. As I wrote new drafts, I occasionally submitted them to magazines, but they were rejected. Other writers might have given up, but I'm too stubborn.
Eventually that stubbornness was vindicated when I finished the 12th draft and sent it to Clarkesworld, where it sold. The previous drafts hadn't been submitted there, because Clarkesworld didn't exist when I wrote the first few versions; the magazine began with a strict length limit, which it later relaxed when it became more established and could afford to publish longer works. Although at any given time there are few markets for long stories, new opportunities usually arrive if a writer is sufficiently patient.
Luckily, not every story I write needs so many drafts. As I became more experienced as a writer, I internalised some key techniques of story-telling, and I grew capable of writing a first draft that was much closer to a saleable product.
But most authors have to write plenty of failed drafts in the process of gaining that experience. Some writers will abandon those stories; other writers may refine the stories to publication, while declining to mention how much hard work went into them. I usually like to explain the background, and give some sense of the work involved, just so that readers — and aspiring writers — understand that stories don't always spring fully-formed like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. Some assembly is required.