I started the first draft of The Absolutist on 25th March 2009. A scene marked ‘6’ went as follows:
I didn’t talk to Dennis Bancroft until my second day at the barracks, although I noticed him earlier and for some reason he made an immediate impression on me. I arrived one afternoon along with forty or fifty others, some who knew each other and talked incessantly on the train, as if the maintenance of good humour would be a tonic against what we might meet at the other end. Some who didn’t know each other and who either sat in window seats, arms folded, staring out at the scenery as it rushed past them, or endured guarded conversations with the boys sitting opposite them, talking about the things they had left behind – homes, families, sweethearts – but never the war.
We had been conscripted under the terms of the 1916 Military Service Act and I was pleased that it had happened at last. Eighteen months earlier, thrown out of home after that disastrous afternoon with my father and the headmaster of my school, I had gone to the local enlistment office and tried to sign up but had been turned away on account of my age.
The novel opens in 1919 when the protagonist, Tristan Sadler, is spending a day in Norwich with the sister of his dead friend Will Bancroft. There are flashback scenes to the war and, earlier, to Tristan and Will’s meeting at the training ground of Aldershot.
Six months later, on 27th August 2009, I began the second draft. The numbered scenes had been replaced by 7 separate chapters in the novel and this scene became the opening scene for the second chapter.
I didn’t speak to Will Bancroft until our second day at Aldershot Barracks but I noticed him on our first.
We arrived in the late afternoon of a warm April day, some forty or fifty of us together, a group of untidy boys, loud-mouthed and vulgar, stinking of sweat. Those who had known each other before setting out had talked incessantly on the train, as if silent contemplation was a dangerous travelling companion. Those who were strangers sat in window seats, their heads pressed against the glass, feigning sleep or staring out as the scenery rushed past. Some made nervous conversation about the things they had left behind, the sweethearts they would miss, but no one discussed the war. We might have been on a day-trip for all the nerves we dared show.
Dennis had now become Will. (Dennis seemed too bland a name for a character who would prove to be made of stern stuff; Will seemed to hold more certainty.) The second draft felt tighter to me, the description of the ‘untidy boys, loud-mouthed and vulgar, stinking of sweat’ conjures up the atmosphere on the train a little better. And the description of Tristan’s earlier home life has been jettisoned altogether, moved to a different part of the chapter. The focus here remains entirely on the arrival of the boys at the training ground.
Draft 3 began on 8th February 2010, and the paragraphs changed again:
I don’t speak to Will Bancroft until our second day at Aldershot Military Barracks but I notice him on our first.
We arrive in the late afternoon of a warm April day, some forty or fifty of us together, a group of untidy boys, loud-mouthed and vulgar, stinking of sweat and bogus heroism. Those who already know each other sit together on the train, talking incessantly, afraid of silence, each voice competing to overshadow the next. Those who are strangers hide in window seats, their heads pressed against the glass, feigning sleep or staring out as the scenery rushes past. Some make nervous conversation about the things they have left behind, their families, the sweethearts they will miss, but no one discusses the war. We might be on a day-trip for all the nerves we dare show.
The most obvious change is that the scene has moved from the past tense to the present. I decided on draft 3 that all the war scenes and training ground scenes would be written in the present which I hoped would give a greater sense of immediacy. The scenes in Norwich in 1919 would still be written in the past. The boys stink not only of sweat now, but of ‘bogus heroism’. And the ‘dangerous travelling companion’ has been cut – that sounded a bit affected to me.
Drafts 4-8 show no changes at all to the scene but by the final draft, no.9, dated Janury 6th 2011 (only 4 months before publication), the group of ‘forty or fifty’ has changed to a solid forty.
See also: John Boyne ReDrafts his new children’s novel, Noah Barleywater Runs Away.