My Real First Novel: Phillips Head

I came across a draft of my first novel the other day.

Not Bloody Waters; the book I wrote before that. It’s called Phillips Head.

I wrote most of the first draft of Phillips Head in 1997 while I was studying for a Grad. Dip. in Creative Writing at university. The first chapter was a short story that I wrote for a class assignment.

Here’s how it went:

When death row serial killer Brendan Phillips is administered LSD by a prison psychologist, he begins to develop  psychokinetic powers. Phillips’ powers grow as the  experiments continue, and it’s not long before he is able to use them to break out of prison. Suddenly the hunt is on. A cross-agency taskforce is set up to bring Phillips in, but nobody really knows what they are dealing with… and they are not the only parties seeking a piece of him. These include Nicholas Hyam, an unhinged New York cop; Dr. Oliver Aneline, a single father who is himself a psychologist and a serial murderer; and Michael Larren, a telepath.

So, yes, it was the nineties when I wrote this book and apparently I thought I was making a profound statement in writing a book in most of the characters were psychopaths. (No, it was nothing like the recent film Seven Psychopaths; nor was it like the recent comicbook of the same name. Phillips Head only has five psychopaths in it.)

I remember there being some good material in there. I have a degree in Cognitive Science and a lot of  research from my studies went  into the story. I was particularly interested in mood-dependent memory, for example, and that had a direct bearing on the plot. For a large part of the book, Phillips cannot use his new abilities because he needs to be dosed with LSD in order to access them, and the combination of drug hallucinations, schizophrenia and psi powers  can cause him real, physical harm. Although Larren’s role is smaller, I put a similar amount of thought into the way that his own psi powers work.

I was particularly interested in different techniques for conveying point of view and I used a different styles for various of the characters: some of them get the classic SF ‘internal monologue in italics’, some get deep POV third person in the style of Elmore Leonard. Phillips himself gets a sort of layered combination of those techniques where I separate out physical action from the things he is sensing from what he is thinking. I think that was very useful, if only as a technical exercise.

In the second half of the book I look at how society might be changed by the obvious presence of a superhuman… a single superhuman, who is clearly a monster. (Larren, of course, is also a superhuman, but his telepathic powers are inward-focused and he is a clandestine figure… though he too is a monster.) If you want to sum it up in comicbook terms, the theme of the book is ‘with great power comes monsterism’.

Phillips Head boasts some of the goriest scenes I’ve ever written. If you’ve read much of my work you will be aware that I’m not afraid to splash around a bit of claret… but whatever else you’ve read of mine, I promise you it’s is mild in comparison to the material in this book.

I submitted the manuscript to an editor late in 2001. He told me that “this has real promise, but no.” The novel features massive destruction in New York City and of course the 9/11 attacks happened in between me sending him the manuscript and him sending me a reply. but I have had, in my head, this idea that it might still be a viable project for the last twelve years.

When I wrote Phillips Head I started out with the simple intention of trying to see how long I could go on a single story and I stuck at it until I had written a complete book. I wrote many parts of it out of order and it took me months to work out how to cut everything together in a way that made sense. In the time since then I’ve completed two more novels–one published, one I’m now pitching–and I have a third that’s in second draft right now.  I’m a much more seasoned writer now and I feel as if I know–sort of– how it’s done. I thought I’d maybe go in there and see how bad it was. See how much work it would take to salvage the book. Aaand…

Oh, my sweet Satan, it is awful.

I guess Phillips Head one that will stay in my freezer forever.

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