Raiders of the Lost Emotional Arc

A big mistake I made with the first book (and honestly, there were so many big mistakes, I’m surprised it got written at all…) was not taking charge of the emotional journey of my characters during the planning phase.

I had a vague idea that Cal would find fulfilment and some sort of closure as a result of the adventure, but I didn’t do any work up front on how that closure would come about. Consequently I ended up with this character reacting to events of the book while not really changing significantly within themselves. And then when the big emotional moments came, they felt forced and unearned.

The biggest example of this is that (scandal) the early drafts of the book had Cal and Droov hooking up mid-way through the book. There was a big love scene and everything! (No sex scene though – those are very hard to make not awful). But because I hadn’t properly planned out the emotional journeys that led to that point, the scene felt like it came from nowhere, and it was deeply unconvincing.

In the end, I couldn’t make the romance element work, so I scrapped it and concentrated on the individual emotional arcs of my two leads. The telling thing is that in order to remove all references to the romance, I only needed to change about 10 sentences throughout the rest of the book. The big romance ended up just being a minor plot twist, rather than a culmination and a fulfilment of an emotional journey, so it was all too easy to remove.

Around draft 4, I finally got around to properly planning the emotional arcs of Cal and Droov. And this is how I did it:

First I decided where I wanted my leads to end up emotionally. I wanted Cal rediscovering his mojo, and Droov learning the joys of not being such a selfish tool. Then I rewound back to the beginning and rewrote the opening chapters to put them both in the complete opposite emotional spaces: Cal consumed with guilt and regret, and Droov being a selfish tool.

Immediately, I had given myself the fun writing challenge of getting them from emotional state to another by the end of the book. But how to plan it? I already had my story structure in place by then, so I plotted out each key moment and interaction on a spreadsheet and added a column each for Cal and Droov. In these new columns I described how each moment would affect them on their journey. It meant a lot of rewriting, but it resulted in a story where you care much more about the plot because you see how it’s affecting the characters in the story.

Later today I’ll be doing a similar spreadsheet for book 2. Wish me luck.

PS If you are wondering, the big love moment was replaced by the scene with Cal and Droov stargazing by the lake – because I reckon characters being honest and sharing their fears is a lot more interesting and challenging than just having them confess their love and smooching a bit.


Perfecting the Sci in your Fi

The joy of writing sci-fi is the ability to speculate on the limitless possibilities of alien worlds and future times and asking ‘what if?’. But one of the mistakes I made when starting my book was not putting the leg work in up-front on how the scientific nitty-gritty of my world worked, As a result, my first draft ended up feeling vague and unconvincing. It was only once I researched into present-day technology, and did some proper planning out of the scientific underpinnings of this world of alien refugees, that the world and the story took shape in a meaningful way.

As an example, the entire mystery of my first novel (Interplanetary Homesick Blues) centred around a human examining an alien blood sample. But it was only after I had done my first draft that I started thinking about microscopes. How small is it possible to go with today’s technology? What sort of equipment would you typically have in a hospital for diagnosis? Getting this straight helped lend a slight air of credibility, but crucially it meant I could impose limits on how much my human characters could discover before they became reliant on my more advanced alien technologies to learn more. The limits of the science informed the progression of the narrative.

But even when it came to the potentially-limitless alien sciences in my book, I needed to somehow ‘research’ that, and impose clear limits on the alien tech in order to help the world to feel credible, and to help drive the narrative.

The main time I hit this was figuring out how on Earth all these aliens managed to get to Earth in the first place. Before I started the re-drafting process, I did a lot of work on straightening all that out, and it ultimately informed the foundational power dynamics of my alien cultures.

Distances in space are vast, and whoever has the ability to navigate them freely has a level of control and authority over those who can’t – as Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ showed to great effect. For my refugees I came up with an ‘artificial and extremely expensive wormhole’ which reduced the total journey to around two-three (Earth) years. This aspect of the story is only briefly mentioned in the book, but establishing it helped nail some key story points. First, the journey time was substantial enough for it to be arduous, but not so long that you start ending up with generations born in space. It also established a crucial ‘rule’ of the world of the book – the aliens can’t just fire up their own ‘faster-than-light’ drives and try a different world. They are stuck on Earth. Finally, the fact it was expensive (and therefore came at a cost) meant that the richer planets could pay their way easily, but what about the millions of poorer aliens? What does ‘travelling coach’ look like for interplanetary travel? What about those who couldn’t afford legitimate transit? Were there illegal options open to them? I could only scratch the surface of this in book 1. The sequel will delve much more into the stratification of space travel.

I do think the power of sci-fi comes from feeling that the world of the book is ‘possible’ in some way. Your science has some sort of rules and some sort of nodding acquaintance with reality. My advice if you are writing sci-fi, take the time and put the legwork into the ‘rules’ of your world before you start writing. Not only will it help lend credibility to your narrative, but it will also help you to create interesting plot points that will give your story a unique voice of its own.


Inspiration, Perspiration & Organisation

I’m planning the new novel, but the big question for me is ‘how much should I plan?’

Should I start writing with only a rough idea of a destination in mind and allow lots of space for inspiration to come to me during the writing process, or do I plan everything to the nth degree in order to be sure of having a solidly-plotted story?

With Interplanetary Homesick Blues, I embraced the former approach. It was my first fiction novel and I had no idea whether I was going to be able to see it through. Because of this, I didn’t spend hours and hours planning every moment before I started writing. Instead, I decided to just plunge in and see how it went with the idea of sorting out the details later (in other words, polish up my wet slimy oyster after the fact). I didn’t go in totally blind though: I had my basic concept (alien immigrants living illegally in London), my main character (aquatic alien with a background in law enforcement), four key alien species, an event to kick off the story (an alien is ordered to murder a human) and a vague idea that there was a conspiracy to do with alien technology – but that was about it.

In hindsight, this was probably a mistake. The reason the book took me four years to write is that I didn’t just write it once. I had to rewrite the whole thing several times due to the story changing shape as I wrote it. For example, I originally had a big romance between the main protagonists, but that ended up being a distraction from the main emotional journey my characters needed to go on (and I only figured out that journey around draft four). Also, my first draft had several other killings that required investigation, but all that plot detail just made everything bloated and slow.

The biggest problem I had, however, was that the nature of the actual conspiracy underlying the whole story was in total flux. My main villain was originally a human, the motivations of the antagonists kept switching and the whole last act took place in a totally different country! There were massive logic gaps in my original ideas and it took a huge amount of work after the original draft was down to get it all straight.

Writing the book in this way was exhausting, and frustrating. I had to edit and re-edit and re-edit until I unearthed a version of the story that made sense and took my characters on a good journey. I’m satisfied now, but I don’t really want to go through all that again!

The opposite extreme would be to try and do all the thinking before I sit down and start writing. I could create pages and pages of notes about everything that will happen, and figure out every beat and nuance that will shape the final book. Charles Dickens (my sort-of/not-really namesake) went for this approach. Everything was plotted out in detail before he started writing, which was necessary as his books were published in serial form so he wasn’t able to go back and make massive changes when he realised he made a mistake.

I don’t know if I want to do this either. I do want to leave some room to change direction slightly as things occur to me during the writing process. Plus, my characters do begin to take on lives of their own as I write, and I need to give them the ability to change and develop.

I think I’ll go for somewhere between the two. I definitely need to plan more than I did the first time , so I’ll plan enough to make sure I know all the key underpinnings of the plot, and all the key incidents that will shape the narrative. I’ll also figure out the emotional journeys I want to take my characters on, and figure out where that intersects with the events in the story.

Hopefully all that planning will take some of the stress out of getting started, but it will still leave enough room for that delicate green shoot of inspiration to take root and flourish.


Wet Slimy Oysters

It took me a very long time to have the confidence to start writing this novel. Did I really have what it took to write something full length, with relatable characters and an interesting plot?

Up until that point I had only written a guide to being a best man which was essentially a personal version of the software help guides that I’ve written for years as part of my day job. I had also written a few plays, but they are a very different beast to a novel. With a play, you tell the entire story through dialogue, with the ultimate aim of having actors and a director creating all the visuals, so you don’t have to think about creating an entire world.

But with a novel, the requirement is not just to have a good story and good dialogue. A novelist needs to pick just the right descriptive language for each environment, to precisely outline the rich inner life of each character and to somehow use just the right language at every point so the whole world of the novel builds effortlessly in the mind of the reader.

Bloody intimidating, in other words.

But it was something Donny said that spurred me on to make a start. He sent me this article that compared writing a novel to working with oysters. It is a slightly tortured metaphor, but bear with me.

The first task is just to crack the shell. The hardest thing about starting a novel is just sitting down and committing to doing it. It takes an effort of will, but once you’ve started – it’s underway.

But when you do crack the shell, you are left with a wet slimy oyster. In other words, the first version you put down is going to be pretty horrible, but you just need to accept that is going to be the case. The most important thing is to get the words down in some form with the knowledge that you will get to fix things up later – and that’s OK. Because once your wet slimy messy novel is down on paper, then you get to refine and refine and refine via the editing process.

Through editing, you keep polishing and polishing with the hope that you will soon end up with a shiny pearl.