Ends and beginnings

In the last blog post I talked specifically about one of planetfall‘s main characters, Kate Leland, and more generally about women in sci-fi. In this blog post I want to cover something a little more personal – my own story through the writing of planetfall book 1. It’s a bit of a ramble, a brain dump of how I felt in the minutes after I’d finished final edits (indeed I wrote it straight after finishing). But in that, it’s a representation, in all its unfocused mess, of what was circling in my mind. So here we go:

Today (12/06/2011) I finished final edits on planetfall book 1. As far as I’m concerned I now have a draft that I am happy to send to a literary agent, and for a literary agent to send to publishers. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a perfect version. It just means that I’m happy with the book, that I think it works, and that I think there’s enough to satisfy a reader. An agent and a publisher might (would!) of course have a different view.

From my research, it seems that getting published is not wholly about how good your book is. There will be a huge degree of luck in this, and not a little networking required. (For the cynical, or the realists, depending on your world view, you can read “networking” as “selfish exploitation of other people’s contacts”.)

I first finished planetfall book 1 in December 2010. I remember writing the (then) final words, “…we’re coming in hot. Out.” These are not the final words of this final draft. As a nod to the sequel, as a nod to the fact that the story ends just as another great story is so obviously beginning, and as a nod to the fourth wall breaking history of literature and performance, it now ends with the line, “This story isn’t over.” It is perhaps something of a cliché; undoubtedly there are hundreds, thousands of first-part stories out there which end with similar or identical words. Yet they seem to fit: to fit the story, to fit the character, to fit the tone of the end, and to fit the start of the book, its opening paragraph, which – perhaps fittingly – is where I made the very last edits, the very final changes. The opening paragraph has been re-written scores of times now. It starts now with a paragraph that contains the following (with some intervening words edited out), “ the system seemed to be looking for … a story”.

There is some symmetry now in the story. It starts with eyes opening, of vision across great distances, looking for a story to tell. And it ends after a story, at the junction between one story and another, as the main character’s vision is compromised, a door closing, cutting off their virtual sight lines, of being locked into the dark, and having to look inward, of having to use the insight they gained along the way to understand what is happening, what might happen next. “This story isn’t over,” is me talking to a reading audience. And at the same time it is the character – Kate, let’s name her, the main character – continuing her blossoming from a strong character who is highly competent in specific situations, to a character learning to be strong across broad, unstructured, unfocused, society-wide situations. A generalist. A General.

Kate’s story is not over. She will crop up in a later book. At the moment I don’t know if she will be in the sequel; sharing her own initial lack of vision, I can’t yet “see” her there. Her presence is there, she is still part of the story, she will be back, and she will be back to drive the story to its conclusion. But when? Where? Therein lies part of the joy of writing a story, a joy shared by the reader – I don’t know until she crops up and becomes apparent. I look forward to finding out who she is, how she’s matured and changed and grown in the intervening story time.

Back to the story as a book in reality. It has grown and changed and matured over time. From its inception as a 1-page short story about a Mexican soldier, to its recasting as a story about a space Marine, to my need to pull out a sub-plot and make it into the first book; through the various drafts, failed story lines, red herrings, dead ends, characters who changed gender, characters meant as throw aways who became more important as the story grew and took on its own life, from all and through all of that, it has finally become a product finished and polished and independently read enough to stand on its feet, on its own merits, and be sent into the big, bad world of literary agents.

I expect rejection letters, of course. I expect no letters or responses. I expect to feel the slow and creeping disappointment of a creation left to wither due to lack of the oxygen of attention.

Or perhaps I owe it to this funny little sci-fi story to keep it alive. To animate its existence with networking and exploitation and letters and phone calls and requests to friends and acquaintances and emails to business cards picked up in restaurants, given by kind friends of friends. Perhaps I should be inspired by the story’s will to power, the fact that it created itself out of nothing. This book that forced itself out of a writing exercise, that budded off from a parent story, plopped onto a page and wriggled and writhed and entrained my hands and mind and time and money, and birthed itself, which took over like a memetic virus my brain, so that I became enslaved to it for three years, so that I spent evenings and weekends and minutes between work meetings and train journeys and rainy weekends in remote cottages in the Scottish isles, and sunny tables in hostels in Africa, train carriages across Europe, coffee shops around London and Coventry and who-knows-where-else (in fact I do, they’re all recorded, timed & dated); this book that dragged itself from the aether into the world. That has implanted itself in other people’s existence and minds and experiences. This book mentioned on Saturday night television to an audience of millions (no, it’s not sodding Avatar 2). Perhaps the real journeys the book has been on mean I should continue to subjugate myself before it. To serve it until it dies – the death of a public readership, who will absorb it and own it and add their own lives and thoughts and opinions and colours and textures to it.

Perhaps the end of the book is a beginning for it.

I have finished this book five days before my last day in the office in my current job. I decided to leave this job three and a half years ago – almost the same month I started writing this book. I have finished it when I am finally leaving.

Across the three-plus years I have learned – in parts, a little bit – how to write. How to sustain a story over hundreds of pages. How to develop characters and ensure that, if I want, I can make them have some emotional impact on the reader. I have learned about description and context and flow and movement and how to generate tension. I have learned to write dialogue (although I am still not that good at it) and I have learned, approximately, how to structure a chapter. How to story board. When to write prescriptively and when to let go. When a story and character should write themselves and when to exert some control. I have learned I can create people I don’t like, who nevertheless continue to live and breathe inside me. I have learned not to be scared to let a character or situation do things that seem outlandish, to follow the logic of a story. I have learned that humiliation – giving your writing to other people to criticise and tear to shreds – never becomes blunted, but is as important to the writing process as putting letters on a page. I have learned that people can unanimously like parts of my writing that I feel nothing for. I have learned time can be made and found in a busy and hectic social life, and that Edison was right: producing something from nothing is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration (so he was talking about genius, but a little poetic licence is OK). Writing is work and you just have to get on with it.

This book started as an exercise. It was going to be a practice novel. It was going to be something written quickly and slapdash, something to develop a skill as a writer of books, so that I could write the book I really wanted to write. It was supposed to be throwaway. And over the years I grew fond of it, grew to love it, grew to realise that perhaps this piece of throwaway writing actually had a little more going for it than an exercise in dialogue and getting away with bringing back flying saucers in the sky.

Today I finished edits on planetfall book 1. Today I ended 3.5 years of effort on a single product, a single creation. Today I completed, in my mind, the equivalent of a degree in creative writing.

Tomorrow… Tomorrow we will see what legs it has.

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