At long last I have finished and published Children of Fall, the second book in the Planetfall trilogy. Phew, and Yay!
In this blog, I’m going to take you behind the scenes of the novel. I’ll show you some of the process in building the story, writing the first draft, how early (constructive) criticism changed the novel between the first and final draft, and then explore the journey to creating the cover art.
First, if you haven’t seen the book online and want to buy it, then paperback and Kindle options are on the links below:
Buy paperback (not Amazon)
Conceiving the story
Children of Fall has taken ten years to write, and is the biggest and most complex book I’ve ever written. I first conceived the story in 2007, and realised by 2008 that I didn’t have the skill as a writer to bring to life the story in my head. It probably took me about 65,000 words of writing, scrapping material and re-writing to come to this conclusion. There also seemed to be a lot of back story to get the reader to a point of understanding the story I wanted to tell, which forced me to a logical conclusion: I needed to write another novel first, something simpler and more straightforward, to set the scene. This became Planetfall book 1: All Fall Down.
The starting point of Children of Fall (and the whole Planetfall series) was inspired by Quatermass and the Pit, an old science fiction film in which an astronaut returns to Earth, infected with alien DNA. I didn’t so much want to re-tell that story, as use it as a point to jump from: what if a soldier on the front line of a war became infected with alien DNA? How would that soldier be treated? What might that soldier become?
Thoughts about DNA suggested a structure for the novel: there would be two stories, intertwined, like the double-helix of DNA. At points they would come close and at others they would spiral apart. This meant writing two separate stories, side by side, which occupied the same universe and the same overall narrative, but which had their own characters and viewpoints.
After writing All Fall Down, a process which took 3 years, I tried to write Children of Fall again, and failed again. I was committed to the story structure – I could see it in my head – but I couldn’t make it happen on the page.
The next book I wrote was Backpackers, a romantic fiction novel about young people backpacking through south east Asia. The structure of that novel is of a series of short stories, each based on a different character, but who all come into contact with the book’s protagonist, Cath Pearson. Each story comments in some way on that central character, so we see slices of her drama. This let me build my skills in writing from different characters’ points of view, letting a longer narrative play in and out of other stories, and getting it all to make sense. I was building my writing muscles: first, I had written a novel from start to finish in the universe I wanted, and then I had written a novel with a similar structure to the one I wanted to write.
After those two novels were finished, I made my next attempt, and managed to write a decent amount of a first draft. But the story at that point was different to what it is now. I started with the former inhabitants of Fall being refugees, aboard their own starship, and committing piracy to stay alive. They wanted revenge on their former colony administrator, and kidnapped Kate Leland in the hope she would be their leader. Kate also started out at a different point in her life: an embattled war General, who steals an old ship to house the refugees and let them hide beyond military sensors. The other main character, Swan, had something closer to a hero’s journey. He even tracked down Daoud at one point, and tried to kill him. You won’t see anything of this in the new novel, and once you’ve read it, you’ll wonder how the finished story could even have included the above.
Receiving criticism and re-plotting
With that first draft in hand, I put the draft novel to one side, intending to come back to it a month later. Events overtook me: the UK’s former Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher died, and a story idea came to me. I have written about that on this blog, suffice to say the month became somewhat longer, until another couple of years had gone by. I released that new book, Sympathy for the Devil in 2015, and returned to Children of Fall.
I tidied up the draft and sent it to a trusted beta reader. His feedback contained the catalyst for scrapping most of the first draft (again!) and re-writing almost from scratch. Amongst two pages of feedback on individual chapters, lines, typos and overall story commentary, he wrote this:
“I didn’t get much of a sense of Kate this time around. I remember last time thinking she was fully formed and focussed as a character. This time she seems less focussed, except maybe at the start, when she steals the ship and goes to fall. I didn’t really get the grand plan she had to stop the war.”
When I started to unpick Kate, and try to understand why this might be, the entire plot fell apart. This comment proved to be the single thread that causes a carefully knitted garment to unravel. Out went the ship stealing (too aggressive), out went the grand plan (too vague, obviously, but too organised as well – it took away the dramatic tension). Importantly, I took that comment on her having “less focus” [sic] and used it, completely re-imagining where Kate might be a dozen years after the first book. Kate is less focused from the start of the book now, but she is deliberately out of focus: even she doesn’t know who she is. Indeed our first view of her is as a hologram, unreal, made of light, gone at the flick of a switch. As the book goes on, and events unfold, a new Kate emerges and comes into focus. But even at the end, we don’t fully understand who she is. And neither does Kate. She’s someone who has lost touch with herself, who is running away, and who needs to make a decision: does she keep running, or does she commit to something bigger?
I want to make the point, which I think is fairly clear, that early drafts of books need criticism, they need objective viewpoints to force us to think differently about our stories. No story, no novel, can be any good without feedback and criticism at different stages.
Developing the plot
Having an idea about a soldier who becomes infected with alien DNA is all well and good, but how do we find the story around it?
All Fall Down gave me the space to find the alien DNA: it was in place at the start of Children of Fall. The moment of infection I also had early on – without going into spoiler territory, I very much wanted a scene like one you would find in a superhero comic. But it also had to feel real and believable.
I was helped in this by some feedback on an early chapter I took to my writing group. In the early draft, Swan invades a ship and comes face to face with the alien enemy. The aliens are described, and a battle ensues. At my writing group, I was given a throwaway suggestion: don’t ever let us see the aliens, so that they have more power. This led down two paths. The main alien enemies in the book are never seen. They’re referred to, and the most description we get is that one species is “lemur-like”. Beyond that, they’re ever-present, never seen, yet a constant threat.
At the other end of the scale, I thought it would be good to bring back the aliens from All Fall Down. Ones so large, so gargantuan, that their sheer scale would induce numbness in the reader. Not horror, not awe, but something too big to be human, humanised or understandable. A numb, blank spot in the story, around which Swan spirals. The opening lines of the book are deliberately meant to reference this effect, where Swan talks about memory wipes, of feeling like his head is full of snow and ice, of feeling blank. It foreshadows what is to come, and also links us back to Kate in All Fall Down, when she wipes a key character’s memory.
Dehumanisation is a key theme of the book. We find many of the characters losing their humanity and their empathy as the book progresses. Children are grown to become soldiers; not only is every character flawed, but many of them are actively trying to avoid humans or otherwise send them to their deaths. Marines are clad in organic battle suits, looking “monstrous”, like something that has “crawled out of a swamp”.
I start the cover art process by throwing a lot of visual ideas at my cover artist. These will be images that I might have used as inspiration for certain scenes or characters, or that helped me with mood or feel or emotion.
Below you can see some art work that covers space scenes, classic scifi UFO-type art work, some panels from Swamp Thing, and two book covers.
Accompanying these visual ideas is a summary of the story, key themes in the book, character profiles and any particular scenes that help to bring the story or character to life.
Rob, who produces the Planetfall covers, then works on an outline cover idea. This [below] was an early draft. At this point I give constructive feedback, which again takes the form of both written comments and visual ideas.
Below are images I sent back along with my feedback on the cover art. The overall comment was that the cover needed more drama and more contrast.
In the images above you can see some specific images connected with hairline (top-left). There are also images connected with the texture of the mutation creeping up Swan’s face (top-right and bottom-left: ‘Mutation’ by Tom Stewart).
The top-middle image shows the draft cover angled over, with an exploding asteroid or sun in the bottom left-corner, a suggestion towards the need for more drama.
Out of all this comes the final cover image: