Creating the planetfall universe

In my last blog post I gave an outline of how planetfall came about – its genesis as a short story, as a writing exercise, and then its evolution as my own writing skills improved: the story of a Marine stretching to 200 pages, edited down to 35 pages, grown again to 75 pages, abandoned for a few years while I wrote a sub-plot, the realisation that the sub-plot was a book in its own right, and the eventual return to that Marine.

But how do you write a sci-fi book set one thousand years in the future, stretching across two books-worth of material (even if half of that has now been deleted)?

Some authors literally make it up as they go along. Or so they say. I often wonder how they develop complex characterisation and a realistic environment by making it up as they go along. I can’t believe there isn’t a little bit of planning in there.

My approach with planetfall started off like this – make it up as you go along. And I quickly realised that wouldn’t work. To make a universe realistic from the first page, the first paragraph, sentence – the first word – it has to seem lived in. It has to feel realistic to the reader. It has to feel like there’s an internal logic, even if the reader hasn’t yet discovered it.

I spent time developing a one thousand year history for planetfall. It starts from around 2050, covers humanity’s first foray to the edge of our solar system, and then its spread out into the galaxy. The major socio-political events are mapped out, the great technological turning points are described, and the artistic periods are mapped and named. Half-page to full-page mini stories, in the style of Wikipedia, exist to describe specific events that form the backdrop to certain characters. For example, Daoud, the Administrator of the Fall Colony, has several pages of character development. His story concerns a trip to Jupiter, and subsequent arguments with the shadowy Cadre which runs society.

For much of planetfall it should seem like references to the broader social universe are consistent – technology, feelings, cultures should all go to a common reference point, regardless of what the characters’ views are on them.

Sometimes there are points in planetfall where I realised there was a hole in history – where the story needed to reference cultural norms or events of the past which I hadn’t written. At those points I had to make decisions – do I make a throwaway reference and hope I don’t need to use it again, or do I take time out to flesh out the universe’s history?

In some cases – the trip Kiran takes out of system – I used throwaway references. The great thing with a galaxy of planets and stars is that you don’t have to return to them. With others – like the AIs and their levels and complexity – I had to sit down and figure out what they were, their characters and relationships.

The most important aspect of pre-writing development, however, is concerned with the characters. Characters in books need to be consistent (even if they are unpredictable, their unpredictable nature is at least predictable) so that the reader can form a relationship with them. In planetfall there are biographies for Daoud, Kate Leland and Sophie Argus, and lesser biographies for Win Ho-Yung, Djembe Cygnate and Doctor Currie – the six principal human actors of the story. Only one character has no developed character biography – Verigua, and that simply because the character wrote itself, and it essentially has no background. Kate, Win and Djembe also have drawings associated with them, which detail my initial thoughts on their view to life – are they people who look backward, who look forward, or who are happy in the moment?

For all the character development I carried out, characters still have their own life in the same way that sometimes new cultural reference points, historical events or places need to come into being to suit the story as it’s written. Djembe was the biggest surprise here.

I do not particularly like the character of Djembe. For many months I fought against the character and tried to make him less straight-backed and rigid and systematic. In the end I gave in and let the character write itself, and the writing became much easier. A salutory lesson in writing characters – they have their own life, they find their own place in the story, and regardless how much character development and universe creation I carried out,  the interaction between characters and environment always brought about story elements that I could never have predicted. Djembe’s antagonistic relationship with Verigua is one of them; Sophie’s fate is another (she had a different fate planned for her which I had to scrap when the story turned a different way).

There’s a common thread coming out here – sometimes the story writes itself, but only, I think, when the author has a deep understanding of it. I’m not sure if non-writers believe this. In many, many places of planetfall I do not feel I was in conscious control of the writing. Many times I would sit in a coffee shop (usually Costa Coffee in Crouch End) and simply read the story at the pace my hand was writing it. It was as new to me as a reader picking up the book for the first time. This is an amazing feeling, and I presume what people are referring to when they talk of their ‘muse’. When the story elements combine so well and are so embedded in the psyche that their immanence flows directly to creation of the story, bypassing the conscious mind and flowing straight from mind to hand.

This doesn’t happen without development and planning. And it also doesn’t happen without letting go of the story and characters and letting them interact on their own terms.

Some places in planetfall are completely planned – the sequence with Djembe and Verigua in the corridor was very carefully planned and measured and drawn – while others flow from letting go of the story – pretty much all of Verigua’s sections (bar the one just mentioned) and the events in the very last chapter (a complete surprise to me, and I almost did a little wee with excitement at one point when it went all 50s sci-fi B-movie on  me). However all of it exists within a framework, a story board I developed right at the start, which in around 20 frames tells the main story points from start to end: arrival on Fall, the trip to the surface, Kate’s travel through darkness, the arrival in the sky.

I guess the realisation I’ve come to is that I have a preferred writing style. I like to know what the universe is like before I find the story within it. Making up the universe is fun as you can put whatever you like in, and then the story can write itself, within a broad and flexible framework, over the top of it. And that broad and flexible framework has to provide enough room, space and air for the story to create itself, to write itself into being.

planetfall: genesis

planetfall – correctly written with a lower case ‘p’ and as one word – was borne out of a short story, and like most first-novels went through a long development process.

I treated the writing of planetfall as a self-education in creative writing. While writing it I tried many different exercises and approaches, failed more than I succeeded, then failed some more, went off on tangents, took breaks, became frustrated, scrapped pages and pages of material and generally found that auto-didacticism is easier to spell than to do.

The short story from which planetfall evolved is about a Mexican man looking back on the Mexican-American war around the time of the Alamo. It was a writing exercise in which I challenged myself to write a short story that had a definite beginning, middle and end, was character based, and which would fit onto one side of A4. The story was mostly dialogue, the Mexican man talking to his young son about what it means to be a man while he shaved his cheeks and shaped his moustache. I put this story to one side and moved onto other writing projects (I think some exercises on colour and motion).

Some time later I returned to the short story and thought it would be interesting to re-write the story from the son’s perspective, this time he would be a grown man thinking back to his father’s advice. I placed the son in a war and wrote a nostalgic piece, the son looking backward, close to death, wanting the protective presence of his father.

Realising that a soldier on a battlefield gave me scope for more writing exercises – the ravaged landscape, the loss of life, commentary on war and its interaction with society – I continued to write. The story became science fiction when I decided a battleground of post-nuclear detonation would add drama quickly. After about 3 or 4 pages, I chopped off the original short story – the Mexican  man with his son – and started thinking about how someone would survive a nuclear blast: you’d need some kind of fancy protective suit for a start. And so secom was born, a material that never made it into the final draft of the first book (at least not in an obvious way).

planetfall evolved quickly after that. There were three characters – Ramirez, Mina and David – a mysterious planet and a scene I visualised as a ‘planetfall’, in which the characters would leave a ship in orbit and fall to the planet below, battling aliens as they went. This scene gave its name to the book. I later named the mysterious planet ‘Fall’ as a temporary joke (planetfall/planet Fall) while I tried to figure out a better name. I never found one. Planet Fall became the central character in the first book of planetfall.

Two hundred pages came out quite quickly, and at that point I took a break to write a short story (“Ayla’s Journey”). I opened up the writing process for this short story to a friend with professional writing experience. She taught me how to edit, about rhythm and flow, and what was good in my writing and what not. A very instructive experience, I went back to planetfall three months later and sat down to edit. Two hundred pages collapsed under my editor’s eye in a cottage on the Isle of Skye, and became 35. From there I wrote out again to around seventy five pages, and got stuck. A sub-plot, a conspiracy theory centring on the planet Fall, wasn’t working. It took a few months before I decided to pull the sub-plot out into a separate story, which would run alongside the main story of the soldier (now a Marine) and act as counterpoint to his first-person perspective story.

I tried writing the two stories side by side, but their different writing styles and points of view soon forced me to stop. I decided to focus on the story of the planet Fall first. That story, in retrospect, was easy to write. Daoud was a character I already had from writing background notes on the planetfall universe and its history. Kate arrived one day while I was in Costa Coffee in Crouch End. Verigua was supposed to be a limited character, borrowed from an Iain M. Banks Culture novel. I will write about these separately.

Each chapter, except for the final one, was written with a particular approach in mind. Some chapters are sense-based: visual, auditory, tactile. Some were very much about movement (a Doctor Who: Confidential episode, in which they discussed up & down movement, was a particular influence), and some were indulgent: abstract, dream-like and experimental (on my part). One chapter was simply written in a short story style as a break from the main narrative (The Tale of Huriko Maki).

The first draft was finished in December 2010 and I started to think about returning to the main story, the story of the Marine’s experience of a great war. As I’d written the story of the planet Fall, I conceived a story structure in which that story would revolve, DNA-helix-like, around the main story of the Marine. It would be capped with a short story (The Tale of the SS Maris One) which would act as the telomere to the story’s helix. However, in early 2011, three and a half years after writing the story of the Mexican, I made the decision to publish this story of the events on planet Fall, the start, the genesis of the war, as the first in a sequence of books. I still intend at some point to release the series as intended, with new, original material throughout to tie it all together.

Until then, you have planetfall book 1 this summer, and planetfall book 2 currently in development. Enjoy.

Welcome

Time to start blogging again.

Years ago I kept a blog on the great, much-missed BBC online magazine “Collective”: http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/collective/U207003

In many ways Collective was ahead of its time. It pre-empted Facebook with its offer of a profile page, it allowed users to write their own blogs, and it asked users to contribute their own reviews of new media. In return, with the weight of the BBC’s name behind it, Collective offered a weekly magazine featuring reviews of new music, film, books, art and so on, as well as exclusive mixes and downloads from new music artists. Occasionally it would put on live shows for up and coming bands: Hot Chip played an early gig at the Spitz in London’s Spitalfields market.

As the users and Collective’s community producers got to know each other better, its functionality expanded, and it created a “community” area where users could collaborate on projects or pool long term projects. I was proud to be part of that early development by initiating and curating the online art gallery “Unique forms of continuity” which you can see here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/collective/A2208151

For all that Collective asked for user generated content, it also knew it had to appeal to the materialist and give rewards. Each week one user’s review would be picked as a featured article and would win a CD or book – or whatever turned up on the community producers’ desks from music or book or DVD companies.

For many the magazine provided a place for artistic inspiration, and it’s fair to say that there are many people out there whose lives are now different because of the discussions and contributions they made. Some of us even made friends and are still in touch almost 10 years later.

For me Collective offered a way to practice writing. Many of my reviews were experimental in nature, some provocative, and just as many commented upon and the source of many a philosophical discussion.

And it was on Collective where I gained the confidence to write creatively. To dare to think that I could write stories, and that perhaps, one day, one of those stories might lead to a novel.

Without the BBC’s Collective website, there would never have been an astrotomato, and there would never have been a science fiction book called “planetfall”.

To the community producers who worked on Collective, to all the people I met, talked with, who inspired me, and to everything that Collective gave me, this first, opening post on astrotomato.com is dedicated to you.