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.

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