Coping with feedback

In the last blog I wrote about “MacGuffins”, which are a device used in stories and films to drive the plot. The Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark is a MacGuffin: the characters chase after it and only really get their hands on it near the end of the film. The blog also covered issues of failure. planetfall had a series of MacGuffins, some of which initially failed, causing me to develop the storyline further – only for one of the original MacGuffins to go underground in the story (literally) and surface as a sub-plot.

I want to carry on with the failure theme in this blog. Failure is a very important factor in success. The fact that planetfall was started, written and (almost) finished is a testimony not just to my perseverance, but to the many, many failures I encountered and made and caused along the way. The point of course is: use failure, learn from it, and keep going.

The failures I’ve talked about so far are failures that I’ve spotted and come to accept myself. Failed storylines, failed characters, failed MacGuffins, failed structures and failed sub-plots. Now I’m going through a separate set of failures: those spotted and communicated to me by those friends who are proof-reading book 1.

For politeness’ sake we call this constructive criticism and feedback. But in reality, it’s another failure.

So far feedback on planetfall book 1 is good and positive – people like it, they enjoy the story and reading it, they like the characters, they want to read more. All very pleasing. And it’s very important to know, as a writer, what I’m doing well and right – then I can do more of it, gain some confidence that those things I did, those things I wrote, those risks I took have paid off, were worthwhile.

Yet it is the bits that don’t work, the parts where people feedback the “Ooh, um, see this bit?” where we learn more. And ultimately it is addressing those failures that will strengthen the story.

The most consistent failure to date has been that of character development. There are six principal characters in planetfall book 1: Daoud, Sophie, Verigua, Kate, Win & Djembe (plus four minor characters, Masjid, Peter, Huriko and Kiran).  Daoud is mysterious, his intentions cloaked, and his character is developed enough to create, I hope, this air of mystery. There is little background or insight to his thoughts or feelings precisely because he needs to remain mysterious (though if I ever get there, the final book and the prequel stories will reveal more of his character). Verigua, as previously mentioned, was a fun character to write, and invented itself as I wrote, based on the Cheshire Cat and Haruki Murakami’s black cats, plus a bit of Iain M. Banks’s Minds.

Which leaves me with three characters where feedback consistently asks for more.

The character Sophie Argus is also mysterious. She is Daoud’s right hand, the implementer of his whim. The text contains hints to a long history and background with Daoud, yet this is never explored. Events later in the story (no spoilers) also hint that there is more there for the reader to access. In short, feedback says: tell me more about her. The answer is simple: no. Sophie has a much longer story arc than book 1, although this is not immediately apparent from the text. I have 3 books scoped for her, with another 3 for scoping at some point: if I get my way, I would like to franchise the writing of planetfall books, and have other people write the back story. For planetfall could reasonably be called The Tale of Sophie Argus. It is all about her, from beginning to end. planetfall book 1 is a key moment in her life, although her presence in the book is somewhat shrouded. Readers (when they eventually appear) will have to wait for her story to be revealed – and it will set book 1 in context for them.

Which leaves us with Djembe & Kate. I accept the feedback from everyone – there is not enough about them in the story. Their basic motivations are apparent – Djembe is a follower of rules and protocol, and with his name being borrowed from a drum, provides the beat and rhythm for the story. Readers will eventually find he has a project management role in the story, keeping people to time. His name is no accident. However, criticism so far shows that his rigid personality works, but that it fades or is watered down near the end of the story. I was minded to ignore this feedback, as Djembe also has a longer story arc than book 1, and in fact his personality is not watered down in the slightest. However, as I got more feedback I came to realise that within the confines of book 1 Djembe does indeed more development. There are questions left unanswered about his actions later in the book, where he appears to lose his way. This in part is my fault – I’ve written before about not particularly liking the character, and there was a point where, having given in to the character and allowing it to write itself, I grew tired of him and allowed him to drift into the background. There was a deliberate thought process to this – it’s linked to his re-appearance later in the series – but what I’ve realised is that this needs explaining; or, at least, contextualising, so that the reader accepts a fade out toward the end of book 1. This forms part of my current re-writes on book 1.

And finally we have Kate, ostensibly the main character of book 1. She also has a longer story arc than book 1, and I think I managed to give her a complete and enclosed story line in book 1 (i.e. it appears to make sense and have a beginning, middle and end). However, overwhelmingly everyone asks for more on her thoughts and feelings. She is the principle source of tension in the book. Her hopes and dreams, her values are put to the test, and there is simply not enough about her inner struggle to justify her character, no matter how complete her overall story line.

I find this failure to present completely rounded characters humbling and instructive. I don’t want to excuse myself with a “it’s my first book” line. Managing six principal characters and four minor characters is no mean feat. But it doesn’t excuse not presenting well developed major characters. I am already using the experience to flesh out more the characters in planetfall book 2.But for the moment I am trying to go through a finished novel and weave in extra characterisation which makes sense, is consistent with the rest of the story, supports and develops it for the reader, and meets the need to address the failures of the draft version.

I hope, of course, it will lead to a better, more rounded, more complete first book, that can stand up on its own and escape, as much as possible, a “first book” feeling.

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planetfall & the MacGuffin

In the last blog I introduced planetfall book 2, its main protagonist (a space Marine), and the first-person approach it will take, with the Marine having no name: essentially the Unnamed Soldier.

In this blog I want to return to planetfall book 1, and talk about a specific plot element that helps drive the story. It’s a thing that many of the characters are either trying to find, or keep hidden. Sometimes this thing reveals itself, subtly, tangentially, metaphorically, but most of the time it is mysterious. At no point do the characters who are trying to find this thing ever get their hands on it.

This thing is the MacGuffin.

Alfred Hitchcock popularised the MacGuffin. He said that, “In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers”. It is the thing that causes the characters to run around. It is the thing around which events happen. And it is generally inconsequential to the plot of the film, despite being central to it.

In Indiana Jones land, the Holy Grail and the Lost Ark of the Covenant are the MacGuffins. Indy spends most of the film trying to get hold of these things. As do the bad guys! And then it turns into a race to steal it from each other. In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, the stolen Death Star plans are the MacGuffin. In this scenario the good guys have them and are trying to keep hold of them and transport them to a safe place. It is the bad guys who are trying to get them back.

Often considered the most beautiful example of a MacGuffin is Rosebud, the last word of Kane in Citizen Kane, and it is the protagonist’s attempts to work out what it means that drives the plot.

So description aside, how is this applied to planetfall? What’s the MacGuffin?

I was inspired to write this blog post by graphic designer and bloopy sound producer Dave House (listen to his Reverse Engineer stuff), who tweeted me after reading just 10 pages of planetfall to say he’d “started reading it and is hooked after 10 pages. Mystery black blobs and fungal panspermia. Loving it.”

I started thinking back over my original intention for planetfall‘s MacGuffin: the black pods – because “mystery black blobs” is exactly how they started life. Without giving too much plot detail away, in planetfall the existence of the black pods is revealed to the reader very early on (another plot device borrowed from Hitchcock, but for another blog). The characters presented as the searchers in the story, the ones looking for something, are kept in the dark about them. During the course of the book they spiral closer and closer to coming into contact with them. But do they get them? Do they even know the pods are something to get?

As I wrote and developed the concept of the black pods (reverse engineered from the material secom which appears in book 2) I realised I needed something stronger as a MacGuffin; the black pods just weren’t working out in my initial planning and writing. I needed something elusive that would give the characters something to do, and continually keep them moving to other situations. So the black pods fell out of favour, and I developed another MacGuffin, which I will mention briefly below. The pods, though, in being abandoned as the story’s principal MacGuffin, refused to give up so easily, and acquired a life of their own – they were just too interesting to abandon from the story, and so turned into the driving element of planetfall‘s cyberpunk underbelly, a part of the story I had never planned or envisaged until it popped out one day in the ubiquitous coffee shop in Crouch End.

This is one of those wonderful artefacts of failure. I tried to make these black pods – analogous to the black box of technology and physics explanations – into a strong driving force for the main story, and failed. In failing, they rallied in my mind, coupled themselves to a character, Verigua, who had charmed its way into the story, and ended up creating a whole story line of their own. It was unbidden, it was unplanned, it wasn’t storyboarded, and I had a lot of fun and frustration and thrown-out writing trying to figure out how they actually fit into the main plot of planetfall.

I wanted to write about this failure-leading-to-success for any others reading this who are writing or thinking of writing a story of their own. Failure is a necessary part of success. You have to try things, work with them, and throw them out if they’re not working. Because sometimes in the act of “killing your darlings” (as a friend once put it), you find something more interesting and creative than you could have come up with on a blank piece of paper. Failure is an option; in fact it’s essential to success. But it has to be coupled with determination and keeping going. This is something that too few of us realise or are taught, I think. It doesn’t matter if you fail – it’s that you tried in the first place. But if you try and fail, and learn nothing, then you have truly failed.  If you try and fail and learn and evolve and learn (and maybe go back to it with something based on your failure) – ah well, then you’re a success. It doesn’t feel like it at the time, it just feels like you’re set up to fail again.

Back to the real MacGuffin of planetfall. On the first page of the book (so no plot giveaways) a character is killed. It is that character’s death, and the hunt for the killer, that is the real MacGuffin.

planetfall starts off as a sort of murder-mystery. It’s a whodunnit?. And like most MacGuffins, as I said at the start, it keeps the characters running around and having fun, while the other MacGuffin, the one that refused to go away, slowly and inexorably catches up with it.  How that happens – well, you’ll just have to read the book when it’s released!

So what about planetfall book 2? Does that have a MacGuffin?  Is there something the characters are chasing or trying to protect or steal or find or figure out? At the moment, even I don’t know. And it’s going to be fun finding out.

planetfall book 2 – progress report #1

In the last blog post I wrote about some of the cultural references squirrelled away in planetfall book 1. Pink Floyd and Alice in Wonderland are the major touch points. I made the point that both recognisable and non-recognisable cultural references add quick depth and context, allowing the author to concentrate on other aspects of description and plot and so on.

In this post I’m going to give an update on planetfall book 2. Most people reading this blog contemporaneously won’t have read book 1 yet (it will be self published over summer 2011 on Kindle and other platforms), so it may seem strange to discuss the sequel already. However I need to talk about it! And who knows, perhaps it will give a sense of the wider universe I have planned out.

Where planetfall book 1 deals with the events that lead to the collision of great cultures, book 2 deals with the aftermath. It is set around 20 years later, although I don’t have a specific time span; sometimes I think it’s 13 years. But roughly 20 years will do.

Events have moved on, and war has broken out. The story follows a Marine and his experiences of life on the front line. In the original drafts of this part of the story the Marine was non-gender specific. I wanted to create an illusion that the Marine could be male or female, so that anyone could identify with him. However over the years,  and especially since I returned to the story in early 2011, I made a decision to give him a gender.

What he still doesn’t have is a name, and this is deliberate. The story is told from a first person perspective (for those with limited experience of grammar, that means it’s from a “I did this” perspective, rather than the second person of “You did this” or third person “She did this”), which has fallen somewhat out of fashion in literary circles of late. However, I am keeping it like that as I want to cash in on two things. First, the typical use of the first person is to help create a sense of immersion in the story for the reader. One of the reasons authors use “I” is to encourage the reader to feel like it’s them in the story, or to make it easier for the reader to identify with the protagonist (the main character). And secondly, I want to bring some  of the sense of the first-person shooter computer games to a book. There are few books inspired by computer games, even fewer inspired by first-person shooters. And while this book isn’t inspired by any particular first-person shooter, it is a popular convention and something that a lot of people recognise. So why not?

To whet your appetite, here’s a sneak preview of the opening page of planetfall book 2. It hasn’t been through a vocal edit yet (during which I read the work aloud to pick up on rhythm, clashing sounds, and so on), nor through an edit based on continuity of tone with later material, or had anyone else read it. Excuses aside, here it is:

Dust falls. I exhale. Sections of roof crash to the floor, red-orange with heat. The dust is thrown up with irradiated ash.

The building’s remains give me shelter, of sorts. The walls gape at the wasteland outside. Lightning crackles from the air. From a cloud. From the ashes and dust. It’s all the same. The land is carbonised. The air is ash. The clouds are dust. The nuclear blast has laid waste to all.

The secom suit is struggling. It talks to me, through my body, through its intimate embrace. It images tactical data on my retina. The suit has formed a hard protein shell against the radiation. I look wicked, like death incarnate.

Bodies surround me. My colleagues. Dead. Their bodies lay carbonised like the land outside, limbs cauterised where suits remain intact around them or where the geometry of the blast wave failed to find them.

I live.

I walk to an external wall. Twisted rods poke out of the fractured biocrete. I look through the lightning glaze. Silhouettes of ruins jump and are static in the strobing.

I remember: I am a killing machine. That this was necessary. That destruction and death is needed for survival. I remember there are sometimes necessary losses.

Death finds its accommodation in war. In this war it is at home.

I ask my secom for a radiation count. The suit is working. The internal radmeter is still green. I was lucky.

For the new few hours I settle into a routine: survey the area in small sweeps; take holos of the blast zone, the target; attempt to revive the suits of my dead colleagues, the other Marines. Secom is more valuable than the person. I check radiation levels. I check for enemy signs. I check for a rescue signal. Some of the secom recovers so I absorb it into my own suit.

Lightning stalks the land, angry. Winds stir the ash, settle the ash, blast it into gales. The planet is trying to fix the trauma.

Eventually my suit picks up a signal. I signal in return. After twenty minutes a dropship arrives. Marines jog out, their suits encasing them in organic horror.

I am in the dropship, sinking into a jumpseat. Safe again. The suit grows into the seat, bonds with the ship. My body floods with a sleep drug. I see my mother’s smile. I pass into a dreamless sleep.

planetfall & cultural references

In the last blog I wrote about my approach to writing planetfall – I use story boards for the overall story structure, I develop character biographies, I wrote a 1000-year history of the planetfall universe. And I use that framework to allow the world to come to life, so it has a consistent internal logic, while leaving enough space for characters and situations to explore their own spaces within the story.

This post will be the last (for a little while) taking a broad sweep view of planetfall. More specific issues will follow, but before that I want to briefly highlight the cultural reference points in planetfall.

Most cultural output references things that came before. Nietzsche reportedly filled his writing with cultural references; George Lucas famously referenced Akira Kurosawa and Joseph Campbell when writing Star Wars;  and Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright stuff cultural references into pretty much every scene of their works.

Using cultural references like this is useful. For those in the know it gives extra context and depth to the story. Previously read, seen or experienced stories or music or artworks will colour the narrative immediately, whether the conscious  mind picks up on it or not. As a writer they give a useful shortcut – rather than filling the page with unnecessary description, a quick reference to a commonly experienced cultural narrative can paint in more description in a word or phrase than the author could have achieved in ten pages.

For example, if I want to create an immediate, creepy sense of foreboding, I simply need to say to someone, “My, what big teeth you have,” and they will (or should) instantly bring up the tone, imagery and events of Little Red Riding Hood, and the wolf who ate her grandma, and which waited for her in grandma’s bed.

planetfall is chock full of cultural references. Some will be obvious, others less so. Some can be understood by the vast majority of readers with no or little prompting, while others will only be understood by a few, who share my taste in music or film or literature.

I’m not going to catalogue them all here, I can’t remember them all (some are lost as background description) and anyway it’s a boring job. Other people can pore over the text and figure out the references. What I do want to do is highlight the major reference points I used.

Literature

Alice In Wonderland – this book is a major influence on planetfall. The indirect reference comes from the Fall Colony being underground. Kate’s arrival at the Colony comes from entering a rabbit hole – a hole in the surface of the planet, into a cylinder-like underground colony, filled with caterpillars and mice and cats that disappear. Verigua at times turns into the Cheshire Cat, most notably when Verigua and Win are in the flying saucer, and when Win joins Verigua on the branch of the tree. The Cheshire Cat tries to come in at other points (Djembe in the departures/arrivals hall, the black cat when Verigua meets Kate, the black cat on the flying saucer) and was a welcome, if intrusive reference.

I had no specific ideas about using the Cheshire Cat. The first use of the cat with Djembe is a reference to the cats in Haruki Murakami’s books. Later the black panther was a reference to both this and Bagheera from The Jungle Book. All are tied into the Cheshire Cat however. They all disappear, and the act of the cat disappearing signals a change coming for a character, or a significant event happening. During writing each cat tried to change into the Cheshire Cat, an unwitting action from me, and I spent time playing with the Cheshire Cat, changing it into these other cats as often as I could. At one point I share a joke about this, when Win and the cat are sitting on the branch:

Win walked into the cube, stood under the tree, pulled himself up onto the branch the black cat sat on. “Do no harm?”

“That’s right.”

He sat for a moment. His hand reached out automatically to stroke the cat while he thought through the risk. “Well, I can’t sit here for days and days, and that’s a fact. What’s it like, taking this compound?”

“The humans tell me it’s like going raving mad.”

Win sighed, smiled, shook his head, “I thought they would. Very well,” he nodded, slipped from the branch.

This section is paraphrased from parts of Chapter VI: Pig and Pepper of Alice in Wonderland. 

Isaac Asimov – the section just quoted also references Isaac Asimov’s First Law of Robotics – “Do No Harm”. Verigua is a construct, and although intelligent and considered a life form, it is still a computer constructed with human input. planetfall follows the accepted laws of robotics – that they should do no harm, and Win’s reference is a light-hearted reference to this principle.

The Bible – The chapter “Nineveh” uses a re-telling of the Biblical story of Jonah & the Whale.

Iain M. Banks – the Culture novels are an obvious reference point for planetfall. In early drafts I described AIs and technology, almost justifying their use in the story. After a while I came to the conclusion that most sci-fi readers would either have read the Culture novels, or ones similar to them. And following successful sci-fi novels, I chose not to explain how (most of) the technology in planetfall works. It just does. A justified universe loses some of its sheen and magic; if you spend your time trying to convince the reader that what they’re reading is reality, you allow them pause for thought, room for scepticism. If that justification is taken away and the reader is presented with a universe in which there is such technology, they will accept it and focus more on the narrative.

Cartoons and comics – at one point, Verigua transforms into a fairy-like character, which is a reference to (but not a borrowing of) Disney’s Tinkerbell. I made the fairy a little colder and more elfin in its face, but certainly the visual imagery is influenced by Tinkerbell drawing her wand over the Disney castle logo and leaving trails of glitter. The mouse that Verigua becomes when visiting the depths of the colony is a mixture of Reepicheep (the Narnia books) and Fievel (An American Tail). The old British comic The Eagle is referenced several times: first when The Mekon makes a sly appearance when Win and Verigua go up in the flying saucer (the green lizard-like man on a floating platform); and, second in the ship name Eagle’s Dare, which also combines a reference to Dan Dare, the erstwhile hero of the comic’s main strip, and the Eagle ship from Space 1999, on which the description of the Eagle’s Dare spaceship rests.

Music

There are lots of references to music, and unfortunately I’ve forgotten most of them. The majority are to Pink Floyd. Floyd geeks will be able to reel off a large number on first reading (Obscured by Clouds, Dark Side of the Moon, Meddle and the Ummagumma live album are referenced most heavily). There is also some Sonic Youth in there (Theresa’s Sound World) amongst other music. The chapter “Echoes” (the name itself being a Pink Floyd track) starts off with a son et lumiere to a soundtrack of Time, from Dark Side of the Moon. (Try it yourself, read the chapter start as the track begins just after the alarm clocks ring.)

Films 

Star Wars is the biggest reference point. Fall is a desert planet with two suns. While most people immediately think of Arakis from Frank Herbert’s Dune on reading the opening pages of planetfall (and that is a major influence), the planet was initially based on Tatooine. The site around the Fall Colony, though, is based on Uluru, previously called Ayer’s Rock. I borrowed the rock island, the inselberg, from Australia.

The end of planetfall is based not on any specific film but the sort of imagery used in sci-fi B-movies. The giant green circles beaming onto the planet from space are borrowed from two sources. First, the old RKO Radio Pictures broadcast tower seen at the beginning of their films from the 1930s. The company famously focused on B-movies for a while, during which time it produced films like Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie. And second, the stun ray used by the Stormtroopers in Star Wars: A New Hope, when they capture Princess Leia.

Toward the end of planetfall is a section based in a field of flowers. The initial part is based on Stephen King’s Children of the Corn, while the end of that section is based on imagery from The Midwich Cuckoos. And somewhere in the introductory sequence for Kate’s team is a reference to The Blob.

Art

There are three works of art or genres specifically referenced in the first book of planetfall. The statue on Daoud’s desk is Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, my favourite work of art, and a major influence on me. At some point there is a sly reference to Van Gogh’s Starry, Starry Night (which also crops up in book 2). And finally the Japanese art work which shows willow trees and Mount Fuji, mixed with a little bit of Minton’s Willow Pattern designs (which are based on Chinese scenes) for the Memorial Service.

I was careful, I hope, not to allow the cultural references to overpower the story. They are there as touchstones for description, for mood and context. They are designed, in the way they’re used, to help the reader conjure a visualisation without asking them to do too much work, so that the story can continue with as rich a base as possible.

Many of the cultural references will be invisible, with the reader unconsciously finding the right images when reading.

If you find any text which you think is a cultural reference, leave a comment, and I’ll try and confirm for you if it is what you think it is!