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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Kate Leland & women in sci-fi

In the last blog post I posted a teaser pic from my storyboards! The written blogpost before that was about getting feedback on planetfall book 1, and dealing with other people’s views of characters. In this blogpost I want to pick up from the feedback angle, and go into a little bit of detail about Kate Leland, the principal character in book 1:

I recently received a critique of the current draft of planetfall book 1. Amongst the various comments noting what worked and what needed more work, was a comment about the characters in the book, “I liked that women held many of the positions of power.”

Sci-fi has traditionally been a male preserve – or if not a male preserve, at least perceived by the vast majority of people as a male preserve. There have been few female role models or characters in sci-fi.

Two of the highest profile female characters in popular sci-fi are often singled out for the most criticism. Princess Leia Organa and Queen Amidala / Senator Padme Amidala, both from the Star Wars films, start off as strong characters, helping to drive the plot. In both trilogies (episodes IV-VI for Leia, and I-III for Padme) the lead female character becomes weak, insubstantial and subject to the whims of men. For Leia, she starts as an Ambassador to the Imperial Senate, is then revealed and seen in Empire Strikes Back to be a leader in the rebellion, and ultimately is reduced to a bikini model in Return of the Jedi, ineffectual, and desperate for the love of Han Solo. By the last film her leadership qualities have all but disappeared from the narrative. She is rescued by men after being subjugated, is desperate for Luke’s emotional bond, is repulsed by her connection to her father, is shot, injured and cared for by an ascendant Solo, who by now has turned from smuggler and rogue to dependable General, father figure and provider.

And so for Padme. In her first film she is a queen, a strong figure defending her people, and starts the first rebellion against the Trade Federation, personally leading her people into battle. In …Clones she is a senator to the Republican Senate, resists Anakin’s advances, and at the end is a warrior alongside the Jedi. Her tumble from the gunship at the end of the film foreshadows her loss of power in Revenge of the Sith. By the time of this film she is pregnant and emotional and clings to Anakin. To be fair, in a pregnant state, many women will want to be nesting and have the father around to provide stability. But her role as creator of the rebellion is missing from the film. The scenes were filmed, the political aspects of the film – which would round it out and make it a more mature piece – are left on the cutting room floor. We are left with Padme as a weak person, wobbling around with a swollen abdomen, unable to save the man she loves from becoming a murderer, unable to stop him from committing infanticide even as she carries his own children, and unable to stop him from turning to the Dark Side. Until eventually her desire to save the man she so long resisted results in her death at his hands.

One reasonable reading of this, is that no matter how strong women start off, they will end up as weak and ineffectual, in thrall to more charismatic men, while those same men go off and continue to decide their own fate and those of others (for good or ill).

In planetfall I deliberately wanted to avoid this.

The main character of book 1 is a woman, Kate Leland. Her character is intended to be the best of women in sci-fi. Strong, forthright, intelligent, and compassionate as well, but without that compassionate side being her undoing. Similar, in restrospect, to Captain Janeway in Star Trek Voyager.

The story centres around Kate’s desire to discover alien life forms, in a galaxy apparently barren of them. Early in the story (no spoilers, don’t worry) she is sent to investigate an apparent first contact situation. And she is sent against a powerful man. A man of no little dark mystery, who puts Kate in the way of conflict and inner turmoil.

I never considered that the main character in this book would be anything other than a woman. In fact I had no choice in the matter.

The first draft of the first 30 pages centred on Daoud, to set the scene on the Colony world of Fall. The character Sophie Argus followed within about 2 pages. Sophie was designed to be a strong character, someone who has more power than is at first apparent. She does in fact have more power than is apparent in book 1, but that, I hope, will come out in future books. For a short while Sophie was going to be the lead female character, and the more I dug into her character, the more I realised planetfall was all about her – and that this wasn’t the right book to make her the dominant, lead character. So she has a supporting role, and that left a gap in the story.

For a couple of months I was stuck at around 30 pages into book 1. I knew the overall storyboard, I knew who Daoud was and what he was up to, and I knew that he needed a foil, an equal, someone with whom he could dance through the narrative. I never considered that his foil would be a man: it had to be a woman. But if not Sophie, then who?

After a couple of months of struggling, I had a realisation about the way I was writing. My imagination was on the planet, in the colony, waiting for someone to arrive. Every time I looked out of the planet, up into its skies, I could see a ship approaching, but not who was in it. I could see into the future of the story and see someone arriving, but the details were missing, lost in darkness.

Eventually I realised I could just change my perspective. Rather than looking from Fall up into the skies, from Daoud’s perspective essentially, why not look the other way – from the perspective of the person approaching Fall. This realisation, this shift in perspective, took about 2 seconds to have an effect. With that re-alignment of the story’s camera, I was suddenly on a space station, with a team of 3 people. And sitting, in reality, in a coffee shop in Crouch End, I zoned out, my eyes blurred, I was locked into my mind’s eye, and – BANG! – out of nowhere, this woman walked into my head, fully formed, fully imaged, her character almost complete. Her name followed in the next minute or so. I knew it would start with a hard sound, something substantial, not a soft thing like ‘m’ or ‘w’ or a baby sound like ‘b’ or something weak like ‘f’. It would be a hard sound, to give the name an immediate punch. A hard ‘k’ sound popped up naturally. In the first month I hadn’t decided what the name was, and in my notebooks she wobbles between Karen and Kate. I eventually let go of the name Karen because it’s too lyrical, it rises and falls after the ‘k’ sound. Not so with Kate. It’s short, punchy, one syllable long, and ends with a similarly hard sound, ‘t’. Kate’s surname, ‘Leland’, just popped into my head once I had the ‘k’ sound to start the name. In the minutes afterward I tried to reason where it might have come from, and while in my subconscious there may be some proper explanation, as far as I can tell consciously, it just popped out. My back-casting would say it’s based on Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks. Or that it’s a nod to the defunct British Leyland brand, a sign, once, of solid engineering. But it’s neither of those things. ‘Kate Leland’ was just the name that popped out, and it doesn’t really bear closer scrutiny than the sounds of the first name.

Kate is the principal source of tension and conflict in the story. Her character has a journey to make, and a choice, too – she is presented with a dilemma by Daoud. Now Kate could quite easily sidestep the tension if she could think more strategically. Indeed, any major character in any book could avoid most of the tension and drama if they could just make certain connections quicker – but where would the fun be in that? And besides, it would make them gods, able to understand everything going on and able to influence it with omnipotence. I found, in the first few weeks of writing about Kate, a tension within myself. I wanted her to be strong and intelligent, and I wanted a decent female role model. And that meant not giving her any weaknesses. But of course we are human, and we all have weakness and lesser abilities amongst our strengths and capabilities. The challenge I found after that was how to make her all too human and keep her strong, while handicapping her so that the principal, central conflict of the story was maintained.

I found the answer in two places, which both led to the same answer: the first was a person I once worked with, an intelligent person who couldn’t see the wood for the trees, who was mired in their own prejudices, which would blind them to more strategic thinking. And second in my initial ability to know that someone was arriving on Fall as Daoud’s foil and the role they would play, matched to my inability to know who that was specifically. Kate’s weakness would be the same – far sighted enough to see the outcomes and consequences of events, and to make intelligent predictions about the future, while missing the key fact that would help her. This is reflected in parts of the book, for example, the sequence of Kate going into the tunnel:

“She gazed, searched, squinted into the darkness, the deep black with its mysteries so close, so hidden.”

There are examples in the first half of the book about Kate being unable to see, of her vision being obscured. The light that she really needs to illuminate her is missing – it is no coincidence that she is surrounded by holograms, which for the most part are insubstantial light, unreal and outside her body. They are are a false light, externally supplied information, where what she really needs is insight, internal illumination.

In the second half of the book, Kate’s character has a turning point, although its consequences are not fully realised in book 1. When she commits herself to a journey in the dark, the tunnel-as-metaphor, she makes a mental breakthrough, and her vision starts to clear. It doesn’t clear quickly enough to avoid the events of the book’s end, of course! The point where her character makes that leap in understanding is at the end of the tunnel, in the chapter, “Something wicked this way comes”, when this happens:

“Kate turned around, her eyes wide, still accustomed to the dark, to the claustrophobic airlock, the lightless pasage beyond, adrenalin coursing through her, and faced a bright, blinding light.”

Here she is still trapped by her inability to see what’s coming. She has approached but is blinded by the light, incapable of seeing what’s in front of her, what’s staring her in the face. Her journey through the darkness of the tunnel ends with a bright light. And here she has a final choice. Go back into the darkness, be “claustrophobic”, stay in the darkness the rest of her life, or go into the light, be ‘enlightened’, and learn a greater truth. Our major characters have to go through some test of faith, or even several tests, to prove themselves worthy of our admiration. Kate eventually commits to a course of action:

“Kate blinked, closed her eyes to slits and took two confident steps forward. She didn’t want to show weakness or panic again.”

Not one step forward but two. Far enough that she can’t take a simple step out of it.

By the end of book 1 she grows into a more mature character, is caught between different courses of action, each with horrendous consequences, and tries to navigate a course through them. And while there is a completeness in her actions at the end of the book, Kate’s story is unfinished. The outcome of her decisions are explored in more detail in book 2. And for that … you’ll just have to wait.