Character profile: Win Ho-Yung

So, for a few blogs I think I’ve promised to go back to talking about some of the characters in planetfall. The last blog post was about updating the storyboard for book 2, which may need further updating after I wrote to the end of chapter 3 yesterday and found the story writing itself into an interesting place. It’s not the forward storyboard that will need updating, it’s what’s already been written: probably just needs a minor tweak here and there and some extra character development and scenes to make it feel complete. But I digress. Let’s get onto a character from the first planetfall book.

In this blogpost I want to talk about Win Ho-Yung, and from the perspective that (at the time of writing) the book isn’t yet available, and so you haven’t met him. Let’s consider this an introduction, then, and avoid any spoilers (sweetie).

The first thing I want to talk about here is the name, “Win Ho-Yung”. All the characters in planetfall book 1 have names that either cropped up naturally (cf: Kate Leland) or which I constructed to have a specific meaning (cf: Sophie Argus) or which are a nod to cultural issues outside the book (cf: Masjid Currie, named after Marie Curie). Not so for Win.

Win’s name I agonized over for a quite a while. It is a made up Chinese name; actually within the context of the book it is a Qin name, the evolution of the Chinese society, which allowed me to take some licence – I have no idea if “Win Ho-Yung” would be a real Chinese name, or indeed if the names are more suited to nearby Oriental language groups, like South Korea.

I struggled with the name because of its obvious English meaning, “to win”. What I didn’t want people to do was associate the name with that English meaning, to think that here was a character whose name predicated their role (there is some of that in planetfall, just not for this character).

The name “Win” first appears in my Moleskine notebooks on 25 May 2008, and I’ve copied in some of my preparatory and biographical notes below. You also have another picture of my atrocious drawings, you lucky people. I didn’t record where it came from or why it was the only name I considered. I only know and remember that after much thought (translation: staring into space) that this was the name that I came up with. It felt right.

So the name has no specific meaning, but it is the only name I ever considered. In my notes there is no alternative, which is different for Djembe (I will cover that in a separate blog) and Kate Leland, for whom I have already talked about wobbling between Karen and Kate for a while, knowing only that the name had to start with a hard k sound. It’s also different for Sophie Argus and Masjid Currie, who will also be discussed in future blogposts.

Well who is Win, then? Enough about the anxieties of the author, and more about the character. Here are some heavily edited notes, originally written on 25 May 2008 in Costa Coffee, Crouch End, London, UK

Name: Win Ho Yung (note, no hyphen at this stage)

Age: 42

Born: Habitat in the Orion I system.


Win Ho Yung’s ancestors remained in Qin space (the area occupied by the former Qin Empire, itself a closed-border volume of space created by Chinese peoples fleeing Earth’s environmental collapse in the book’s history), venturing out just three generations previously (before the book’s start). This conservativeness remained in their son, who was unambitious, despite his great skills and understanding of environmental systems. He was a person very much of his background, born in a Habitat, between Qin space and the rest of the human settled space. A Habitat between systems, but comprised itself of interlocking systems, asteroid and metal and farming pods, carefully balanced and carefully maintained. He wished not to go back to his ancestors’ roots, but neither to venture forth on his own. He had no desire to imagine different futures for himself. More important was understanding what was around him. How his environment worked, fit together, was influenced and influenced in turn. Win was a person of the moment, his sense drawn around his immediate presence and wholly focused on it. That allowed him to sense when something changed, not because he was out looking for it, but because it stopped affecting him. And that was also his weakness. If it stopped affecting him, he effectively became blind to it.

With an initial understanding of his background, I then tried to represent this as a picture. The photo below shows some of this, with the necessary explanation below it:

Planetfall notes on Win

Initial attempt to capture Win's character

Let’s take this picture from top left, go across the page, then drop down briefly to the bottom.

On the top left is a little graphic. In the middle is a dark dot, which represents Win, and out of it come a number of arrows. The strong arrows pointing up & down represent Win’s character trait as described: “Win was a person of the moment, his sense drawn around his immediate presence”. He looks left and right, to his immediate surroundings. A faint dotted line arrow can be seen pointing to the right, representing his limited traits of being a far-sighted person or thinking strategically. You can also just about make out an arrow going backward, which represents Win’s use of scientific data – already established facts, or “knowns” as I phrased it in my notes on the right hand side of the picture.

What you can also see in the picture is that I got confused between Djembe and Win’s characters when I was trying to represent them graphically. The crossings-out at the top and very bottom of the picture show the names being swapped around so that the drawings better tied up with the character biographies I’d written immediately above. What can I say? Sometimes we don’t concentrate on our work as well as we should.

Setting up these early character notes and biographies helped me in understanding how Win would respond to a situation. For example, because he is tied into the moment and the surrounding environment, he is very aware of people’s emotions; it allows him to be a more empathic character. And because of this tendency to empathy and emotional awareness, Win was the first character in the book for whom I developed any conception of family. He is married and has a son (you find this out in the book, and it’s not a spoiler). And because of that, he was my first attempt at creating a character with a tangible emotional centre. My approach was, “If I can get the emotional content of this character right, then I can use the experience to develop the emotional life of the other characters”. I think because of that I formed an emotional attachment to Win, and in planetfall book 1 he’s my joint favourite character (along with Verigua, the Colony’s Artificial Intelligence).

In trying to work out the rest of Win’s character I didn’t have far to look. Having already blogged about the cultural references in planetfall, it will come as no surprise – given my teen years in the 80s – to find that Win is based on the character Data from the 1985 film, The Goonies, but grown up and now aged 42. (For those who need a prompt, Data was played by Ke Huy Quan, and carried about his body a number of ‘wacky’ scientific inventions.)

In planetfall Win’s role is as environmental analyst and general inventor-of-cool-tech-and-weird-virtual-reality-simulations. He gives a lightness to scenes and acts as a foil to Djembe, who is very much a straight laced person. The two play off each other, and while they are very different characters, they are shown to be good friends, both admiring the other’s skills. Because of Win’s character trait of looking to facts and knowns, he is also the major character for filling out the history of planetfall, and for bringing in plot devices by interacting with his environment (translation: he runs around and pokes stuff).

In proof reading, it is Win who is mentioned most often as people’s favourite character, which is very pleasing. Scroll back several paragraphs to where I said, “he was my first attempt at creating a character with a tangible emotional centre”, and you’ll understand why this is pleasing.

So there we have it. Here is another character biography. Was it what you wanted? Would you have preferred to understand how the character developed as I wrote the story? Or about other interactions? If you have any feedback, please use the options on the page to let me know.

Updating the storyboard

The previous blog post was all about editing. How I have several editing passes, which includes typing up from written notes, reading on screen, printing out and going through with a red pen, and the final vocal edit – reading the work out loud.

I think I also wrote about going back to some more character based blogs – about specific characters from planetfall book 1. I will go into those in the next week or so. However, while it’s on my mind (actually, on the desk in front of me) I want to go back to storyboards.

For anyone new to the blog, I draw out a storyboard which describes the overall story structure: key points in the plot. I have no idea what happens in between. As I write I feel my way between those plot points, and that’s where the fun is.

I also write in long hand quite regularly, in Moleskine notebooks. Every time I start a new notebook, I copy the storyboard into it, so that I always have it inside the current notebook to refer to. Sometimes when I’m copying I realise that small details have changed within the storyboard. Sometimes these changes are large, sometimes they are incidental.

Tonight I was copying the storyboard into my current Moleskine and realised that, as I’d been writing from my memory of the storyboard and writing what seemed natural to the story, I’d drifted slightly from the storyboard I’d established some months ago. Here is a pic showing the difference between the original (left) and new (right) storyboard for a particular key plot point:

Storyboard image

Original and new storyboard frame

Now let’s tackle one issue first: I can’t draw, and you shouldn’t expect to understand exactly what you’re looking at! So let’s describe this slightly. In both pictures you see a figure falling through the sky (the shared stick man figure). You can even see some sort of animated speed lines (the two lines going up, with cross hatching across them). This much is the same. So what’s changed?

This scene is key to the books. It shows the “planetfall” which the main character in book 2 takes, and from which planetfall takes its name. (And so for me there is huge pressure to get this scene right.) Originally, on the left, the protagonist was to fall over a verdant planet, swathed in grasslands and prairies, with a river glittering below, a blue snake across the landscape. You can see hints of this in the curved shape in the left hand panel’s upper right area. Small squares along the river’s side are suggestions of buildings, conurbations.

In the right hand panel this is gone. As I wrote, as the protagonist approached this planet, as it made planetfall, the river, the grasslands, the buildings all disappeared. Now there is a crashed ship (the black blob, with the broken lines behind it a gouge in the planet’s surface) to which the protagonist is making planetfall.

This changes things.

The subsequent panel in the storyboard shows some issues around the buildings identified in the left hand panel. Now this has to go. The action has to transfer to this crashed ship.

But can the action remain the same? What was supposed to be in those buildings? Whose buildings were they? Alien or human? And the ship, whose is it? Again, alien or human? Why is there no river now? If there are no buildings, does that mean there is no oversight? If there is no oversight, does that change the scene’s dynamics?

There are consequences to the decisions made in writing. Not all of these decisions are deliberate – the writing often decides where it’s going.

Now I have to follow this path and find out where it goes. As I copy up the rest of the storyboard, I have to think about how it changes. Does it change? Should it change? Does a small change in this panel have any effect beyond the subsequent panel? Or is it a wrinkle that will be smoothed by the overall story structure?

More, perhaps, soon…

(And next time, I promise to get back to some character-based blogging.)


Editing planetfall

The last blog post was a little light relief, a short description of the pens and notebooks I use when I write. (But hey, you got some photos with it.)

This blog post follows up on that, and will lead back to the technical issues of writing creatively. I’ll get back to writing about particular characters in planetfall after this blog post.

I normally start writing long hand. Not always, but most of the time. I do this for several reasons. First, writing can be quite lonely, and writing long hand is best done in a cafe where I can be surrounded by people (ha! and look mysterious and author-ly). Second, when I’m trying to find those first few words, the mechanical nature of moving my hand back and forth across the page feels more interactive than having my fingers hover over a keyboard, watching that blinking sentinel of a black cursor on a white laptop page glare at me. Third, I like to draw.

Now let’s explain this drawing thing. I can’t draw like an artist. There are no secret sketch books filled with pen-and-ink compositions waiting to be discovered. No, in that sense, photography is my creative, visual outlet (see my photography on Flickr). Ever since I was a teenager writing in English Language classes, I have doodled first before starting to write. I’ve written previously about storyboarding planetfall, which combines my habit of doodling with my approach to starting writing.

When I start to write a sentence in a fresh writing session, I often sit and doodle. But these days, in my Moleskines, I doodle without touching the page. I wave the pen nib over the paper and sketch invisible patterns. I see blank lines form traces over the yellow-ish page of the Moleskine, and as quick as they’re formed, they fade. This, combined with the hubbub of background chatter, forms a sort of audio-visual white noise, quietening competing thoughts and dimming distracting inner eye pictures. At some point while waving this pen-as-magic wand, the nib will be attracted to the page, the doodling loops will form the recognisable sigils of letters, I will see the scene in my head, and it will download to my hand and onto the page.

It is because of this process that I prefer to start writing stories and each fresh writing session by hand. I can get to a similar point on a laptop, but it takes a while. It’s generally only after having typed for some minutes that I can see through the laptop screen – well, let’s get this right, that I stop seeing the laptop screen and letters appearing one by one – to the movie playing out in my head, and can access that download sensation.

Which brings me onto editing.

Once I’ve written in long hand, I return to my flat and type up the writing. This allows me a first pass at editing. While reading the long hand and stumbling with my fingers over the keyboard, I notice missing words, clunky sentences, half-completed thoughts, uncompleted cross-references, areas where the scene is sketched but not coloured in. It is this process which acts as a first edit and a first chance at re-writing.

The second pass at editing comes in a couple of different forms, and neither is my preferred second option. The first way is to have a day or so’s break and re-read recent text on the laptop. This I generally do if I’ve written a new long hand scene knowing I’ve jumped a little bit, and need some filler sections. In those circumstances I will need to re-read the last couple of pages to get back into the scene and what’s come already, so I can properly fill in. Sometimes this fill in can be a line, a paragraph, or several pages. The second way, which I do for everything I write, is to print it and read it like a book, with a red ink Uniball gel pen to hand. I make editing notes as I go along. Quite often the editing notes consist of lines through entire sentences or paragraphs: deleting previous writing is a shame, but it is absolutely fundamental to producing the final text. Often I will change words or phrases, pick up my punctuation (I over-use commas) or write new sections. I deliberately chose red pen as it links back to those early days in school, and allows me to occupy another version of me, a separate, slightly more objective version, one that is modelled on teachers and is expected to criticise.

The third and final pass at editing (before the writing goes to other people to read) is the most critical and also the most painful.

I read the material aloud.

Every single word, every single sentence and paragraph and page.

This is a very powerful tool for self editing. I find it painful for two reasons. First, I don’t like my voice. Second, when I read my work, I can get a pretty good sense of how it would sound to someone else (with my voice included). The presumption of embarrassment of someone hearing nonsense is very strong. Yet this is a strong feedback loop. Once you hear your work out loud, you get a very different feel for it. You can hear the sounds, the rhythm, the way different words rise and fall and complement each other. You can finally hear the tone of your work, which can be fundamentally different to how it sounds in your head.

When we edit by reading, we use a limited number of senses. There is the look of the words on the page, and there are the sounds heard by our inner ears (by which I mean, the mental constructions of our internal monologues) and the spatial feel of the words and story in our head: the space it creates and the form that takes.

When we add real sound to this, coupled with the tangible, mechanical feel of our jaws and tongues moving, we add extra dimensions. The story comes alive (or fails to…) in different ways.

A poet would use the process to match sounds to each other within the metre of their verse. I do some of this, sometimes, if it feels important, although I am no poet and do not always have a sense of lyrical sounds in the text.

The simplest thing I get from reading aloud is how difficult it is to read the words. If my tongue really stumbles over certain word combinations, then it will be harder for someone else to read with their internal monologue. If I can smooth the sentence aloud, I know it will read more smoothly to someone else when they read to themselves. (I have had this direct feedback, unprompted, from a friend who proofread part of planetfall book 1: “It reads like someone’s reading it to you,” she said.)

The process is also important for creating a visual environment. Stories have an oral/aural history. The sagas of old were told around camp fires and in huts and caves in the dark. They had to create an inner, visual world for the listeners, both as distraction from the nightmares that stalked the night outside the protected circle, and also so that as many senses were utilised to help the listener remember the tale. I have a tendency to be a very visual writer, to rely on visual creations of scenes to transmit the story to the reader. If the work isn’t read out loud, if I don’t check how it hooks into those feedbacks between our sense of sound and sense of vision, then it will fail to make the final leap: to evolve that internal silent movie on the cinema screen of your mind, into a talkie; a moving picture with original soundtrack.

Editing is a very important process in writing. The writing starts – for me – with a connection between movement and inner vision. When I type I exploit the same mechanism. When I edit I edit visually. But when I do the toughest edit, I combine as many senses as possible – I add sound to the movement and images. This whole process always leads to significant changes to the text, and most authors at some point have spoken on this. To finish, here are two quotations from people deeply involved in (and far better than me at) the writing process:

Harry Shaw: “There is no such thing as good writing. There is only good rewriting.”

Michael Crichton: “Books are not written – they’re rewritten.”

Writing planetfall

Last blog post I talked about finishing planetfall book 1, and writing a synopsis prior to finding a literary agent. I covered my immediate feelings on finising the final edits – that the book will probably end up like thousands of others, lost in a slush pile or flat out rejected, and how that awakened a determination to fight for it.

In this blog I want to step back from the technical process of writing – character development, plot devices, and so on – and give a little insight into some of the materials I use for writing. Other writers may gain more from this than casual readers.

I normally start writing in long hand. That’s not to say I can’t write straight to laptop – I’ll come onto that in a later blogpost. After some experimentation, I’ve found the following work for me:

  • Uniball black gel pen
  • Moleskine notebook
Moleskine notebook and Uniball gel pens

Moleskine and Uniball pens

The Uniball gel pen took some finding. I used to write with biro, and of course if I’m caught without my writing materials and feel the need to scribble, I’ll still use one. When I discovered I preferred starting stories in long hand, I realised immediately that I’d need a comfortable pen to write with.

I have very messy handwriting, and I’ve always found biros too skinny and slippy for comfortable writing. The thin stick of the pen casing digs into the flesh between my thumb and forefinger. The small circumference makes it hard for me to keep a reliable grip. And the easy rolling of the biro’s ball makes slips across the page far too easy. I knew if I was going to manually write stories that I’d need to change this.

I don’t remember how I found the Uniball pens. I know I bought a couple of different pens from a local stationery shop, and chose them all for the thickness of the barrel. The ink-type and nib had no bearing on the decision. The gel ink of the Uniball stood out immediately. It feels to me (and this may not be real, just perceived) that the Uniball has better traction on paper, that there is some resistance. The ink also comes out in thicker lines, which helps to hide the drunk-spider scrawl that is my normal handwriting. The thicker barrel makes the pen easier to hold and more comfortable for a longer period of time. In short, it is a more satisfying writing experience.

Now, the Moleskines. You’ll all be rolling your eyes – so cliched, right? Well, yes, but then cliches come from somewhere, don’t they?

I bought a Moleskine due to a story I read about  a writer who could only write with Moleskines (read it here). I was fascinated. What were these notebooks? It was around this time that I discovered they’d gone out of production. A short while later there was a newspaper article – Moleskines were back in production. This was long before I was writing seriously, so I squirrelled the information away: at some point in my life, I would try one out.

When I started writing more seriously, and found that long hand was my preferred initial method of writing, I resolved to try them. To that point I’d been writing on A4 pads, top bound, flip up. I found them unsatisfactory. Now, I know some writers swear by them. They write with a pencil on A4 block. They write only on on side, using the block’s longer and broader expanse to give their hand room to roam & write and make notes. But I don’t write with pencils – for a start you have to keep sharpening them, which means carrying a pencil sharpener around. I would lose it quickly. And pencil fades and slips across the paper. No, not for me.

I tried, too, Uniball on A4 paper. While I liked the feel of the Uniball, I found the ink is too heavy and thick, and the paper too thin, so that you can see the writing on the other side of the page. I don’t write on one side of paper, it’s a waste of resources. And anyway, I was going to be out and about writing. I’d already decided that. There are too many distractions at home – TV, Wii, internet (internet!) – so I remove myself to cafes to write. Somewhere where there is nothing left but the page and the pen and what’s in my head. Carrying an A4 pad around would be too bulky and awkward.

It was on a trip up the Lea Valley (north east from Greater London) when I was volunteering with Friends of the Earth that I spied a pack of 3 Moleskine notebooks in Liverpool Street Station’s W H Smith. I bought them, put them away, went and did my volunteering (for the Climate Change Act, as it became), came back to London after a pint and my first ever pickled egg, and put them away. And promptly forgot about them. It was over six months later, in January 2008, when I decided to go on a writing break to the Isle of Skye that I dug them out.

And was hooked.

Their covers are made of a rough, black card-like paper, so they look a little mysterious, like they could contain anything: diaries, stories, poems, sketches of sweethearts and brawling drunks. They have rounded corners which don’t get caught in things. The paper is thicker and yellower then A4 pads. The Uniball gel ink clings to the paper and draws the pen across its surface. They are a construction made for writing.

Stacked Moleskine notebooks

My Moleskine notebooks

I have since filled 7 notebooks with notes and storyboards and thoughts and plans for planetfall and a couple of other short stories (Ayla’s Journey, First Things First, The Boy). The picture above shows the 7 filled notebooks and the current 8th, and the picture below shows the first page from the first Moleskine I ever used, including my first attempt at story boarding.

Moleskine notebook opened to writing page

The first page of the first Moleskine notebook, plus my first ever story board

I now carry my notebook and pen with me pretty much all the time. There is always time to scribble something down, even if it’s a word, a short sentence, or just looking at what I’ve written, or the story board to fix the narrative in my mind.

When I write in the notebooks I record the date, time and place. Although it is not meant to be a diary, it gives me, of course, a reminder of where I was at particular times. Sometimes leafing through past notebooks makes me wonder why I was free at 14:52 on a Tuesday, rather than at work. In that sense it records some of the context of my life as I was creating this other place, this other world, these other people, these other events.

So there we have it. Uniball gel pen, Moleskine notebook. That’s how it all starts. Next time, a little something, I think, on transferring the writing to the laptop and how I go about editing the work.