planetfall – update

Years ago I started writing this little book and called it “planetfall”. And I failed. I failed to write it. I failed to make it happen, I failed to conceive of a decent story. I failed to have the ability and find a way into it.

But I learned from the failure. planetfall was supposed to alternate between two stories – how a war started, and the war itself. But writing from two different perspectives, with completely different characters, soon proved too much. I decided to split the story into two, and write ‘how a war started’ first. It took me just over four years.

Finishing that first book, which I’ve since named All Fall Down (though it remains Book One of the planetfall series), took a massive effort. I’ve blogged before about how much I taught myself and learned from others about plotting, character, editing and so on.

In the summer of 2011, with a finished draft of All Fall Down brimming with pride on my laptop, I sat down to write ‘the war itself’. And failed again.

So I wrote another book, called Backpackers. And a book of short stories, called Dark Things. I took a creative writing course at London’s City University. I joined a writing circle. I wrote an 8 minute film script, and then a 30 minute pilot sitcom script. And started a fanfic novella about Robocop.

Phew. I was busy last year, between Aug ’11 and Aug ’12. But then I was unemployed, so it was a good time to really improve my writing skills and achieve something.

Over that year I occasionally went back to ‘the war itself’ and tried to make it work. Occasionally I would have a little breakthrough. An idea for a scene. A line I’d edit which would work really well. And sometimes there’d be a big breakthrough, like finding the narrator’s voice. That, really, was the hardest part to get right – his voice, his view of the world.

“Voice” is an interesting concept in writing, and it’s not one that many amateur writers come across until they go on creative writing courses, hang out with writers more experienced, or really delve into the amazing writing tips websites now available.

Trying to get into the mind of a person and speak from their point of view, to find their voice, is difficult. And that’s what kept bringing me back to that original story, and sending me away. I kept coming back because if it was difficult finding this character’s voice, then it must be a prize worth achieving. And I kept leaving the material to rest so that I could develop my writing skills in other media, try writing in different voices, and bring them back to this original idea I had in 2007.

A couple of months ago I sat down and re-wrote the opening 15 pages of the original planetfall. And I found a voice. In truth it wasn’t so different from the one I started with originally; the changes really were that it had more hope in it, less misery, it had a pinch of vulnerability, but it was also confident. It was angry, remains angry, but there’s a sense, I hope, of it building to something. This soldier has a mission.

A few weeks later, though, still unsure if this re-write was working, I re-wrote the first 5 pages from a completely different point of view: 3rd person, near (or 3rd person, limited, as it’s also known).  This worked, and I had a voice in that, too. And of course a quandary: I now had two versions which worked, one in first person and one in third. What to do?

At this point I was just finishing my sitcom script, which follows two characters whose lives cross early on, and keep crossing despite neither of them wanting to. A thought struck me: I needed to pick up the events of book 1. I’d always intended any reference to book 1 coming through from the first person narrative, a very narrow point of view (POV). But writing the sitcom, where the viewer would need to know more than a single POV, gave me an idea. What if I could go back to my original idea? Write a first person narrative with the voice I’d found, and write a third person narrative which followed other characters, so that necessary plotting could be picked up there.

It’s a risky decision. It essentially means the chapters go like this (example text):

Chapter One – My team died that day, and it made me angry. Three months later, I died. And that made me angrier still. I vowed revenge.

Chapter Two – Kate was alone on the planet when the ship came to get her. After twelve years, her solitude was over, and like it or not, she was going to be plunged back into the war.

Chapter Three – …and so on back to first person…

So how’s it working out? Is it another failure?

From my perspective, it’s working beautifully. The change between points of view has unlocked so much of the story, and made it so easy to write, that I’ve gone from 15 pages to 65 in a matter of days. The third person narrative brings the events of All Fall Down into the new book, providing continuity for the story and reader. The third person narrative brings something new. It places the reader in two parts of the world: a god-like part, where plot unfolds and great events move forward; and a personal part, where we feel what it’s like to be on the frontline of the war, narrated by a soldier.

It is a risky approach to telling a story, and I’ve never tried swapping POV like this – or rather, I did, once, in 2007, and I failed miserably. And five years of writing experience has given me the ability to achieve my original ambition. From failure came a number of successes.

As writers, we need failures. We need to write crap and tear it up. We need to write awful dialogue and curl up with embarrassment when we read our work aloud when we vocally edit. And we need, importantly, to learn from those mistakes and failures.

I’d be interested to know what failures you’ve had, and what you learned from them.

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