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.

planetfall: genesis

planetfall – correctly written with a lower case ‘p’ and as one word – was borne out of a short story, and like most first-novels went through a long development process.

I treated the writing of planetfall as a self-education in creative writing. While writing it I tried many different exercises and approaches, failed more than I succeeded, then failed some more, went off on tangents, took breaks, became frustrated, scrapped pages and pages of material and generally found that auto-didacticism is easier to spell than to do.

The short story from which planetfall evolved is about a Mexican man looking back on the Mexican-American war around the time of the Alamo. It was a writing exercise in which I challenged myself to write a short story that had a definite beginning, middle and end, was character based, and which would fit onto one side of A4. The story was mostly dialogue, the Mexican man talking to his young son about what it means to be a man while he shaved his cheeks and shaped his moustache. I put this story to one side and moved onto other writing projects (I think some exercises on colour and motion).

Some time later I returned to the short story and thought it would be interesting to re-write the story from the son’s perspective, this time he would be a grown man thinking back to his father’s advice. I placed the son in a war and wrote a nostalgic piece, the son looking backward, close to death, wanting the protective presence of his father.

Realising that a soldier on a battlefield gave me scope for more writing exercises – the ravaged landscape, the loss of life, commentary on war and its interaction with society – I continued to write. The story became science fiction when I decided a battleground of post-nuclear detonation would add drama quickly. After about 3 or 4 pages, I chopped off the original short story – the Mexican  man with his son – and started thinking about how someone would survive a nuclear blast: you’d need some kind of fancy protective suit for a start. And so secom was born, a material that never made it into the final draft of the first book (at least not in an obvious way).

planetfall evolved quickly after that. There were three characters – Ramirez, Mina and David – a mysterious planet and a scene I visualised as a ‘planetfall’, in which the characters would leave a ship in orbit and fall to the planet below, battling aliens as they went. This scene gave its name to the book. I later named the mysterious planet ‘Fall’ as a temporary joke (planetfall/planet Fall) while I tried to figure out a better name. I never found one. Planet Fall became the central character in the first book of planetfall.

Two hundred pages came out quite quickly, and at that point I took a break to write a short story (“Ayla’s Journey”). I opened up the writing process for this short story to a friend with professional writing experience. She taught me how to edit, about rhythm and flow, and what was good in my writing and what not. A very instructive experience, I went back to planetfall three months later and sat down to edit. Two hundred pages collapsed under my editor’s eye in a cottage on the Isle of Skye, and became 35. From there I wrote out again to around seventy five pages, and got stuck. A sub-plot, a conspiracy theory centring on the planet Fall, wasn’t working. It took a few months before I decided to pull the sub-plot out into a separate story, which would run alongside the main story of the soldier (now a Marine) and act as counterpoint to his first-person perspective story.

I tried writing the two stories side by side, but their different writing styles and points of view soon forced me to stop. I decided to focus on the story of the planet Fall first. That story, in retrospect, was easy to write. Daoud was a character I already had from writing background notes on the planetfall universe and its history. Kate arrived one day while I was in Costa Coffee in Crouch End. Verigua was supposed to be a limited character, borrowed from an Iain M. Banks Culture novel. I will write about these separately.

Each chapter, except for the final one, was written with a particular approach in mind. Some chapters are sense-based: visual, auditory, tactile. Some were very much about movement (a Doctor Who: Confidential episode, in which they discussed up & down movement, was a particular influence), and some were indulgent: abstract, dream-like and experimental (on my part). One chapter was simply written in a short story style as a break from the main narrative (The Tale of Huriko Maki).

The first draft was finished in December 2010 and I started to think about returning to the main story, the story of the Marine’s experience of a great war. As I’d written the story of the planet Fall, I conceived a story structure in which that story would revolve, DNA-helix-like, around the main story of the Marine. It would be capped with a short story (The Tale of the SS Maris One) which would act as the telomere to the story’s helix. However, in early 2011, three and a half years after writing the story of the Mexican, I made the decision to publish this story of the events on planet Fall, the start, the genesis of the war, as the first in a sequence of books. I still intend at some point to release the series as intended, with new, original material throughout to tie it all together.

Until then, you have planetfall book 1 this summer, and planetfall book 2 currently in development. Enjoy.

Welcome

Time to start blogging again.

Years ago I kept a blog on the great, much-missed BBC online magazine “Collective”: http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/collective/U207003

In many ways Collective was ahead of its time. It pre-empted Facebook with its offer of a profile page, it allowed users to write their own blogs, and it asked users to contribute their own reviews of new media. In return, with the weight of the BBC’s name behind it, Collective offered a weekly magazine featuring reviews of new music, film, books, art and so on, as well as exclusive mixes and downloads from new music artists. Occasionally it would put on live shows for up and coming bands: Hot Chip played an early gig at the Spitz in London’s Spitalfields market.

As the users and Collective’s community producers got to know each other better, its functionality expanded, and it created a “community” area where users could collaborate on projects or pool long term projects. I was proud to be part of that early development by initiating and curating the online art gallery “Unique forms of continuity” which you can see here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/collective/A2208151

For all that Collective asked for user generated content, it also knew it had to appeal to the materialist and give rewards. Each week one user’s review would be picked as a featured article and would win a CD or book – or whatever turned up on the community producers’ desks from music or book or DVD companies.

For many the magazine provided a place for artistic inspiration, and it’s fair to say that there are many people out there whose lives are now different because of the discussions and contributions they made. Some of us even made friends and are still in touch almost 10 years later.

For me Collective offered a way to practice writing. Many of my reviews were experimental in nature, some provocative, and just as many commented upon and the source of many a philosophical discussion.

And it was on Collective where I gained the confidence to write creatively. To dare to think that I could write stories, and that perhaps, one day, one of those stories might lead to a novel.

Without the BBC’s Collective website, there would never have been an astrotomato, and there would never have been a science fiction book called “planetfall”.

To the community producers who worked on Collective, to all the people I met, talked with, who inspired me, and to everything that Collective gave me, this first, opening post on astrotomato.com is dedicated to you.