A sneak peek at “Sympathy for the Devil”

Since April I’ve been writing a novel which I’ve heretofore called a “secret project”, simply because I had no title for it.

Around early August I hit upon a title: Sympathy for the Devil. And at the same time I finished the first draft of the novel. It was a quick turnaround for a first draft: about 4 months, writing in my spare time outside work.

During August I rested the material and started writing some new material for Sympathy, with the intention of matching it up when I started editing. I find this an important exercise when writing – it gives me an opportunity to ‘brain dump’ material that never quite made it into the first rush through the narrative, or which might give clues for editing or character or plot development.

Longer-time readers will know that I occasionally publish rejected material for my books, and I’m repeating that habit here. Pasted in below is a rejected Chapter One for Sympathy. There’s nothing wrong per se with the writing, except for one thing: the tone and voice of the material, and the narrative perspective, doesn’t fit the rest of the book. This rejected Chapter One is written from a 3rd person omniscient point of view, whereas the rest is from a 1st person. And this text includes a confused amount of the unique voice of the main character. On which note, a warning: the main character’s voice is in poor grammar, so you’ll see wrong words in places. These are deliberate, not typos. Spelling mistakes are typos, but poor grammar isn’t.

I owe a debt of thanks to my writing circle for convincing me to reject this material.

If you’re still reading by this point, and want a sneak peek at Sympathy for the Devil, then here you go. This is the real background to the novel, but the material won’t make it into the final edit.

Enjoy,

astro x

Sympathy for the Devil:

[REJECTED & UNEDITED]

Chapter One – 1984 CE, 1945 CE, 61 CE

It started in many places. Three, if you want to focus. But who’s to say they was more important than another three? Let me pick one for you, though, my love. Because you’re new to this and you want to know what’s going on, ain’t I right?

Now how do I know where it started, you’re wondering? Me and all. Well, there’s some things what you just know. Know what I mean?

It started up north in Yorkshire in 1984CE, when Little Ruthie put up her hand and said, “My dad says there’s no such thing as G-d. He says there’s no need for G-d in nineteen eighty four.”

Mr. Sowerby, who was her teacher, held his hand behind his back. Between thumb and forefinger he squeezed the stick of compressed skeletons what he wrote confused facts with about people long since dead. “Does he now? I know your dad. Taught him in this very classroom, Miss Willoughby.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“He,”

“But he does say that Margaret Thatcher is the devil.”

“Really?” Squeeze. “And who is the Saviour, then?” A smile full of pride on his face.

“Mr. Scargill, dad says.”

“That donkey jacketed,” squeeze, but she interrupted again.

“Sir, my dad says Manvers will never be closed. That’s why Mr. Scargill’s got them to walk out. To keep it open.”

“So he’s a picket, is he? Always was a trouble maker. You listen to me. Your dad could have had a proper job, rather than being buried underground ten hours a day hitting rocks. Thatcher’s Britain doesn’t need uneducated oafs. It needs people with O levels and ambition. Britain needs strivers, not miners.”

You can imagine him thinking, There, that shut her up. Ten years old and full of herself.

“Sir?”

“Miss. Willoughby.”

“My dad says Mrs. Thatcher is a complete,”

“We’ve all heard quite enough from you, Miss Willoughby. Let’s return to your religious,”

“When I’m Prime Minister I’ll re-open Manvers.”

Little Ruthie ducked as the chalk flew over her head and shattered on the wall behind her. It made a high pitched chink when it struck the tiled floor, where it rolled from side to side to side to side. Children looked every which way.

“There’ll be no presumption in this class, you hear me? This is a religious education lesson. I am in control.”

O’d faces all around the class. No one had ever seen Sowerby mad.

Little Ruthie looked at him and opened her mouth to speak.

“Enough!” he shouted.

“I’m telling my dad on you.”

“Tell him all you like. If you can get him off the picket line. These strikers care more about coal than they do their families. Now, anyone else wish to discuss the politics of Communists? No? Good. Then please open your bibles to the Book of Job.”

Little Ruthie flicked through the pages. Her eyes was out the window, on the distant colliery where the wheel no longer turned. No fun fairs went to Wath, not any more. The only spinning lights came from the riot vans at the coal plant.

One day, she thought, one day I’ll prove my dad’s right.

And it started in London in 1945CE, where it carried on decades later. And sometimes for startings, names ain’t so important, not now and not after.

“Let’s see,” said the girl. “Is it really Mr. Churchill?”

“He’s with someone. Who is it?”

“Shh, shh, he’s gonna speak.” The girl craned her neck.

“He’s done us ever so proud,” said someone nearby.

“It’s his victory what’s freed us,” said a woman close to the girl.

“We should all say that, eh?” said the girl. “Shout at him, ‘It’s your victory!’”

“’It’s your victory.’ I like that. Here, mate, you hear what she said?”

And so on through the crowd.

Winston Churchill took the balcony of the Ministry of Health, abet by two colleagues. The skies were finally clear. That nice Mr. Hitler’s bombs and doodlebugs and V2 rockets were silent, his scientists fled to America to dream of space and rocket ships.

“Here he goes, shh shh,” said the girl.

On different sides of the throng of people, two men dressed almost identically started pushing their way in. They thought very similar thoughts and were headed for the same point in the crowd. Each was in a smart wool suit, fedora, Mackintosh coat. Even in the crowds they cut a dash, while their eyes and elbows cut a swathe. One was tall, the other short. From a distance that was the only difference.

“G-d bless you all. This is your victory!” said Winston Churchill from the balcony.

“No, it is yours!” shouted the crowd. People looked around at each other. They’d done it, said the thing all together. There was that spirit, still working together, singing the same message. They all cheered. It was a new dawn, a new day. Britain was a community, working together to defeat National Socialism. Now Britain was victorious, triumphant.

Churchill looked down at the crowds of people: nurses, labourers, soldiers, children.

“It is the victory of the cause of freedom in every land,” he continued. “In all our long history we have never seen a greater day than this.”

In the crowd, the two men pushed, separately, through hugging friends and wormed through strangers bonded over that singular moment of triumph.

“Everyone, man or woman, has done their best. Everyone has tried. Neither the long years, nor the dangers, nor the fierce attacks of the enemy, have in any way weakened the unbending resolve of the British nation. G-d bless you all.”

Applause. Cheers. Hats thrown in the air in that way what don’t happen no more. London in celebration, a nation glued to its valve-radios and memories of steamer ships and Victorian colonies. Flags flipped back and forth, hearts swelled with pride, relief and grief and loss.

In the crowd there was a surge, and it pushed a gentleman against the girl.

Further back, another gentleman looked on, eyes flat. He tipped his hat and turned: it was too late. He would have to wait. He disappeared into the crowd, melted away into London and the world and future plans.

She, the girl, looked round, briefly, at the contact. People pushing didn’t bother her. It was a crowd. Besides, she thought, it was gentle and felt nice. Sort of cosy, like. And she knew the cues, the signals, how her profession worked.

Churchill carried on talking, but the girl had places to go. There was money to earn, bread to put on a table. She turned and looked up into a smile and a twinkle.

“Quite the speaker, isn’t he?” said the man behind her. Nice hat, she thought. Nice suit.

“Did you hear what he said?” she smiled back. “We all done our best. No one ever said that before. Least not to me.”

The man looked into her eyes, “I wonder if a victory gin would be appropriate?”

“For you or for me?”

“For us both.”

“Sauce. Don’t even know you.”

“Perhaps,” and he leaned until his breath stroked the fine hair on her earlobe, “today demands the spirit of triumph, rather than the spirit of propriety.”

She looked at him, her hands fiddling with a purse, irises never quite settling in one place. “Where was you stationed?” she asked. “Gotta know you’re respectable, ain’t I?”

“North Africa, originally,” he said, and pulled back, adjusting his hat.

“Rommel and Montgomery?” she weren’t quite sure who they were. Surviving the Blitz and keeping up with what was happening over in France had taken all her time. But everyone knew the names, and it had always been enough to strike up a conversation with other clients.

“Something like that,” the man smiled. “What’s your name?”

She tugged his tie, gently, gently smiling, “No names today, Mr. Desert Fox. Gin and triumph only. Alright?”

He offered his arm, and they fought their way out of a cheering crowd.

They drank in a little place he knew, and then went to a quiet back street hotel where they saw in the dawn.

By the morning he was gone. Despite her insistence that the night was a celebration, there was still a pile of money on the dresser. “Bloody men,” she whispered.

A knock on the door, “You’ve had your fun. Ten minutes, then I call the police. Back to normal, missy. This is a respectable place.”

The girl pulled her clothes on and picked up the money. “Bloody Nora,” and she looked to the window, even though she knew he wouldn’t be outside, standing by a lamp-post, looking up at the window, waiting for a reaction. “Gin and triumph,” she whispered. She left behind the stained and crumpled bed sheets, and entered that new world with a swing in her step and a seed in her belly.

And it started somewhere above Watford, in Northamptonshire, long before it were called that in 64CE. It were somewhere along the Fosse Way, after the sacking of Londinium and Camulodonum and Verulamium. Bodies of Romans strew the land. And the warriors of the Iceni and Trinovantes and the other tribes lay with them, their blood seeping into the mystical land of northern Europe, that land what the Greeks called Albion. Cos sometimes stories don’t start all together. Sometimes you gotta go way back to the roots, ain’t ya?

“We are defeated.”

“My Queen, the Romans are too many and too strong. It’s impossible. Their ships arrive every day with more soldiers.”

“Send word Corslan. Despatch a rider to the Fair Folk. Then tell the tribal chieftans. Those who want to remain may do so. But we will take our armies and those who will come with us, and retreat.”

“My lady?”

“We retreat to Tír inna n-Óc until the time is right.”

“Retreat? But the Romans will spread and take Britain.”

“We will abide. The Fair Folk will provide a champion. When the time is right we will win back Ierne and Albion from the foreign invaders.”

“Yes, my lady.”

“Albion will endure.”

Little Ruthie, Ruth Willoughby, ten year old Yorkshire lass. Hair pulled back under an Alice-band. School bag decorated with pins for Bananarama and Adam and the Ants.

The streets of Wath-upon-Dearne was decorated with banners, “SUPPORT THE MINERS”.

Policemen walked around in pairs or sat in riot vans, bored, waiting for something to happen. Pissy little mining towns with their upstart miners. Why couldn’t they just get other jobs?

Men in donkey jackets stood at braziers, watching pathetic flames lick at the cold air. The great chimney at the colliery was quiet, its usual belch settled in its belly. The men grumbled about the lack of jobs, and talked about the families what had moved south, to the factories of the Midlands. One family had even moved to the south coast to open a bed and breakfast. Not one of the men could bring themselves to call those who’d gone traitors. But still the word floated in the air between them, missing its lightning rod. Traitors. Traitors. Traitors.

“It’s John’s girl,” one of the men nodded his head at Little Ruthie. “John! Your lass is here.”

John Willoughby was stood in a group of miners, a confabulation.

“Ruthie, come ‘ere love,” suddenly all smiles for his daughter.

Over their shoulders, the coal ramps were still. The site was asleep, the workers was outside and above ground, and the coal slumbered in its bed.

“Bring her along, John. She should see,” said one of the other men.

“You want to come to Orgreaves, Ruthie? We’re going on a demo up Rotherham way.”

“OK.”

“It might be a bit scary. Lots of pigs around.”

Little Ruthie held her dad’s hand. The callouses and ground-in coal dust were home, her tiny hand was soft and clean, now smudged with that solid fuel that burns so well. She could smell her dad a mile away, the pit was in his lungs and his bones.

“Will Margaret Thatcher be there?”

“Trained her well, John!” shouted the men behind him. They laughed and turned away.

“No, she won’t come up here. Them politicians don’t care, Ruthie. We have to care instead. Listen, don’t tell your mam we’re away to Orgreaves, you know how she is.”

“I’ll say I’m at Nanny and Granda’s, don’t worry.”

“There’s my girl.”

A coach pulled up. Men moved and shared cigarettes, small roll-ups which drooped and went flat between their fingers.

Little Ruthie climbed onto the bus, the only girl amongst those grown-up men, strikers, pit workers.

Little Ruthie went on the bus to Orgreaves, her first demonstration.

Ten year old Little Ruthie darted between the legs of policemen and strikers alike, avoiding the truncheons and flung stones.

Little Ruthie hid behind a police car, hating its protection, and watched her dad struck, fall to the floor, blood on the tarmac and flow between its cracks where grass pushed up, ever hopeful.

Ten year old Little Ruthie hated Margaret Thatcher.

Little Ruthie, Ruth Willoughby, cradled her dad, John Willoughby, while he held his cut head and looked at his blood on the soil of his country. “Never forget, Ruthie,” he said, all the way to the hospital, and all the way home. “Never forget.”

The girl quit her old job. Not that there was a boss to tell. She just stopped turning up at the regular places.

The man had left her more money than she earned in three years. Five. She bought a house, decorated, bought plants. Started a small allotment. Dig for victory! still rang in her mind.

She took up sewing work.

Well, she had to. She knew almost immediately that the gin and triumph of victory in Europe had become motherhood and hope. The other girls told her about back street doctors, about women who had gin and coat hangers and hot baths and towels.

“No. It’s a new start,” she told them.

And forty weeks later, she gave birth in that small house, and as the midwife was tidying her room, the man walked in and sat down. Bold as brass. Nary a word nor letter in between before and then.

“Mr. Desert Fox,” she said, hair slick to her forehead. The baby was clamped to her nipple, gumming it, blind, a maggot squirming in swaddling. “Had a feeling you’d be back.”

“Wild horses and all that. So, boy or girl?” He took a seat from the opposite side of the room and put it next to the bed. No other introduction or by your leave. No explanation. Straight in, treated the place like it was his. Which.

“Girl,” said the girl. Woman now. Mother.

“She’s perfect,” said the midwife. “Don’t mind me, I’ll be on my way. I’ll pop in tomorrow, see how you are. Good day,” a professional nod to the man. She saw similar things every day. A baby boom, she called it. The Victory Effect, others said.

“You left me alone at that hotel,” said the woman, mother. She stared at her daughter’s face, the gummy eyes.

“Duty called.”

“It’s OK. Thank you for,” she looked at the walls of the house and around. “What shall we call her?”

Straight away, “Lucy. The light bearer. The morning star.”

“Morning star, I like that. Here, Lucy, meet your father.”

The man held his daughter and looked into her face, “Lucy. You’re going to run this country one day.”

“You can hold her a bit longer,” said the woman, “I need my sleep. Do you mind?”

“Of course not.” The man walked away with the baby and left the mother to sleep.

When the midwife returned the following day, she found the woman still in bed, propped up on pillows. Her face was serene. Possibly the most beautiful face the midwife had ever seen. Not for her natural beauty; she was plain at best. But for the look of deep contentment and peace which had settled over her.

Shame, thought the midwife. The bed sheets was already turning black, the blood dried to a resin.

“Haemorrhage,” the midwife shook her head. “Where’s little miss? She’ll need a wet nurse.”

But the baby weren’t anywhere to be seen.

“My lady. We have what villagers will come. Some of our warriors have chosen to stay.”

“Very well. And the Romans?”

“Sending heralds to the other tribes. They will soon know of our defeat.”

“Queen Boudicca is never defeated.”

“No, my lady.”

Queen Boudicca looked over a stone fence at the rolling green of Albion. “I have a final mission for you. This is your life’s work.”

“My lady?”

“My son. I’m appointing you as his protector, Corslan.”

“I’m honoured. But,”

“I am not going with you. I am the last of the Iceni. Britain goes under Roman rule. But promise me one thing, Corslan, Steward of Britain.”

He said nothing, instead standing straighter and looking to the horizon.

“These islands, Albion and Ierne, will soon be over-run with Romans and their gods. The Fair Folk have agreed to grant you the power of Tír inna n-Óc. We will absorb the Romans, they will become British, and we will win the slow victory. But others will come behind them. New people, new gods. Defend our lands, Corslan, defend Britain against the darkness, against chaos, against anyone who does not hold our values.”

“Yes, my Queen.”

“And when the time is right, put my son on the throne of this land.”

“And what about you?”

She reached out, a muddy hand in a misty field on a young captain’s shoulder. He became a Queen’s knight, “I will become myth. Legend. We shall not meet again. But my spirit will be in this land evermore.”

Corslan kept his gaze on the horizon, “The morning star is risen.”

“Sunrise approaches. Take our people. Protect my son.”

“He shall take the throne, Queen Boudicca. For Albion.”

“For Albion.”

[end]

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Backpackers – deleted material

This week I returned to my completed novel Backpackers and re-wrote the prologue and first chapter.

It seems like a strange thing to do, considering I had strongly believed it finished and in its best possible form. I have sent it to a score of publishers. Oops.

Rather predictably I have fallen foul of the lesson that we all need to learn as writers – rest your material before you proclaim it finished. I knew this, but I was so intent on finishing the book and getting it to publishers before I went back to full time work that I blinded myself.

Lately, on my long commutes to my new job, I started running the book through my head, thinking about it, testing parts of the story. And I realised that the opening chapter was letting it down. The changes I’ve made aren’t enormous – it essentially amounts to a re-structure of the material, to bring some of the tension and conflict at the end of the chapter right up front, and cutting out 6 pages, and writing in 6 pages of fresh material.

The material I cut out was a “darling”. Most writers will have heard the editing advice, “kill your darlings”. My darling was the original short story which spawned the entire Backpackers novel. I had kept it in for a year, because it was the seed, and it helped set out part of Cath, the protagonist’s character. She’s a story teller, a mischievous fun loving party girl. What I realised was that the diversion into the short story (which is presented as a story that Cath tells) diverts the story from establishing the conflict it needs. The reader is set up with too many stories to think about.

But! Not wanting to lose it, I thought I would upload the material here and allow people to download it for free, specifically so that writers can compare the kind of material I cut out, and see how that applies to their own writing.

Here is the Backpackers – old opening file.

Inciting incidents

“You’ve lost me,” I said. I pressed HOME on the Kindle, a few other buttons and deleted the book. I felt bad, but then no one would ever find out.

Except – then I decided to blog about it. But why?

On Sunday just gone, I read the start of a book by a self published author. I picked up on the author from Google+ (which by the way is an amazing social media platform). Interested in their posts and the occasional link to their writing, I investigated, which led to a free sample of their book from Amazon.

Because their posts were lucid and well written, and because they talked about the publishing industry, I settled into their book with positive feelings. Here I could learn from somebody.

The book started with description, it described a scene. A quiet scene, and by the end of the first page, when nothing much had happened except the scene establishment, I was starting to waver. Don’t get me wrong, it was well-written, it’s just… nothing was happening. But I’d been reading this person, this author’s posts on Google+ for some time, so I wanted to like it. I persevered.

Finally there was some dialogue between two characters. Ah, was this going to lead somewhere? Would it give us the all important inciting incident? That thing which happens which is the cause of the story.

No. It was a minor exchange, which was probably meant to be tense, but because of the scene establishment – all rather bucolic, thank you very much – the dialogue came across as incidental. The scene moved on rather pleasantly and ended. And then we were somewhere else, where not much else was happening, other than a list of things in a different scene, and some one-sided dialogue in which a character listed things incidental to any story.

I ploughed on for a couple more pages, still hoping, and still nothing happened.

Which is when I decided to stop reading the sample and delete it from my Kindle. The writer had lost me. Or perhaps in retrospect it’s fair to say they’d never found me. I wandered, waiting to be found, but remained lost.

I used to do the same thing. It’s not always natural to start a story with an inciting incident. Sometimes as a writer you want to create the world first, so that when your reader finally gets to the story they get it. I mean, they really get it, in the same way the writer does in their head.

But here’s the rub: “…when your reader finally gets to the story…“. That’s what the reader’s there for, the story. Writers need to get to the story quickly. Pick up a book and read the first two pages. When does the story start? When is that all important inciting incident?

There is a great story about Ernest Hemingway setting a challenge  to write an emotionally affecting story in as few words as possible. He came up with, “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.” (And from there we get the game of “six word novels”.)

Bang! Those final two words out of six suddenly reveal the full horror of the story. We are set up by the first two words, “For sale:”. This is the inciting incident – something has been put up for sale. It’s the cause of the story. The middle two words give us some description, “Baby shoes”. At this point we don’t know why they’re for sale, but we know that the story has started – something has been put for sale by someone, and we are interested in what. Then we know that it is baby shoes for sale. These two words open up the reader’s emotions, making them vulnerable to the story. Babies are cute, babies are sweet, babies are delicate and need protecting, and babies can sometimes be annoying. So where are we going? We’re waiting for input, ready to invest ourselves in what comes next.

The final two words say everything that’s needed. “Never worn.” We don’t need any other description. We no longer need a description of the “for sale” sign, where the advert was placed, what the baby looked like. We don’t need to be told anything. We don’t have to know who wrote the advert, or when or in which country. Those two words, “Never worn” finally make our open minds do all the work in the story. We fill in from our own knowledge of the world.

Knowing when to give and leave out description comes from experience, of course. And some readers like more description and some less. Writers also have preferences with description. I prefer to give as little as possible and leave the reader to fill in the blanks so that the literary world becomes personal for them, whereas other writers are sumptuous in their scene descriptions. Eventually it comes down to a matter of taste and some compromise. Description is needed occasionally, and it has to be relevant and well written.

But regardless of where we lie with description – colouring in the universe in which our story is set – we still need the story. And stories need to start.

I’ve made the same mistake myself. My first novel, planetfall (currently with agents under the name All Fall Down) started with a couple of pages of slow description, where I tried to re-create a cinematic shot I could see playing in my head. It was sweeping, it was visual, it was beautiful. But there was no story in it. The story started, eventually, about ten pages in. That’s a lot to ask of someone, to read through pages of world creation without giving them a story.

So what can we do about this? If we’re amateur writers, and we want people to be interested in our stories, then how do we start our story, while also creating a world that people are interested in?

The best thing is to benchmark our approach with those already successful. I’ve just pulled four books at random from the bookshelf here. I’ll quote the inciting incident from them, and tell you where it is in the story:

James Joyce – The Dubliners: the very first line of the book. Here’s the first few sentences to show that the first line is the inciting incident

There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke. Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and studied the lighted square of window: and night after night I had found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. If he was dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse. He had often said to me: “I am not long for this world,” and I had thought his words idle. Now I knew they were true.

So we know that someone has died, there is a change in the quality of light, and that this had long been predicted. But we don’t know why, yet. There is some tension to be resolved.

Christos Tsiolkas – The Slap: a little tricky this one. It’s not as immediate as The Dubliners, but we are drawn into a world with tension from the first page. Here’s why:

…Hector’s hand sluggishly reached across the bed. Good. Aish was up.

We already know in the first three lines (as printed on the page) that Hector is happy to wake up alone. Then we build further down the page,

Sweet young cunt. He’d spoken out loud.

Connie.

At the thought of her, sleep surrendered its grip on him. Aish would think him a pervert if she had overheard him.

Now we know something else. This man, Hector, slowly waking, has said “Sweet young cunt,” out loud, and thought immediately of another woman, Connie. And we know that Aish, the woman he’s glad wasn’t in his bed when he woke, would think him a pervert. We are setting up dramatic tension. The inciting incident is established – Hector has woken, his private thoughts have leaked out, he is thinking of another woman, and he is suddenly glad his wife, Aish, isn’t with him in bed. We are now just before the end of the first page.

AS Byatt – Possession: this starts by quoting a poem, and then by establishing a scene. But buried on the first half of page is the inciting incident:

The librarian handed [the dusty book] to Roland Mitchell… It had been exhumed from Locked Safe no.5

In the opening lines we are in a world where books are locked away, rarely seen, and handed to people. The transfer of knowledge is the inciting incident. The opening of a book will let us – and Roland Mitchell – learn something. Over the next few lines we learn that this dusty book

sprang apart, like a box, disgorging leaf after leaf of faded paper, blue, cream, grey, covered with rusty writing, the brown scratches of a steel nib. Roland recognised the handwriting with a shock of excitement.

The world is established. Secret knowledge has been locked away, the librarian, the keeper of the secret knowledge, has handed it to Roland, and the book has sprung open, eager to disgorge what it contains.

Iain Banks – Espedair Street:

Two days ago I decided to kill myself.

Bang, straight in with Mr Banks.

Here we have different examples of inciting incidents: A light in a window showing that someone has died; a man waking alone and thinking of another woman; a book being passed over and springing open; a man deciding to kill himself. They all start on the first page and are fully established within two pages. Some start without description (Iain Banks), while others are prose-like (AS Byatt).

If you’re writing – short stories, novellas, novels, reports, articles – read over your recent works and try to establish if your inciting incident is captured within the first page or so. And if it is within the first page or so – is it obvious to the reader? Does it create some kind of dramatic tension, to which we need resolution? Who has died and why is it important? Why has Hector woken thinking of another woman, and who is Connie? What is in the book and why is it important to Roland? Why did the man decide to kill himself, and was he – or will he be – successful?

Try a few different versions of your inciting incident, and see what works for you. And importantly – ask someone to read your opening few pages, and ask for some feedback. Good luck.

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.