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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planetfall & the MacGuffin

In the last blog I introduced planetfall book 2, its main protagonist (a space Marine), and the first-person approach it will take, with the Marine having no name: essentially the Unnamed Soldier.

In this blog I want to return to planetfall book 1, and talk about a specific plot element that helps drive the story. It’s a thing that many of the characters are either trying to find, or keep hidden. Sometimes this thing reveals itself, subtly, tangentially, metaphorically, but most of the time it is mysterious. At no point do the characters who are trying to find this thing ever get their hands on it.

This thing is the MacGuffin.

Alfred Hitchcock popularised the MacGuffin. He said that, “In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers”. It is the thing that causes the characters to run around. It is the thing around which events happen. And it is generally inconsequential to the plot of the film, despite being central to it.

In Indiana Jones land, the Holy Grail and the Lost Ark of the Covenant are the MacGuffins. Indy spends most of the film trying to get hold of these things. As do the bad guys! And then it turns into a race to steal it from each other. In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, the stolen Death Star plans are the MacGuffin. In this scenario the good guys have them and are trying to keep hold of them and transport them to a safe place. It is the bad guys who are trying to get them back.

Often considered the most beautiful example of a MacGuffin is Rosebud, the last word of Kane in Citizen Kane, and it is the protagonist’s attempts to work out what it means that drives the plot.

So description aside, how is this applied to planetfall? What’s the MacGuffin?

I was inspired to write this blog post by graphic designer and bloopy sound producer Dave House (listen to his Reverse Engineer stuff), who tweeted me after reading just 10 pages of planetfall to say he’d “started reading it and is hooked after 10 pages. Mystery black blobs and fungal panspermia. Loving it.”

I started thinking back over my original intention for planetfall‘s MacGuffin: the black pods – because “mystery black blobs” is exactly how they started life. Without giving too much plot detail away, in planetfall the existence of the black pods is revealed to the reader very early on (another plot device borrowed from Hitchcock, but for another blog). The characters presented as the searchers in the story, the ones looking for something, are kept in the dark about them. During the course of the book they spiral closer and closer to coming into contact with them. But do they get them? Do they even know the pods are something to get?

As I wrote and developed the concept of the black pods (reverse engineered from the material secom which appears in book 2) I realised I needed something stronger as a MacGuffin; the black pods just weren’t working out in my initial planning and writing. I needed something elusive that would give the characters something to do, and continually keep them moving to other situations. So the black pods fell out of favour, and I developed another MacGuffin, which I will mention briefly below. The pods, though, in being abandoned as the story’s principal MacGuffin, refused to give up so easily, and acquired a life of their own – they were just too interesting to abandon from the story, and so turned into the driving element of planetfall‘s cyberpunk underbelly, a part of the story I had never planned or envisaged until it popped out one day in the ubiquitous coffee shop in Crouch End.

This is one of those wonderful artefacts of failure. I tried to make these black pods – analogous to the black box of technology and physics explanations – into a strong driving force for the main story, and failed. In failing, they rallied in my mind, coupled themselves to a character, Verigua, who had charmed its way into the story, and ended up creating a whole story line of their own. It was unbidden, it was unplanned, it wasn’t storyboarded, and I had a lot of fun and frustration and thrown-out writing trying to figure out how they actually fit into the main plot of planetfall.

I wanted to write about this failure-leading-to-success for any others reading this who are writing or thinking of writing a story of their own. Failure is a necessary part of success. You have to try things, work with them, and throw them out if they’re not working. Because sometimes in the act of “killing your darlings” (as a friend once put it), you find something more interesting and creative than you could have come up with on a blank piece of paper. Failure is an option; in fact it’s essential to success. But it has to be coupled with determination and keeping going. This is something that too few of us realise or are taught, I think. It doesn’t matter if you fail – it’s that you tried in the first place. But if you try and fail, and learn nothing, then you have truly failed.  If you try and fail and learn and evolve and learn (and maybe go back to it with something based on your failure) – ah well, then you’re a success. It doesn’t feel like it at the time, it just feels like you’re set up to fail again.

Back to the real MacGuffin of planetfall. On the first page of the book (so no plot giveaways) a character is killed. It is that character’s death, and the hunt for the killer, that is the real MacGuffin.

planetfall starts off as a sort of murder-mystery. It’s a whodunnit?. And like most MacGuffins, as I said at the start, it keeps the characters running around and having fun, while the other MacGuffin, the one that refused to go away, slowly and inexorably catches up with it.  How that happens – well, you’ll just have to read the book when it’s released!

So what about planetfall book 2? Does that have a MacGuffin?  Is there something the characters are chasing or trying to protect or steal or find or figure out? At the moment, even I don’t know. And it’s going to be fun finding out.