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.


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.


Contacting agents

I recently finished my 2nd novel, Backpackers. It’s a road journey / coming of age story, about a 20 year old Australian girl who struggles to come to terms with her father’s death. She leaves her home to backpack around south east Asia, and her experiences there highlight her inner struggle to cope with life as a single-parent child.

Now that the book is finished, critiqued by my writing circle at every step of the way, and with feedback from some amazing readers(*), I’m about ready to send it to literary agents.

This is the second time I’ve sent a manuscript to literary agents. Last year I sent an early draft of my scifi novel, planetfall, to two agents. That was a test run, really. I didn’t know if the novel was ready – I hadn’t really developed my internal editor that well – and I was lucky to receive lengthy feedback from one agent giving positive feedback, but asking for it to be developed a little more.

This time I feel more confident about my manuscript. Backpackers is a stronger book. It’s really benefited from being critiqued at each stage of the writing, and I’ve really benefited from opening up my writing process. planetfall was written in its entirety before I showed it to anyone. Backpackers had just 3 chapters written before I showed it to others. And I received some very awkward questions which made me question deeply my main character’s relationship with her father, which lies at the core of the book.

Contacting agents is now a more confident affair. I have no idea if they’ll like it, but I at least am proud of the book. It made me cry while writing it, and cry each time I edited it. I was pleased when readers wrote back with the same comment – that they cried at certain points, that the book had emotionally affected them. There is no greater compliment I can think of, that something I wrote affected people busy with their own lives, enough to prick their eyes to tears.

And so to agents. I’m reading through their websites, despairing at the ones who insist on printed submissions, and delighted with the ones open to email submissions.

I’m currently developing my synopsis and cover letter. And when I have a few more readers’ comments in, and a final polishing edit, I’ll be ready to submit Backpackers to those who can make or break. But whatever those agents decide, I am proud of my little book about young adults travelling in exotic climes and experiencing the growing pains that make us rounded, mature adults. It’s fun, traumatic, exciting, tense, emotional and ultimately affirming.

I hope one day you get to read it, too.

(* many of the readers were sourced on Twitter. They are people I don’t know other than through their tweets, which has meant more objective reader feedback than friends may give. I would like to pay credit to those who volunteered to read a stranger’s book and give honest feedback, and by dint of this, point out how amazing Twitter is when used properly.)

Flash fiction – Austerity Measures

Today I’m giving away a short story – or “flash fiction” as it’s called in the writing industry (writing under 1000 words in length).

This is the first story in my short story collection, Dark Things. It started off as a treatment for a longer book, and evolved into a very focused, intense work about child abuse (it wasn’t supposed to be like that, I just followed the writing).

I hope you enjoy this work of flash fiction called “Austerity Measures”.

Austerity Measures

The kitchen light flickers and makes a dink sound. You’re not supposed to look at it too long. It burns your eyes, Mam says. But he still does. The spots it leaves are like secrets which only he can see.

“Upstairs,” she taps her cigarette.

“Do I have to?”

“It’s signin’ on day.”


“Yuh know how yer Dad gets after Job Centre.”

“‘E’s not me Dad.” He picks up his water and leaves the kitchen to its layers of cigarette smoke. In his room he gets under his bedsheets, which tent over him, and he imagines the light, the shining world.

He hears the front door open; slam. “Wha’s fer dinner?” It’s the man. Mam says not to call him that, so he only says it in his head now.

A light escapes his bedsheets.

“You’re drunk.”

Silence, then he hears the second-most hated sound in the world. It’s followed by the first-most hated sound: his Mam crying out.

He does the hiding thing where he closes his eyes and imagines himself underwater with the light, like he’s down in the ocean trenches on the programmes they watch when the man’s out. Deep and far away.

Under the bedsheets the voices are muffled. But in the small house, he can still hear. “Ge’ dinner on,” from downstairs. “Where’s ‘e? I said where is ‘e?”



He sinks. When he can’t sink further, he opens his eyes. The shining world fills them. He puts his face to its surface.

“Where’s the sauce?”

“Couldn’t afford any.”


“It’s hard wi’ what government give us. Wi’ food prices an’ all.”

“Everything’s fucking my fault, en’t it? Where’s ‘e? GE’ DOWN ‘ERE I SAID.”

Each word becomes a depth charge, waiting for a wrong move. Warmth leaks out and yellows the sheets. Water leaks along a cheek. He crawls away from the dirty stain he’s not supposed to make and drops to the floor and wriggles under the bed. The light is in his eyes and inside him. It’s safer under here, like at the bottom of the sea. It’s easier to hide. A battered old action figure looks at him with dead eyes.

“Din’t say it’s your fault. I try.”

“Berra’ off eatin’ down’t Club.”

“Go then!”

He hears the hated sounds. Second-most. Firstmost. Cringes.

There’s a thudding sound, and his bedroom door explodes open. He holds his breath.

“Tol’ you ‘uh ge’ downstairs.”

“Leave ‘im, will ya?” Desperate.

“Fuckin’ ignore me?”

“If you touch ‘im…”

“Aye, yer’ll leave ‘us! Gerron wi’ it, then. Where are yer?”

The man whips the bedsheets away.

“Fuckin’ pissed the bed again? Eight year old, pissin’ bed?”

He hides the light inside so the best person at hide and seek would never find it. He is deep in a trench, deep under the sea.

Deep underwater, he lets a bubble of air escape, draws another. It’s soft like a gasp.

“There y’are. Hide from me, will ya?” The floorboard creaks, the man drops and looks at him with darkness in his eyes. The man’s breath is sour and ragged.

He follows the light inside him to deeper, deeper canyons.

The man reaches in and pulls him out. The bed scrapes along his head. Depth charges explode, spreading the darkness.

He keeps hiding in the light, deep, deep beneath the waves.

Above, a storm roars and thrashes and he sees the room spin around.

Deep down, the light is soft and doesn’t burn at all.

Bubbles burst from his mouth.

A whale sings far away, a sad and mournful sound.

The darkness closes in.

He follows the light inside.


I haven’t blogged about my writing for a long time. 


The reason is that I’ve been working on a new book, and have been involved in a writing circle which has vastly improved my writing abilities. All of my spare time has been spent on writing and critiquing other people’s work.


Finally, though, I have something to share. I’ve finished the first draft of a novel called Backpackers. It is a road trip / coming of age story, a long way from my usual science fiction. The draft is out with readers at the moment, and I’m eagerly anticipating their critical feedback.


In the meantime, I have a book cover for the novel, produced by What do you think of it?


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.

Kate Leland & women in sci-fi

In the last blog post I posted a teaser pic from my storyboards! The written blogpost before that was about getting feedback on planetfall book 1, and dealing with other people’s views of characters. In this blogpost I want to pick up from the feedback angle, and go into a little bit of detail about Kate Leland, the principal character in book 1:

I recently received a critique of the current draft of planetfall book 1. Amongst the various comments noting what worked and what needed more work, was a comment about the characters in the book, “I liked that women held many of the positions of power.”

Sci-fi has traditionally been a male preserve – or if not a male preserve, at least perceived by the vast majority of people as a male preserve. There have been few female role models or characters in sci-fi.

Two of the highest profile female characters in popular sci-fi are often singled out for the most criticism. Princess Leia Organa and Queen Amidala / Senator Padme Amidala, both from the Star Wars films, start off as strong characters, helping to drive the plot. In both trilogies (episodes IV-VI for Leia, and I-III for Padme) the lead female character becomes weak, insubstantial and subject to the whims of men. For Leia, she starts as an Ambassador to the Imperial Senate, is then revealed and seen in Empire Strikes Back to be a leader in the rebellion, and ultimately is reduced to a bikini model in Return of the Jedi, ineffectual, and desperate for the love of Han Solo. By the last film her leadership qualities have all but disappeared from the narrative. She is rescued by men after being subjugated, is desperate for Luke’s emotional bond, is repulsed by her connection to her father, is shot, injured and cared for by an ascendant Solo, who by now has turned from smuggler and rogue to dependable General, father figure and provider.

And so for Padme. In her first film she is a queen, a strong figure defending her people, and starts the first rebellion against the Trade Federation, personally leading her people into battle. In …Clones she is a senator to the Republican Senate, resists Anakin’s advances, and at the end is a warrior alongside the Jedi. Her tumble from the gunship at the end of the film foreshadows her loss of power in Revenge of the Sith. By the time of this film she is pregnant and emotional and clings to Anakin. To be fair, in a pregnant state, many women will want to be nesting and have the father around to provide stability. But her role as creator of the rebellion is missing from the film. The scenes were filmed, the political aspects of the film – which would round it out and make it a more mature piece – are left on the cutting room floor. We are left with Padme as a weak person, wobbling around with a swollen abdomen, unable to save the man she loves from becoming a murderer, unable to stop him from committing infanticide even as she carries his own children, and unable to stop him from turning to the Dark Side. Until eventually her desire to save the man she so long resisted results in her death at his hands.

One reasonable reading of this, is that no matter how strong women start off, they will end up as weak and ineffectual, in thrall to more charismatic men, while those same men go off and continue to decide their own fate and those of others (for good or ill).

In planetfall I deliberately wanted to avoid this.

The main character of book 1 is a woman, Kate Leland. Her character is intended to be the best of women in sci-fi. Strong, forthright, intelligent, and compassionate as well, but without that compassionate side being her undoing. Similar, in restrospect, to Captain Janeway in Star Trek Voyager.

The story centres around Kate’s desire to discover alien life forms, in a galaxy apparently barren of them. Early in the story (no spoilers, don’t worry) she is sent to investigate an apparent first contact situation. And she is sent against a powerful man. A man of no little dark mystery, who puts Kate in the way of conflict and inner turmoil.

I never considered that the main character in this book would be anything other than a woman. In fact I had no choice in the matter.

The first draft of the first 30 pages centred on Daoud, to set the scene on the Colony world of Fall. The character Sophie Argus followed within about 2 pages. Sophie was designed to be a strong character, someone who has more power than is at first apparent. She does in fact have more power than is apparent in book 1, but that, I hope, will come out in future books. For a short while Sophie was going to be the lead female character, and the more I dug into her character, the more I realised planetfall was all about her – and that this wasn’t the right book to make her the dominant, lead character. So she has a supporting role, and that left a gap in the story.

For a couple of months I was stuck at around 30 pages into book 1. I knew the overall storyboard, I knew who Daoud was and what he was up to, and I knew that he needed a foil, an equal, someone with whom he could dance through the narrative. I never considered that his foil would be a man: it had to be a woman. But if not Sophie, then who?

After a couple of months of struggling, I had a realisation about the way I was writing. My imagination was on the planet, in the colony, waiting for someone to arrive. Every time I looked out of the planet, up into its skies, I could see a ship approaching, but not who was in it. I could see into the future of the story and see someone arriving, but the details were missing, lost in darkness.

Eventually I realised I could just change my perspective. Rather than looking from Fall up into the skies, from Daoud’s perspective essentially, why not look the other way – from the perspective of the person approaching Fall. This realisation, this shift in perspective, took about 2 seconds to have an effect. With that re-alignment of the story’s camera, I was suddenly on a space station, with a team of 3 people. And sitting, in reality, in a coffee shop in Crouch End, I zoned out, my eyes blurred, I was locked into my mind’s eye, and – BANG! – out of nowhere, this woman walked into my head, fully formed, fully imaged, her character almost complete. Her name followed in the next minute or so. I knew it would start with a hard sound, something substantial, not a soft thing like ‘m’ or ‘w’ or a baby sound like ‘b’ or something weak like ‘f’. It would be a hard sound, to give the name an immediate punch. A hard ‘k’ sound popped up naturally. In the first month I hadn’t decided what the name was, and in my notebooks she wobbles between Karen and Kate. I eventually let go of the name Karen because it’s too lyrical, it rises and falls after the ‘k’ sound. Not so with Kate. It’s short, punchy, one syllable long, and ends with a similarly hard sound, ‘t’. Kate’s surname, ‘Leland’, just popped into my head once I had the ‘k’ sound to start the name. In the minutes afterward I tried to reason where it might have come from, and while in my subconscious there may be some proper explanation, as far as I can tell consciously, it just popped out. My back-casting would say it’s based on Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks. Or that it’s a nod to the defunct British Leyland brand, a sign, once, of solid engineering. But it’s neither of those things. ‘Kate Leland’ was just the name that popped out, and it doesn’t really bear closer scrutiny than the sounds of the first name.

Kate is the principal source of tension and conflict in the story. Her character has a journey to make, and a choice, too – she is presented with a dilemma by Daoud. Now Kate could quite easily sidestep the tension if she could think more strategically. Indeed, any major character in any book could avoid most of the tension and drama if they could just make certain connections quicker – but where would the fun be in that? And besides, it would make them gods, able to understand everything going on and able to influence it with omnipotence. I found, in the first few weeks of writing about Kate, a tension within myself. I wanted her to be strong and intelligent, and I wanted a decent female role model. And that meant not giving her any weaknesses. But of course we are human, and we all have weakness and lesser abilities amongst our strengths and capabilities. The challenge I found after that was how to make her all too human and keep her strong, while handicapping her so that the principal, central conflict of the story was maintained.

I found the answer in two places, which both led to the same answer: the first was a person I once worked with, an intelligent person who couldn’t see the wood for the trees, who was mired in their own prejudices, which would blind them to more strategic thinking. And second in my initial ability to know that someone was arriving on Fall as Daoud’s foil and the role they would play, matched to my inability to know who that was specifically. Kate’s weakness would be the same – far sighted enough to see the outcomes and consequences of events, and to make intelligent predictions about the future, while missing the key fact that would help her. This is reflected in parts of the book, for example, the sequence of Kate going into the tunnel:

“She gazed, searched, squinted into the darkness, the deep black with its mysteries so close, so hidden.”

There are examples in the first half of the book about Kate being unable to see, of her vision being obscured. The light that she really needs to illuminate her is missing – it is no coincidence that she is surrounded by holograms, which for the most part are insubstantial light, unreal and outside her body. They are are a false light, externally supplied information, where what she really needs is insight, internal illumination.

In the second half of the book, Kate’s character has a turning point, although its consequences are not fully realised in book 1. When she commits herself to a journey in the dark, the tunnel-as-metaphor, she makes a mental breakthrough, and her vision starts to clear. It doesn’t clear quickly enough to avoid the events of the book’s end, of course! The point where her character makes that leap in understanding is at the end of the tunnel, in the chapter, “Something wicked this way comes”, when this happens:

“Kate turned around, her eyes wide, still accustomed to the dark, to the claustrophobic airlock, the lightless pasage beyond, adrenalin coursing through her, and faced a bright, blinding light.”

Here she is still trapped by her inability to see what’s coming. She has approached but is blinded by the light, incapable of seeing what’s in front of her, what’s staring her in the face. Her journey through the darkness of the tunnel ends with a bright light. And here she has a final choice. Go back into the darkness, be “claustrophobic”, stay in the darkness the rest of her life, or go into the light, be ‘enlightened’, and learn a greater truth. Our major characters have to go through some test of faith, or even several tests, to prove themselves worthy of our admiration. Kate eventually commits to a course of action:

“Kate blinked, closed her eyes to slits and took two confident steps forward. She didn’t want to show weakness or panic again.”

Not one step forward but two. Far enough that she can’t take a simple step out of it.

By the end of book 1 she grows into a more mature character, is caught between different courses of action, each with horrendous consequences, and tries to navigate a course through them. And while there is a completeness in her actions at the end of the book, Kate’s story is unfinished. The outcome of her decisions are explored in more detail in book 2. And for that … you’ll just have to wait.

Creating the planetfall universe

In my last blog post I gave an outline of how planetfall came about – its genesis as a short story, as a writing exercise, and then its evolution as my own writing skills improved: the story of a Marine stretching to 200 pages, edited down to 35 pages, grown again to 75 pages, abandoned for a few years while I wrote a sub-plot, the realisation that the sub-plot was a book in its own right, and the eventual return to that Marine.

But how do you write a sci-fi book set one thousand years in the future, stretching across two books-worth of material (even if half of that has now been deleted)?

Some authors literally make it up as they go along. Or so they say. I often wonder how they develop complex characterisation and a realistic environment by making it up as they go along. I can’t believe there isn’t a little bit of planning in there.

My approach with planetfall started off like this – make it up as you go along. And I quickly realised that wouldn’t work. To make a universe realistic from the first page, the first paragraph, sentence – the first word – it has to seem lived in. It has to feel realistic to the reader. It has to feel like there’s an internal logic, even if the reader hasn’t yet discovered it.

I spent time developing a one thousand year history for planetfall. It starts from around 2050, covers humanity’s first foray to the edge of our solar system, and then its spread out into the galaxy. The major socio-political events are mapped out, the great technological turning points are described, and the artistic periods are mapped and named. Half-page to full-page mini stories, in the style of Wikipedia, exist to describe specific events that form the backdrop to certain characters. For example, Daoud, the Administrator of the Fall Colony, has several pages of character development. His story concerns a trip to Jupiter, and subsequent arguments with the shadowy Cadre which runs society.

For much of planetfall it should seem like references to the broader social universe are consistent – technology, feelings, cultures should all go to a common reference point, regardless of what the characters’ views are on them.

Sometimes there are points in planetfall where I realised there was a hole in history – where the story needed to reference cultural norms or events of the past which I hadn’t written. At those points I had to make decisions – do I make a throwaway reference and hope I don’t need to use it again, or do I take time out to flesh out the universe’s history?

In some cases – the trip Kiran takes out of system – I used throwaway references. The great thing with a galaxy of planets and stars is that you don’t have to return to them. With others – like the AIs and their levels and complexity – I had to sit down and figure out what they were, their characters and relationships.

The most important aspect of pre-writing development, however, is concerned with the characters. Characters in books need to be consistent (even if they are unpredictable, their unpredictable nature is at least predictable) so that the reader can form a relationship with them. In planetfall there are biographies for Daoud, Kate Leland and Sophie Argus, and lesser biographies for Win Ho-Yung, Djembe Cygnate and Doctor Currie – the six principal human actors of the story. Only one character has no developed character biography – Verigua, and that simply because the character wrote itself, and it essentially has no background. Kate, Win and Djembe also have drawings associated with them, which detail my initial thoughts on their view to life – are they people who look backward, who look forward, or who are happy in the moment?

For all the character development I carried out, characters still have their own life in the same way that sometimes new cultural reference points, historical events or places need to come into being to suit the story as it’s written. Djembe was the biggest surprise here.

I do not particularly like the character of Djembe. For many months I fought against the character and tried to make him less straight-backed and rigid and systematic. In the end I gave in and let the character write itself, and the writing became much easier. A salutory lesson in writing characters – they have their own life, they find their own place in the story, and regardless how much character development and universe creation I carried out,  the interaction between characters and environment always brought about story elements that I could never have predicted. Djembe’s antagonistic relationship with Verigua is one of them; Sophie’s fate is another (she had a different fate planned for her which I had to scrap when the story turned a different way).

There’s a common thread coming out here – sometimes the story writes itself, but only, I think, when the author has a deep understanding of it. I’m not sure if non-writers believe this. In many, many places of planetfall I do not feel I was in conscious control of the writing. Many times I would sit in a coffee shop (usually Costa Coffee in Crouch End) and simply read the story at the pace my hand was writing it. It was as new to me as a reader picking up the book for the first time. This is an amazing feeling, and I presume what people are referring to when they talk of their ‘muse’. When the story elements combine so well and are so embedded in the psyche that their immanence flows directly to creation of the story, bypassing the conscious mind and flowing straight from mind to hand.

This doesn’t happen without development and planning. And it also doesn’t happen without letting go of the story and characters and letting them interact on their own terms.

Some places in planetfall are completely planned – the sequence with Djembe and Verigua in the corridor was very carefully planned and measured and drawn – while others flow from letting go of the story – pretty much all of Verigua’s sections (bar the one just mentioned) and the events in the very last chapter (a complete surprise to me, and I almost did a little wee with excitement at one point when it went all 50s sci-fi B-movie on  me). However all of it exists within a framework, a story board I developed right at the start, which in around 20 frames tells the main story points from start to end: arrival on Fall, the trip to the surface, Kate’s travel through darkness, the arrival in the sky.

I guess the realisation I’ve come to is that I have a preferred writing style. I like to know what the universe is like before I find the story within it. Making up the universe is fun as you can put whatever you like in, and then the story can write itself, within a broad and flexible framework, over the top of it. And that broad and flexible framework has to provide enough room, space and air for the story to create itself, to write itself into being.

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.