There are a lot of ways to screw up writing science fiction. I’ve done pretty much all of them.Read More
Somewhere around the time that the world’s most powerful nation elected a direct hybrid of fascism and unwarranted white privilege as its leader, and my own country’s older generation decided to flush their descendants down a toilet of economic, social, and philosophical uncertainty, I remarked on Twitter that it was a tough time to be writing dystopian fiction. What with the rolling news of the day outpacing you for horrific developments.
I was hardly alone in that statement, it was one echoed by a thousand authors and writers, all of us spectacularly missing the point about the worst affected by these development and making it all about us.
But while the hardships of sitting at a desk trying to work out what things to make up hardly compare to those facing family separation or deportation, there still are difficulties in trying to navigate what future to paint for your readers during a time of such unrelenting uncertainty. I’ll wait while you get out your world’s tiniest violin to play while I tell you why.
For example, the book I’m writing at the moment has a strong current of corruption at corporate and governmental levels. But how the hell can I compete with the collision between stupidity and greed rolling across our feeds every waking moment? Every time I read about some other staggeringly unprecedented example of corruption by our current set of dear leaders, I have to bump up the level of corruption in my own tale. To do otherwise would be to appear idiotically naïve. Or worse, boring.
But where to put the line between reality and fiction? Recent BBC One hit The Bodyguard clearly felt the need to ramp up the potential narratives of political backstabbery beyond the levels of our current government, but because that level is ludicrously high the whole thing had a ring of unreality to it that was only just offset by its constantly moving plotline.
That’s not all. This is the first book I’ve written where I need to extrapolate a future world that will be recognisable to a modern audience, and hopefully not date as badly as Back to the Future Two (love that film, but hands up everyone who dresses like that and has a hoverboard). This presents a very strange challenge, of picking things to show that could change in the interim, be they technology and gadgets, transport, infrastructure, scientific understanding, cultural progression, or just how people eat their food. Pick just one of these things and keep everything else the same and there’s going to be people wondering why the hell people are still using cars a hundred years in the future. Change it all, and you’re in serious danger of overloading with change, and having to info-dump to do it.
The key, I think (hope), is in trying to show only that which impacts on the central plot, or the journey of the characters. Still, that can be daunting when you consider that characters are going to travel, they’re going to communicate digitally, they’re going to eat food. You need to show that, without being all ‘hey look at the changes I’m predicting’. On the other hand, you can’t just ignore it like every movie in the 90’s did when it came to mobile phones.
In short, writing a dystopia is challenging. I have sheets of notes on changes that the world might go through in the next hundred years. Most of it won’t come true. In fact, it’s probably better for humanity if not much of it comes true. Either way, I’d really like to stop the news cycle for a few years, so I can get this damn book out without it being dated before it even launches.
Which is probably the worst reason ever to be scared about the news.
Blood on the Motorway: An apocalyptic trilogy of murder and stale sandwiches is out now in ebook and print from Amazon and all other good bookstores. You can get the first book free by joining my mailing list or read along at Wattpad. Oh, and I’ve got a Patreon.
I’m back in the word mine once more, hacking away at the big bit of marble in front of me, trying to find the beauty within it. Except, this is a first draft, so it’s more like attacking a solid lump of tinned spaghetti with a broken chisel, flailing about randomly, hacking off bits here and there and praying that the whole thing doesn’t just come down around me in a mess of gelatinous and inedible tomato paste.
At least, that’s what it feels like. But so far, I’m really enjoying the mess.
Over the years, I’ve vacillated between two schools of writing thought: Pantsing and plotting. When I first started, I did the only thing I knew to do, which was to ‘pants’ my writing. If you’re not familiar with the term, it comes from the phrase ‘to fly by the seat of your pants,’ and basically means writing with no real idea where you’re going, to see where you end up. It’s also called discovery writing, and it’s what Stephen King does.
Somewhere in the writing of the Blood on the Motorway series, I decided to turn my hand to being more of a plotter. I was, after all, a PROPER writer now, with a book out and everything, so I should take this thing seriously, and plotting ahead of time seemed like the best way to get a grip on story structure, narrative arcs, and all that jazz.
I kept up with this even beyond the trilogy, with the first 150,000 words or so of the Chronicles of Mar being written to a plot outline decided before I put a single word of draft down. It worked well, I think, although the proof of that will come when I come back to write the second drafts.
But when I came to do Nanowrimo (the annual writing challenge to write 50,000 words in a month) last year, I was behind schedule and didn’t have a chance to prep. I decided I might as well just pants that chunk, and just chuck it if it came out garbage. Except it didn’t. I was really pretty chuffed with it, and when it came to do the next chunk of writing at the beginning of the year, I did the same again. Now I’m starting back at the word mine once more, and once more I’m going in blind.
It’s a really surreal feeling, and I don’t think there’s anything that feels better than not knowing what the 1000 words you’re about to write are going to be about, or where they’re going to take you. It’s bewildering, and surprising, like you’re letting someone else take the wheel and tell you a story, through your own fingers and some kind of story magic. It’s addictive, and I find the words come much easier in this method, even if I know that a lot more work will be needed to whip them into shape than the other methods.
So, I guess I’ve put my pants back on. It’s probably for the best.
In other news, I’ve been redesigning the website a bit, and I’ve added a new feature for those of you who want to support the blog, my writing, or just generally me, outside of buying the books. If you like this post, and want to tip me the cost of a cup of coffee, you can do that by pressing the button marked ‘Buy me a coffee.’ Oh, and if you don’t want to miss out on any of these posts moving forward, there’s now a mailing list just for the blog, which will send you an update every Friday. Just click the button marked ‘subscribe.’
Blood on the Motorway: An apocalyptic trilogy of murder and stale sandwiches is out now in ebook and print from Amazon and all other good bookstores. You can get the first book free by joining my mailing list.
I like writing in multi-narrative arcs. It’s just the way my mind works. Most of the time, though, it’s a bit like herding falafel or juggling the abstract concept of time. Still, I’m daft, so I do like a challenge. This week, as I’ve been going through a thousand tattered pieces of story structure advice that I’ve ripped out of the Big Book of Internet, I’ve been thinking a lot about my next series, and the narrative arcs contained within.
The whole series is going to take place over nine books and ten years, and is going to have enough disparate narrative arcs to make George RR Martin sit down and have a good hard look at his life. It’s a global series, too, with an over-arching plot that will take in England, America, Nigeria, China, and Russia, and a honking great Ice Moon. And that’s just the opening trilogy. Since that’s a lot of ground to cover, I’m going to need different people in all those places, feeding into the main narrative.
This is where my focus has been over the last week. Each of these character arcs are going to need to be satisfying in their own regard, while ultimately serving the greater whole of the novel. Some of them might have an arc that will spill over three books, but their tale within each novel will also need to be a satisfying tale in its own merit. On top of that, each book in the series needs to be its own complete and distinct thing, because there’s nothing worse than getting to the end of a book and feeling like you’ve only had half a meal.
Be a novelist, they said. It’ll be easy, they said.
As I look over the tattered pieces of digital paper that make up my notes, I’m still getting that tingle of excitement from knowing that I’ve got something… exciting. I really love the characters, and I’m getting very heavy into thinking about the dystopian future that they inhabit. There’s different elements here that are going to play as straight up horror, there’s sci-fi noir elements, there’s big ideas and little surprises. If I can get it all together to sing, it’ll really be something.
This week, it’s back to writing. I’ve got two more chunks of narrative arcs to write, another 50,000 words or so, and then I should have the first trilogy in the series fully drafted. One full draft of hot mess and writing that’s fit for the bin, but enough nuggets in there that the second daft should be good fun.
Blimey, I’ve only had two weeks off writing and I’m already thinking of it as being fun. I wonder how long that will last.
Before I go, just a reminder that my March Mayhem book giveaway is only running until the end of this week, so if you want to get your hands on Blood on the Motorway and over twenty other horror books, completely free, you should hit the image below as hard as your little finger (or mouse) can do without hurting your finger.
Chronicles of Mar word count: 258,103 words
One of the weird things that I’ve discovered about trying to write a series in bits and pieces is that there is no longer the sense of beginning and ending. Which is weird, when you’re a storyteller. With the Blood on the Motorway trilogy, I wrote three books, in order, and didn’t think much about the next book in the series until I was done with the one before it. Thus, when I finished a draft, I got to do the thing where I celebrated, maybe had a glass or two of wine. Or a vineyard’s worth. It’s a very satisfying thing, to type The End.
Now I’m writing a full six-book series, with interweaving narratives, plots that span years, and nothing where it was originally intended to be. I wrote an entire book but realised it was actually better split over two books and mixed in with other narrative threads that were written for what was originally book two in the series. Then, having looked at the timelines, I decided that some of those threads should really be in book three or four in the series. It all ends up a bit like Charlie in It’s Always Sunny trying to work out who Pepe Silvia is.
That’s left some gaps, which is what I’ve been working on so far this year. Two timelines, one new, one a continuation of an earlier thread, which aren’t even going to end up in the same book. 50,000 words, all told, written alongside each other, feeding into each other, then to be torn asunder. It’s all a bit strange.
Not only that but as I round the last corner of this chunk of 50,000 (I should finish it tonight if I get this update written quickly enough) my reward for completing two random strands is… two more random strands to write!
Now, once those are done, I’ll have the first drafts of three whole novels, in the bag. Then will come the wine. After the wine comes the tough work of pulling them apart, seeing what goes where, judging the narrative arcs (more on that for another day), having an in-depth look at the characters, and all the other fun things that second drafts are for.
But for now, after fifty straight days of hitting a thousand words, I feel burned out by the whole ordeal, and the thought of picking up two new strands sounds like hell on earth. So, that must mean it’s time to take a break, put the keyboard down for a bit, and focus on something else.
That something else is going to be digging deep into some craft stuff. I’ve found some great tutorials that Brandon Sanderson did on creative writing on Youtube, and I’ve recently found the writing vids that Jenna Moreci does that are both insightful and funny as hell. That’ll probably lead to a whole rabbit warren of other things. Then I’ve downloaded some books on Craft, and I’ve been burning through the Story Grid podcast. Oh, and I have one eye on Aaron Sorkin’s Masterclass course because Aaron Freakin Sorkin.
So, a week off words, a week (or maybe two) of diving into the craft, and then hopefully it’s back to the grindstone to pull another 50,000 words out of my arse before the summer.