Sunday, July 6, 2014

Finding Horizon: writing process

The way to Horizon (my first novel) was very different to how I approached the Lenticular Series. Horizon was conceived as a novel from the very first, mainly because I had to come up with an idea for the novel module of the Professional Writing and Editing course I did at Holmesglen TAFE.

So while the Lenticular grew out of a series of short stories and was written, at least in first draft, in a more 'stream of consciousness' way, albeit following a loose structure, Horizon was very much 'planned' rather than 'pantsed' because that's what the course required.

Before I even wrote my first line of dialogue I had to think hard about what I wanted Horizon to be about, what themes it would follow. This meant I had to write an outline, and here's an extract of what I had to provide to my course tutor, Ray Mooney:

The premise of the story thrusts the crew of the Explorer Ship Magellan into a pivotal role in deciding the fate of humanity, even though they are very far from Earth. While the plot will be the main driver, the characterisation will also play a major part in developing the themes of the story.  The characters will not follow the stereotypic ‘space hero’ mould.  As much as possible they will be real people with hopes, fears, strengths and weaknesses placed in an extraordinary situation.  Specifically, their characterisation will be used to explore:
  • the reasons individuals may have for abandoning a life on Earth for an extremely dangerous mission from which they may never return
  • the feelings of loss etc. that they encounter when they are faced with the reality of  being fifty-five years out of step with the rest of humanity and the culture clash that this involves
  • the paranoia, mistrust and power struggles that can emerge very quickly even among the most well-balanced individuals, and
  • how the characters face the ethical dilemma of being asked to help a humanity that they no longer feel any connection with, and what they must do in order to live with their decision.

The story by its very nature will also convey a number of scientific concepts which are currently at the boundaries of technological discovery including:
  • the use of quantum effects to extract propulsive energy from the vacuum of space
  • the advances which allow a long range deep space mission to take place, including developments in space medicine and the prolongation of human life
  • developments in computing which allow the construction of fully fledged artificial intelligence capable of learning and developing independently of its original programming, and
  • the sociological effects of advances in human/ computer interfaces which will allow people to vastly augment their cognitive functions and ultimately exist in cyberspace.

 First and foremost however the story will be an exciting action adventure of the near future.
Looking back on this now, I'm pleased the current draft of Horizon is able to deliver on all of these intentions. And you'll also see from the above that I wanted as far as possible to address the hard science aspects of my story. That meant a lot of research, far more than was required for the Lenticular because Horizon is a far more grounded future history of humanity. So I leant heavily on New Scientist articles, Scientific American and also a well-thumbed copy of World-Building: A Writer's Guide to Constructing Star Systems and Life-Supporting Planets by Stephen L Gillet which was one of Ben Bova's Science Fiction Writing Series books. For a guy who keeps The Complete Idiot's Guide to Astronomy close to his writing desk, I needed all the help I could get when it came to 'real science'. 

As part of the planning process I also needed to produce a detailed plot summary up front. Of course that didn't mean I had to follow it slavishly, but certainly for a first-time novel writer I appreciated the security of knowing where I wanted to go. While I haven't been so organised with the Lenticular Series this was slightly different because I had a series of short stories to rely on. However there are still times when I break off from writing and take some time to plot in detail the major beats that I want to get to as I write.

The other important element of writing Horizon as part of a TAFE course, was the deadlines and regularity that imposed. Every two weeks I had to submit a minimum of 3,000 words which was then workshopped. That meant by the end of the year I had a good 60,000+ words which is well on its way to novel length.

Of course even with all this pre-planning and structured writing, Horizon has had to go through a number of rewrites, edits and major and minor changes - and no doubt still has more to come if it gets picked up for publication. This writing practice is essential, and the passage of time between drafts is also an important part of my process. Firstly because my writing (hopefully) gets better with time, but secondly because when you're in the middle of creation sometimes you gloss over something just so you don't get held up or stymied. You may not even be conscious you're doing it. It's only with hindsight you can see the flaws, or come up with a more elegant way to deal with the plot issues you see or the characters you have in play. Write, edit, repeat. That's what it comes down to. And finally, publish.

You can find out more information about Horizon on the Horizon Page

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