The Arkship Ulysses – Chapter 20

28 October 2014

Chapter 20: Gambits

Length: 5,851 words

POV character: Abi


Abi is determined to find out the truth about what’s really going on on the ship. Resorting to desperate measures, she steals an ident card from one of the most powerful men on the ship and then takes a uniform hostage. Using these two sources, Abi starts to piece together the truth but it’s a truth that’s unlike anything she was expecting to hear.

What she finds out shocks Abi to her core. But is it too late to do anything about it? Ultimately, what can she – a single terrified woman trapped between two worlds – really do when the entire fate of the human race is at stake?


Hard to believe it’s been over a month since I last posted a chapter on here. Dear God this chapter was hard to write.

True, I’ve been ill for the last two weeks. And true I was in England recently. It’s also true that my wife and I are starting to look for a new house, and that I’m currently in the middle of being promoted. But these are only excuses designed to salvage my pride.

The truth is, I took a long time writing this chapter because I got… writer’s block.


Not this type of writer’s block, either

It’s one of those strange things about writing that never fails to amaze me:

Sometimes writing just seems to flow. The ideas pop out of your mind, one behind the other. It happens too fast for you to keep up sometimes. You get lost in the act of creation. It’s fun. Chapter 16 was a good example of me during one of those times. If you read the notes I made for that chapter now, you get a real sense of the swagger and verve with which I was attacking my work.

Other chapters, however… The words won’t come. It’s like trying to push out the world’s most painful bowel movement. You find yourself actively trying to procrastinate. You’d rather do anything other than tackle that Godforsaken scene.

In this case, the problem was with my outline.

You see, long before writing this book, I sat down and created an outline for it. It was a simple document (as all outlines should be) of just a few pages. It was designed to do little more than help me keep track of my characters and set the overall tone for the book. Suffice to say I have digressed from that outline multiple times during the course of writing this book but the overall shape of the story remains the same. I like outlines. Usually I find they help keep the mind focused. Just a couple of sentences is enough sometimes to prod your creative mind off in the right direction.

It keeps me motivated.

Sometimes, however, this system breaks down. Take, for example, this chapter. The ‘notes’ I had written for it were ludicrously sparse things: “Abi sneaks into Hathaway’s quarters while he’s away and finds out the truth about what’s going on on the ship. Scene ends with her running for help.”

That’s pretty much it.

Laughable, right? I mean, how could anyone think that was enough to go on? But the sad truth was, I really thought it was. After all, hadn’t I set up the events for this chapter perfectly in the last one? Hadn’t I made sure to give Abi both the motivation and the opportunity to pull off this scheme? My outline for this chapter didn’t need to be detailed because at this stage, the chapters should be practically writing themselves!

Except that they don’t.

Time after time I would sit down with my notes in front of me and the fragments of story that my earlier drafts had left me and I would try to start putting it all together. And every time, no sooner had I started writing than some inner part of me would pipe up, “This is stupid.”

“Abi shouldn’t be snooping around in Hathaway’s office!” that inner critic cried. “Why would she do that? It’s the most dangerous place on the whole ship. She wouldn’t go there at the best of times, least of all when she’s on the run from the law!”

Then I would stop writing and I would turn to that inner critic, eyes rolling and excuses already spilling from my tongue. “Trust me,” I would say. “I know this girl. I know who she is. Abi has two motivations in life right now. 1) she wants to find out what’s going on on the ship and 2) she wants to get away from those who keep trying to control her life and reclaim control for herself. In Abi’s mind, she believes she can only accomplish point 2 by doing point 1 first and so finding out the truth is her central motivation!”

“By sneaking off?” the inner critic sneered. “By snooping around? That doesn’t sound like the Abi you’ve spent the last two years writing about. That sounds like something the old version of Abi would do. The flat, two dimensional version of Abi that only exists in that sorry excuse for an outline.”

“Hey!” said my outline, slightly offended, though it didn’t say anything else. As I’ve already mentioned, it is a very short document and never has much to say for itself.

“The Abi you’ve been writing about for the last few years is better than this. She would never be so stupid as to march right into the middle of the most heavily guarded area on the ship just to satisfy her curiosity!”

“True,” I said. And somehow a whole week flew by.

“Not only that but reading about someone snooping around in a filing cabinet gets boring very quickly,” the critic added. “Surely no one would want to read what essentially amounts to a list of documents?”

“True,” I reluctantly agreed and suddenly another fortnight had gone.

“But what can I do instead?” I despaired. “This is one of those chapters which simply has to happen because it’s here that the entire central gambit is unveiled to the reader! I have to put something here! I can’t just cut it out or write around it. Abi needs to have her turning point. Her character needs to have its moment of glory. What should I do?” I asked my outline, who just shrugged at me and repeated the same short line it had been saying for the last two years. “What should I do?” I asked my inner critic.

“That’s for you to figure out,” my inner critic sniffed. In my mind’s eye I saw him sipping a glass of brandy. “I’m just here to criticize. You’re the one who’s supposed to write.”

Writer’s block is a horrible, debilitating thing. It makes you doubt yourself. It makes you doubt the story you’re trying to tell. It makes you feel like a failure.

Fortunately, there’s always a solution to any problem and in this particular case, the solution to clearing the writer’s block was to add another character. A uniform in fact – one of the people whom Abi hates the most on the whole ship. And if she is to reassert control over her life, then who better to do it with than McMullen, a character who had already briefly appeared in an earlier chapter and with whom Abi had a bone to pick. It would create a nice mini-character arc, a moment of closure and redemption in the eyes of the reader.

So instead of snooping around, I now have Abi taking the man hostage. Instead of having her looking through a filing cabinet pulling out documents, she now demands answers from him personally at gun point. It’s a much more human approach to problem solving and (most importantly) I feel it’s more interesting to read. My inner critic was satisfied. So was my outline. At least this way the plot has been salvaged.

The chapter’s done. I can finally put this whole episode behind me. Right now I feel like Zeus must have felt after giving birth to Athena via a migraine. Onwards to the future and the third act of the book…

I just hope it’s easier this time!

The Arkship Ulysses – Chapter 19

29 September 2014

Chapter 19: Something new

POV character: Stuart

Length: 5,686 words


It’s Earth Day and in the Captain’s quarters the beautiful unspoken girl Kara is finally unveiled to the gathered nobility. She is to be the Captain’s future wife – the so-called savior of the ship and all its woes. But not everyone is happy about it.

Stuart watches from his hiding place, fascinated by the events unfolding in the rooms below. He wants to keep watching and find out what happens next but unfortunately there are more pressing concerns. His captor is becoming increasingly suspicious of Stuart. She questions him, pressing him for answers that come a little too close to unveiling his secret.

At the same time, Stuart’s connection with the ship is starting to unravel. He knows that he needs to fix these rooms quickly if he is to have any hope of stabilizing the connection, but to do that he’s going to need to get rid of his captor.

Stuart finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place, forced to tread a difficult middle ground between the woman’s inquiry and the voice’s erratic demands to simply wash his hands of her and walk away for good.


I know – you don’t need to say anything. This chapter is extremely late in coming.

No excuses. True, I’ve been late with chapters before but this one was more than two weeks overdue. Two weeks! I’m sure on the surface it just looks like I’m slouching, especially considering the post I made not two months ago about how well my progress has been going of late. I’m sure you guys are just rolling your eyes thinking, “See? I knew he’d mess up.”

I know it’s what I’m thinking about myself.

What makes it even more frustrating is that I’m almost certainly going to miss my original deadline of finishing this book by my birthday. In fact, at my current writing speed I’ll be lucky to get it out before Christmas. That makes me sad to report.

So why the sudden slow down?

Well there are a number of reasons, a couple of which I’ll be posting about later this week, but the main reason is simply due to the fact that writing an ending is much harder than I thought it would be.

And to be fair, I had no way of knowing that in advance. I mean, I’ve written a lot of beginnings over the years. Dozens of the things. I have whole folders full of files on my PC made up of nothing more than novels I started and then abandoned long ago. It’s safe to say at this point that when it comes to writing story openings, I am something of a master. I’m pretty good at middles too.

Endings though? Not so much. In fact, this will be just the third time that I’ve reached one.

George R. R. Martin once said that writing a novel is a bit little going on a train journey. You know where your train is starting from and you know where your journey is going to end but you don’t know much about the journey in between. You don’t know, for example, what stations you’ll be stopping at. You don’t know what interesting people you might see on the train. You know nothing about the scenery you’ll be passing through. All you know is where you’re starting and where you’ll finish. The rest you leave to the journey.

I’ve always felt much the same way with my own writing. For me, the end of the story is usually one of the first things that pops into my head when I’m still in the drafting stage. First I come up with an interesting setting. Then I’ll place a character into that setting and – pow, just like that – there’s a story with a logical end materializing before my eyes. It’s like entering a complex sum into a calculator. You already know what the answer is because it’s written there on the screen.

Now you just need to show your workings.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I always assumed that just because I knew what the ending of this book was going to be, it would somehow make it easier to write. I’ve spent such a long time battling with this novel’s middle section. I’ve chopped out whole characters. I’ve rewritten huge chunks of the plot and completely reworked how A gets to B. It was a really hard slog but in the back of my mind I would always be thinking, “At least I know where my ending is. All I need to do is write X more chapters and then I’ll be there!”

Often it was the sole thought that kept me writing.

Now I realise the truth. Just because I know what’s going to happen in my book, doesn’t make it any easier to write. I still have loads of plot threads to tie up. I still have momentum to maintain. I have secrets to reveal and pages to keep turning. I have readers to satisfy.

Writing an ending is hard.

But – and this is important – at least I know that I will get there eventually. Because the fact is that I am near the end and I do know what’s going to happen when I get there. At this point I know that there aren’t going to be anymore surprises. There aren’t going to be any random characters appearing out of nowhere or sudden sub-plots taking the story in some whole new direction. For the first time, I’m writing with my face fully turned in the direction I’m traveling. It’s terrifying and it’s a lot of hard work but for the first time I can finally see that train station looming into view.

I just need to get the train there now. Even if it means getting out and giving it a push.

The Arkship Ulysses – Chapter 18

8 September 2014

Chapter 18: Earth Day

Length: 8,923 words

POV character: Father Estavan and Abi


It’s Earth Day and time is now up for Father Estavan and Abi. Tonight is the night that the Captain will finally gather with the most powerful people on the ship and Kara will be presented before him.

The Captain suspects that there’s more going on than it seems but he is powerless to do anything about it. Instead, he welcomes Kara into her new quarters and gifts her with servants to serve at her beck and call.

With all the changes happening in her life, Kara doesn’t even need Abi anymore. But that’s just as well because Abi has errands of her own to run, ones that will soon take her deep inside the mysteries of this wedding and allow her to finally find out what’s really going on underneath all the politics once and for all.


Oh man where to start with this chapter?

For one thing, it took me a lot longer to write than I originally planned. I’m sorry about that but this is, after all, a pivotal moment for Abi and Estavan’s characters and I needed to get it right. We’re right at the end of the second act now. This is the tipping point for many of these characters and I needed to get it right.

However… just between you and me, I’m actually getting a bit worried by all the ‘word creep’ going on lately.

My original plan for this book was that it would contain 20 chapters of 5,000 words each, bringing the total number of words to around 100,000. Why that many? Well as a first time writer, conventional wisdom says that it’s very difficult to get published if your book is longer than 100,000 words. Sure, big name authors like George R. R. Martin can get away with publishing door-stop tomes three or four times longer than this because the publishing company can be almost guaranteed to make their money back. For first time writers, however, the odds aren’t nearly as good.

Every bit of wisdom I’ve ever read on the subject has always counseled to keep your first novel short if you want to see it in print.

However, the opposite piece of wisdom is that a book needs to be as long as it needs to be in order to tell the story you’re trying to tell. And believe me this book is as long as it needs to be. I’ve already cut a lot of the fat out of this book. I’ve removed characters and whole sub-plots, often ones I’ve grown really attached to. I’ve been forced to simplify the core situation and streamline its issues in an attempt to slim the book down… I thought I’d done enough.

The sad truth is, though, that books tend to grow in the telling and I already know that this one – even with my attempts to the contrary – will run to at least 25 chapters. Additionally, as is the case of this chapter, many of these chapters are starting to run much longer than their 5,000 word limit. At this stage, I think I’ll be lucky to get the final book in under 150,000 words and that’s a very sad thing to report.

I fear another redraft may be needed after this one, one that features nothing more than me going through each line and hitting the delete key as I go. I’m really not looking forward to that.

But that’s one of the reasons why I’m ‘publishing’ the book here. These chapters are supposed to serve as a record, not only of the writing process but the actual work itself. This is a writer producing a book with the door thrown wide open. You can see the process, you can understand the reasoning, you can experience the ups and the downs, and, hopefully, you’ll get to witness the final triumph at the end.

By the way, I’ve totally fallen in love with Abi’s character after writing this chapter. Easily my favourite in the whole book. I hope you grow to love her too.

The Arkship Ulysses – Chapter 10

30 June 2014

Chapter 10: A Man Besieged

Length: 7,210

POV character: Estavan


Father Estavan finally gets his change to meet with the Captain and explain his plan to save the ship from the food crisis it’s suffering from. It’s a very controversial plan to say the least but Father Estavan is certain it will work. The only hard part will be first convincing the Captain that it’s the right thing to do.


This was a very difficult chapter to redraft. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve decided to completely remove one of my story’s main protagonists for this redraft in order to help slim the novel down and simplify its overall plot.

The ‘death’ of that character, Brian, was a painful one, but in hindsight I still think it was the right thing to do. Removing Brian from the novel meant that the story was able to unfold much more quickly whilst also keeping tonally consistent throughout. For the most part, I’ve been able to simply cut his chapters out completely, transferring any vitally important exposition from them to other chapters.

This chapter, however, was a problem.

You see, unlike other chapters originally written from Brian’s POV, I couldn’t simply cut this one out of the book. It’s probably one of the most important chapters in terms of setting things up for the novel’s end game and there was no way I could simply write around that.

As a result, I was forced to rewrite the chapter completely from the POV of a different protagonist and the logical choice for who was Father Estavan. This is his plan we’re looking at here, after all, so it made sense.

So far, so logical you think. What’s the problem?

Well, the problem is that Father Estavan and Brian are two very different characters. So different, in fact, that it turned out to be almost impossible to have the chapter play out the way I’d originally planned it with all the elements slotting into place as they needed to be and (most importantly) the characters also remaining consistent throughout.

I think I’ve managed to work my way around it but the end result is… well, not as good as it used to be if I’m brutally honest. The chapter is very long and very talky. In fact, I think this is now the most dialogue-heavy chapter in the book, which isn’t something to be proud of.

Oh well, sometimes you have to wade through the dull in order to better appreciate the good and ‘A Man Besieged’ is certainly a very important chapter, falling as it does at the halfway point of the book and reveling many important details that will play out over the rest of the novel.

With this chapter, all the cards are now on the table. A discerning reader should be able to work out what’s really going on here, and from that knowledge… well, now we can get to the really good stuff.

The Arkship Ulysses – Part 2

24 June 2014

POV character: Michael

Length: 6,132 words


The captain hasn’t been idle during all of these events. Through back story, we find out that he has been aware of the pending food crisis for a long time but, due to a combination of bullying from the Priesthood and bold-faced deceit from his own crew, he has had his hands tied about how much he can do to prevent it. The Captain is little more than a puppet waiting for the right person to come along to pull his strings and it turns out he always has been.


I love back story.

Making things richer and deeper is my raison d’être as a writer. Nothing brings a smile to my face more than being able to get away with writing page after page of expositionary world building.

You have to work for such moments, of course. Not everyone likes wading through infodump, especially when it comes right at the beginning of a novel. Telling the reader too much, too soon without giving them some sort of emotional anchor is one of the best ways of getting someone to stop reading your book.

You have to earn the right to indulge.

Fortunately, this chapter comes right on the back of three pretty intense action-filled chapters so I felt more than justified in putting it here to serve as a kind of prologue to part two. I hope that by keeping the focus on the Captain and his central dilemma I’ve managed to keep the exposition interesting even for those readers who normally don’t like it. At the very least, I hope that adding this back story here helps to add some important layers of complexity to what might otherwise seem like a very simple issue. The unspoken are explained in full in this chapter as is the role of the Captain: two very important details that will pay out in dividends further down the road.

That’s one of the reasons why I love George R R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire so much. No matter how many times you read it, and no matter how much time you spend looking through online forums or reading fan theories, there’s always something new to discover in his books. His writing is deep and complex. His world – for all its logical inconsistencies with scale and practicality – feels like a real living and breathing world. It feels like a place you could genuinely go to visit. His writing rewards a patient reader.

I have always wanted to be able to say the same about my own writing. This chapter is my own meagre contribution to that goal.

One year later… Redrafting my novel

4 March 2014

One year ago, I finished the first draft of my magnum opus, the Arkship Ulysses. Despite what you might think, this was not the crowning moment of glory that I was expecting it to be. In fact, it was more akin to that feeling you get when staggering across the finish line in a marathon and realising you don’t have to keep running anymore.

‘Exhausted,’ would be a good word to describe it. But I felt frustrated too.


This is pretty much what I look like when I’m writing

You see, by that point I’d been writing the book solidly for well over two years (it was, in fact, the reason I started this blog in the first place). It was a novel I’d had going round my head for almost 15 years before that; a novel I’d been tinkering with on and off for as long as I’d been calling myself a writer.

And yet, despite months of dragging myself through draft after draft towards that ever-elusive end goal, despite days spent shirking my day job so I could sit in a café and tap away at my ever-growing manuscript, I still found myself unhappy with it. The draft I finished last year contained some of the best stuff I’ve ever written, but the story itself felt messy and over-complicated – a confused tangle of ideas and characters that never truly felt as though they were gelling into a cohesive whole.

Let me tell you: it pains me to admit that to you.

I mean, I love this book’s setting. I adore the characters I’ve created. But no matter how hard I tried, I could never seem to get the two things to work together as well as I wanted. I would put these characters which I loved into a setting I adored and I would say to them, “Go! Do things!” only to watch those very same characters kind of amble about aimlessly like a bunch of drunken goldfish swimming round a bowl. (Not that Goldfish come in bunches, of course, but you get what I mean). No matter what I did, I could never seem to get the characters to do anything that was both plausible and interesting and my novel just seemed to flounder along, growing exponentially in size as it struggled to find its purpose.

Time and again I found myself going back to those early chapters, fiddling around with the timeline and shoving characters around just to try to get it to work. But it never did. The plot lines remained oblique; the heart of the story elusive.

The theft of my laptop last December was the final straw. In a fit of pique, I declared the first draft done, handed it over to a couple of people to read and then moved on with my life, ready to marry and learn how to drive and all that other good, wholesome 2013 stuff.

Now, one year later, I think it’s time to go back…

The Initial Idea

The Arkship Ulysses started out as my answer to Star Trek Voyager.

I realise that makes me sound like the biggest dork in the world, but you need to realise what I mean when I say ‘answer’. You see, I’ve been a huge fan of Star Trek for as long as I can remember. I grew up watching it on TV. I collected all the toys. I built ships out of Lego. I filled the margins of my school textbooks with my own homemade star ships. In many ways, it was my first introduction to the world of SF and it was almost exclusively thanks to this that I became the fan of SF that I am today.

I so wanted to like this show

I so wanted to like this show

Star Trek Voyager, however, was different.

I was 12 when it first aired and I remember the build up to its pilot episode as being this almost torturous wait. Here was a Star Trek show that promised to be like no other. It’s premise was fascinating: a ship stranded on the other side of the galaxy, lost in an uncharted realm of space surrounded on all sides by enemies. No back up. No relief. The fractured and demoralised crew would be forced to survive using nothing but their own wits.

So strong was the show’s premise, in fact, that I was almost halfway through season 3 before I realised that I hated it.

The show was terrible. I’m not going to go into exactly why it was so bad here (if you’re interested, there are many great places you can go to find out exactly why it sucked so bad) but for me, the biggest problem was that there were never any consequences to anything that was happening. I was expecting to tune in each week to witness the crew being pushed ever closer to their limits. I was expecting to see the ship break down over time, both in terms of its physical condition but also in terms of the mental well-being of the crew, who would become fractured towards one another over time. I expected to see the formation of distinct cliques: those who agreed with the Captain and her Holier-Than-Thou decision to strand the ship in the Delta quadrant and those who just wanted to go home. Fights would break out between officers during their off-duty hours which would then spill over into their workdays. The crew would constantly be on a knife-edge with each other — forced to work together so they don’t all die but willing to stab each other in the back at the first possible opportunity.

In short, I wanted what Battlestar Galactica would later prove to be.

Ignore these people. None of them matter

Ignore these people. None of them matter

Instead, we got aliens of the week and the occasional diatribe about how much life sucked now the crew couldn’t have unlimited coffee. Every week the ship looked as factory fresh as the week before and despite there only being 150 crew members on board at the start of the series, we still never got to hear about any of them outside the main seven.

I felt robbed. And so my childish mind decided to rectify the situation…

Draft #1 — The Anti-Voyager

One evening, after a particularly bad episode of Voyager (I believe it was the one with the Macroviruses, though I could be wrong), I sat down with an old exercise book and started plotting out my own version of the show.

Straight away, I decided to do away with any idea of my ship ever getting home as I felt it was precisely this lingering promise of an eventual return to Earth that was at the root of so many of Voyager’s problems. Without going into it too much, there were waaaay too many episodes of the show that revolved around the crew discovering some strange Space Phenomena that might bring them home, only to have their hopes dashed at the last second with a single press of that reset button.

This, believe it or not, doesn’t make for gripping TV.

In my version, I decided, there would be none of that. My ship would be huge – a city in space – and it would be stranded much further from home than the piddly Voyager: 500 years instead of just 70. In fact, I decided that our main characters would be the descendants of the original crew meaning they knew nothing of the Federation and the Earth except what their ancestors had told them. Over the years these people had slowly lost sight of their Federation principles. They had become feudal and aggressive towards one another. The very idea of returning to Earth was just a vague fairytale told to children; a fantasy none of them really believed would ever happen. All any of them really cared about was bullying the other alien races in that part of space and ruling over them as kings.

712L The Observers web

I also decided to make my ship spherical, since I could think of almost no examples of round ships in SF apart from the Death Star in Star Wars and everyone knows how cool that ship is

I should probably point out that I’d just finished reading The Savage Stars at around this time, which definitely had an impact on the feel of that early draft. Suffice to say, there was a lot of sex in it… horribly written, adolescent sex that I shudder to read these days.

Anyway, not many ideas survive from that early draft to the present day. The only exception to this is the names of the main characters, which remain the same even now: Michael the Captain, Susan his confident, Brian the chief engineer, and Stuart Leighton the only sane and level-headed man on the entire ship.

Unfortunately, I never got very far with that first draft. I think even back then I realised my story was far too derivative of Star Trek to ever be more than a passing curiosity. For my next draft, I knew, I would need to make my creation a little more unique…

Draft #2 — Exploring the characters

For my second draft, I decided to relocate the action to a space station. Partially, this was because I was a big fan of Deep Space 9 at the time and anything that made my story closer to this and less like that terrible Voyager show, was fine by me. Mainly, though, it was because I wanted to do away with the whole idea of having ‘aliens of the week’ in my novel. I wanted my story to be insular and concerned only with the politics and relationships of the crew rather than what was going on outside the ship. This was, after all, the thing I was most missing from Star Trek Voyager.

Very quickly I decided to create a civil war among the crew, with the space station itself split right down the middle between the loyalist faction who still answered to the Captain and the rebel anarchists who wanted… something else. I never did figure out what separated their ideologies.

Anyway, this was the draft that created the aristocratic House-based system that still exists to this day. Since resources would be extremely limited on a space station, it made sense that those in power would try to hoard the lion’s share for themselves. This, logically, would then create a system of Have vs. Have Not. A class-based society, in short.

It was also this draft that created the Bunks and the Unspoken who lived in them. I realised that unless some sort of draconian birthing system was put into place, the cramped living space available on a space station was going to fill up with new babies very quickly and those babies would need to go somewhere: why not into a labour camp where they could benefit all of those aforementioned Haves?

Writing Update: An Analysis of the Bunks

The Bunks were heavily inspired by what I’d read of WWII concentration camps and Russian Gulags

I’ve talked in detail about this idea before, so check out this article if you’re interested in hearing more about my rationale behind this.

Anyway, I got much further with this second draft than I did the first, reaching well over 30,000 words before ultimately stopping due to a sudden realisation that I had absolutely no idea where the story was going. Also, I was still borrowing far too heavily from Star Trek for my liking and by that point, I was drifting away from Star Trek anyway and into the territory of other things that interested me.

Things stayed that way for many years. I went to university, wrote a couple of other books in the meantime and generally forgot all about the Arkship Ulysses. Then one day, I had an epiphany – an epiphany which set off a chain of niggling ideas in my mind that wouldn’t go away until I had dived back into the book…

Draft #3 & 4 — The Addition of Loss

I’ve already written about those ideas before. It was a simple idea really, inspired by a combination of Warhammer 40,000 fluff and my religious education but it completely changed the way I felt about the book.

The idea was this: remove the aliens completely. Remove the planets. Remove the resources. If my ship is going to be stranded in the middle of nowhere, why not go all out? Space, you might have heard, is pretty damned big. Why not make it empty as well?

My ship would be an island of life floating in a gulf of nothing. Literally all alone and next to no hope for the future. There would be nothing for the crew to look forward to but when they looked back at the past, they would see only the things they had lost. In this way, the crew would exist in a kind of never-ending now. A purgatory between alive and dead.

Through the Ulysses, I planned to show the fragile transient state that we all exist in. Though the Ulysses, I wanted to highlight the importance of keeping one’s faith if only to have something to distract you from the terrors all around. I wanted to show that death is inevitable and that the extinction of our entire species is just a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’. And yet, despite this, we still get out of bed each morning. We still continue to try.

Now that’s a pretty bleak theme to explore right there but it’s an important one too. For the first time, I felt I had an idea of what my book was actually trying to be. I still didn’t know what was going to happen in it, but I sure as hell knew how I wanted the reader to feel while reading it.

For this draft, I changed the focus from the Star Trek model of looking at individual characters, to focussing instead on whole families: a much broader canvas to paint on. Two families quickly rose to the forefront in my mind: the family of Brian the engineer, who was suddenly finding himself on the rise and the family of Stuart Leighton, who had recently lost everything.

By exploring these two families in juxtaposition to one another and their relationship with the puppet Captain supposedly in charge of it all, I realised that I finally had a story to tell.

The only problem is… Well, it turned out I underestimated just how big a book like that would need to be. A story of two families over the course of generations? I mean, we’re talking War and Peace size here and most first time authors are lucky if they can get a book longer than 100,000 words out the door.

It I wanted to see the book published, I would need to cut it short. The logical move was to cut the book into segments, but that of course meant accelerating a couple of plot points in the early part of the story in order for there to be an appropriate dramatic climax at the end of the book. And this need for a climax in turn destabilised the balance of the early chapters and required the addition of new problems that needed to be resolved. And so on.

Every change added months to the writing time. I would be forced to work each change backwards into the novel only to then work forwards once more and find that, again, the final draft was far too long. In its current state, my book comes in at just over 150,000 words, which is good — much better than I ever could have expected — but both too long to get published and also far too short to do its themes justice.

The result is a tangle of plotlines and character arcs that feels both rushed and over-complicated at the same time.

It needs to be simplified.

Draft #5 — Finding my focus

So now we’re up to the present day.


Writing… it’s never as easy as you think it’s going to be

This week is a quiet one for me and so I’ve decided to go back into my novel once more, this time with a vengeance. I will be posting chapters up here on my blog as I write them. Please feel free to read them and give me what feedback you can. I am always happy to hear your ideas, no matter how stupid you might think they are.

Click here to read the Prologue

Only after the entire novel is up here and finished will I take it down from this site, print it all off and then send it off for publication. Hopefully it won’t take two years to do it this time.

Some changes are already clear to me: I’ve decided that I will need to reduce the number of viewpoint characters in order to make the overall experience more focused. The casualty will be Brian’s family, which will be removed from the story altogether. In their place, Stuart Leighton’s plot will be bolstered up instead, making him the narrative focus of the book.

Other changes will also be needed but I’m not sure what they are right now. Suffice to say, I’m sure there will be more than a few stumbling blocks along the way but still, this is something I need to do. This book means a lot to me. It’s been going round my head in one form or another for over half my life now and I owe it to these characters I’ve created (as well as to my own sanity) to get it done and done right this time.

Back to the Arkship Ulysses I go once more. Wish me luck! I’m going to need it…

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan – part 2

7 December 2013

cover memory of lightClick here for part one.

One of the problems with writing any story with multiple POVs – especially one as long-running and complex as the Wheel of Time – is that you find yourself with a lot of spare characters lying around. More characters, in fact, than you actually need. What started out as a nice, simple coming-of-age Hero’s Journey-type narrative of a farm boy turned world’s only hope, is suddenly a massive 14-book mega-series with a cast of 1,000’s and a plot line so densely woven there are whole encyclopedias devoted to untangling it all.

Now the final book is here – the end of the line – and by necessity something has to be done with all of those extra characters. It’s the Last Battle, after all, the author only has 1,000 pages to play with and there’s a lot of narrative ground to cover in that time. So what do you do?

A bloodbath, that’s what: a plot consisting of 90% warfare in which bit-part characters from previous novels are name-dropped and then killed off with such frequency that you feel kind of bad for having forgotten all about them.


You poor, poor nameless nobodies…

In a way, I can’t help but feel sorry for Brandon Sanderson for taking on a job of this sheer magnitude. Right from the beginning, it was obvious that no matter how well he did in writing these books (and I have to say, he did a bloody good job for the most part), he was all but guaranteed to annoy someone out there for killing off character X or for not spending enough time looking at character Y. It’s a poisoned chalice. Do well and people will praise Robert Jordan for creating such an amazing series. Do badly and people will blame you.

Sanderson has already talked pretty extensively about how difficult the writing process for this book was for him over on his blog, so I’ll just cover the highlights here. In short, when Robert Jordan died, he left a bunch of notes for the final book in his Wheel of Time series for another author to come along and finish. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much actual writing included in these notes. Jordan had written most of the book’s prologue, along with some of the climactic final fight and a few other scenes in between but precious little else. He had made notes about where each character was going to be by the end of the final book but absolutely no concept of how to get them there. The rest was up to Sanderson.

Robert Jordan had an interesting approach to writing which meant he didn't always write in sequence

Robert Jordan had an interesting approach to writing which meant he didn’t always write in sequence

All of this meant that Sanderson was forced to come up with his own ideas of how to get a certain character from point A to B in time for the final showdown. That’s a tall order for any writer and the fact that Sanderson didn’t make a complete mess of it altogether is testament to his skills as a writer.

Structurally, the book is sound:

Act One and we’re on the Field of Merrilor, with the forces of light gathering before the Final Battle. Tensions are high, alliances uneasy, and all sides are forced to make some difficult decisions.

Act Two and we’re off to war to fight on four separate battle fronts, each led by a different general. Each of the four battles is different in nature, varying from guerrilla-style forest fighting, to defensive forays and all-out pitched battles, so you don’t ever feel bored while reading them. This was actually my favourite part of the novel (surprising considering the middle part of a novel is usually where things start to sag), a fact that was mostly due to the excellently done sub-plot with the army’s generals, who are all suddenly starting to act very suspiciously.

Act Three and the various war fronts collapse into one, final, united stand against the darkness. At the same time, Rand battles the Dark One in a brilliantly written sequence that stands out as one of the series’ high points. I won’t spoil you with the details of it now, but I genuinely still find myself thinking about it even now, weeks after finishing the book. That’s the hallmark of good writing if ever I saw it.

Finally, the novel ends on a high, with each of the main heroes having done themselves proud. Not all of them have made it through the fighting unscathed, of course, but at least they’ve all made a good account of themselves. You’re left with a warm glow as you close the final cover nodding to yourself that everything turned out exactly the way it should have in the end. The plot lines were all resolved satisfactorily and your favourite characters all did amazing…

That'll do, Pig. That'll do.

That’ll do, Pig. That’ll do.

At least, that’s the plan anyway. Unfortunately, the reality isn’t quite so satisfying and to find out why, I need to go back to what I said earlier about Sanderson not having enough time to give every character the proper closure they need.

You see, it’s like with comic books. Let’s imagine that you’re an up-and-coming comic book writer and that you’ve decided in your latest issue you’re going to kill off a minor character. No big deal, right? I mean, we’re talking about some sort of multi-hero epic here, like the Avengers or the Justice League of America. Most people barely even remember that this guy even exists so you’re on safe ground.

You go away and you think up this really great way of killing off the character that will work brilliantly for the comic as a whole. It’s going to be built up over the course of several issues. It’ll be thematically poignant and bitter-sweet, and the character’s final scene will one of those Blaze of Glory-type moments in which he blows up a building with himself inside it taking out like 50 bad guys in the process. You know, the sort of ending that makes comic book readers suddenly sit up straight and start asking themselves, “Hey, this guy’s awesome! Why have I never noticed him before?”

So. Many. Characters!

So. Many. Characters!

To your delight, the comic is a success and the fans are very pleased with your work. So, a few weeks later, you decide to pull the same trick again. The only problem now, of course, is that you can’t just do exactly the same thing again, right, or else you’ll be accused of retreading old ground. You need to do something bigger than before. Better! So this time, you write it so that the character blows up an entire city block and that he takes out like 5,000 bad guys in the process. And OK, so maybe killing off the character in this way doesn’t make so much narrative sense as with the first guy but who cares? He dies a hero!

Then, a few weeks later, you decide to do it again… Do you see where I’m going with this? Each death, rather than being the satisfying event it should be, becomes a kind of one-upmanship over the one that came, until you swiftly find yourself moving out of the realm of the fantastic and into the absurd. The next thing you know, the characters are blowing up whole planets in their final dying moments, sacrificing themselves for fate of the entire universe. Any narrative point is lost in the mix, as is any sense of serious character progression. It all becomes about the spectacle.

Stupid planet! I'll teach you for standing in my way!

Stupid planet! I’ll teach you for standing in my way!

Now, I mention all of this for a reason. If I could go back in time and give one piece of advice to Branden Sanderson while writing A Memory of Light, it would be this:

Not everyone can die a hero.

As I’ve already said, a lot of people die in this book. That’s just fine with me — it’s the last Battle, after all, and I’d be disappointed if it didn’t do what it says on the tin — but it’s the way that Sanderson decided to kill of his characters that I found myself taking issue.

I lost count of the number of times in this novel various characters were faced with a near impossible situation, only to somehow snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. There they would be, exhausted, beaten and faced with horrors that most men would have fled from long ago, but somehow they stubbornly soldier on. And in that final moment, pushed past the point of breaking… they somehow find the last bit of energy they need to succeed.

We see this in the prologue when Telmanes manages to kill not one but two Fades, despite being almost paralysed with poison at the time. We see it during the final battle when Egwene suddenly discovers the opposite to balefire at the exact moment that balefire is used against her. We see it in the battle for the Black Tower when Androl is able to open a gateway (even though he shouldn’t be able to at the time) at the exact moment that balefire is used against him. We see it when Lan *spoilers* kills one of the Goddamned Forsaken and somehow survives, despite being in the middle of enemy territory at the time…

Sanderson, I’m sorry but it just gets boring after a while. I know you were working to a mandate here and I know you did a good job with most of it but seriously! Enough is enough!

You have to earn one of these

You have to earn one of these

Here’s the thing — most people are not heroes. The sad truth is that most people, when faced with moments of genuine pressure like those listed above, simply fall to pieces. Mob mentality takes over. We break from the front line. We mutiny, go AWOL, bury our heads in the sand and wait for it all to finish. In short, we act like human beings and pretending otherwise just cheapens the moments of heroism on display, since it gives the impression that such feats are practically mundane for this world.

One of the reasons why I like George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire so much is because of its realistic approach to such matters. Everyone talks about how Martin gleefully kills off his characters and it’s true that he’s brave to do that, but I would argue that it’s in the moments of subtle realism that his work truly shines. Moments like when Sandor Clegane flees the battle of the Blackwater because he’s terrified of fire. Moments like when Sansa lies about what she saw Joffrey doing to the butcher’s boy because she’s afraid of ruining her betrothal. Moments like when Sam freaks out at the Battle on the Fist of the First Men and accidentally lets all the ravens fly free without any messages.

To be fair, I'd be terrified too

To be fair, I’d be terrified too

Moments like these are genuine and they strike a chord deep inside us. What’s more, moments like these make the true moments of genuine heroism — Jaime saving Brianne from the bear pit springs to mind — all the more great in comparison. Those moments are earned; they are dramatic, they makes sense thematically and this is what makes them satisfying.

Unfortunately, Sanderson is too busy knocking off plot points from his huge ‘to do’ list to bother much with this sort of story telling. He has a lot of characters to get through, after all, and many of them are fan favourites. He can either ignore them completely and get stick from the fans, or dedicate the proper period of time needed and have the series be two books longer. Nah, best just make them all appear to be bad asses and then quickly shuffle them out of the mix: that’s the easiest way to do it, right Brandon?

This man works far too hard for his own good

Like I said at the beginning, he was doomed before he started

And boy does the guy plough through that ‘to do’ list! From page one, Sanderson attacks this novel with a kind of relentless ferocity that’s almost frightening to see. There’s a kind of dizzying intensity to the prose that constantly threatens to spiral into chaos. Plot treads are picked up and ticked off with a breathless speed that leaves no time for second guessing. Elayne gets captured in one chapter and then spontaneously released in the next. Matt sets up a meeting between Artur Hawkwing and Tuon, only for it to happen off-screen. Faile’s father died, she’s made steward of the Two Rivers alongside her husband and we’re never shown her or Perrin’s reaction to either fact. No time! Don’t stop! Question it when you’re done!

It’s kind of exhausting to be honest, and now that I’m done with reading the book, I have to admit I’m glad that it’s over. The highlights of this book are easy to point out: the final battle between the Dark One and Rand, the stuff in the black tower at the beginning and the part with the generals being corrupted.

These moments stand out from the constant background noise of fighting and drudgery that makes up the rest of the plot. Together, they just about tip the balance in favour of this being a good book. Not a great book, exactly (Sanderson’s best effort remains The Gathering Storm, which was amazing) but a good one nonetheless. Satisfying.

I think, all things considered, we can chalk that one up as a success.