The Arkship Ulysses – Part 3

3 November 2014

Part 3: Unspoken

Words: 6,595

POV character: Michael

Synopsis:

Through back story we find out about the Captain’s first fiance, a noble woman he was due to marry years ago but whom he publicly shamed in order to call off the wedding. We learn about how perfect everyone said his bride-to-be was and how terrified Michael was of the prospect of marrying her. For he has eyes only for Susan, the enigmatic woman who’s identity he has spent his entire life keeping secret. He sees how the proposal is driving her away from him and he is determined to call the wedding off at any cost in order to salvage their relationship. Even if it means ruining his reputation and leaving a bunch of scheming enemies in his wake, for Susan he will do anything.

Notes:
Hey would you look at that! My second chapter in less than a week. That must mean my writer’s block is gone, right?

Well… not exactly. Don’t get me wrong: I’m absolutely thrilled to be posting this right now but the sad truth is it’s a chapter I wrote a very long time ago. In fact, these Michael chapters were pretty much the first things I wrote for this book way back when it was about 10 times more complicated than it is now and had a cast of thousands. These chapters were designed from the beginning to serve as mile stones in the story that would bookend each section of the story while welcoming in the next.

The chapters were designed to do two things:

  1. to give the reader new information on back story they otherwise wouldn’t get to see, and
  2. set the tone for the part ahead.

You might think it’s pretentious, but I’ve always liked it when books are broken down into several parts like this. To my mind it gives the reader a natural stopping point in the story. It’s a chance for the reader to cleanse their palate so to speak. To put the book down and reflect on what they’ve read in a way that a simple chapter break can never manage.

The idea was that this book would be written in several parts (originally planned to be five back when I didn’t realise just how long this thing was going to be) with each part serving as a prologue for the next section written from the point of view of Michael, the ship’s lame duck of a captain.

These chapters would be special too. While most of the chapters in this book are written from the closed first-person perspective (meaning they are written from inside a character’s head with each moment recounted to the reader in a blow-by-blow fashion), these prologue chapters have a wider scope in mind. The action here is less linear and more free form. It’s actually a style I really enjoy writing in and it’s one I’m definitely going to use more of in the future.

So, in the first part we had the back-story of how the Earth was lost and the Arkships were launched. We found out about Michael’s family and how this society has devolved into a feudal one over the years. We also got a glimpse of the mysterious Susan who wouldn’t appear again for some time. It was a teaser chapter designed to set the scene. I’ve always liked it.

In the second part, we got the back-story of the bunks. Although the reader had already got the chance to see the bunks and meet the unspoken who lived in them during the first part, it wasn’t until here that the reason for their existence is explained. I show how close the Captain is to Father Estavan and how suspicious he is of his Second, High Commander Hathaway. I talk about the food crisis and how, although the Captain knows it is happening, he is powerless to do anything about it.

Now it’s the third part and in some ways it’s the most crucial part of all because it’s here that we get the back-story of Michael himself. We find out what he’s been doing as Captain all these years since taking command. We find out about his history with marriage and the perilous lengths he has gone to over the years to keep his beloved Susan safe from harm.

It’s only after getting all this information that a discerning reader should be able to work out everything that’s happening in this book. Why is Nathan Hathaway staging an elaborate coup designed to overthrow the Captain and instigate a riot among the unspoken? Why is the Captain finally allowing himself to get married after all these years of saying no? Why is it the disgraced Father Estavan that Michael has gone to to organise the whole betrothal? What, really, is the deal with Susan? And so on. All these questions (and more) are answered in this chapter.


The Arkship Ulysses – Chapter 20

28 October 2014

Chapter 20: Gambits

Length: 5,851 words

POV character: Abi

Synopsis:

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?

Notes:

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.

the-writers-block-photo

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 15

5 August 2014

Chapter 15: The rules we live by

Length: 6,489

POV character: Abi

Synopsis:

The wedding approaches and Abi finds herself snowed under with all the preparations. However, as the ceremony approaches, she finds herself growing increasingly suspicious of the true motives behind the marriage. When Master-at-arms Nathan Hathaway corners her and offers her the same proposition he once offered her brother, her suspicions are proven true. But how deep does this rabbit hole really go and, more importantly, how can Abi use this information to benefit herself?

Notes:

Generally speaking, there are two ways to write scenes. You can either go the blow-by-blow route, laying out events in chronological order like you’re watching scenes in a movie. Or you can go fast, skimming over the details and focusing only on a select few moments in order to show the transition of time or, perhaps, just highlight one element of a person’s life.

The first method is good for when you’re writing key moments in a story. It gets the reader invested in the story’s ‘now’ and wanting to read more. It’s the style that most of this novel is written in. The later method, on the other hand, is better for showing just a few aspects of a character’s life. By skimming over the details, it allows you to emphasise changes in a character or situation in just a few short paragraphs that would otherwise take many traditional chapters to explain. It’s a very effective narrative tool, but I’ve found you can’t use it too much because after a while it starts to sound like exposition and that quickly gets boring for the reader.

The word ‘montage’ springs to mind. In my mind the technique should be used in much the same way as any famous movie montage, like Rocky training up before his final fight, or the Fellowship of the Ring quickly traveling across half of middle Earth in order to get to Mordor for the final showdown. All the elements are in place, the situation is set up and all the writer needs to do is get the story from the set up to the pay off as simply as possible so the reader can experience the explosive end.

This chapter is my attempt at just such a montage. It starts out in media res and it ends with a traditional blow-by-blow scene but in between there’s about 3,000 words of solid montage covering something like a month’s worth of story in just a handful of pages. I have to say, I kind of like the brisk pace of things here. It was difficult to write, particularly as there are so many elements in play at the moment I was constantly worried I might forget about something but the end justifies the means. It reminds me of the kind of pacing I used in the prologue chapter and that’s one of my favourite pieces of writing in the whole book. One day I’d love to write a whole story in this kind of broad strokes style.

But not today.


The Arkship Ulysses – Chapter 14

21 July 2014

Chapter 14:  The Black Sea

Length: 4,292 words

POV character: Stuart

Synopsis:

After the ordeals of the last few chapters, Stuart is in a bad way. Battered and exhausted, he awakes in a strange room to find himself at the mercy of a complete stranger who shouldn’t even exist. It’s clear that this woman doesn’t trust Stuart and only saved his life so she could get answers out of him and even clearer that she doesn’t like the answers Stuart gives. Now Stuart is living on borrowed time. He needs to find a way to get this mysterious woman onto his side as soon as possible and find this room he’s been searching for once and for all. The voice in his head is becoming unstable and Stuart worries what will happen if it’s left unchecked for too long. 

Notes:

One of the most interesting things when writing something of this size is the relationship that you, the writer, start to form with your own creation. Of course you grow attached to your characters — that much is a given — but it’s actually the connection you start to form with the individual plot points of your story that resonates with you more strongly.

It’s a strange feeling to describe.

I mean, the goal when writing any book is that the chapters will eventually flow into each other with no discernible break in style. As a reader you often find you can gloss over whole chapters of the book at a time without really missing much, skipping some POVs that maybe you’re not so interested in and only becoming truly invested in the story during those pivotal climactic moments. As a writer, however, it’s a very different experience. Sometimes it’s the climactic chapters that interest you the least and its the quieter ones that take up most of your time.

I think I’ve already explained how some of the chapters in this book were the equivalent of pulling teeth. Those chapters were painful experiences in which I’d find myself going over them again and again, tweaking and rewriting things to try to fix a certain problem only to discover that two new problems had somehow appeared for every one I fixed.

Then you get chapters like this one: a joy to write from beginning to end. I honestly couldn’t tell you where this difference comes from.

I will, however, say that this meeting between Stuart and this mystery woman was one of the first things I ever conceived when writing this story. From the beginning, something about it just chimed a chord with me and it was always one of the moments I was most looking forward to writing.

As a reader, you might be a bit confused by that reaction. I mean, on the surface of things, this chapter is nothing special — man wakes up in a strange place and there’s a strange women with him — but there’s a lot going on below the surface that makes the chapter so interesting to me. Character things. Thematic things. Things which resonate with me on a personal level. Some of these things will be revealed over the coming chapters, while other will have to remain in the book’s subtext but either way, I honestly can’t wait to explore this relationship further.

After all, for Stuart, the immediate danger might be over but a whole bigger mystery is about to unfold…


The Arkship Ulysses – Chapter 11

2 July 2014

Chapter 11: Where Angels Fear to Tread

POV character: Father Estavan

Length: 9,092

Synopsis:

In an event unprecedented in the history of the ship, the Captain – the holiest man in the universe – has agreed to marry an unspoken – one of the lowest forms of life. All Father Estavan needs to do is find her first.

With permission from the Captain in hand, Father Estavan enters the bunks determined to recover the girl and bring her to his side. It’s supposed to be a simple job but he’s about to get a big surprise.

The girl has gone missing and her bunk has been torched. She’s probably still alive but by now she could be anywhere and anything could have happened to her. With no other option available to him, Estavan is forced to head ever deeper into the bunks in search of the girl, knowing as he does so that almost no one ever returns from this place alive.

Notes:

You know what I really like in big books like this one? When you have a multi-protagonist story in which the heroes slowly meet up over the course of the novel.

I like it because you’ve had all this time to get to know these characters individually. You’ve learned all about the world through their POV. You’ve developed your own thoughts and feelings about them and their situation. You think you’ve got them pretty solidly in your mind. But then there’s that one chapter where your protagonists start meeting up and suddenly you find yourself seeing these same characters through the eyes of a different character who maybe has very different feelings about their situation than you do and everything is suddenly turned on its head.

When this is done well it helps to shine a light on a certain character, perhaps revealing deeper layers to their situation than you’d previous seen. Even when it’s done badly it’s still cool to see different characters meet up because then you know that the plots are starting to converge as they head towards the final climax and that’s always going to be a good thing.

In this chapter (and to a lesser extent the previous one) we’re starting to see my own version of that. Two of my characters, Estavan and Abi, get to meet for the first time. What will happen from here? Where will this go? As a reader it’s fun to find out.

Anyway, I never intended for this chapter to end up as long as it did. The synopsis itself is pretty simple — Estavan enters the bunks to find the girl who’s going to marry the Captain — but it was one of those chapters which kind of grew in the telling. There’s a lot going on here, not least because it’s a chapter which affects not only our POV Estavan but several other key characters as well, such as Abi, Dawn and Nathan.

I hope you enjoy it.


The Arkship Ulysses – Part 2

24 June 2014

POV character: Michael

Length: 6,132 words

Synopsis:

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.

Notes:

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.


The Arkship Ulysses – Chapter 7

3 June 2014

Chapter 7 – Payback

Length: 6,520 words

POV character: Stuart

Synopsis:

Following the events in the previous chapter, Stuart wakes up to find himself in gaol. He’s in a bad way. Not only is he badly dehydrated with a burned arm but he seems to be strangely disconnected from reality too. He’s hearing strange voices in his head. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much time to worry about this, however, as Commander Hathaway pays him a visit to show Stuart just how screwed he really is. Stuart finds himself faced with two choices, each as unsavory as the next: either he help Hathaway with a ‘secret project’ the man’s been working on or he will rot in a gaol cell forever. Stuart starts to realise that this was actually the plan all along and that he has been played for a dupe in someone else’s plans.

Notes:

Payback is the chapter in which my abuse of Stuart really reaches its apex. People often say that a writer shouldn’t be afraid of ‘murdering his darlings’ but sometimes I worry I take it too far with Stuart. I mean, I like the guy I really do. No one deserves to be put through the ringer like he is. The only positive here is that at least no one can accuse me of writing a Marty Stu here (though they could make a strong case for its opposite).

Of all Stuart’s chapters, this was the hardest to write. Not only because of the aforementioned character abuse, but because of the *central mystery* that finally makes its full debut in this chapter, albeit hidden away on the sidelines for now.

Without giving too much away, I had to tread a very fine line when writing this chapter between being cryptic and obvious. On the one hand, I wanted to introduce a new plot element in a way that got the reader thinking and asking questions. On the other hand, I didn’t want to alienate the reader completely by making things too oblique. As a reader, nothing turns me off more than when I haven’t got a clue what’s going on. That’s always a tricky thing to achieve. If you intrigue the reader, you get them reading more; if you confuse them, you switch them off completely.

Anyway, if nothing else sticks in the mind from this chapter, at least I can be sure that it will be memorable. It’s the one with all the character abuse, after all, which should give even the most jaded reader a moment of sympathy for our long-mistreated protagonist.