The Siege

So I said I would, in honor of NaNoWriMo, write about writing on tychoish a bit during the month of November. So here I am. I thought for the first in this occasional series, I'd touch on the project that I'm currently working on.

I'm working on a long novel/novella that fits loosely into my interest series of "historiographical science fiction" stories that I've been working on for a while now. It's a totally new world, and deals with a couple of different groups of characters active in the same--singular--moment of time, but who all have a very different historical perspective and lineage.

Some of the characters live on a human populated outpost dozens of light years away from Earth (and have lived on this world for generations), other characters have never left the Earth system, the main characters belong to the space faring class, and have spent most of their adult lives going between worlds (and due to relativity) which makes them hundreds upon hundreds of years "older" than everyone else.

It also has elements of military SF and political drama, the story is all about living on the cusp of great social change which I thinks is pretty relevant. In all I'm pleased.

A lot of people say that ideas for novels are cheap and bountiful, and that writing a novel isn't as much about having a good idea as it is about having the stick-to-itness to finish writing a (pragmatically) 80-100 thousand word document. Indeed NaNoWriMo is founded on this kind of idea. While I don't disagree that stubbornness is a much needed skill in a novelist, nor do I disagree that ideas a bountiful, I'm not sure that good ideas are a dime a dozen, nor do I think that flawed conceptual work can be entirely compensated by a skilled execution (or inversely that briliant conceptual work can hide less than perfect execution). These are two factors which have a sliding and dynamic relationship, and that's part of the reason why fiction writing is an art and not a science.

So with that out of the way, allow me the indulgence of a little introspection. My previous stories have been interest enough, and I'm pretty sure that my execution has improved in the last six years, but my largest regret as I go over my older stories is that there is often some huge conceptual failure. The tensions are too simple. The characters don't feel/read as being distinct enough. The plots are simplistic and a bit improbable, and there's a point in a story where I always seem to loose the forward drive--not in writing momentum, but in the plot--where the characters are sort of looking at each other saying "hrm, what next," and that's bad.

For this project, I took the position to focus on these conceptual issues. Not because I'm satisfied with my technical ability at writing fiction, but because that's something that I can a) fix later, and b) will improve gradually with time, as long as I'm attentive to that development.

The last time I planned out a novel, I concentrated on getting the "what happens next and next and next" details of the plot worked out. I have a stack of note cards in my desk drawer that outline all of the scenes (settings, present characters, plot goals, etc.) and as I began to write the story, I realized that I didn't have a clue who the characters were, or any sort of deep understanding of the world outside of what the characters were doing. That was a problem.

This time, I opened up a new page in my personal wiki and I just started writing. Not the story, but stuff about the story, the major characters, the big political groups and institutions that I'd be dealing with, stuff about the technology as it related to the plot and the customs of the worlds I knew I'd be dealing with. And after a few weeks and several thousand words, I realized that I needed more not just more details so that I could write a stronger outline, but more things going on, more tension.

About this time I listened something Cory Doctoorw said in an interview about how the key to dramatic tension was "making it more difficult for the key characters to get what they wanted on every page, and as long as that happens, you're doing your job." Which you can't do unless your story is very short (which presents its own dramatic challenges), or you have a lot going on in your story. Given the advances of digital technology, we (or I) can sometimes lose track of the fact that even though novels are long, their length needs to be worthwhile and justified.

So I added stuff until it felt full, and I was excited to start. Not just because new projects are exciting to start, but because there was so much going on. And in the end? my notes directory has almost 7,000 words, which is about half what the story itself has these days.

Oh and you're wondering about the title? When I started the story I thought it was going to begin in medias res with a warship in siege of a colony world, and it would be about the Siege, hence the title of this post, and the working title of "The Siege of Al-Edarian," but it doesn't begin in the middle of that story, and there isn't really a Siege any more. So I need a new title. There are worse things to be in need of, though.

Onward and Upward!

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