Lessons of Lorecraft
Notice : there are no spoilers here, you’re safe 😉
Purely as an exercise for my own benefit, I thought I’d set down a few of the experiences I’ve had creating the Dominium Universe whilst setting out the game format, and creating the first installment of the first trilogy – When Stars Fall.
If these proves to be of any benefit to anyone else, then all the better 🙂
Writing Insurmountable Odds
I’d read many articles in the past that (seemed to) waffle on about making copious notes, bio’s on characters, timelines and so forth. This all seemed like no fun, and far too much work for my liking. I wanted to dive into the story, which I’ve had in my head for so long I knew it backwards. Right?
I dove into the story, writing it in small chunks of ten minutes on the tube commute here, twenty on the bus there, literally doing a ‘mind dump’ directly into my Android Phone. To be honest, this was fun, and challenging. I had to keep skipping back through previous chapters to make sure I didn’t miss anything, and the chapter lengths were constrained by how ‘usable’ the text app I was using was – some chapters slowed the page scrolling to a crawl and had to be split up! That said – without the handy app’s and accessibility smartphones provide, I’d never have gotten this all done.
I was also constrained by the vague hope that I could get this to a publisher for consideration… many of them mandate that they will only take short stories from debut authors, or short novels – never multi-part books, and here I was fully intending to write a trilogy! I decided to write Book One as a ‘stand alone’ short novel, but as part of a trilogy. Ie. you could read it on it’s own and the main story arc would be (more or less) complete, but it would still set up a larger story in the background to be completed over the course of subsequent books. That said, this meant forcing Book One to be no more than 140,000 words or so – the ‘maximum’ submission requirement for a debut short novel. Having counted 180,000 in the present draft, I was already in trouble!
I knocked out fourteen chapters over a year or so, and then prepared myself for my own ‘proofing & editing’.
The fractured writing pattern meant a lot of typo’s had crept in – and ok, I knew this would happen, and I’m somewhat of a perfectionist when it comes to ‘English’ (at least, I purport to be a perfectionist…) so I set about fixing it all up without worrying. I then noticed discrepancies in the plot, especially to do with timeframes. Some events happened far too quickly compared to the previous chapter mentioning them. Others were out of sync. Generally it read ok, and as I intended when first writing it, but when you sat back and thought about it, things began to stand out… repetitions of phrasing in the narrative, considerations such as ‘Why would that happen, if they can do this?’, ‘Would that character really do/say/think that?’ and so on.
I think – overall – I re-read Insurmountable Odds about twenty times from start to finish, each time making corrections and edits, whittling out things that were ‘chaff’ and chopping out huge sections to reduce the word count down to the 140k mark, and changing the chapter events around to make it flow better. I am always very critical (though not harshly so) of other sci-fi that I read, picking up fluffs and inconsistencies in the plot, or the ‘set’ of the universe the book is set in, and I hope I made a good solid effort to judge my own work in the same manner. Time will tell 🙂
I was happy(ish) with the final result. Being frankly sick to death of the entire story at this point, I chose to do something which I always find wise with such things. Set it aside, and leave it.
I decided to pull together some of the threads from Book One, and began Book Two. I thoroughly enjoyed this, as I was now able to dedicate larger blocks of time to it on the train commute (an hour a go), and it subsequently reads a lot better as a whole. I wrapped up what I wanted to achieve (along with some set pieces for Book Three) and returned a freshly critical eye to Book One.
Lots of edits and changes later, I had achieved my ‘final pass’. I was (and still am) concerned that a lot of character visualisation is ‘glossed over’ – but I could achieve no more with that 140k limit without removing fundamental parts of the plot (as I saw it).
Hope in hand, I did some (not very deep) research on suitable agents that accepted debut sci-fi, and submitted the first three chapters (as instructed) to them with a cover letter, and crossed pairs of everything. I had no illusion it would be picked up, and barely the faintest hope it would even be looked at. Publishers (and agents) are inundated with manuscripts all the time. You have to stand out to be noticed, be niche, or exceptional (like any game on the App Store).
I then returned my full efforts to the game project (which was ticking along whilst I did all this writing by the way). At this point I was able to do nearly 2hrs a day ‘game dev’ and almost 1.5hrs a day ‘writing’ during my daily commute to work (granted, when I felt like it 😉 ).
Seven weeks and one chase mail later – my efforts were politely declined by the agent, no reason given. As to be expected these days. I have no bitterness at all – I knew that this ‘subject matter’ was rarely considered hot property, ‘space doesn’t sell’ is a well touted misnomer (IMHO anyway – tell that to George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Peter F Hamilton…).
I had long decided that pursuing a traditional publisher would be a waste of time and effort – it’s a very stressful time, finding suitable agents, preparing unique cover letters, preparing the manuscript, chasing them down, waiting for rejections/acceptance. Perhaps doing this enough would have worked at some point – but would have taken yet another year, and be unable to assure success. I have no preconception that my ‘masterpiece’ is anything of the kind in the greater sci-fi scene, and unlikely to win any awards!
This is when I fully committed to self-edit/self-publish, and during some research into forums/places to ‘pimp’ my book, came across Wendy – proof reader extraordinaire! – and she offered to proof the first chapter for free to show faith.
By god I’m glad she did. The suggestions she made for the opening paragraphs alone clinched the deal. The beginning of a book is a big thing – it’s typically what makes you want to read more. Many authors suffer ‘writers block’ on the first word. I didn’t, I didn’t think my opening was bad at all, quite good in fact. But Wendy suggested changes which made it better. Since that day (over a year ago I think?) I’ve truly appreciated her professionalism, and never regretted my decision. During this process I discovered the following about my ‘final, finalled final draft’…
1) I somewhat overused the word ‘vast’ to describe all the vast technological things going on. (Somewhat is a lie, it was horrendously overused!)
2) I over-hyphenated to inject clauses/pauses into the flow of the narrative – way too much!
3) Typo’s! Ye gods, how many slipped through twenty odd full read-throughs… the main problem with ‘fiction’ writing – especially sci-fi/fantasy is when you make up terms that don’t actually exist in the English language. What’s a typo for ‘qNet’? How can you spell check it? How is a 3rd party supposed to know the correct term? Fortunately Wendy threw out anything she didn’t understand which helped me correct and clarify for readers ‘who aren’t me’ 🙂
4) Overly long chapters. Though this is still up in the air for me. I had the ‘flow’ down where chapters ‘end on a cliff’ or decisive moment, (hopefully) compelling you to start the next. These aren’t necessarily ‘cliffhangers’ – as a constant flood of them can weary the reader. Wendy recommended shortening the chapters, which I initially wasn’t keen on (being honest).
Once we had all the 14 chapters proof read and I’d adopted the edits I wanted, I then went through and experimented with chapter chopping… and lo and behold, there are now 39 chapters, all evenly spaced and most (if not all) with ‘end on a cliff’ moments. Chuffed does not describe it. Even if no one ever reads this, or it’s slated into the dust with 0 out of 5 star revies, I am happy and proud to have accomplished it! (Though naturally getting less than 4/5 stars will leave me gutted 😉 so be nice!)
Finally – the cover for the final production. I was intending to get an artist involved to produce the cover – but after a brief bout of inspiration and some dabbling with a 3DCG tool, I produced something myself using one of the Imperial Naval Frigate models from Dominium which sets the scene nicely IMHO. Fingers crossed I got it right – as the cover is yet again something else which a book is judged by, despite the saying!
Overall, Book One is a lot shorter than I’d intended originally due to the attempt to get a publisher/agent interested, but I don’t blame that process as it helped distill the plot considerably. It has compromised some of the descriptive elements (ie. characters as I mentioned earlier) and I may yet address that, but it definitely benefited immensely from an independent proof reader going over the manuscript, and I look forward to working with Wendy on the rest of the trilogy – and more! There are plenty of short stories, and full books to come out of the Dominium Cluster… I just need the time to realise them in words!
Establish a timeline early on
You need several timelines I’m afraid!
1) the full on reference for the author – spoilers, and as yet unrevealed events which will appear later on in the story
2) the ‘public’ timeline – fortunately this is usually a sub-set of the ‘spoiler’ timeline
3) story arc timelines – the trivia that happens in every chapter, so you can back reference, or ensure continuity going forward
Create mini-bio’s for all characters
Even if just one liners. Flesh them out as the characters begin to form, and also (in the case of sci-fi) create all the races/species/civilisations. But start small and work them out as you go – be pragmatic. There’s no point writing pages of bio for someone that only gets two mentions in the entire story and has virtually no impact on the plot.
Create a ‘cast list’ of every character
This helps visualise the universe and ensures you don’t accidentally re-use names for different characters (as I accidentally did in the first draft!)
Create a ‘gazetteer’ of every place
No matter how trivial, even if mentioned just once. Again, bare minimum information and flesh it out as things ‘crystallise’ in your mind / the story as you go. You’ll be surprised how things seem to just take on a life of their own and become more ‘real’ once your imagination has an anchor point to work on.
If in doubt, write it in – and leave it
The human mind is a fickle thing. You can think you remember something verbatim from mere hours ago – but often it’s simply rehashed it from the bare minimum detail, and suddenly you have something entirely different to what you originally had in mind. This can be a good thing, and lead to an even better concept – but often it’s a bad thing and you’ve lost a gem for good. I often found leaving something and coming back to it later resulted in a better version.
Write it out, even as notes. You can always rewrite it later!
Your words aren’t as precious as you first think
Do not be afraid to cut, remove, rewrite, paraphrase! Experiment! If a paragraph isn’t reading right as a whole, rewrite it entirely – but not in place, duplicate it so you can compare the two directly and then decide which is best. Use a versioning system, that way you can rewrite, cut and edit to your hearts content and never lose a word. I personally use Perforce as a developer, but Word has it’s own versioning system – whatever you use, use one!
Make notes! A lot of them!
It happens too often – an inspiration particle hits (Credit : Terry Pratchett) and bam, you have a great idea… but wait – it’s ephemeral… as you think about it, you remember you forgot to close the kitchen window on the way out… and poof, the particle decays and that great idea is less than dust. Take Notes. My smartphone saved the day more than once!
Ah, if only I’d used this from the start! Review annotations are invaluable. I now have 400 odd ‘Reference’ annotations in the final draft, each one to be picked up in the Appendices edition, or to be fleshed out to further realise the universe behind the story. I also have ‘Pickups’ – being small/background threads in the plot which I fully intend to address in later books.
Get a proof reader!
Never ever trust yourself to proof/edit your own work – you become ‘word blind’ and only see what you believe is already written, when the truth is you aren’t even reading the words you wrote and they don’t agree with what’s in your head! A professional third party proofer is best, or even a trusted friend who will give an unbiased opinion and isn’t afraid to hurt your precious creative feelings. You need someone who won’t treat you as a ‘darling’ that can’t be told the grim truth. Believe me, if you’ve written tripe, it will bite you. Better to get the tripe trimmed early on before shaming yourself in public!
(And oh boy, do I now hope I’ve trimmed the tripe… 😀 )
Establishing ‘the Lore’
This is probably one of the things I did first in written form. The original form of Dominium is quite different to the offering here (though very similar). It first came into being for a game called ‘Draco’ I really wanted to create on the Commodore Amiga A1200, back in 1992, and I wrote a short story to accompany idea where a distant civilisation is fighting to the last gasp against a vastly superior technological force which cares less. Interstellar transit was via a drive system which relied on gravitational wells to provide very rapid FTL travel. The central character (called Jax) was the last survivor of a race whose world and family had been destroyed by the Draco.
A few years ago I began a short story called C12 (Colony 12), and in the early chapters I set out the fundamental aspect of our own future civilisation based on the ‘qNet’ – an instantaneous communication medium that is not limited by distance, relying on quantum spin manipulation. It seems (from real progress being made today) that this won’t be as far in the future as I originally thought!
I realised early on that this could be the ‘precursor’ story to the original ‘Draco’ plot I’d envisaged, and C12 is now actually the very first ‘prequel’ to Dominium – though when it will be finished… who knows 🙁 But to give you an idea, C12 is (currently) set in 3,000AD (give or take)… Insurmountable Odds begins in 22,157 AD – so there is plenty of scope for a lot to happen between times!
Those two ‘seeds’ are the basis for all the lore established within Dominium – some of which is already on the main website. The rest has come about from evolving the universe as I created the main story.
But there’s more to come. I have to establish ‘concepts & rules’ – one of the intentions behind this entire project was ‘user contribution’… I want others to create their own stories within Dominium, and to do that there have to be factoids, guidelines and ‘rules’ to follow to ensure consistency and continuity across the entire range of stories. Hopefully I will get to this soon!
PS. If you have read this along with Insurmountable Odds – there are bound to be errors in the book! There always are, even in reprints of Arthur C. Clarke novels which have been through so many proofs/editors it’s untrue. Some even creep in just because of that process. So that said, if you do find any errors – typo’s, inconsistencies in the timeline or plot, illogical character behaviour or events – please feel free to let me know! The beauty of e-publishing is that you might just end up with a revised edition sooner than you’d think 😉