I’m kinda psyched about my current writing project, but I think it needs a far sexier working title than the one it’s got right now. There’s something about the Untitled Victorian Planetary Romance, Pt 1, that doesn’t feel like an adequate representation of the book.
It’s been a long while since I charted the progress of a creative project on the blog, and I’ll admit that I was a little gun-shy about talking this one up. For starters, the project is largely being done simply to prove to myself that it can be done, that I can actually put together sixty-thousand words of coherent narrative in first draft form over five weeks of writing. Once upon a time the only question would have been the coherent narrative part of the equation, but me and writing haven’t gotten along for the better part of the last eighteen months. Life kept offering me excuses and I kept taking them, and slowly it became necessary to embrace a project that proved all my assumptions wrong. I wanted to make myself write outside the comfort zone, both in terms of the word-count expected and the genres I’m working with and the time-frames I’m giving myself to get things done.
This is probably the most public project I’ll have worked on since writing the first draft of Bleed a while back, only the intended audience for the finished project is considerably smaller. When it’s finally done it’ll be a gift for three of my closest friends, and if it makes them happy it’ll have done its job. This means that there are people who know the concept and the background of the story and the characters, people with an investment in it being good (or, at least, readable). It also means that occasionally one of those friends will poke me and say, so, that thing you were writing, and I’d really like that to stop, which is why it’s the project of choice for the five-week project.
On the other hand working on this project has made me incredibly happy and I find myself wanting to talk about it. There were points last week where I danced, or bounced, or generally woke up happy, and I got a chance to remember what it was like to write something and keep writing it until it starts making sense and your enthusiasm for the work starts to carry you along. As I gradually worked out what fit where in the plot there were scenes and references and narrative beats that started to appear out of the murky ether, and they serve as particularly tempting candy-bars to keep me motivated.
And so I figured I’d throw out a couple of the things that I’m really enjoying about this draft, before I stick the word-counter on the end and get back to writing.
1. GENRE MASH UPS
I’m a big fan of cross-breeding genres, which I’m sure comes as a shock to pretty much everyone reading this. More importantly, I figure any long-form work you write is largely a chance to engage in a conversation with a genre, and things generally don’t feel right until I figure out who or what I’m having a conversation with.
I knew going into this project that there was going to be a pretty healthy slice of Steampunk involved, and in the log term its going to involve my ongoing attempts to try and unravel the appeal of the John Carter novels and their casually imperialist outlook on the world. Short term, though, particularly as it relates to the book I’m writing now, it’s all about playing with the format of the Agatha Christie murder mystery. The reference points scribbled out in my notebook are Murder on the Orient Express, except the express is a damaged sky-ship on its way to Mars, which means it gets to be a bit of a disaster story as well.
2. BIG CAST, BIG SCENES
I’m committing one of the cardinal sins of being a writer and a gamer with this project – I’m nabbing a bunch of characters who were once PCs in my friend Chris’s campaign and using them as the basis for the protagonist and her associates in the novel. The plot? That’s nabbed from a game too, although things are going to play out in a very different way from the introductory session Chris ran way back when we started. It’s entirely possible I’ll write something that’s essentially 60,000 words of dreck that’s uninteresting to anyone but me and my gamer buddied, but I’m kinda confident that I’ll be able to transform it into something narratively satisfying.
On the other hand the choice of genre means I get to play with a way larger cast than you’d expect given the word-count. One of the impressive things about Christie’s novels is her ability to introduce wide range of characters in a very general way, particularly when doing something like the dining-car scene in Orient Express. It’s one of those techniques that I’ve never really seen done in other books (the sole other author I’m familiar with whose tried it is Elizabeth Bear in her brilliant Christie-homage New Amsterdam). Figuring out how to do the introduction of 13+ characters in a single scene is the kind of narrative challenge I haven’t come across before, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity of developing them alongside the protagonist and her allies.
About a third of the words produced in this thing thus far are me putting together one-paragraph intros and trying to figure out how to weave them together, and it’s been interesting to watch the way it affects my perception of the protagonist.
3. PARLOR SCENE
Like the dining-car scene mentioned above, I realised there’s inevitably going to be a big parlor scene at the end of this story where the murderer is revealed. Not something I’ve ever done before, not by a long shot, but the thought of it is already filling my inner genre-wonk with glee.
One of my favorite things about these characters is the banter. One of the other notes I’ve made regarding the project is “The Thin Man, Nick and Nora,” which is basically a reference to the Dashiell Hammett’s hardboiled masterpiece where two married characters get to engage in entertaining banter and genuinely like another throughout the book. They are an utterly solid couple who respects one another and doesn’t need to have their relationship in jeopardy in order to create narrative tension, and it’s one of those neat combinations that I wish would appear in fiction more often instead of feeding our obsession with relationships that are in the process of starting or ending.
Happy Married People. You’d think they were the goddamn kryptonite of narrative.
Of course, I haven’t got two married characters in Untitled Victorian Planetary Romance, Pt 1, but that core of having two characters who like and respect one another and engage in banter? That’s there. As is the idea of writing a series where there’s a single female protagonist whose presented as the equal of her male peer, with an ongoing relationship throughout the series is based on mutual respect, enjoying one another’s company, but coupled with an utter lack of romantic interest or involvement in one another. It’s not something I’d ordinarily do, so I’m curious to see if I can.
Not in this book, admittedly, but I’m creating a kind of series bible should I enjoy this project enough to come back to it, and I already know how dinosaurs are going to fit into this universe.
‘Cause every Victorian-era protagonist needs to fight a dinosaur somewhere along the way.
Also, the process of putting together a series bible is kinda interesting. I wish I’d thought to do one for the Aster books.
6. SPLIT POV
My writing default is first person, and it’s actually remarkably rare for me to break out of that. I did it last year when I wrote the Flotsam series for Edge of Propinquity – indeed, having a regular deadline where I wrote in third person was one of the main reasons I did EoP – but what quickly became apparent was my inability to take advantage of the POV in that format. I didn’t have the time to really figure out how third person worked, and by the time I did it was nearly impossible to bring in a secondary POV character without it seeming…odd.
That isn’t going to be a problem with the current project. It’s starting with two POV characters, and I’m reserving the right to add more as the story goes on. The ability to swap between characters heads is proving to be way more fun than I thought it would be, and I’m starting to wish that the somewhat removed perspective Third Person requires came to me a little more naturally. It is, after all, remarkably useful.
7. WEIRD SCIENCE
One of the joys of having a Victorian-era mad professor available as a character in a world where space-flight to Mars and beyond is already possible? Every goddamn crazy thing I can think of is theoretically possible within the universe. Things already referenced: shrink rays; teleport arrays; time-travel; the Eiffle tower.
If I ever actually finish this and make it available for public consumption, then dollars to donuts it’s going to get lumped in with Steampunk simply due to the levels of mad-science. And you know what? I’m totally okay with that.
Official Weekly Goal Setting: 16,000 words by next Monday night. Totally doable, right?