I get really into worldbuilding, but I don’t always share the raw materials with people. I love seeing old notes/drawings/sketches/etc. from authors, so I thought I’d contribute some of mine.
Tonight a friend sent me her drawing/map of the City from my series Aestus, and I realized that despite having a very clear mental image in my head, I’d never drawn it out in much detail. Here it is, in all its lined-paper (sorry!) glory. Cartoonized to up the contrast. I hope to make a better copy at some point but thought I’d share for now – apologies for my handwriting!
See description/explanation below.
The modern City was a technological wonder, and she marveled at it as they made their way across through the crowds. It was a stack of torus-shaped tunnel-corridors, built around an enclosed center, the remnants of the cavern it had once been. Each level was built as three horizontally-concentric circles: inner for living quarters, mid for navigation, and the outer tunnels, which were carved out as far as necessary into the earth and were off-limits to all but Patrol. Those tunnels spiraled like galaxy arms upward to the surface, and branched out to other places she didn’ t know, secret passages to nowhere, or nowhere she was supposed to go, anyway….
The Ministry, to which they were heading, was on Sub-Level 4. She didn’t know what was below that, beyond storage and the mechanical rooms. No one seemed to. Not even Gavin. She’d asked.
–Aestus, Book 1: The City
And, of course, that shuttleway goes all the way up to the surface:
Despite the blazing heat, it was always hard to come back down after a day above. Jossey especially hated this shuttle stop and how dim it was. To save energy, the City had cut the lights up near the surface, and workers were expected to bring their own illumination for “emergency purposes.” That meant that the end of their shift found them all huddled in a blazing hot tunnel next to the only light source from here to the first safety gate hundreds of feet below.
Try to walk from here and you’d be in pitch darkness all the way down, with only your little clip-on red safety light to illuminate the path, following the spiraling edge of a pit with a guardrail that Jossey didn’t trust to keep a bus on the road.
– Aestus, Book 1: The City
Other things I may eventually make include the various maps Jossey has access to throughout the series. I couldn’t for massive spoiler reasons. But for readers of Book 2, I might try to put together something!
The cursor blinks. The space seems endless. What to write?
I see lots of tweets about anxiety in starting your first project. It’s almost like having a fancy notebook…that you’ve never used.
What could I write, I think, that would be worthy of such a notebook? My handwriting is messy. My pen is not nice enough. Etc.
Yes, maybe. (Especially the handwriting, for me.) But.
Forget the special notebook. You can save your first draft as “stuff.doc” if you want.
Here are some things I use to get out of writer’s block or starting anxiety (not in order) –
Don’t put pressure on yourself. I admit, I was that kid in elementary school who didn’t understand the point of rough drafts when I had the thing written and was happy with it. But now? Just get words down. They don’t have to be great words. Just…type. Shuffle around. Highlight. Use silly fonts. Have fun.
Like I said. Have fun.
Can’t figure out what to write next? Write a scene from a different character’s POV. Write what the people in the background are talking about. Write a random scene that is scheduled to take place way further on in your novel. Write something, save or delete it. Just get into the groove.
Remember that editing is a thing. That you don’t have to do right now.
Start in the middle and worry about the beginning later, if that helps.
Have a random idea that looks like it might be useful? Write it down! Don’t worry about how it might be useful for the larger plot etc.
What makes logical sense to be written next? Write the next bullet point from your outline.
Take a break. Not too long of a break. But walk around, maybe talk to someone, do something unrelated.
I often prefer to write on an app or similar and then email it to myself and compile it all later. That way I can focus on a chunk at a time.
Basically, fun and low-pressure is my go-to. Explore your fictional world. Write as much as you want. Trim it later.
This is a rough summary of the author talk I just gave. Thanks so much for coming, everyone – to those of you who weren’t able to make it, I hope this is helpful!
First, a brief introduction – who I am, why I wrote these books, etc.
My name is Sabrina – I live in the Boston area and I’m a science writer (primarily physics and new/emerging tech), as well as the author of Aestus. I was inspired to write the book(s) after waiting in a burning hot bus tunnel during a miserably hot day (incoming thunderstorm, 90% humidity, 100+F heat) and waiting for the late bus to arrive, which then turned into me wondering (a) how we might survive if, God forbid, the heat got even worse, (b) what it might be like for my commute to end with a tunnel trip down into the earth to an underground city, and (c) what might happen on the way (bus breaking down? Creatures with claws? A giant pit left by miners?) (my commute was very unexciting, clearly).
Anyway. I went home and started to write. Then I posted it on a blog for a couple of close friends to read. I did nothing with it for months. Then a friend informed me that “Sabrina, I need more than one chapter a month.” (Thanks, friend!).
Here are some of the questions you all asked – thanks again! I’ve tried to answer to the best of my ability:
WRITING – IDEAS
I’m curious about your sources of inspiration! Do you develop your story ideas primarily from other books (and if so, any top recommendations/favourites?), or do you also spend time unpicking films, TV, music, or other media that convey some narrative? Thanks!
Ok so. A few things.
To preface this – I think I just sort of come up with things. I may pull in elements of dystopian fiction in general, but nothing specific. I could not decide how to even market this book because it’s…I can’t think of any other sci-fi or epic books that resemble it enough to draw a strong comparison. Maybe Dune to an extent in the worldbuilding sense (and that’s someone else’s comparison, not mine!). In the dystopian sense…again, I can’t think of an immediate comparison. (Maybe I haven’t read enough sci-fi or dystopian.) It was honestly an experiment both in worldbuilding and suspense/thriller/chase scene-writing– and then it just kept getting bigger.
TV writing and arcs: In terms of how I think of writing in general, I actually find TV writing to be useful in the way arcs are constructed (with larger season arcs), almost like the old saga format. It sort of mimics how things actually work in real life – you can joke about side quests vs. the main quest (although here the side quests are integral to the larger plot and inform it, much as real life functions), but people aiming toward a specific thing and being constrained by specific things (and what happens naturally in the meantime as they try to get from point A to point B) is a solid basis for writing.
Re: narrative and such, I do appreciate good plot twists and reveals and such that I find in media. I’m not sure I consciously take them apart though when I see them in literature/movies/TV/etc. I actually was confused in a writing class when I had to lay out what the “stakes” were and otherwise explain the structure of my story. I didn’t know how to articulate those things. I just sort of…wrote the story and built in characters’ natural actions/reactions to things based on their motivations. In fact, I struggle to put together the structure for a story too much other than as I go (and other than the core elements that need to happen) because it can feel artificial. I guess you could think of it almost as a crystal – it mathematically builds on itself.
How long did it take? Process while working on a scene? Do you focus on characters, the scenario, a bit of both, or something else?
The books took four months total for both drafts to be written (I originally wrote them as a single book). Then…a lot longer for editing (I was also working on learning the publishing process, getting a cover designed, etc.). I started them during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which was very helpful as I had to write daily (my friend’s wanting to read more also was a great motivator). I published the first one about six months after I finished the first draft. I took a break from writing from February or so until May, if I recall correctly, so I think I edited for about three months for book 1, and about the same for book 2.
Re: writing itself, it depends what the scene is for – but how I actually write it? Let’s go back and talk about writing overall. Again, my general basis is characters (with their own personal motivations) and external constraints. Those two things interact to produce the plot…and then scenes become necessary. For me, the characters and the scenario are intricately tied to each other.
I just…feel the environment and “experience” it VR-style through my characters’ eyes. Specifically, what would that character notice? If you strapped a camera to their head, what would you see? What would they likely smell/feel? How would they likely experience the world? I don’t do a checklist – “Smell, check. Sight, check.” I just imagine what it’s like to be them, and write down what they notice (and not what they wouldn’t probably notice – for example, waxing eloquent about technology that for us as readers may be futuristic, but wouldn’t stand out to the characters living in that fictional future world). I’ve said elsewhere that fiction writing is acting, but on paper.
See this blog entry for an example of what I mean. Poor Wickford (character).
That also means interestingly, that there’s a slight filter to each interaction (and the story as a whole!) because it’s from a specific character’s POV (and that POV shifts). The book is in a sense from Jossey’s or whoever’s fictional POV, and only rarely from an external “neutral” one. It’s immersive as much as I can try to make it (ideally).
Where do you get stuck while writing and what do you do to get unstuck?
I get stuck when it feels inauthentic, or when I get into what I call a “plot tar pit.”
Inauthenticity is the biggest issue for me. The plot should follow naturally from what’s come before, even big things, if your worldbuilding is solid. If it feels wrong, I stop and ask myself why. Is the character out of character? Try writing the same scene from a different character’s POV to see if it feels in-character at some point. If not, try to figure out why. Is it the character? The motivations? The external constraints? The environment itself?
Re: plot tar pits, which usually happen when I did not, uh, do my research thoroughly and now find myself mired in a plot that doesn’t hold up scientifically (oops – and by the way, “I can probably figure it out later” is usually not a good strategy)…same idea – go back, line up the structure and the facts, find weaknesses.
In general, if I have writer’s block, I sit down and “look around the scene.” What are the people off to the side doing? Why are they there? What is character Y or Z thinking? What’s going on? Or (I didn’t mention in this in the author talk) I just write another scene that I’ve wanted to work on. Don’t feel you need to hold yourself to it. It’s a writing exercise.
WRITING – THOUGHTS
Do you set out to include commentary on our world/society in your writing, to convey specific viewpoints? Or do you take inspiration from the world as we know it, and let readers take what they will from it?
I think there’s a bit of both. Without spoiling anything – my dystopian world doesn’t necessarily reflect any specific current or historical reality, but there are elements that are sadly common to much of human history and many many societies. How power functions and its results, for example. The subtleties, in some cases the ignorance involved, and in other cases the attempted justification to self. The “greater good” – yes, I included the word “utilitarian” in there somewhere, but not in a lecture-y way, more in a “character thinking about what he’s just been told” kind of way. My goal is to have people recognize those elements and to think about them.
I can’t really say much at all here without spoiling the books (sorry!) but I can say that I do my best to make dystopian fiction reflect actual reality. I struggle with fiction that has “a secret” or “a problem” but lays it out in a way that would likely not happen in real life. So I tried to write a version that I felt might accurately portray power dynamics etc.
Maybe at some point I should do a book 2 talk because then I should be able to speak more freely. 🙂
Did you do anything to pre-promote your books before they were publicly available? Like advanced copies to select people for reviews? or… any other form of marketing for the launch dates?
First of all, I must admit I hate dealing with ads and numbers. I prefer to engage with people.
I did have a few people read my books beforehand and got some good feedback (and very kind reviews!), but essentially my marketing was some Facebook ads plus talking about the book(s) on FB/IG/Twitter/my mailing list/my website. Obviously a solid cover and gorgeous marketing images (thanks Books Covered!), which I then also made into a book trailer and such using Adobe Spark and similar. My hope is that reviews will continue to add up and eventually Amazon will help boost the books, and that people will share them with friends/family/etc. I’m in no hurry. I just love the books (and want others to love them!) and want to keep writing. I do occasionally do a free book promotion (through Smashwords or similar) but a lot of my time has been spent on the writing side and the marketing side has been a steep learning curve, so I’m still figuring it out.
Thanks so much all for coming! I’d love to do another one of these. I’m happy to talk about sci-fi, writing, climate fiction, and more!
How I write, why I write. How I can explain to others about writing.
I just did an interview (not yet released) and we discussed things that are pertinent to the writing process – character development, that type of thing. I thought I should put together some thoughts on how I approach writing in general. I hope they’ll be of some use to someone!
I am probably the worst video game player on the planet. I occasionally win because I flail and press allll the buttons and my friends don’t know how to respond to my furious attacks/falling into the action. (Sometimes I manage sneak attacks because, uh, I think they forget I’m there.)
Anyway. Cough. The point is, I may be absolutely awful at video games, but I do notice things about the virtual world as I go along. One of these is the idea of a map that starts out completely obscured (usually just darkness) and clears slowly as you move along the trail.
I think of writing this way. I have several rules here:
The Game Map
These all go together. That is, I reveal bits and pieces of the “world” to the audience…from the point of view (POV) of a character.
I also almost never reveal anything on the Map (the plot/fictional world) unless it has been revealed through the POV of a character that the reader has already “met.”
This concept of POV-focus (I don’t love the title, but bear with me) means that the reader sees things from a very tight perspective. You learn about the world from a very restricted viewpoint: that of a specific character, and then those that the character interacts with at length. For example, in Aestus, the reader first is introduced to Jossey Sokol, and from then on is shown the action through her eyes…up until we are introduced to her friend Gavin Tskoulis, a Patrol commander.
There are occasional exceptions to this, but they’re very tightly bound to the characters I’ve already introduced, and I have a specific rationale for doing so. In other words, if it’s not directly from that character’s POV, it’s about that character, by someone close to them. No “Meanwhile, across the land, [new characters blah blah blah].”
Rules 1 and 2: Game Map and POV-focus
To demonstrate, in Aestus, Jossey is our main character. At the age of 10, she loses her brother Tark to the Onlar, the monstrous aboveground creatures (a short opening chapter), and when she is 25 she’s attacked again and has to save her entire solar crew in a pitch-black tunnel deep underground. She is now doubly terrified of the aboveground world (but works aboveground as a solar engineer because she can’t imagine another career). For her bravery, and for her skill, she is offered a change in career – a field Engineer with Patrol, which might involve combat – but for obvious reasons she says no.
Her friend Gavin Tskoulis (who was her brother Tark’s childhood best friend) is a Patrol commander…he, too, doesn’t want her to join. However, one night, he’s aboveground on a mission, and his recruit Wickford stumbles upon a small skeleton…near where Tark disappeared.
I normally would write such a consequential chapter from Gavin’s perspective, but in this case I think it works better from Wickford’s because they’re all in the same Patrol unit, they have roughly the same experiences, Wickford is a subordinate (and terrified of Gavin, as much of Patrol is)…and this way the audience can see Gavin’s reaction, as well as how his men (and, by extension, much of the City) react to him.
The following demonstrates several things:
It was cold.
Cold was a relative term, but Wickford was glad he had on his outer layer as he stepped up top into the canyonland with its endless night sky.
He shivered. His safety gauge read seventy degrees. Positively chilly for this time of year.
The Founders, long ago, had written scientific tracts on how, years after the extreme heat had all but baked much of the world, the extra gas in the atmosphere might eventually dissipate. The Earth might cool.
He shrugged it off. Tomorrow would probably be another scorcher.
Wickford turned and eyed the entrance to the old elevator, reaching to make sure his standard-issue knife was still attached to his leg. If he lost his sword, he could at least fight at very close range.
He’d seen enough to know that didn’t usually go well.
He glanced at the elevator again, impatiently, waiting for the other Patrol to emerge. He didn’t want to get stuck up here with just Pricey. Alistair Price-Ford III, Pricey for short. Obnoxious as they came.
Pricey grinned. “Don’t worry, newbie.”
Wickford shot him a look. He wasn’t worried, he told himself. He’d volunteered for this. Yes, they were as far away from the main City entrances as the service corridors went – Henry had said something about the empty quadrant, unless he’d heard wrong – but the elevator should still be working fine. It was unlikely they’d be trapped, he thought. And if they were, they should have enough water to make it back to the main entrance before sunrise.
He shook his head for even thinking about it. It wasn’t a rust bucket anymore, not since the incident years ago. All of the elevators had been upgraded by order of Intelligence, outfitted with Patrol codes to keep people from sneaking up top.
As he had, as a boy, before the Onlar had started invading the tunnels with greater frequency. He wasn’t a chicken.
As for “newbie,” well, he gritted his teeth. He’d been on tunnel patrols for two years. He was only a “new” recruit when it came to aboveground work. That’s just Pricey, he told himself. Henry wants me here. Advocated for me.
He jumped as the elevator doors opened again and Commander Tskoulis stepped out, armed to the teeth and followed by Henry, second-in-command. Two others followed shortly – the auxiliary medic and the tracker. They were from another unit. Wickford hadn’t bothered to learn their names.
Wickford breathed a nearly-inaudible sigh of relief.
Pricey elbowed him. “Toldja.”
Wickford said nothing. Pricey might be obnoxious, but he was a better guy to have on your side than against you.
The group saluted Tskoulis. He waved them down, did a quick visual inspection of their equipment, their water rations. Sufficient for a night mission. He smiled grimly, his mouth the only thing visible, his mask obscuring the rest of his features.
“Move out,” was all he said.
He brushed past, and Wickford instinctively moved out of the way, getting as usual the unsettling impression of standing next to a wild creature, something barely in control of its power. Tskoulis carried his sword on his back, along with his water rations, and in the moonlight it tilted back and forth as he walked, like a strange antenna. He looked back over his shoulder at them, expression unreadable with the mask, mouth set in a grim line.
The Tiger, the commander was called, after one of the near-mythical giant predators from the distant past.
Tskoulis was certainly built like one. He moved easily for a man of his size. But Wickford had seen how fast he could move, the power he had in his enormous arms, how he could use the sword he carried.
How the commander had pinned another Patrol agent to the tunnel wall with one hand, lifting him nearly off the ground, for insubordination.
This is the kind of information it’s hard to get from Gavin’s own perspective. You don’t normally walk around thinking “I am badass and I scare people.” (I mean, maybe. But uh.)
Note how we see what’s normal for Wickford: 70 is chilly, he’s a bit interested in the world around him (thinks about the Founders, about the science, about the Onlar, about why the rock formations as are they are [a part not included in the excerpt]), and he’s petrified of the Onlar…and of his commander, Gavin Tskoulis. We don’t learn Gavin’s thoughts, we don’t learn what the Patrol agents are doing exactly, we don’t learn much of anything other than Wickford’s own musings on things. It’s dark, and there are rocks, and they’re in terrible danger, and Wickford is regretting his decision.
They lined up along the ridge and crouched, silent shadows, staring down into the valley. They made sure to check that the moon was on the other side of the sky, so they couldn’t easily be seen. The elevator felt very far away.
They can see you in the dark. It was true, knew Wickford. But they could try to keep the advantage. Up here, the wind was blasting harshly, warm even at night, and very dry. The only vegetation around was deep in the canyons, where there was water; the ridge was clean of cover, burned during the day, wind-scoured at night.
“Water,” Tskoulis murmured. They obediently took a swig from their canisters. It had to be timed, to keep them all sufficiently rationed to make the full loop of whatever mission Council had sent them on this time.
Wickford had only been on one of these aboveground missions before, though he’d fought alongside Tskoulis and Henry down in the tunnels for the past year. Commander Tskoulis never told them much, just gave them brief orders before they moved out.
Usually the aboveground Patrol went through the canyons, driving out any Onlar they could find, or so Henry had explained when Wickford had volunteered for duty. And he’d only done it on a dare, from Henry of course, who’d called him a chicken in the mess hall in front of everyone, saying tunnel duty was for “Patrollets.” Newbies, Wickford thought sourly.
But fighting Onlar on their home turf was sounding less and less great with every minute that passed, as it dawned on him that they might actually be going into the canyons.
Some more about what’s going on, mainly through Wickford not really knowing what’s going on, and worrying his way into a state of anxiety.
And then…a perspective of Gavin Tskoulis that none of them has ever seen before:
Behind him, Wickford thought he heard a sound. A trickle of rock. A footstep, maybe.
His fascination with the Milky Way vanished, replaced by gut-wrenching terror. The Onlar could be there, right behind him.
Maybe even a group.
And he was alone.
His hands felt like ice. He broke into a run, scrambling over the rocks as he made a beeline for the others.
As he did, he tripped over something and went flying, making a racket as he went down hard, his gear scattering.
The entire group of Patrol turned around.
“It’s the newbie,” he heard one of them mutter angrily.
He lay there, frozen. He’d lost his canteen, and his knife. He’d heard them both fall somewhere in the darkness. Tskoulis would probably be furious, he thought.
But Wickford didn’t care, because he was staring at a skull.
The second-in-command stared for a long moment, then took off his pack and dug hurriedly in it.
“Tools,” he ordered.
The medic alone looked unfazed, and obediently began to look through his pack.
Sometimes they find only bones.
Wickford was still frozen, staring in horror at what he’d found. He hadn’t wanted to believe this about the Onlar, despite what else he’d seen.
But not this. He’d always hoped this was just a legend.
He felt sick.
At the commotion, Tskoulis appeared out of the darkness, a looming figure, rage written in the tension of his enormous arms and his clenched jaw.
Wickford looked up, wincing, suddenly realizing just how tall the commander was, how imposing.
Tskoulis’ men parted before him as he stalked over to Wickford. Even Pricey fell silent.
Wickford looked up at the commander, terrified, ready to apologize for the noise he’d made, ready to beg him not to throw him off Patrol, but Tskoulis just waved the young recruit into silence, staring down at the small skeleton on the ground.
The men gathered around, ready to carefully excavate, waiting for orders. The medic had an emergency blanket ready.
The air seemed to suddenly go out of Tskoulis’ body.
“Stop,” he said suddenly, harshly. There was a note to his voice the young recruit had never heard before.
Tskoulis removed his mask with one enormous hand, let his arm drop to his side. His hair was damp underneath, plastered to his head. His expression was fixed, his face appearing completely drained of blood, as he looked down at the small skeleton.
Wickford and the others immediately set aside their tools and backed away from the bones.
The night wind had picked up, ever so slightly, and was stirring the lock of pale hair above the skull’s empty eye sockets.
Tskoulis’ fists clenched. He was crushing his mask, the men noticed.
Pricey, usually brash, opened his mouth, and Henry shot him a death glare.
The wind picked up, blowing grains of sand through the small bones of the pathetic arm. It was flung outward, as if its owner had been dropped and left there, discarded, under the desert sky.
“No no no,” Tskoulis muttered under his breath. His broad shoulders drooped as he continued to stare.
“Commander?” Pricey piped up. “What’s – ”
Henry physically grabbed Pricey, put a gloved hand over his mouth.
Tskoulis didn’t seem to hear Pricey, didn’t seem to notice his Patrol were even there. The men saw he was shaking, face completely white.
Wickford watched in wonder as The Tiger sank to the ground beside the small skeleton and put his face into his hands.
I really appreciate this whole scene for the perspective on Gavin and Patrol. The soldiers’ interactions say a lot about the dynamics and the hierarchy among them – Pricey’s brashness, his apparent closeness to Tskoulis despite the group’s general impression of Gavin Tskoulis as terrifying, etc. I didn’t need to say much about their actions, other than Pricey being obnoxious (to Wickford, at least) – the way Wickford perceives them says it all. The reader can see (and, I hope, feel) the absolute shock when they witness the Tiger showing strong emotion.
Quite a different impression of Gavin Tskoulis than the main character, Jossey, has:
Gavin was asleep in the chair next to her bed, a bedraggled set of hothouse flowers half falling off his lap. His handsome face looked tired, drawn, as if he’d been there for some time.
Jossey half-smiled. How many women in the City would be beyond thrilled to find Commander Tskoulis passed out in their hospital room, flowers in hand, waiting for them to awaken?
She almost laughed at the idea.
It was sweet of him. She just wished he wouldn’t be so…so…
She sighed. She hadn’t seen him in some time, not counting the tunnel. He was sporting a new scar on his arm, she noticed.
Even unconscious, Gavin was physically intimidating, with enormous arms and shoulders, and deeply tanned from his time up aboveground with Patrol. He wasn’t much older than her, but he was more serious by far. Serious, and tall, and reserved, with a knockout smile that he deployed at will.
Mr. Celebrity, she thought, smiling wryly.
Some thoughts on perspective, and writing from various character POVs.
As we understand someone, we often come to care for them, or at least sympathize with them. Understand them through how they think, how they feel, and we may come to identify with them, to an extent. I don’t often give backstory for a character or infodump about their world; I let the audience experience them (and their world) through the here and now.
I hope they feel Wickford’s unease and awkwardness and his horror. I hope they feel Jossey’s affection toward the same man who terrifies Wickford and Patrol. I hope, later, they come to love Gavin as I do when they read his own thoughts.
Rule 3: Microwave Tech
Re: my third rule, Microwave Tech, it’s quite simple: I really find it frustrating when sci-fi infodumps about technology, and really anything worldbuilding-based. Yes, it might be interesting, but it doesn’t help you get immersed in the world (or at least it doesn’t help me). I want to understand/experience the tech/the world as the characters understand/experience it.
Would you, in describing something that happened in your kitchen last week, talk at length about your microwave? Unless it’s relevant to the plot (someone uses it, uh, incorrectly and there’s a fire, for example), it’s…a microwave. Many of us have them. They’re not novel technology for our day and age. Two hundred years from now, flying cars may be completely normal. If it’s something the character wouldn’t notice, don’t describe it.
Fiction develops empathy, so they say. That’s one big reason I write. I hope it works. For you – put all this together, and you should have (hopefully) a solid introduction to a fictional world and well-developed characters…and give a reader a good time learning about whatever mystery/ies await along with said character(s).
It’s day 2 of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Against my probably-better judgment, I decided to do it (or try). I am currently editing Novel 2 (Aestus, Book 2: The Colony), which takes a ton of time and effort, and yet I couldn’t resist joining NaNoWriMo again this year. There’s just something about working in tandem with thousands of other people on a fun and over-the-top project like this. It’s pressure, in a good way. It’s fun, it’s frustrating at times, and I love it.
So here I am, trying to write a third novel, and I’m running into an issue, one that took me some time to define to myself. It’s one of scale, it turns out, or at least that’s what I think the problem is.
I really love writing epic adventure – Aestus is a two-part series (so far!) with plenty of it – but I still deeply care about the characters. They don’t get lost in the vastness of it all, plot or landscape. In fact, if you read closely, their entire story’s setting/region isn’t really that huge. It may appear to be huge by the fact that they can’t really travel aboveground once the sun comes up. But that doesn’t detract from the story. It may actually enhance it, in my opinion. As my friend said, I could probably write all sorts of stories that happen in their not-that-big fictional bubble…because it’s character-focused rather than “big things happening in the background”-focused. I’ve read other novels that just leave me cold because they involve armies and Big Ideas and yet I can’t bring myself to care in much depth about most of the characters, or even know what’s going on (I do, uh, pay attention!). In Aestus I can describe to you the way a specific canyon looks, and how far on foot it is to x or y destination, or how a character feels about a place and why. (Yes, I wrote the thing, and did a lot of research, but I can do this with novels not my own as well.)
So now I’m looking at writing a novel that involves relatively real-world geopolitics, across nations and borders and whatever, and I’m kind of stumped. Challenge accepted, but I’m also wondering if I even want to accept the challenge. I love spy novels (Jason Bourne ftw) but even those feel more immediate than the kind of large-scale things I’m envisioning here (especially since spy novels tend to think of “governments” as “a few powerful/nefarious individuals acting directly,” which – I mean, maybe to an extent in some cases, but in my experience they tend to leave out boring/inconvenient forces like markets and similar, at least to a realistic degree). Additionally, the plot I’m looking at would seem to largely take place far from the governments/whoever else acting in the background, which presents another challenge.
Anyway. These are just some musings for now, but I would prefer a smaller-scale grand adventure where the characters don’t get lost in the “scenery.” Might have to tweak a few things. And no, this is not an attempt to get out of doing the necessary research, haha.
Or…maybe I should gear myself up for a writing adventure of my own.
It’s almost NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and I’m debating whether to write novel 3 while also trying to get novel 2 (the second half of my epic sci-fi series Aestus) ready for publication.
I’m very tempted. In the meantime, I have been remiss in updating this blog and I apologize. It’s been a whirlwind – from writing books 1 and 2 to editing to figuring out the steep learning curve of publishing. I’m getting there, I hope, but it’s been a lot of work. Add in the fact that I work full-time and just took a 10-week intensive CELTA course (TEFL instructor certification through the University of Cambridge), and you have one very exhausted author.
I’ve been thinking for a while about what I wanted to use this blog for. To be honest, I think of it as a space for me to write about the writing process itself – the giant effort to write a novel, for example. And that’s not something I’ve been able to sit down and reflect on in full. Hence the delay. But now I’m ready to try. In honor of NaNoWriMo, here’s a longish spoiler-free reflection on writing my first novel, Aestus, Book 1: The City, which you can find here.
An underground city, built centuries ago to ride out the devastating heat. A society under attack. And a young solar engineer whose skills may be the key to saving her city…if she doesn’t get herself killed first.
–From the synopsis of Aestus, Book 1: The City
From idea to novel
I was not exactly planning to write an action-filled futuristic novel. I’ve always been more of a historical-fiction person (I have half a YA-esque plot on pirates in Boston written out, just saying). But offline, I’m a professional science writer and am very concerned about climate change; if you’ve read my writing guide on Goodreads, you probably know that my book began via a very frustrated me standing in a bus tunnel on a boiling hot thunderstorm-y evening waiting for a (late) bus, ~95F and ~100% humidity due to the storm. I started thinking about what humanity might do if the world became (God forbid) essentially uninhabitable. What if, I thought, this bus were coming to take me down into the earth at the end of my work day? Into an underground city? What might go wrong on such a trip? What if the bus broke down? What if there were clawed creatures that snuck into the tunnels at night? (I have a vivid imagination.)
I waited for the bus, went home, and started thinking about what that might look like.
The first bit I wrote was, in one sense, originally an exercise in action-writing, which was super intimidating because I had never written action. I wanted to try to capture both action and terror – the feeling of being hunted down by a monstrous creature in a dark tunnel with nowhere to run, assuming the heat and lack of water don’t kill you first.
I drew on some related experience (not with being chased in the dark, exactly, but something like that): I’ve been in a legitimate pitch-black tunnel once, on the Hiawatha Bike Trail in Idaho/Montana, and it was terrifying and cool at the same time. You wobble along with your bike light (they don’t provide them, so bring your own), and you can hear water dripping but you can’t see the ground too well – don’t veer into the mini-river – it’s pitch-black and everything is sort of reflective because of the water on the stone tunnel walls. It’s very cold…and it’s two miles long.
My stupid friends decided to make eerie shrieking monster noises as we rode our bikes. This was funny…at first.
Now imagine you may or may not be being chased by a creature with glowing eyes and claws. In the heat, where water is an issue. And your bus has broken down and you have to descend about 300-500 feet into the earth…while trying not to fall into a giant pit left behind when your City was constructed.
I thought it was a cool idea, and generally wanted to write further about the idea of an underground city and climate change, so I started plotting out a story. I wrote six chapters or so and posted them on a blog; I had no idea how to expand the thing, but figured I’d probably update as I went. In the meantime, I asked my friends (a bit apprehensively) to read it. (Again, no action-writing experience!)
They liked it…but I didn’t realize how much they liked it until one friend basically said to me, “Look. I need more than one chapter a month.”
Now I felt obligated to write (thanks, friend – you know who you are!). So I sat down and started actually plotting things out in a lot more detail. But I realized very quickly that there was the potential to make this into a much much bigger novel…so I took it off my blog, instructed said friends to wipe their memories (haha), and started writing.
NaNoWriMo started around that time. I decided to give it a go – why not? – and actually attempted to prepare, even purchasing a NaNoWriMo book, which is a very meta concept. I ignored the fact that I had already started on my novel (it’s acceptable now/doesn’t break the rules!) and just started writing.
In case you’re curious, I used a program called Wavemaker, which I hope still exists, because it was amazing. The only issue was the lack of spellcheck. But it gave a really focused (and free!) writing experience. I also used my Chromebook, which I do 80% of my writing on, and Werdsmith, where I do the rest. [Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with any products I mention on my blog unless specifically stated. Use at your own risk.]
Characters, tropes, and lighting the bagel-toaster on fire
The biggest thing for me with characters is that I have to like them or at least understand them. Their decisions have to be logical, if not rational.
And they should be realistic, not trope-y.
More than that, though, I truly care about my characters. I have no interest in characters who are tropes, so to speak – the Best Friend or the Old Mentor or whoever who are stuck into the plot but are very flat characters. Obviously, characters fulfill plot functions, but I also need to care about them. If I care about a character, I am willing to read pages about them doing just about anything. Literally. If I don’t, they’d better be saving the city from a disaster, and even then I’ll probably forget their names once the book is over, which is probably not how you want your novel to be remembered.
My main character was the hardest part of writing (at first, anyway), especially as I came up with her knowing very little about the plot/world or, therefore, her. Coming up with a main character (MC) that I actually like is always a challenge. Coming up with a woman as a main character is particularly hard…because there’s so much baggage that comes along with women as characters. They’re either overly (and overtly) sexy or “quirky” (ew) or Different from Other Women (what’s that supposed to mean?) or “damaged” in some way (trauma, specifically to do with men). Notice a theme? This all has to do with their relationship to men. I just wanted a character who was interesting and intelligent and accomplished and whatnot, nothing to do with men or how men perceived her.
I named her Jossey Sokol, and she’s a visibly-scarred survivor of an Onlar attack when she was ten, during which she lost her brother. Now, fifteen years later, she’s a solar Engineer, secretly terrified of the dark tunnels through which she must pass twice a day to work on the equally-terrifying surface, because it’s the only career she’s ever wanted to have.
Basically, I wanted Jossey to be a strong character who didn’t rely on her relationship with men to make her interesting.
“- Female lead that exists comfortably outside of the usual stereotypes” – A. Behlum, reviewer
(I take this to mean that I accomplished that goal!)
However, I quickly ran into the (obvious) idea that she couldn’t really do everything herself (I mean, stopping a bus from hurtling into the pit when one has no experience with driving a bus generally requires help, for example)…so I grudgingly allowed a man to assist, haha. (I joke – several of the main characters are men. I just didn’t want the story to go the way of so many others and have romance be the main focus.)
(Of course, plans often mean next to nothing: I ended up coming up with another character who ruined my carefully-laid plans with Emotions and Feelings and Stuff…but who I think immediately improved the story, and is now one of my favorites in the “cast.” But I digress.)
Back to the notion of non-tropetastic characters:
Gavin, Mr. Handsome Patrol Commander. On the surface, he’s ideal in many ways…and he’s legitimately a sweet guy, but he has quite a few blind spots, to say the least. If anything, he’s flawed because of how near-ideal he is.
I enjoy playing with contrasts, and he’s very much a study in contrasts. That said, he’s not specifically constructed in order to demonstrate those traits or look at contrasts or whatever. He’s just him, the slightly-doofy-but-also-terrifying overprotective “bodyguard” of sorts who used to be Tark’s best friend and who promised to be there for Jossey the way he’d been there for Tark. He and Jossey are now adults and he’s still there for her. He drives her nuts with his overprotectiveness and his Handsome Commander near-arrogance…their relationship is not exactly smooth at times.
“Jossey half-smiled. How many women in the City would be beyond thrilled to find Commander Tskoulis passed out in their hospital room, flowers in hand, waiting for them to awaken?
She almost laughed at the thought.
It was sweet of him. She just wished he wouldn’t be so…so…”
—Aestus, Book 1: The City
That said, he’s as realistic as I could make him, considering how admired he is in the City and how a large percentage of the female population is infatuated with him. People like this do exist, haha. I take it as a personal challenge to push the limits of Mary Sue-dom, but I also happen to know quite a few people in real life who really are [geniuses/amazing athletes/what-have-you] and I don’t feel bothered by putting characters like Gavin or others into the story. If you do so, just make sure they have flaws. Said geniuses that I know have also demonstrated otherwise at times (examples include lighting our bagel-toaster on fire after buttering the bagel first, which while efficient was also a Bad Idea). Ah, my youth. As for the series having villains, and them veering close to trope territory, I have quite a bit I could say about the status quo and economics, but I should save that for my commentary once the series ends.
Dystopia and world-building
Back to the dystopian aspect. In terms of speculative fiction, I wanted Jossey to figure out the secret(s) via a series of adventures. (I use that word in the dystopian sense; the reality of the plot is significantly more complex and less trope-y than that. Hopefully more on that later.) The fun part (and the real adventure, barring of course being pursued in dark tunnels by a clawed creature) began once she joined Patrol, the military arm of the City. As a child, as mentioned, Jossey had snuck aboveground at night with her older brother Tark to see the moon, a trip that ended disastrously when one of the monstrous creatures known as the Onlar found them. Jossey was left with terrible scars and a damaged leg. Tark disappeared. That’s where my book begins…and then it takes the reader to fifteen years later, when Jossey’s solar-engineering-crew bus breaks down in the dark tunnel and she has to save 30+ people from the creature that’s pursuing them. After that second traumatic experience, her uncle asks her to join Patrol on a special engineering assignment; she says no for obvious reasons. Meanwhile, her Patrol-commander friend, Gavin, is on an aboveground night mission when one of his recruits stumbles (literally) across a child’s skeleton…near where Tark had disappeared. Jossey does a 180 and all but demands to be allowed on Patrol.
Patrol was really fun to write, if also somewhat intimidating – the closest I have to “military experience” is the Boy Scouts of America. I worked in the forest for two summers at a summer camp, helping with shooting sports, among other things. But I got a good sense of the camaraderie, the pecking order, etc. For example, Thompson and Ellis, the two kind-of sweet-natured, fiercely loyal doofuses (mostly Thompson, to be honest), started out as vaguely stock-esque characters and grew into two of my favorites in the series. (Can’t tell you why, but after book 2, Thompson is solidly in the running for top five favorite characters.)
The tech was fun, as was the world-building in general. Without spoiling anything (as much as possible), the City is an underground module system of sorts built to withstand severe climate change. The aboveground world is deeply inhospitable during the day. But it’s a lot more complicated than that. I started to think of things like how the Onlar (the monstrous creatures) could move around during the day, how the City would power itself/get water/etc., and more. What would likely happen if someone got trapped up aboveground, for example?
Thoughts on plot-writing
The plot quickly became far more complex than I had anticipated, and I ended up using Google Slides to keep everything in order (I had one for tech, for example; one for political motivations…).
In constructing the plot, I specifically focused on motivations and reactions. One thing I’ve learned about writing drama is that it really comes down to people’s motivations and how they perceive others’, whether that’s on a friendship level (“why did she say that about me?”) or a full-on battle-strategy game-theory level. (Both exist to an extent in this series.)
There’s a TV show I watch, for instance, where the simple tension between two brothers, one of whom wants power that the other seems to have without trying, plus a single apparently-minor incident, spirals ever outward into a massive series of events that threaten to take down empires. It’s all logical, each step building on the previous ones, all the threads weaving together, and it amazed me how such a simple structure could unfold into something so exquisite. It reminds me of crystals – search “bismuth crystals” if you want to see something amazing.
Anyway. I used to be of the mindset that I needed to plot Signposts: Or, Things that the Characters Need to Aim For. Yes and no. Obviously there are goals, and there are external factors/limitations/etc. for the characters, but ultimately the plot is characters reacting to their circumstances and trying to plan ahead as best they can. When I started to think of the plot as slowly-unfolding consequences of decisions, I was able to let the book all but “write itself.”
It very quickly became much bigger than I’d intended, in fact. I ended up with a notebook where I tried to write down all the things that I had to complete in each chapter for the story to make sense/not have plot holes/etc. It was helpful as a roadmap, but it was very different than the roadmap I’d originally set when I started writing, other than the general major plot points. It was almost like I’d built up momentum for the story with the early decisions/actions of the characters, and now things were proceeding under their own steam, in a sense.
Before I spoil anything…
I am at a loss, speaking of, for how to proceed from here, because I don’t think there’s much else I can say without giving away the plot. So here’s an invitation to read it for yourself!
Link (ebook and paperback): https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08FD6TVLJ(If you’d prefer other than Amazon, click on the Home button above to see options for ebooks at Barnes & Noble, Kobo, etc.).
An underground city, built centuries ago to ride out the devastating heat. A society under attack. And a young solar engineer whose skills may be the key to saving her city…if she doesn’t get herself killed first.
When Jossey was ten, the creatures of the aboveground took her brother and left her for dead, with horrible scars. Now, years later, she’s a successful solar engineer, working to keep her underground city’s power running, but she’s never really recovered. After she saves dozens of people during a second attack, she is offered a top-secret assignment as a field Engineer with Patrol, but fear prevents her from taking it…until Patrol finds bones near where her brother disappeared.
She signs on and finds herself catapulted into a world that is far more dangerous, and requires far more of her, than she ever imagined. The creatures and the burning heat aboveground are not the only threats facing the City, and what she learns during her assignment could cost her her life: one of the greatest threats to the City may in fact lie within. With thousands of lives at stake, can she act in time?
Aestus is an adult dystopian science-fiction series set centuries after climate change has ravaged much of Earth. An epic story of vengeance, power, shifting loyalties, and survival that looks at just how far people will go to protect what they love, brought to you by science writer S.Z. Attwell, Aestus paints a picture of a world in which far too little has changed.
“…masterful…on par with the best in the genre.” – A. R. Saida
“It’s hard to write a review of this book because I’m afraid that my description won’t do it justice. This is a phenomenal read….I can’t remember the last time I read a book this fast nor one that stayed with me for so long.” – Amanda W.
“Aestus is one of the best dystopian sci-fi novels I’ve read….beautifully vivid, with descriptions so specific and detailed that I felt like I was there alongside the characters, watching events unfold as if through my own eyes….It’s difficult to speak in much detail about Aestus without ruining one of the dozens of mysteries posited by the novel, but every page within the book’s covers is worth reading. Aestus has been the best fiction book I’ve read this year, and I’d strongly recommend it to anyone, even those not fans of the genre.” – R Sha
I will probably do a second blog post once Aestus, Book 2: The Colony is released, which I hope will be in December – I just don’t want to spoil anything! (Join my mailing list for updates – click on the Home button above!)
I did not expect to write a novel and then find myself doing the editing process from my room.
I write in coffee shops. I practically live in coffee shops. And now I’m stuck inside, my options being essentially my room, my living room (where my roommate works on her grad school assignments), or my tiny deck (where I can see dozens of people apparently ignoring social distancing down at the park, and where I can eke out enough sunlight to stay warm if I squish myself into the southeastern corner…but then I can’t see my laptop screen!)…so…my room.
Time passes strangely when I can’t go out, order tea, eat chocolate, or perhaps more importantly, take the train 40 minutes out of Boston just to get away from my ordinary neighborhood. There’s no journey, no time to get away from the screen or the notebook and think through plot points or similar on the train as I go from point A to point B. It’s just me, staring at my laptop. My neighborhood has expanded to become my coronavirus-circumscribed “world”…and by neighborhood, I mean my house and, again, by house I mean room. The sun goes slowly from east to west…slanting in one window, and then eventually in the other, painting the walls with pale light. It’s very quiet, other than the children at the park, and it’s actually great for editing, now that the story has (thank God) gotten out of my head and onto the page. Because for that, I needed a lot of caffeine, not the kind I can easily brew at home.
For that, I required good chai.
Story-telling, for me, is often a sort of…contemplative, aesthetic experience. This novel was a physical experience. There was a story inside of me that all but demanded to be let free, put down on paper/the screen, in a way I’ve never experienced before. Even if I was dead tired, I had to write it. I couldn’t step away from it. It was like I had eaten something dense and I could feel it, a physical thing. It’s by far the most epic thing I’ve ever written, to the point that I sometimes am amazed that those words came out of my hands (I have two modes when re-reading my writing: *cringe* and *whoa*, and this is very much the latter, thank God). It seems to evoke a visceral reaction in the people who’ve read bits of it as well. (My one friend took it with him to India and downloaded what he could between wi-fi deserts…he said he even brought it to meals with him. Thanks, R!) Even so, getting it down was a tremendous struggle, not only physically, but emotionally, which is probably a subject for another blog.
Now that it’s out…I read it for fun. This is not typical of me. Sometimes I go back and read stories I’ve written, laugh at amusing parts, make notes for potential future stories, etc. This is different. This, I read because I want to experience it as a reader. All 800ish pages of it. (Note for the wary: It’s not dense reading. Most of that high page-count is me using a sentence like “Did you?” as, effectively, a paragraph. Lots of short dialogue a quick read doth make. I’d estimate the effort is around the 400-to-450-page mark if comparing it to most novels I’ve read.) Again – I read because I sink into it. When I’m reading my book, I’m not mentally in a pink-carpeted bedroom somewhere in Massachusetts. I’m not thinking about the pandemic or toilet-paper memes (the sheer number of them! Just why?) or whether I am running out of food or if I remembered to wipe down counters properly. My mind is elsewhere, under the burning sun or making my way slowly through tunnels deep in the earth with insufficient water and a terrifying clawed creature somewhere behind me. I can almost physically feel the air of that place (and it is based on a real place!), see the way the sunset paints the rocks a pale pinkish-orange, hear the night-birds, sense one of the main characters sitting next to me watching night fall. All of this in the middle of a freezing March afternoon in the Boston area, with screaming children on the playground. Such is the power of fiction.
Such an experience is what I hope to impart to others. When my entire online feed is all about coronavirus, it’s nice to be able to think about something else for a while. Probably healthier too. (Especially if it keeps you inside! Social distancing can be fun. I for one would be very happy to spend an afternoon holed up inside with a novel.) Of course, given how quickly coronavirus went from “a few cases” in the U.S. to, well, this, I don’t have much ready to read yet, but I hope to have it ready by early summer at the latest.
Guess I should get back to editing. In the meantime, please stay inside and wash your hands.