Yesterday my free story In Heaven and Earth was posted as part of the Goodreads M/M Romance group’s Love is an Open Road Event. It’s my third year doing this event, and I always enjoy it (my previous contributions were The Lodestar of Ys and The Court of Lightning. This year, however, I was faced with a new challenge. This year, I was writing Science Fiction. This is the prompt I claimed and you can see the picture that inspired it, and the story I wrote by going here..
I’ve written science fiction before, but not to this length and not with a romantic focus. I absolutely loved playing with a different palette, and finding ways to work in a few of the skills I’ve learned writing fantasy. This time I thought it might be interesting to talk through how I went from the initial prompt to the final outline I worked from to write the story. Although I write straight onto the computer, I tend to do most of my planning by hand, so I can scribble around the edges and over the top. Under the cut, you will find eleven pages from my planning notebook which I’ve scanned in (nothing fancy here, just an A4 exercise book and a pen). I always have a scribble book or two on the go, although for longer stories the planning tends to be muddled with other things I’ve jotted down in the process (to-do lists, shopping lists, reminders to take the bins out, doodles of dragons chasing stick-Gards, etc).
1. Okay, so this is the starting point. From the prompt or initial idea, I mindmap trying to find big themes and/or questions which might break open the story. At this stage, I’m just jotting down initial thoughts. This is a fairly small one, because I got a sense of direction very fast, but I’ve done ones of these which fill a whole page.
2. The next stage is to hone in on some of those big ideas. I’m doing that on the bottom half of this page. The top half was an idea that never made it into the final version: that Vairya’s memories of human history would include lots of sieges, and therefore each trip into his mind would take place in a different locale. You can see the first hints of the central conflict here (and that I can’t spell ‘stasis.’
3. Here I started honing in on those conflicts, especially the contrast between Vairya and what I eventually called trolls. At this stage, I was still playing with ideas and looking for connections and conflicts, hence the mixture of ideas and questions.
4. I then left the philosophical debate to mature in the back of my mind while I considered my protagonist. He didn’t become Reuben until very late in the planning process, and you can see some of the alternative names jotted down here (he’s referred to as Ko in some of these pages, but it just wouldn’t stick).
5. I did a similar sheet for Vairya. His is less detailed because I didn’t need to be inside his head. I didn’t actually get a clear sense of him until he started to banter with Reuben in the writing of the thing. I thought he was going to be distant and spiritual, not a snarky little git (I really should know better by now). His name was easier to pick. All the TC4s are named after angels or intermediary gods. Xšaθra Vairya is one of the divine sparks of Zoroastrianism (his name means ‘Desirable Dominion’ and he was later identified as the spirit associated with metal from the sky). Also the page on which I finally remembered how to spell ‘stasis.’
6. And then came the villains. The diamond trolls are the main antagonists, but Ahrima is the one who haunts Reuben, and I needed a clear sense of her as well (he name also derives from Zoroastrian traditions).
7. With the characters and themes established, I then started thinking about story structure. Those who are familiar with it may notice I’m drawing on John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story here. I worked through it last Christmas in an attempt to tighten up the saggy pacing in the middles of my stories. I have some issues with it, but as a planning tool it really makes you focus on character change as the central driver of plot. I also like the way it makes you start by identifying the different types of need and desire that are driving your protagonist.
8. And setting, my favourite bit. Not many notes here, because I could see Vairya’s garden in my head by then, but I did jot down some terms and ideas from my research. By this point I’d realised it was going to be literature, not history, that informed Vairya’s imagination, though the whole quotation thing took me by surprise as I wrote. At the bottom here I started jotting down possible titles, both from Hamlet.
9-11. And the full plot outline (again you can see Truby’s usefulness as a planning tool here, though I never use all of his steps). I didn’t stick to this exactly, but it gave me what I needed: a sense of direction, an awareness of where the characters needed to be when the story ended, and some idea of how the journey to that destination was going to change them and the world they lived in.
So there you go. That’s how I plan a story.