Given the big decision I made a couple of days ago, to abandon work on 'Triple-Edged Sword', and begin a new book with the same title – but, frankly, almost nothing else in common – I thought I might take the opportunity to do something I have been planning to try for a while, to do a daily blog of the writing and editing of a book. I won't promise that these will be incredibly interesting, but I hope they will at least be illuminating. I also hope – very much – that this series will not go on for too long!
Yesterday was eaten up with some long-awaited changes to my office. Specifically, I have a new computer! I've been working on a Chromebook for the last eighteen months, and while it certainly served me well – and I can definitely recommend it – it has been getting irritating, and I finally decided to take advantage of the post-Christmas sales to get myself something new. Which arrived yesterday, in the form of a 21-inch all-in-one PC, as well as a proper keyboard. No more chiclet keys! (Why an all-in-one? Space is always a premium, and I like to have an uncluttered desk. All I have on here is the monitor, keyboard, mouse, a notebook, calculator and a desk tidy for pens and scissors.)
I've allocated two days for the lead-up to this book, and I'm hoping to finish it in twelve, after that. Note that this is hope, and likely will not transform into reality; as a habit I try and shoot high, but with the expectation that I will almost certainly fall short. Pushing for that extra hour of work is usually worth it. Today is focused around two key goals – preparing the crew list, and typing out a rough outline of the book. The first is the most mundane, but absolutely critical. It really is just a question of getting a short list of the crew of Alamo for this mission, just to make sure I keep myself consistent. That takes about half an hour, as a rule. While a lot of it is copied from the previous list, there are always new faces to work in, and some old hands to bring back – a character who left the series in 'The First Duty' is making a return in the new version of 'Triple-Edged Sword'.
What takes up more of the time is the outline. I've started books without a proper outline before, and they have a tendency to be epic disasters, taking far longer than they otherwise would. Now – the important point here is not to go too far. Everyone has their own style of writing, and I find that if I know the plot in too much detail, then I can't write the book – it's as if I already have, and it makes it next to impossible to put down on the page. A sentence per chapter is usually more than sufficient, something like, “Cooper takes his squad over to the space station; finds missing component”. Or, occasionally, “Big Space Battle.” That's enough, because of the next step.
Before I start a chapter, I try to break it down into bullet points, each one about four hundred words on average. That involves boiling down what I want/need to happen in the chapter to advance the general plot or the story of a specific character, as well as making the chapter flow properly, feel as though it has sufficient meat to it. For the 'Cooper' chapter I outlined above – which I stress will not be in the book – it might go something like this.
- Shuttle flight across to station, find sabotaged suit.
- Dock, creepy, eerie, electrical sparks, dead body, locked door.
- Detonate the door, quick gunfight with empty spacesuit, locate console.
- Hooke starts his hack, strange noise, systems activate, scream from the shuttle.
- Races to investigate, weird creature attacking guard, firefight, fell it.
- More readings coming, go and grab Hooke, more creatures come, keep firing, can't make it back to shuttle, seal themselves in.
That should prove interesting to resolve in the next few chapters, I think! It's all about making sure that there is sufficient story, character and action in every chapter. The last thing you need is a 'placeholder' chapter...usually. There is an exception, in that I like to include a couple of 'pause for breath' chapters before the big climax begins, a moment that the reader can, metaphorically, take a deep breath before launching into the final fight.
Another important task for today is to come up with the set-pieces, the locations. Usually, I'll already have these in my head before I start, and often, they can be the impetus for the whole plot. Depending on the story, I might need anywhere from one to three; in 'Malware Blues', for example, I had three – the underwater base, the ruined planet, the scoutship. Alamo is always a location, of course, but it is the 'home base', the point of familiarity. I've got an unlimited effects budget, so I can afford to 'go big'; this book, for example, has a double planet, like Pluto and Charon scaled dramatically up, an Earth-like world orbiting a Venusian Super-Earth. Not a nice place to be.
That's pretty much it for today. Once I've finished the outline and the crew roster, I can relax. Which, I suspect, means pounding away at the keyboard until midnight….