I’m sure by now you all have read and enjoyed a copy of The Long Road Home. I thought I’d take a bit of time and show you behind the curtain, as it were. Even if the story itself isn’t your cup of tea, then I’ve been thinking that you might be interested to see what happens to bring a story from an idea to the page. A glimpse of my own creative process. It might, I thought, bring interesting comparisons to your own.
Well, that’s a screenshot from post on the Science in My Fiction blog encouraging people to create alien species who’s social structure doesn’t follow the same pattern as ours:
“So how might aliens differ in measures of metabolism? Well, if you look at tiny mammals like mice, they tend to maintain very high energy levels for short periods of time, and then flop down for a rest, and then go back at it. Cats also have incredibly high intensity sometimes, but sleep a lot. Some animals have stamina for hours, and some don’t. Thus, if you’re extrapolating culture for an alien based on a particular body plan, metabolism will have an enormous influence on the way they organize their daily time. Energy levels will translate into work patterns, and also into such cultural details as furniture – perhaps, whether your people keep couches handy to sleep on when they’re taking a break from work.”
You can see the elevator pitch for The Long Road Home right there in my second comment.
It’s the kind of neat-sounding idea that occurs to a lot of people. Sometimes I’ll write them down in my notebook, and sometimes they’ll grow from there. Sometimes they just drift away.
The process of nurturing and carefully guiding the growth of the neat idea is what separates a writer from someone who has neat ideas, and that separates the stories from the ideas. It’s the obvious-in-retrospect donkey work that is nothing like the beautiful plant that is eventually presented to the reader, but more like a sprawling wasteland we writers seed with as many plants as possible in the hopes of getting that one beautiful plant.
So, why did that particular idea get written down and seeded?
Probably because I’m a fan of Chandler and bad puns.
The less-glib answer is also less satisfying. Like anyone else, my conscious mind is a river: constantly flowing, constantly changing, picking things up and depositing things on the banks. For some reason, conditions were right for this idea to stick and grow.
My first notes talk about how the biological necessity of hibernation has affected the aliens’ culture:
“There’s a tradition of having a small statue watching from the hearth. Before hibernation, the statue is smashed so it can report to the gods about the family over the year.”
The idea of the hard-boiled detective is strong on the first page. While the unnamed main character reluctantly sits through the ‘proper’ ceremony with his girlfriend, he only feels satisfied after returning to his dimly-lit office, standing by himself and smashing his own statue on his table with a smouldering cigarette dangling form his lips.
Artimus Hyde, myself and Allegra noiring it up for Children in Need at the office. Art bleeds noir. (Incidentally, management chose that day to tell us they were launching a consultation to shut our office and make us all redundant. They told they were going to do just that on Christmas Eve. True story.)
The interesting thing about ideas is that, when they have momentum, they generate a gravity. They suck in any stray ideas that drift along the psychological river. My next paragraph talks about how, in this alien society, their companies are like our families: they look after you, they love you, they nurture and protect you to the point where their language has no separate concept of ‘company’ and ‘family’. It’s an idea integral not only to The Long Road Home but to the Cheware, to their society and psychology. The culture and the story couldn’t work without it, but where did it come from? It’s not in that elevator pitch. It was just in my head and got… sucked in.
Something else that got sucked in was the idea of touch talk. A few years ago, I went through a course of cognitive behavioural therapy to help me deal with my depression. It was an incredibly painful experience, but also an incredibly beneficial one. It opened my eyes to the fact that our conscious thoughts are little more than flotsam and jestom floating on the ocean’s surface. What drives us, what makes us who we are is hidden away, generating those surface thoughts like the code of our computer’s operating system.
“Habitants don’t believe in absolute truth because their minds are so complex and interaction with their bodies and society so complex that they can’t know with absolute certainty the things driving their thoughts and actions”
However, their bodies betray their non-conscious thoughts through prehensile tails, ears and whiskers and, I put in my notes, scents. It seemed only reasonable that they’d see the humans as simple-minded, because we tell ourselves that we know why we’re doing and thinking things. Looking from the outside, the Cheware assume we’re all surface thought and no depth.
So, that’s where the story started. We have a hard-boiled detective, a society that sleeps through the winter and makes no distinction between your employer and your company, and a species who’s social norms are based around the idea that other people know you an awful lot better than you know yourself. And, of course, a murder. A hard-boiled detective without a murder is like a dame without a heater hidden in her dress.
After that, many hours of research and note making and following paths happened. The idea of touch-talk went from facial expressions to the conservationists physically pressing against each other so they could feel the tiny changes in each other’s pulse, small twitches of their muscles, their breathing and all those other minute non-verbal queues that give away mood and feelings. The hard-boiled detective is always on the outside, normally a veteran of World War One with borderline PTSD and alcoholism, but mine went in a different–and far more personal–direction. And there were questions that needed answering, like, ‘why are humans even on this planet? And how did they get there?’
“We killed them and took all of their stuff!” Yeah… a bit more like, ‘To explore strange, new markets, to exploit new life and new resources, to boldly plunder where no one has plundered before!’
Some ideas were written down but left by the wayside. The idea that the Cheware display their accomplishments in their clothes or with badges like the military or cub scouts, for example, or the idea that they can enter a meditative state that allows them to slowly strip away all the conscious surface thoughts and focus on a single point, a single idea or thought, and be entirely within that moment.
Other ideas threw up interesting questions. If there is a small colony of humans on an alien planet, so far away from Earth that even getting a message back home takes decades, how are those colonists going to cope? How are they going to change, to adapt, to view the planet and culture their great-grandfathers came from but they’ve never seen?
I started writing the first draft of The Long Road Home on the 10th March 2011. I left that elevator pitch comment on the Science in My Fiction blog on the 23rd January 2011. Part-way through developing the story, I broke off and made notes for three other stories. Clearly, my mind wandered…
For me, a first draft is like selecting the piece of marble to carve. Once you have the marble in the workshop, you can start shaping it, discovering and following its natural grain, revealing the statue you initially saw in it. The Long Road Home went through four drafts–which is about average–two edits with Michele Jenson, my editor at Twenty or Less Press, and one with Michele and our copy editor. Yeah, it’s been a long road. But hell, we got somewhere pretty special.
Picture of Kirk from here. Photo taken by Cal Wimsey.