A Beginner’s Tale #2

hSo it’s 2012 and I am trying to write a novel, despite characters seeking independence, stories inflating to epic proportions and the looming specter of SF’s accursed “infodump”. How to keep it lean and clean but coherent and credible?

With a bound, our aspiring author was free!

(New readers go back and start here)

Solution = prequel!

I simply shift the start-point of the whole story back a millennium and dispense with backstory. The “prequel” novel would be ongoing story that would become the backstory of the later novels! Result! In this earlier time-frame, I would explore new characters who stand in the midst of the great events which lead up to the stories I had started to write.

Great idea! I started tapping away, outlining and sketching and watching with horror as these new characters also sprouted independent personalities and self-awareness. Again, these new story lines expanded beyond the bindings of a single book.

Oh, no! I was writing a trilogy to prequel the trilogy I wanted to write. But I was already swept up in their epic stories; this was good stuff. I could not falter now – I would press on and create two excellent trilogies!

However, there were still a few technological aspects that merited more than just a casual reference. Was I going to have infodumps in my infodump-avoiding prequel? Never! But how to avoid that?

dreamstime_xs_24597531 reversedShort stories!

Instead of a page of rushed and intrusive technical explanation, I could deal with these aspects in a leisurely way, exploring them in a series of short stories within the same universe. The entire emerging epic would then be spread across two series set a thousand years apart and an array of short stories filling-in the gaps for those who really want all the nitty-gritty (and hopefully, bite-sized chunks of entertaining story-telling).

Ambitious? Hell, yes! Why not?

So instead working on both parts of a two-part novel, I had actually started and/or sketched-out storylines for about six, plus a few related short stories.

Had I learnt anything at that point? Well, yes, sort of…

  1. Give your characters room to expand, but within limits
  2. Plan and outline – then let the story flow within limits

But what are those limits? How do I set them?

hI needed help. I realised that I needed more than a good, exciting story with strong, sympathetic protagonists facing up to credible antagonists and unexpected setbacks. I needed to tap the experience, the wisdom, the skills of the literary giants…

After so many years in the service of the InterWeb, it was payback time. I began to search the Web for guidance, seeking some understanding of these self-imposed “limits”. How do successful writers actually do their successful writing?

Like any deal with the devil, I got not what I asked for, a lot less than I wanted and a lot more than I needed.

(… to be continued)

9 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Tale #2

    1. Ah, the sensitive approach 😉
      But, Timothy, it’s still 2012 in my tale and I am only just at the point of exploring the web for advice. You’ll need to wait and see where my search took me.


  1. Susan May Oke

    I know exactly what you mean! I’m now writing the prequel to my original book (now on hold) and have recently finished one short story, which takes place BEFORE the prequel. How much further back can I go?!


  2. That was EXACTLY my problem in early 2012, Susan. Because everything follows from whatever came before the Big Bang, you could theoretically go back “forever”. Choose a point, any point, at which the origin of the story/stories you want to tell begins to stir… And pin it down, draw a line, nail it to the wall until you run out of metaphors! You can always hack this apart in the revisions, so just start and keep moving forwards. (More about that later.)

    That is the start point and no other. (Yes, it’s damned hard, but who said authoring was a breeze?)

    Then take William Faulkner’s advice (as passed on by Timothy above) and “Kill your darlings” – cut away all the fat and non-vital material. Maybe you can re-use it later. But before you can finish, you must start!

    You’ll see later in this blog series how I deal with the “supporting” short stories 😉

    Meanwhile, find that “big bang” start point for your own story threads and set it in concrete!

    And keep remembering – you do want to be an author!


  3. Are these problems unique to science fiction, where an entire world has to be created from scratch? I like science fiction, but don’t lean towards it, and this post makes me glad that I don’t. You’ll need more than the good luck I was going to wish you, Andy.


    1. World-building is a feature of science fiction and fantasy stories because the reader is in a new environment. The writer also has to ensure that the world is coherent and should build much more than is presented to the reader. For example, if there is no money, then what do individuals strive for? What are the rules of magic? What form of government is there – authoritarian, democratic, anarchic…?

      In a contemporary story, the reader has a good, natural grasp of these things. A historical novel has to set the scene, too, but can report the actual situation of the period.

      If the story occurs in the future, an alternate reality or a distant planet, then things are probably not all as expected, so the reader must be given enough information to understand the environment (political as well as atmospheric) and the characters’ motivation. Some technical aspects must be in the world-picture in the author’s head, even if they do not feature directly in the story. Is there faster-than-light travel? Are there “replicators”, robots, cloned, teleportation beams, psionic powers, aliens…? How does their presence or absence affect the story?

      A short story doesn’t need much world-building, but a trilogy involving multiple planetary locations and political intrigue needs quite a solid base if it is to be credible.

      As Jesse Colvin commented to my previous post, “Now I sort of wish I have left the research and just written the basic story first.” The mass of information about the world (or in this case, the universe) can get in the way of story-writing and creates an urge to share everything with the reader.

      I guess it comes with practise – establish enough to make the story work, write the story, then check for inconsistences; think about the inconsistencies and fix them.


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