Experienced writers will probably be appalled at my writing attempts, but as an absolute beginner, I feel sure that there are many out there, like me, who are daunted by the apparent ease with which authors master the various techniques required for successful writing. This is my story. Some may call it lazy, some may criticize my methods, but maybe some will be encouraged that a duffer can still find genuine pleasure and a sense of achievement from writing, even if it will never be good enough to publish.
I am a great fan of science fiction, particularly the older type. I am also a fan of the older TV science fiction. Star Trek of course, Blake's 7, and Babylon 5, for example. When I was trying to get to sleep at night, to quieten my thoughts of my worries and concerns, I used to make up stories about my favourite shows.
I would imagine myself on the Enterprise with Captain Kirk, for example. How would an ordinary person like me end up on the Enterprise? Was I from a less developed society, so I wasn't familiar with the technology (saved me from having to make it up)? Was I, perhaps, from a different time all together – got there through some sort of time warp? Was I in hiding from someone? Was I a victim of some 'bad guy'?
As I tossed ideas around in my head, everything else would fade away, and I would relax, and at some point I would fall asleep. The following night I would try to remember where I had got to, and elaborate on it. Sometimes I would work out some more details, sometimes take the story further on. Some nights, I would be inspired to take the story in a completely new direction. Each night I would go over the story again and again, until eventually I would tire of it and start a new one.
One day I decided I was enjoying these stories so much that I would write them down. I don't expect to ever have them good enough to publish, but the actual writing is a very satisfying hobby. I soon realised that having me in every story was not a good idea – there are only so many damsels in distress you can take. My first story had a damsel in distress, which I thought was an acceptable place to start, but later stories managed to have other key characters. Also, it was a huge cheat to use other people's settings and characters. So I invented my own ship and crew. It took me ages – ready-made scenarios are so much easier. Enter the Kestrel, a fast response ship with a crew of 11, working for PACT (the Planetary Alliance for Cooperation and Trade), a sort of interplanetary police force.
Because of the way my story-making began, I was entirely plot driven. I knew the characters and scenery from the TV series, so I just made up the plot. Having got to the end of writing my first story, called 'Intruders', I realised that all the characters were cardboard, just there to move the plot on, and there was virtually no description at all. At one point in the story, some time has to pass while the Kestrel travels to an uncharted part of the galaxy. I had no idea what to do with it, but it seemed very weak to say, “some time later they arrived.”
This was the point at which I started reading books on writing, and realised all my shortcomings. I finished the story, so I had captured the whole plot, and then went back through and started 'padding'. My husband told me off for calling it that, as it sounds like putting in any rubbish to fill it out a bit. That's not what I mean, it's just my shorthand for filling out the story so it becomes more real. It is interesting to read interviews with authors who talk about their characters coming alive for them, and sometimes taking over the story and sending it in a new direction. This was all new to me.
So I spent all my spare moments, including those when I was trying to get off to sleep, working out just who the Kestrel crew were – what they looked like, their temperament and character, and their relationships with each other. It was hard, and very sketchy to begin with. I also found, as I wrote them into the story, that I had to keep a file on each one, to keep track of their details. James Kirk famously once said, “I'm not from outer space, I'm from Iowa. I only work in outer space.” It was a cute line, but the writers of Star Trek were then stuck with Iowa – they couldn't have Kirk coming from anywhere else in later scripts.
Initially, I found it annoying to have to take so much time out of writing 'the story' to sort out all these details, but gradually I came to realise that the story doesn't mean anything unless the reader really cares for these people and what happens to them. In the film Galaxy Quest, one crew member asks the others what his last name is. No one knows. He is convinced that this means that he's the one who is going to die on the away mission. We are not supposed to care about him, he is just a plot device. What we care about is how the other characters try to save him and have to cope with his death.
My powers of description have to stretch further, to describe the scenery, which I really struggle with. I read a lot, and once I started writing I paid more attention to how the book was written, as well as enjoying the story. Being plot driven, I used to think that I would lose the tension of the moment if I stopped to talk about the room they are in, their facial expressions, body language etc. I was amazed to find in my reading that the moment can be heightened by describing the scene in more detail and what is going on in people's minds. I never paid it any attention before, just got swept away in the moment. Some 'moments', I discovered, can go on for pages!
In some of the 'how to' books there are exercises on description, dialogue, etc. I have never done any of them, because it seemed such hard work when I was purely writing for pleasure. However, there's no pleasure when you let your loved ones read your great story and they tell you it's boring! I left my first story for a while and then went back to it, and I could see that no matter how good the plot is (assuming it's any good at all), you can't just zip from one incident to another and then have them all living happily ever after.
Another thing which I felt was time away from writing the actual story, was research. When I was writing about Star Trek and Babylon 5, I didn't need to research, because it was all done for me. When I started writing my own stories I relied on what I already knew from years of Sci-Fi reading, and the fact that because it's Sci-Fi you can make a lot of it up. But I soon came up against things I couldn't make up. Is there any gravity on an asteroid? What sort of injuries would someone get from the blast of an explosion? Thank goodness for the internet, but I still had to take the time to hunt for what I needed, and in language that wasn't too technical for me to understand! Again, this is probably the wrong way to do it, but I only do the research when I get to the bit where I need to know. Sometimes this does mean that I have to go back and re-write bits that now don't work.
To give me more time away from the first story, I wrote some new ones, and tried to put these ideas into practice. I still write in what I call 'layers'. The plot comes first, then the characters, then the setting. But I found that some of the plot arose out of the characters. Instead of just being action, there are characters who are scared, foolhardy, etc., which are new devices for the plot. I started to write incidental scenes where characters would interact and demonstrate their relationships and their temperament, which then became significant later, or just made the characters more real.
I found that my stories were a strange length – about 20,000 words. This is much too short for a novel, but too long for a short story. My daughter-in-law also commented after reading one story, that my chapters are too short, and the 12 chapters I had written were probably only 3 or 4. I reviewed the three Kestrel stories I had written so far, and decided to turn them into two, and add a lot more to them. This involves putting stories two and three together, as they feature the same key character, and writing a new story to go on the front of story one. This new story has proved a huge challenge, as I have to take all the references to a previous incident from story one, and remember the character development I have written and take all the characters back to what they would have been before it all. Once that is done I then have to go back and completely re-hash the other stories. Still, it keeps me out of mischief!
One more thing (although experienced writers will probably say there are many others). I discovered the reason that other stories are longer than mine is that they have sub plots. Again, it took me a while to work this out. My stories only have one plot. The sub plots not only act as 'padding', they fill in some of the backgound to the characters and situations in the main story. This is another challenge, and, knowing me, will be added as another 'layer' to my stories.
It probably seems a strange way to write fiction, and maybe one day it will all come together in my head, but this is the way I do it. I wouldn't hold your breath waiting to read the finished result though.