Daily Archives: August 17, 2014

On Birthing Books: Breathing Space

Standard

A bit of context – I am an avid reader, I teach Creative Writing at Northbrook College in Worthing, West Sussex and I write. I’ve been writing for what seems like forever and while I have written the occasional short story and poem, I write mostly science fiction novels.

Breathing Space is the third book in a trilogy I started with Running Out of Space about 19-year-old Jezell Campo, the daughter of an Sarah writingIberian merchanter who yearns to serve on her father’s ship. I wrote RooS, followed fairly quickly by the second book, Dying for Space, as at that point I had a publishing contract for the first book and the publisher was also interested in other books – subject to sales. However things didn’t work out, the publisher and I parted company and the copyright reverted to me before the book got to see the light of day. Instead of going on to write Breathing Space, I started Netted, a post-apocalyptic story set in Maine, as the whole experience with RooS left me feeling a tad raw and disinclined to continue in Jezell’s world.

But after completing Netted and working on an extensive rewrite of another novel, Jezell wouldn’t leave me alone. I liked the idea of writing a science fiction crime series and Jezell seemed the ideal protagonist all set to solve my murders – I even have the plot of the first murder mystery sketched out, along with the working title of the book, Murder in Space… But, of course, Breathing Space needed to be written to complete her story arc up to the point where Jezell starts sleuthing.  I’ve always written organically – but back when I was writing Dying For Space, I had a forest of ideas about how the story arc for Breathing Space should progress. So when I finally started writing the book in mid-May, I had a fairly good idea where the story was going – all I had to do was to get it down.

But it wouldn’t. I restarted Chapter 1 three times – it didn’t help that I was also grappling with Scrivener and it managed to tuck away the first couple of chapters in a dusty corner of my hard drive. I’d read that Dropbox and Scrivener didn’t play nicely together, but hadn’t realised the implications of what that entailed… I stayed up all night looking for the missing work – somehow the backup on my memory stick hadn’t stuck, either – and the missing files popped up suddenly when I’d all but given up searching and was in the process of shutting the computer down in exhausted despair.

I’ve sorted that out now, but still wasn’t happy with the beginning of Chapter 1 and didn’t want to move on, because I’ve learnt from experience that as I always write chronologically, if the start isn’t right, then the wrongness will eventually catch up with me and I’ll hit a brick wall further along the way. There seemed to be an awful lot of narration in Jezell’s voice, telling the reader about slices of her life in the interim – Breathing Space starts three years after Dying for Space ends – and scene setting. I didn’t like it. The other two books were fairly light on looong passages of description and explanation, relying on taking the reader into the scenes as they happened. In comparison, this book seemed a lot flatter and less vivid – even though the opening scenario had plenty of drama.

I read what I’d written, then discussed the problem with my writing group – Sarah Palmer, Geoff Alnutt, Debbie Watkins and Katie Glover – who were all really helpful. They agreed that I needed to cut down on all the explanation, and Sarah suggested I start the story earlier before the first crisis hits Jezell, so we get a sense of her in happier times and I’m not constantly having to refer back to the moment when it actually goes wrong, because the reader shares it… Debbie pointed out that her relationship with her second in command didn’t ring true – there needed to be more of an edge to it. Which made perfect sense – focusing on all the other plotpoints, that was an aspect I’d overlooked. At last, I could rewrite Chapter 1 and make it work.

I’ve still had to curb my tendency to write too much tell instead of show – I’ve currently cut 10,000 words from the manuscript and I’m only on Chapter 13, but I am finally comfortable back in Jezell’s skin.

This has been the hardest novel to start by far – I normally start books very quickly and slow down during the boggy, mid-book bit, accelerating again once I get to Chapters 21/22 when the ending feels within touching distance. So I’m wondering if my normal writing pattern will surface as I continue working.

Has anyone else found it a terrific struggle to start a writing project they thought would be very straightforward? I’d be interested to hear about it, if you have…