Illness, Inspiration, Writing to Market and when does that go too far?

Not the best week; my winter flu/cold thing came in early autumn instead. I lost a good day and a half to it, and that left me struggling just to get my freelance commitments done. The book, therefore, did not move forward a great deal again this week.

What I did manage to do was restructure the outline for the last bit of the book. It was somehow simultaneously vague and overly-long and convoluted. Part of that involved sitting down and writing more about what my ‘bad guys’ were actually like – what they are, where they came from, how they’ve got to the point where they are poised to wreak havoc on human civilisation.

So I’m counting the positives; which, I’m discovering, is important when obstacles to progress present themselves. Keeps me motivated.

Also, I’ve been enjoying some great sci-fi inspiration. It’s been the 15th anniversary of the Firefly TV series this last week, and they played episodes and then the Serenity film on, I think, the Sci-Fi Channel. I only watched the film and about half an episode of the series, but it reminded me of how truly awesome it was. The film, in my opinion, is pretty much perfect.

Also, we have Netflix. I usually put on an episode of something later in the evening, and recently it has been the 2nd series of The Expanse. I loved the 1st series for its noir-ish mystery and the purely Sol System setting. In the 2nd series, the story has become larger and more (in a slightly Game of Thrones-esque way) political, but it’s still a great watch.

The pre-interstellar setting really fascinates me, as most sci-fi (including my own novel) involves interstellar travel. Yet, what happens when we as a race come to explore the solar system is likely to be a more interesting and relevant question for our near future. And, I believe, might force better creative thinking if I chose to write a novel in that setting.

In The Expanse, there are three distinct groups of people. Predictably, two of these are Earth and a seceded Mars, but the third are an underclass known as ‘Belters’, who are primarily miners from the asteroid belt. They see themselves as separate to the ‘Inners’ of Mars and Earth, have some of their own language or terms, and usually a distinctly different accent.

Another thing that can’t help but inspire and inform me, particularly as what I’m writing is at least partially ‘military sci-fi’, is the rebooted Battlestar Galactica of a decade or so ago.

Now, I subscribe to Chris Fox’s YouTube channel. He talks and writes about writing, then puts these theories into practice with his own fiction, some of which has been military sci-fi. I read his book about writing to market and used those principles when thinking about the sort of book I wanted to write.

I have no problem with that. To me, putting certain things in a novel, following a few tropes about character archetypes, how the cover should look, etc. is not a big deal. It doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable or dirty. I’m here to make a career writing my own fiction if I can, and I’ve been ghostwriting for long enough to see how this is. I think it’s everything that comes after you make those decisions about tropes that counts.

That said…

I’ve started reading Constitution by Nick Webb, as Chris Fox spoke about it as one of the independently published top sellers in military sci-fi on Kindle when he was writing Write to Market. It seemed like a good idea to read it as a study on what works. I quickly found myself appalled, however, about some of Nick Webb’s use of tropes. It’s way too Battlestar Galactica.

It could be the aging ship’s Captain (okay, in BSG he was an Admiral) on the edge of retirement, giving the thinly-veiled speech about readiness as, unseen, the enemy prepares to strike. Or perhaps his alcoholic, hard-ass XO best friend with the frayed uniform. Perhaps the implacable enemy who inexplicably broke off the war 75 (40 in BSG) years ago. Maybe the veteran vessel of the conflict in the process of being turned into a floating museum when the old enemy comes back, and the mostly decommissioned fighters on the flight deck. I’m only just over a third of the way through, but I’m waiting to see if something happens to the new vessels’ electronics when the fleet meets them in battle.

I mean, COME ON!

There’s tropes and there’s something that borders on plagiarism. Sure, you can’t write any sort of book in isolation from what has gone before, and nor should you. It’s natural, I would even say ‘healthy’, to reference things that you love and that inspire you. I know I do:

The crew of one of the two vessels in my book have got a bit of the Serenity crew about them. The captain of that same vessel is a little reminiscent of the captain from the Ketty Jay novels. A little. And I’m sure my military ship commander trying to get out from under the shadow of her traitor father isn’t entirely original – although I can’t quite think where I got that from. Can anyone remind me?

But to borrow so much from one source is, surely, just plain wrong. Isn’t it?

Yet this novel was very successful – the sort of success I am currently only dreaming of – and it’s got me thinking about what that means. I’m sure Nick Webb did a lot of other things right to be as successful as he was with this book. And I’m enjoying Constitution so far, although it’s not exactly rocking my world, or anything. I just feel there’s a line I don’t want to cross, whatever the potential benefit might be, between hitting tropes and making vague homage, to something that would leave a bad taste in my mouth.

You can emulate without copying. I mean, what if the XO was addicted to pain meds from an old injury, for instance? Straight away there’s an extra bit of possible story there, and the character has a similar flaw without it feeling like such a direct pull from BSG.

I don’t know, am I just too concerned about this?


Using Scriptwriting As An Outlining Tool

After years as a freelance copywriter, and quite a few years as a ghostwriter, I am now on the road to self-publishing my own fiction. I have made the observances, beginning with studying the market and deciding which genre was calling to me both creatively and financially. Military science-fiction, as it turned out.

I studied those tropes – after looking up what tropes were and, as with a reassuring number of things so far on this journey, discovered it was all mostly stuff I would have done naturally anyway. I read a superb book on novel plotting. I’ve always sucked at plotting, and have got away with a lack of it on more occasions than I’ve deserved. Not this time, though. Time to start writing like an adult.

Now I am learning about marketing while, at the same time, doing something rather odd, something that I wonder if anyone else does.

Like I said, I suck at plotting. I have a good idea, I flesh it out well, then my mind goes blank until I actually start writing. The plotting book really helped to make sure that I sat down and constructed a plot scene-by-scene. But when that was finished, I still looked at most of those scenes and just kind of felt that they were low on detail.

So I had an idea.

I used to write scripts, mostly short ones. About 10 years ago, I finished a film degree, and scriptwriting was the skill I developed most during that time. I don’t love writing scripts in the way that I love writing books, but I do like the how it’s a really efficient method of getting a story down. Scripts are all about dialogue and bare-bones description.

So, most of the scripts I’ve written have been for short films, but I did write a 60-page monster one time, something a little bit like an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where a demon gets into people’s phones and starts possessing the teens of a small seaside town. Some time later I was looking for a story to write, so I took this script and started to write it as a book.


Writing this way felt so easy. Everything that was going to happen in any given scene was already there, so the writing process became about enriching it, bringing it to life and, where necessary, re-directing it. It was like something between drafting and editing. I never finished the book – can’t really remember why – but the experience of writing this way stayed with me.

So this is what I am doing with my military sci-fi novel. It’s a big investment of time, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be worth it. I’ve spent about two weeks (and generally about a third to a half of each working day) on it so far. I’m 90 pages in and hoping that another week will do it, but in all likelihood it will take another day or two beyond that.

What I’m writing isn’t a feature film script, not really. For one thing, I’m allowing it to run longer than a feature script should do considering the story I’m telling – putting in more detail, having scenes that describe characters’ internal thought processes, and so on. In other words, I’m not letting the format restrict me, that would be silly. Of course, conversely, there’s a balance to be struck, and I do occasionally have to remind myself that I’m only outlining here.

Would love to hear any thoughts about what I’m doing. Is this a waste of time? Is there a better way to overcome my outlining issues? Please comment below, I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts.