On Setting

Mark Molnar

Salutations! Here we are in part three of my series of ramblings in celebration of Human Resources. It’s due out on November 10th, available wherever books are sold. I think it happens to be rather good and you might like it too.

Today’s ramble – I mean interesting article – is on setting. If you missed the previous editions, you can read about my character creation and development here and about how I came up with the plot here. All are spoiler-free and May Contain Interest (but no nuts). There’s also the entire rest of the blog if, after reading this, you’d like to know more about me and my work.

Onwards!

***

There are two aspects to setting: one is environment, the other is worldbuilding.

Human Resources is set in the Antarctic, in the bleak environment of all-day or all-night. More specifically it’s set in a brand new city, and a lot of my preparation went into imagining what that city would look like; the practical considerations of survival in such an atmosphere and the most sustainable architecture.

The background to what has led humanity to occupy this last outpost of the planet’s surface is never explicitly gone into in the story, but as far as I’m concerned, Human Resources – and the whole Antarctic trilogy – is an exploration of what will happen if population keeps expanding, if climate change is not arrested, and if the planet’s natural resources start to run dry. What will humanity do to survive such a collision of circumstances? It’s not an apocalyptic novel – indeed, in some ways it’s rather optimistic – but humanity has these obstacles to overcome.

The real world ‘city’ of Las Estrellas

So Human Resources is set in a virgin city, and, with the aside of a few scenes set out in the frozen land, this is essentially an urban, underground novel. Here I admit that a lot of my influence is born out of the fifties, sixties and seventies, both in the utopian world of town planning (I did A-Level Geography, for my sins) and in science fiction.

As for the Antarctic itself, setting a novel there meant incorporating practical measures: the warmsuits that everyone wears when they go out into the wilderness and the airlock-like vestibules that all buildings have.

Setting scenes out in the icy wastes was one of the most enjoyable parts of writing the novel, where I could give my poetic side full rein. As well as the city and the wilderness we have scenes in the mine that gives the city its raison d’etre and in a semi-legal bar set up by the miners.

I have to be careful here to talk about Human Resources and that alone: I’m deep in the editing of book three and I’m doing my best not to conflate the two. In the third, for example, there’s a big combat scene out in the wastes that I resolutely shall not mention here.

So: HR. We have urban planning on a grand scale and I used a map – three-dimensional as the majority of the structures are set underground to avoid the worst of the climatic challenges – to help give myself an idea of how the layout would work practically. I’ve not replicated that map for the readers as I don’t think it’s necessary – indeed, it was only a scratty little thing in a notebook – but it did help me visualise the setting and distances, as well as reminding myself of what the city needed to function.

Perhaps the setting of the Antarctic trilogy will be what the novels are best remembered for – if, indeed, they are at all. It’s what makes the series unique and I’ve spent a long time working on it. I hope it stands up – I think it does, but, as with so many things, it’s the readers that will decide.

Next up – POV!

On plot

Greetings! It’s now only a few weeks until the official release of Human Resources (November 10th, fact fans) on ebook, in paperback and in hardback! Please favour me and pre-order a copy. I happen to think it’s not half bad and would do a very nice job as a wonky-table prop or as a coaster.

To celebrate the release I’m going to do a series of blog-posts about different aspects of the novel; here I’m going to be talking about plot. In the weeks that follow I’ll write about things like setting and POV – and maybe even more, depending on whether I can think of anything else. If you want me to look at anything in particular, please comment or hunt me down on Twitter (@robintriggs – not so hard, really) and I’ll see what I can do.

***

Human Resources is, at it’s heart, a murder mystery, and thus plot is central. I hope I haven’t skimped on character, setting and just old fashioned good writing, but it’s plot upon which the work will primarily be judged.

So how did I come up with the plot for Human Resources? Well, like with all the novels in the Antarctic series, by starting at the end and working backwards. That is to say, I started with the crime, the killer, and then motive. Then I went back to the beginning to find the victim of the crime – and by that point the plot had mostly revealed itself to me.

I say that, but the first draft varied greatly from the version you’ll see when the book’s finally unleashed upon you. In fact, the only constants really are the bits I’ve just told you: the killer, the motive, the victim. Almost everything else – the way the story’s told – has changed, and changed radically.

Why should this be? Well, put plainly, to make it better. The first draft simply was too simple. I had to… well, not necessarily obfuscate but to add more depth, more intrigue. I’m not a great one for red herrings but I had to give plausible alternative explanations, more reasonable suspects. I used the first draft as a sketch-map upon which to elaborate, to erase some mistakes and draw ‘here be dragons’ upon the wilderness of Antarctica.

I wrote last week about character and in this sort of story character is hard to distinguish from plot. The latter is dependent on the former. So the alterations I spoke of last week are just as relevant here. As I thought of new aspects of plot – as I gave my readers more suspects – characters had to change, and as characters changed so did the plot.

Thinking back on it now, I think I was remarkably naive when I wrote that very first draft. I’m currently struggling to face up to new ideas, and I think my naivety protected me from worrying to the point of inactivity about simply whether I could do it or not. I just got on with it and let all issues come out in the editing. And that’s a good thing, because I can edit. Human Resources has been a difficult child to bring to term; I’ve worked harad on it, and I’m proud of myself for what I’ve achieved.

I hope you get as much out of reading it as I have from the writing.

Next up: setting

On characters

Greetings! It’s now only a few weeks until the official release (10th November) of Human Resources on ebook, in paperback and in hardback! Please favour me and pre-order a copy. I happen to think it’s not half bad and would do a very nice job as a wonky-table prop or as a coaster.

To celebrate the release I’m going to do a series of blog-posts about different aspects of the novel; first off, here’s a little ramble about Character. In the weeks that follow I’ll write about things like plot, setting and POV – and maybe even more, depending on whether I can think of anything else. If you want me to look at anything in particular, please comment or hunt me down on Twitter (@robintriggs – not so hard, really) and I’ll see what I can do.

Big thanks to Fiona Glass – a lovely person and top class author – for the inspiration for these posts.

*

Let’s get one thing straight straight off. Human Resources is the sequel to Night Shift and, as such, features some of the same characters. Primary amongst these is our point-of-view character, Anders Nordvelt.

I don’t want to go into great detail about him as you’ll all know him from the first novel. Suffice to say that there’s a lot of me in him; socially awkward, with unresolved mental health issues, an observer as much as a participant, he’s an unusual protagonist and it’s all my fault.

I never realised this at the time of writing, of course. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I never knew what I was doing.

The supporting cast of Night Shift – those that survived – make their reappearances in Human Resources. They are, however, joined by a new cast of characters that all bring their own neuroses, obsessions and paranoias.

The story revolves around the growth of the isolated mining base from the first novel into a city and the problems that brings. Thus we have an Executive Committee that have their own motives; a new security service – headed by Anders – that are trying to work out how to enforce laws never tested in the field; and a population of immigrant labourers, not all of whom want to be in Antarctica in the first place.

How do I come up with my characters? In a variety of different ways. Some, like the executive committee, came in the initial worldbuilding prep – I knew I needed a ‘ruling class’ and thus there had to be people to occupy these roles. Others, like my own personal favourite, Sergeant Bartelli, came more spur-of-the-moment: I needed a policeman and he arrived more-or-less fully-formed in my head just in time to fill the role I’d created.

Then there’s the in-between characters like Shakil Mithu, unwilling immigrant and rebel leader. He’s a big personality and prime suspect in the murder of… but I don’t want to give too much away. For now let me just say that he’s an example of a character that I had to come up with before setting pen to paper; he’s a plot-character, integral to the story. But he didn’t really come alive until I reached him in the story and had circumstances and other characters for him to play off.

Most characters arrived before or during the first draft, and stayed fairly constant. Others were created – or at least significantly retooled – in the editing. Sergeant Nascimento was a late arrival, whilst Engineer Prashad and Professor Holloway both underwent significant revision in later drafts.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I have no set way of creating characters for a novel. I don’t sit down and draft in-depth character sheets for everyone; I don’t have everyone set before I put pen to paper for the first time. Some key figures I have pre-prepped but it’s often the ones who take me by surprise, who come from somewhere deep in the subconscious, that I end up falling furthest for. Yet others take work and require multiple drafts before they ‘fit’ properly.

Human Resources is a combination of all of these and it took time for me to get it right. For me the genius is in the editing, not in the first-drafting.

I’m always more interested in the Everyman rather than superheroes, the sidekick more than the main event. I like the underdog and favour the dogged rather than the inspired and the influence of film noir over me has far exceeded the amount I’ve actually seen.

Valentin Demchenko

That gives me free rein to create a cast of flawed and – hopefully – realistic characters.

Next week – Plot!              

Things I’ve learnt this week

What have I learnt this week?

Well, I’ve learnt that I’m no good at second drafts.

I’ve learnt that I’m not in the right place to really take my draft to pieces and carefully reassemble, no matter how much the story might need it.

I’ve learnt that my memory is too hard on me and I’m maybe capable of writing an okay story – or at least one that could be okay with a little work. And that my writing sins aren’t as pronounced as I feared they may be. Overwriting, for example – I’ve been told that I say too much, to not leave enough to the audience’s imagination. I still struggle to see where decent cuts could be made beyond the occasional few words here and there – though whether that’s because there aren’t cuts to be made, or just that I simply can’t see them, is an open question.

I’ve learnt that I actually enjoy my own writing. Or at least this particular story has elements that make me smile

But – and I’m looking at a different project now – I still have The Fear; that it’s not good enough, that it has some ideas that are simply ill-advised (cough *second-person POV* cough), that if I send it to my editor it’ll be rejected out of hand and our relationship will be forever soured.

I also have the fear that, with a few slots of time opening up for me, writing-wise, I’m going through things too quickly. That I’m working like a proofreader, seeing obvious errors rather than more subtle missteps.

I’ve learnt that I still need a lot of hand-holding before I’m ready to commit to – well, to anything, really. And that I really do need (but can’t get, right now at least) an agent.

So where does that get us? Surprisingly, thinking back on it, more positive than negative. I have three stories that are either pretty well polished or have the potential to work when all the problems are dealt with. The problems I do have can be sorted if I have the patience and the will to get it done.

What I really need, right now, is a new project. But, as I’ve said before, I’m not ready to start anything right now. My ideas are all too nebulous and I’m not in the right headspace to draw them all together.

It will come. I’m in a surprisingly reflective mood, clearly, and I know it will all come together somehow, someday, someway.

The second pass

The second pass of a manuscript is always an odd one for me.

So here I am. I wrote my first draft and I was good and put it away for a few months so as to approach it afresh the second time around. I know, in that vague sense you get of being convinced of something without being able to place precisely why, that it needs thorough surgery before anyone else can read it.

The second draft should, therefore, be the perfect place to pick it apart and stitch it back together. You know work needs doing. You’re in a fresh headspace so as to see those flaws. You’re not too committed to going down the wrong streets.

Well it never works like that for me. For me the second draft always seems to be one of self-congratulation, of saying ‘hey, this isn’t all as abysmal as I’d remembered.’

It always turns into a game of changing odd words, of fixing egregious errors within sentences rather than egregious errors of continuity or pacing or logic. And this is wrong: the individual words don’t matter at this stage. The foundations have to be firmly established before the building’s ornamentation can be affixed.

And yet I find myself making the same mistake that I’ve made again and again and will almost certainly make in the future.

Why should this be? I suppose that a part of it is just that lack of familiarity that makes it worth putting aside to gain also handicaps a little: I’m still discovering my own work and want to see the big picture before I get with the scissors.

It also must be down to my perception. I’m so surprised that anything in the story hangs together that I struggle to see the bits that are flapping in the wind. And maybe also I’ve just not left it long enough (yes, I know, I want it both ways) and I’ve not come to the manuscript with the right attitude.

Point is that I don’t know. I don’t know why I’m so reluctant to manage a problem at the optimum time. I know these problems are still there, that I will have to deal with them at some point. Why not now?

But for the meantime I’m just really rather enjoying the tiny tinkerings; the swapping of one word for another in the here-and-there.

Anyway, we all know that draft 3 is where the real work begins. Right?

The quiet bits

It seems that I struggle with the quiet bits.

The loud sections – action and combat and chaos – I don’t do too bad on, though I do say so myself. But for too long I’ve ignored the mumbles of discontent; the one critic (writing group buddy) who always seems to say that I handle the in-between bits less effectively.

Now, however, I have to face up to my flaws. I have third-party criticism that backs up the complainant, that holds the guilty verdict. I don’t handle quiet scenes as well.

This strikes me as a little bewildering as the reflective scenes I enjoy. I don’t think I rush them. I value their presence. I’ve gone on Twitter, no less, to say how important they are for me. So why the disconnect?

Quiet scenes – the reflection, the description, the background noise – matter greatly. They give emotional resonance, they give the characters time to breath, to be, to come alive.

To quantify the issue a little, I’m really talking about the third novel of my Antarctic trilogy here and that’s a kind of unique situation. There’s a lot of deliberate ambiguity in the worldbuilding. There’s a character who’s got mental issues (he’s described as a borderline sociopath, but really it’s childhood trauma that’s at the root of his problems). And, though I should be selling him from a reader’s perspective – so that doesn’t excuse my authorial failings – I’ve consequently written him as a cold, difficult person. I didn’t do this deliberately; it just happened that I inhabited him in that way.

So that’s the context, but not the solution. The solution is to listen to my complainants and see what can be done about it. For it’s not too late for me; I can still improve the novel and fill in the gaps; feed the scenes a nutrient-rich prose that well help bring alive both my characters and the world. I can also see if this criticism follows me other to other projects or if it’s specific to this trilogy.

I want to be good at what I do. I want to play the quiet notes as well as I play the loud.

It’s also a lesson in listening. As I said, I had a critic for ages, but it’s easy to think of a single voice as somehow aberrant. When you get more than one person chiming up, however, it’s time to go back to school.

I’m lucky I have intelligent people around me to help me make these changes.

Becalmed

Once again I find myself becalmed, trying to balance editing for fun (my own work) with editing for profit and getting, it seems, slowly nowhere. Which is surely worse than getting nowhere fast.

In the meantime I’m trying to prepare myself for the release of Human Resourcesnot far off now – and I’m wondering if I shouldn’t be doing half a hundred things to help promote it. I see future releases by other authors and think ‘why isn’t my novel getting word-of-mouth treatment’? It’s difficult not to doubt oneself, to trust the marketing department of the publishers, to believe that you’re not just going to slip through the cracks.

Is there more I should be doing? Am I fundamentally missing the point here? Why have I not dialogued better with my publishers? My own ideas have been somewhat scuppered by Covid – my favourite (and time-appropriate) convention, Edge-Lit, where I might have done something, has been cancelled. Bookshop events seem like a non-starter.

So what do I do? Well, for the time being I am resolutely failing to address my doubts and cracking on with all the other work I have I to do.

Which means on with the editing, both of my work and commercially.

The editing for myself is working on a fairly polished manuscript that really needs only minor tinkering to turn into something moderately competent. The main task here is to add a few details: to improve and develop descriptions; to mitigate a little ambiguity; to tighten the plotting a little. Small things, along with the accursed formatting issues that seem to plague this manuscript, Microsoft alone knows why.

The commercial editing is mainly slow. It’s not unpleasant but it is work; it’s not just reading a novel and noting obvious errors. It’s second-guessing every sentence – could this be read another way? Is it clear enough? Is it contradicted by a statement three chapters earlier?

In other words, things are quiet and things are slow. But things are, as ever, getting done. How’s progress in your world?

Out the door

Been too busy being ill (a cold of doom), meeting deadlines and then travelling to see family to do anything actually worth blogging about this week. So, instead, here’s a little extract from my current work-in-progress to tide you over.

This is taken from Chapter 10 of New Gods, the third and possibly final book in my Antarctic series that began with Night Shift (out now) and continued with Human Resources (out in but a few short weeks!). I am optimistic that NG will emerge onto the world to have exactly the same impact as the first two had/will have.

Anyway, this scene needs, I think, little introduction. Anders Nordvelt, recently-demoted security officer, has just been to a reception where an incoming troubleshooter has been insinuating that he might have his old job back should he just report on Anders’ new superior.

Sadly, nothing is ever straightforward.

    I could hear the sharpening of the axes.

    They must have known what they were doing – what they were asking me to do. Let us know if Francis is up to the job. An open invitation to carve that axe into his back.

    It couldn’t just be me. Were they asking the entire population to exhume their old vendettas?

    Not for the first time I felt terribly uncomfortable. I looked round for Unity but she was nowhere to be seen. Everyone else I knew looked to be having far too much fun for me to intrude. So I slipped away; quietly, unseen. I left not by the main entrance but by the service exit.

    As the door shut I felt a tremendous sense of relief, of clean air, the background of chatter and Bartelli’s quartet instantly extinguished.

    There were a few broad-shouldered waiters in the corridor, talking quietly, joking. They gave me curious looks as I leaned back and breathed, but they said nothing.

    I straightened, opened up my chest, and figured out the best way back to my quarters from here. Going back through the reception was not an option I wished to consider.

    Another waiter came through a door at the far end of the corridor, carrying a fresh tray of wine glasses on a silver tray.

    I looked at him. He looked at me. His eyes grew wide.

    Private Leon Lewinskiy.

    It seemed to happen in slow motion. I saw the sudden tensing of his muscles, the momentary catch of his breath as he recognised me; the tray falling from his fingers, falling as if with some strange delay.

    The glasses crashed to the floor, shockingly loud as they shattered, sound echoing over me as he turned and ran.

    And I was running after him.

    Glass crunched beneath my feet; I saw the shocked faces of the other waiters as I sprinted past them. I reached the door just moments after Lewinskiy, barged through it. “Hey, you can’t –” someone yelled. But I was already past them, past bottles of wine, a table of canapés, boxes of supplies, cutlery, napkins. And through the far door, still rattling on its hinges from Lewinskiy’s passing; into a darkened room where footsteps echoed all around.

    “Stop him,” Lewinskiy yelled from another doorway.

    “Security! Stop!” I cried almost at the same moment. Still I was running – into a stairwell this time. I caught a glimpse of Lewinskiy’s back as he rushed upstairs. I followed, taking the steps three at a time. My breath came heavy and hard, but it seemed as if my muscles had been aching for the chase. My doubts fled. I was a policeman chasing a suspect (suspect of what? Involvement in a bar-fight and attending a protest. What was I doing?). That was all I needed.

    Upwards Lewinskiy ran, past doorways onto new levels – upwards, always upwards. The stairwell was clearly little used; lights came on automatically as we ascended then extinguished after our passing. But then they didn’t, and I realised that, over the syncopated reverberations of our footsteps, that someone – some others – were rushing upwards behind me.

    Friend or foe?

    I very much doubted they would be allies. I was chaser and chased.

    But it didn’t matter. I was running because my quarry was fleeing. That’s all I needed. Up, up, up; right up to ground level. No more stairs.

    I felt a blast of frozen air envelop me as Lewinskiy burst into the vestibule. I grabbed the door before it could shut, threw myself inside.

    Lewinskiy stood at bay by the exit. He glanced to the sides, at the racks of warmsuits just waiting to be taken. I advanced on him steadily. “Private Leon Lewinskiy,” I gasped, “I’m arresting you for breach of contract, for going absent without leave.” A nonsense charge? Maybe, but it was the first thing that came to me. I’d been too busy to think, too busy sucking oxygen into my lungs to say anything further.

    Lewinskiy’s eyes were wild, heavy black beard trembling as he cast from side to side.

    He grabbed a mask from the nearest rack and turned for the exit.

    I leapt forwards. I grabbed him by the shoulder, felt the fabric of his uniform (such a soft sensation; and I was struck by the ridiculousness of putting such a rough man into a suit as fine as that the waiters wore)…

    And then I was tackled from behind.

    I fell hard, banging my knees painfully on the cold floor. I felt hands dragging my away, but I saw only Lewinskiy, lips drawn back in a triumphant snarl. He kicked away my hands then turned and hauled open the exterior door.

    A blast of arctic wind howled into the vestibule. Someone swore behind me. The hands on me withdrew.

    Lewinskiy dragged on his mask and disappeared into the darkness.

    I struggled to my feet and went to hurl myself after him, to do battle with what felt like a tornado. But I was spun round by more hands on my back.

    Two men. And though they were dressed, like Lewinskiy, in waiters’ uniforms, it was clear to me that these were fighters. Something in the eyes, perhaps. Or the nose, broken and reset, of the man on the left. Or the twist of the lips, the balanced stances they were adopting…

    I had my back to the exit. Wind-borne shards of ice shattered against me, the warm air of the vestibule inevitably losing the fight. But I had it better than my assailants; they had the wind in their faces, had to shield their eyes to see at all.

    One swung a heavy fist at me. I ducked back hastily. They advanced, pushing me to the very edge of the storm.

    Two men, both of whom were used to fighting, in close conditions.

    “Security! Stop!” I yelled for a second time, this time over the roar of the wind.

    “We know who you are,” one grunted as he threw another punch at me. This one thumped into my shoulder as I twisted my head away. I staggered backwards – outside.

    Immediately I lost my sense of hearing. All I was aware of was the roar of the wind that threatened to bowl me off my feet…

    In winter, winds across Antarctica regularly reach hurricane strength

    And then, through barely-open slits of eyes, I saw the worst thing I’d ever seen in my life.

    I saw the door I’d been knocked through start to close.

    I saw the light that represented survival diminish, narrow, fade.

    I threw myself forwards, tried to barge my way back inside. A hand smashed me in the face and I fell back.

    The door closed.

Today’s moment of doubt

Busy this week. New job. Editing. Working all free hours to meet a deadline constricted by real world plans and a return to paid employment after long months of furloughship.

Which means I’ve not been working on anything interesting this week. Actually, that’s not true at all; I’m working on new fiction, and that’s always interesting – there’s always something new to learn, even if it’s only how opinionated you are, how stuck in your ways (this time I’m noticing how uptight I am about commas and about paragraph length).

But I haven’t been working on my own writing, which is a bit frustrating as I was well on my way with what may be my final reworking/polishing of New Gods before it goes off to the publisher.

It also means I have precious little to say here.

So let me instead ask you a question: would you read a book with a prologue in second person? Or would that put you off forever? For today’s moment of doubt concerns my clever-clever introduction, which, for very solid(!) reasons, is in that hotly debated pronoun-classification.

Would it bring you up short, or would you push on through to the real narrative beyond?

Mistrust your instincts

I have resolved my ‘show don’t tell’ dilemma. I shall show. To a diminished degree, at least, and with great chucks of the original pared away. My original 7k scene is now around 1.5k, but it is going back in.

This is the conclusion of a season of great doubt. The question that arose from one group of readers has been closed by another. My beta readers suggested that I was missing a trick by not demonstrating the incident in question; my writing group listened to my suggested reinsertion and, with a few relatively minor caveats, okayed its presence in the story.

All this makes me feel a lot better, and once again confirms my feelings that we, as authors, know nothing. Or at least that I don’t. ‘Trust your instincts’, they say. Well my instincts are clearly on the fritz as it was them that had me cut the damn thing in the first place when in fact they should merely have been telling me to set fire to it and insert only what was still legible in the aftermath.

Trusting your instincts is a difficult thing as they are so easily fooled. Who hasn’t brought out a piece of writing, thinking it’s in all things wonderful, only to have it roundly shunned? And yet there are times when it’s right, when it’s paramount, to preserve our vision no matter how the naysayers protest. We, as writers, must keep faith in our work despite the world and his wife turning their nose up at it. Rejection is part of the business. We must, in all things, persist.

But there is wisdom in crowds. Which is why new perspectives, and the wisdom to listen to criticism, is also a key part of becoming a ‘successful’ (or at least ‘good’) writer.

So I urge you: join a writing group. Join several. No, it’s not essential. But a good one can shave years off your developmental journey. And, if nothing else, they can guide you through the thickets and copses and forests of mistrusted instinct.

If you can’t bear to do that, at least try and find friends – real or virtual – who can empathise with what you’re going through.

It is, after all, always nice to have somewhere to turn for advice.