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!

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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!

A necessary break

I had New Gods critiqued last week. It should have been the final stop on its way to submission, nay, publication, and that may still be the truth of it. But I received enough common complaints that I feel a pause might be of benefit.

New Gods, to those not in the know, is the third (and final?) novel in the Antarctic trilogy that began with Night Shift and will be continuing this November with the release of Human Resources. See how I’ve kept the punchy two-word theme throughout? Clever, eh?

I personally think NG is the best – or has the potential to be the best – of the lot. I’m excited about it. I want it to work. I want it to sing, to shine. And I think it can.

But I think I need to hold my horses a little. There are still enough imperfections that I need to address, and those common complaints aren’t going anywhere. The only urgency is self-created. I can afford to take a little time and make it as good as I possibly can.

Specifically, the major complaint is that I haven’t put enough description in, and have left certain things too ambiguous. To some extent that’s a stylistic choice and I don’t want to go overboard to compensate. But clearly there is room for a few more words of explanation.

I also have to address a few plausibility gaps; not that things didn’t work, necessarily, but if they can be tightened it’ll be a better, more absorbing story.

The big thing I have to grapple with at the moment, however, is a question of showing or telling.

The old mantra is ‘show, don’t tell’. This is often debated and isn’t always the best advice. But I originally wrote a fairly long scene near the opening of the novel that described a piece of action – specifically, a rescue attempt from a fire in a medical centre.

Then I cut it. I replaced it with a few paragraphs describing what happened instead of showing it live, as it were.

I had good reasons for this. The scene was over-long and, I felt, unbalanced the novel, especially as it occurred so early in the narrative. I just felt uncomfortable with it as it was, and – I think – I managed to sum it up concisely in dialogue as a past event.

You can guess what I’m going to say next. Some members of the critique group asked me why I hadn’t shown the event in question and told me to show, not tell.

Now I don’t know what to do. I still have the scene saved and can reinstate it without too much difficulty (it would be edited, of course). But then would I have the pacing problems again? Is it better as is?

I just don’t know what to do.

What I really need, of course, is an agent. Without one I am on my own.

Except for you lot, of course. What would you do?

Writing uphill

‘I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.’

Douglas Adams

I currently have five books on the go. It’s too many. I need to put some of these to bed before I go insane.

I like multitasking. I always think it’s good for the brain to have several different levels of activity. At the front of the mind is your active project, the job that’s right before you. Behind that is the thing you did last, or you’re planning to do next, and beyond that the deeper images in the mid-memory. Your ideas pool swirls right at the back, ready to be called on at any moment – or ready to pounce upon you when you least expect it.

And though the majority of your energy is spent in your short-term memory, it does you good to have other things simmering away in the background. A little time not actively thinking about your work can invigorate it and give you answers to questions you were only dimly aware of posing. It’s good.

Right now I need a break. I’ve been swimming in various different incarnations of Antarctica for three years (Night Shift, Australis and New Gods) and, after a particular vicious slog, all I want is to start up something new so that when I have to return to the bottom of the world I’ll be able to see with fresh eyes.

But life doesn’t run like that. Writing is work and to be a writer you sometimes have to push yourself to places you don’t want to go. I’ve just received feedback from a beta-reader on the latest incarnation of Night Shift and I have to turn right round and get back on that particular appaloosa once again. See, I promised my interested agent that I’d get my manuscript to her ‘early new year’, which I’m reliably told is before the end of February.

Not gonna happen. I mean, I could just abandon my betas and send it off now, but then what’s the point in asking for feedback if you don’t act on it? No, I want this work to be the best it possibly can be, and that means ploughing through once more; my last revision was a biggie, and I need to reassure myself that I’ve not committed any egregious crimes against rationality or miseries of melodrama.

So I’m having to pull NS back to the front and opening that file once again. Hopefully this will be a bit of a canter. And then it’ll be back onto fresh virgin writing. Somewhere in there I’ll have to get back to my sequels, and to the last tidy of Chivalry, and maybe…

They say that no piece of writing is ever finished, it’s just published. I need to get something out there, to say definitively that this is done.

But not yet. There’s still a lot of work to do before then.