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!              

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?

Re-proof

I’m taking it easy this week. After all I’ve posted about in the last few weeks, it’s time for me to take some pressure off myself.

I have finished the final final proofs of Human Resources, finding a mighty total of two errors (one typesetting, one artistic). It’s a hard process, finishing a book. As well as around nine drafts – I lost count somewhere along the way – of the damn novel, I have had to answer to my copy edits. Then, over the last month, I’ve gone through pre- and post-proofread drafts to ensure the product is as good as it can possibly be, given the massive drag factor of my brain.

That’s a lot of reading in not much time. And it aint what you call fun reading, either: not only is it your own stuff but it’s stuff that you’ve already moved on from, mentally. It’s like you’re being called back to court to answer to charges you’d thought had been heard long years ago.

Which is why I’m having a rest this week. I shall return to my Old Testament intergenerational epic of an edit with something of a sense of relief: at least here is something new, a sort of mental palate-cleanser.

And as for this blog? Well, much as I love you, I’m not going to break my back with a search for something new to say. No, you can make do with this and be happy.

I do love you, though. Never think otherwise

Anti-creation

Another week goes by without any creative work from me. I am still editing aplenty, but not my own work. This is supposed to be a writing blog. I am letting the side down, no?

Well, maybe. But that’s how it is; not every week can be jam-packed with creativity or dangerous dreams (and speaking of which, I had a doozy last night). Do I not deserve a little time off sometimes? Don’t you? We all need a little downtime. It’s hard for us, the creatives, to take a proper break because the ideas come irregularly and opportunities must be seized as they arise.

But self-care is still important; burn-out – whatever that actually means – is a danger and flying too far, too fast, can lead to a hard landing. For months I was engaged with first-drafting a novel and I only finished that hard, intense work less than a month ago. I should not be so hard on myself. And you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself either.

We all do what we can, work in our own ways. Comparing ourselves, our productivity, with others is hard to resist, sometimes, but never tells anything more than half-truths.

….And, just like that, the above has been turned into one big lie. The final final proofs of Human Resources have arrived. My last last chance to spot errors/tidy grammar before the novel goes to the printers.

So, no rest, no relaxation for me. Once more I go through this darn novel; each pass takes me further from reality, it seems, and my connection to the text becomes weaker. There’s not even any wincing, now, but also no sense of good or bad.

But the work must be done. No taking it back now, saying ‘I’ve suddenly lost my confidence and can we forget the whole thing?’ I am committed.

Human Resources will be published in November. It will be as good as I can possibly make it.

The proof

The proofs are in. This is the last chance I’ll have to rework Human Resources – well, ever. The last chance I’ll have to make sure I’m not sending out a pile of dreck into the great wide world, and that my reputation won’t be forever tarnished.

Early thoughts? Well it’s surprisingly not too terrible. All those drafts and heartburn heartache has just about paid off. My beta-readers came through for me.

I won’t ever be able to read my own work without wincing, so, aside from forced occasions such as readings, I may never pick up the book again. It can never be good enough for me, can never not cause me to flush with embarrassment.

So far in the proofs I’ve picked up on one or two very minor points – a typesetting error, the repetition of a phrase – and one bigger what does that actually mean? So it’s so far so un-terrible.

Is it actually any good? I don’t think I can answer that. Maybe there are artists who can stand back from their work and say objectively ‘yes, I’ve nailed this,’ or ‘I don’t think I’ve quite hit that as I wanted,’ but I’m not one of them. It’s been too long since I wrote it for me to have boundless enthusiasm but I don’t want to be too negative because it’s probably actually much better than I think.

I don’t hate it.

And you should buy it.

Erm. It’s actually really really good and I believe in it whole heartachedly wholeheartedly. That’s what I came here to say. Obviously.

No, let’s say this: I have more faith (less cheek-burning embarrassment) about this than I did in Night Shift. I’ve written some good stuff in my life and this can hold its head up.

So yes, pre-orders now available.

Line by line

I gasp with relief. The Great Editing is complete, dispatched, out the electronic door in the nick of time, the deadline met by the skin of the teeth. And by so doing I feel free, enlightened and able to see past the metaphorical ramparts once more.

And what do I see? Why, is that the grim spectre of More Work ghosting o’er the horizon?

I do believe it is. Yes, I still have four novels lined up in my copy-edit-queue, plus – and this is next in my sights – a proofread of Human Resources, which represents my very last chance to change anything in the text before it’s off to the printers and all is set in stone.

Hopefully this will be more of a quick scan of the text than a serious editing challenge – I don’t think the editor who has already signed off on my piece would be too pleased with wholesale changes – but we shall see.

I still hope to get back to doing more intense editing/creation of my own writing someday in the not-too-distant future. But for now it’s time to crawl back inside the Editorium and crack on with line-by-line work. Because that’s as important as the blue-sky big picture thinking.

It’s certainly what pays the bills. Or at least gets the beers in.

Next up

Manuscript

Next on my to-do list, whilst I wait for my next piece of commercial editing, is to dig up a manuscript I last worked on over a year ago. That’s not too long in the grand scheme of things, but it’s long enough for me to forget just about every single detail. Long enough, one hopes, to gain a little perspective and to be able to judge the book on its true merits.

Yes, it’s back to the word-mines for me. After complaining, last week, about the need for emotional space after the completion of a big project, I am going straight back to the well. It’s really too soon; I’m not strong enough yet. But I have a bit of time and I need to be doing something to justify my existence. So it’s on with editing.

This particular piece is the third book in the Antarctic trilogy – the finale, at least as it stands. It’s a novel I have fond feelings for. I enjoyed writing it, as far as I can remember, and it gives Anders Nordvelt, my protagonist, a measure of closure after the ordeals he’s been through throughout the three books.

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My heart says that this is the best of the trilogy. And right there is something to be fearful of: one can never trust one’s own emotions on such a subject. I’ve been wrong before. When I first wrote what became Human Resources I thought it was the best thing I’d ever written. That took a hell of a lot of work to beat into a reputable shape (I think I succeeded, by the way. You’ll be able to judge for yourself come November).

So I am being exceptionally cautious. In my last pass, all those months ago, I excised a large (10kish) section because it interrupted the flow; now I worry that the novel is too short. And while I feel like I have the nucleus of a strong story, it’s just the execution that matters. Ideas are two a penny, but the way the tale is told is what makes it unique.

I am doing my best to not be a fool to myself. Sadly, being a fool is what I do best. And I am terrified: this novel is next up to be sent to my editor; the next with a chance of being rejected, in other words, and one that I really care about being published. I want to get it right. I want to do it justice. Maybe I’m speaking more of anxiety than I am about writing here, but I’m terrified of the publisher turning round and saying no.

So yes, this matters. Time I got down to it, I guess.

Actually, forget all that: my next commercial job just came in so I guess all this is put on the back-burner, for a little while at least.

Onwards!

Onwards

There are a surprising number of sloth/unicorn artists out there. I believe this copyright is owned by Jez Kemp

Delay of game

Delay of game

Important news: Human Resources has been postponed. It will now be released in November, not July as originally advertised.

First off, I need to apologise to all you who have already pre-ordered it. What’s that, you say? You haven’t done that yet? Well, it’s still orderable from Flame Tree Press’ website and, presumably, all good bookshops. What are you hanging about here for?

Human Resources cover USE THIS

The delay, I hasten to say, is nothing to do with me. My copy-edits were in on time and the editor was happy with my work. It was instead a business decision. I’m not allowed to give any details beyond that a new deal has led to Flame Tree’s release schedule being rejiggered and my book is amongst those affected.

I can also say that it should work out to be a positive move both for me and the company; this isn’t one of those ‘oh my god it’s all gone to shit’ moments; it’s a good thing, I’m assured (I know very little about the actual business of publishing, though I’m learning).

Good thing or not, it’s a disappointment to me personally. I was hoping for some sort of launch event at Edge-Lit and maybe take in one or two more cons as an author with something to talk about. Now I have nothing to declare but my incompetence.

It’s also a short-term blow financially. Like most authors, the advance I will/have received for Human Resources is split into three payments: one upon signing of the contract, one on receiving of the finished text (though I’m not entirely sure when that arrives; I’ve done my copy-edit but not received this payment yet) and the last upon publication. Obviously I won’t now be receiving this last part until November. Not that it’s a great deal of money, you understand. But it’s money I won’t now be getting when I thought.

Long-term it may well be better for me to wait. Depends how this deal pans out, though in any case it’ll be very hard to judge cause-and-effect. We shall see.

Of more concern to me, however, is that it now feels like my career’s on hold until November.

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Normally I’d advise people to try and fill their downtime with either writing their next novel or trying to get other material published and that’s what I’m going to be doing myself. I’m somewhat limited, however. I’m not a writer of short fiction, which is bread-and-butter to a lot of writers, and I’m contractually unable to pitch my other big novel-hope out to publishers at the moment. I don’t have an agent (my perpetual refrain; sorry to go on about it) and so don’t have the benefit of their advice on how to take my career forwards.

So, although I will be continuing to write and my endless search for an agent goes on, I feel like I’ve nothing really to do until November. My career hangs in limbo, and has done ever since the release of Night Shift – a gap of two years between publications. Two years’ wasted time.

(It’s not wasted, of course it isn’t. I’ve been busy writing; I’ve edited two novels and a have a third on the way. But that’s how it feels. Like I’ve been twiddling my thumbs all this time.)

So what do I do? I fill my downtime with writing, of course. And trying to find an agent. And making more friends amongst the writing community. And getting better at what I do.

I just wish I had something to sell, something to get my name out there. Tiny steps; no miracle-hunter I.

Something to make me feel like I was making progress.

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