Otherworld talk 1

Over at my Patreon, you may have noticed a recent release, entitled Out of the Past. It’s a short novel (or long novella, whichever you prefer) I originally wrote back in 2013, then updated over the past year or so, and it is the first in what I hope is a long line of stories which take place in the fictional setting I call the Otherworld. By the time this post goes up—assuming nothing bad happens in the weeks since I wrote it—I’ll have written a total of 14 works in this setting: the 8 original novels of Chronicles of the Otherworld and a collection of six side stories, A Bridge Between Worlds. Back here at Prose Poetry Code, I’d like to delve a bit deeper into the inner workings of this particular creation.

Origin story

Begin at the beginning, they say, and the Otherworld began a few years ago, sprouting from a two-headed seed. First, I was a bit upset at the cancellation of Stargate Universe (just as it was getting good), which left no real “exploration” sci-fi on television—there’s still not much there, by the way. Second, I like inventing languages, and I had recently begun looking into the cultures that would speak those languages.

Otherworld brings together both of those ideas. The story itself is pretty unspectacular: a bunch of college kids get sent to a medieval-style world, where they have to find a way to survive until they can come home. I originally built the world as a playground for my conlangs, as well as a chance to write a story involving exploration, first contact, culture shock, and other such notions. The whole thing is about being taken out of your comfort zone, and the Otherworld saga has, over the course of four years and half a million words, evolved greatly from that point. I sincerely hope it’s for the better.

False start

As I said, the first part, Out of the Past, was written in November 2013, although it didn’t have a title back then. I even went on to write two and a half more parts (I call them episodes, as the format is meant to mimic a TV series) after that, but I’ll freely admit that they were awful. Halfway through Episode IV, I gave up. I was bored with the setting, and I wanted to move on. So the Otherworld went back onto the shelf, and I thought little more about it for a year and a half.

In 2014, I wrote Before I Wake, as you may know. After that, I started looking through my notes and ideas for something new. At first, I settled on the beginning of what has become the Linear Cycle, plus the “Miracles” short story I’ve put up here at the site. Then, I digressed into the unfinished work currently titled Lair of the Wizards.

That one was the key, I think. Its setting was almost a mirror image of the Otherworld: a bunch of kids in a medieval world find a cache of advanced technology that they see as magic. A kind of novel-length restatement of Clarke’s Third Law, if you will. But writing that got me thinking of the other way around, of the advanced people going to the primitive world. Well, I already had one of those in the works, so why not?

Back in the saddle

So the end of 2015 saw me heading back into the Otherworld, but things were different now. All along, I’d had the idea that the fictional world was connected to Earth. It had to be, for how else would the characters get there? And if it was connected, then it was always connected, which served as a neat explanation for how the inhabitants could get there. More importantly for story purposes, it was the perfect excuse for how they could be human.

The people of the Otherworld are human. That was an ironclad rule I had when I first devised the setting. They weren’t aliens, even if some of them were a bit…altered. (The idea of different races of genetically modified humans actually came about very early on, partially from the D&D campaign my brother and I have made.) But the humans had to get there somehow, and thus I had to begin filling in the backstory.

Again, I did a lot of this back in 2013. It was then that I worked out the sketch of a timeline for the setting’s prehistory. The timing is just barely within the realm of believability, and it’s even within the margin of error of our current archaeological knowledge. But I had to go back and change a lot of specifics to match my assumptions.

The core assumption, of course, is that the Otherworld is derived from the New World. At no point until the present day of the stories (2019, chosen for no reason other than because I didn’t want to risk a tropical storm name being retired) was it ever so much as visited by anyone of European descent. At some point in 2015, I lost myself in research as I looked for a way to make that work. What do they eat? What can they make? How does their technology compare with their Earthly counterparts? (The last was the hardest, as the diverging point is so far in the past that it’s before civilization even began. Fortunately, that almost gives me a blank slate.)

Reset button

After a bit of editing work on Out of the Past, mostly to make it match my new findings, I started on the second episode, The City and the Hill. According to my notes, I finished the first draft on November 26, 2015. The next three followed in quick succession, then I took two months off in May and June of 2016. (That was for the Linear Cycle and Lair of the Wizards, in case you’re wondering.) The final three parts of “Season 1” took up the summer months, ending on September 25.

Even when I was writing the final words of Episode 8, Long Road’s End, I didn’t think I was done. Oh, no. The Otherworld is more than just these eight stories, and it was like that all along. I’d intended from the start to write a second season, a new set of stories that would build upon the foundation that these laid down. The way I wrote, however, meant that I needed something to bridge the nine-month gap that the stories’ structure required.

Thus came A Bridge Between Worlds. This is a story spoiler, so be warned. Some of the characters do not end Episode 8 on their home planet. The bridge novellas were intended to tell their stories. Well, five of them do. The sixth (actually, the third in sequence) ties up a few loose ends from Season 1 while setting the stage for events in Season 2. And that is coming, if I have anything to say about it. I’d like to start writing it later this year, but we’ll have to see.

Moving on

In the coming months, I’ll talk a lot more about the Otherworld setting. It’s my favorite creation, and there have been times over the past four years where I’ve lost myself completely in it. I’ve thought about it in the shower (where some of my best plots and character moments are born). I’ve dreamed about it. I don’t want to give it up, and I know that the world still has more to give. Some authors have a whole shared universe for their works, but I’m content with a single planet, a single world.

Nocturne: Postmortem

It’s common in the development of video games to do what’s called a postmortem: a kind of developer’s wrap-up of what went into the production from the point of view of those on the inside: the programmers, the directors, the artists, and so on. It’s a chance to look back on both the finished product and its earlier stages, an opportunity to consider every step you took along the way.

That’s what I’d like to do today. Not with a game, but with my latest novel, Nocturne. It came out on Patreon not too long ago, and I’ll be putting it on Amazon’s KDP in the very near future. For the “outsider” perspective, you can look to either of those, where you’ll find all the usual publicity-type stuff. (On Patreon, I’ve even got sample chapters up, so you don’t have to invest anything but your time to get an idea of what I’ve written.)

Here, though, I want to take you into the gritty details. After a work such as this, I need a little bit of closure, a little chance to vent. And I also feel that, with this particular novel, some things need to be said. I putting this post on Prose Poetry Code, not Patreon, because I don’t think this is a “public” piece. This is mostly for my benefit. This is the postmortem for Nocturne.

The seed

Officially, I began writing Nocturne for Nanowrimo 2016. I put the first words down on November 1, I reached the target of 50,000 words before the halfway point of the month, and I finally finished the first draft on December 19. Some days, I wrote an entire chapter. Others, I barely wrote half that. But all in all, those were probably the seven most productive weeks of my writing life, and that productivity carried over even after the draft was done. In fact, I’m writing this at the end of March 2017, and I’m still calling myself slow when I “only” manage about 1500 words a day.

But Nocturne actually started before that. The original seed, as with so many of my stories, was literally a shower thought. I was in the shower one day last summer, and I’d been thinking about the upcoming solar eclipse. My thoughts ran off, as they do, and I came up with the idea of a magic system based on the dichotomy of day and night. And then I asked myself, “In that world, what happens when there’s an eclipse?”

That was the true genesis of Nocturne. It didn’t begin with a story idea, or a scene, or even a line. No, it came about because of a simple what-if. A thought experiment, if you will. At the time, I didn’t think much more of it. I noted it in my list of ideas, and I moved back to the Otherworld, my writing project at the time. When November rolled around, I picked it back up.

The process

I’m not a planner. I don’t chart out my writings in anything other than the vaguest of details. When I sat down on November 1, I didn’t know where the story of Nocturne was going. I didn’t even have names for the characters, save the protagonist, Shade. Then, all I knew was that he was the main character, that the main story would be told through his eyes, in the first person, and that he was special because he was born during a solar eclipse.

Everything flowed from those initial points. I’d like to say I planned everything that happened, the plot twists, the character interactions, and so forth, but that would be a lie. At no point during last November did I think more than a chapter ahead. Now, once I crossed into December, into the final third of the novel, I did start thinking about an ending. I had notes for the high points of the final five chapters, but nothing more than a line or two for each.

I also don’t write out of order. Nocturne was written as it is. The prologue came first, then 30 chapters, then the epilogue. I never skipped ahead to follow up on a storyline. But I never needed to. I was writing so fast that it never occurred to me to try.

The book itself isn’t divided into parts. It’s a single story told from a total of three perspectives. It also uses no scene breaks and no direct internal thoughts, two things I’m used to overdoing. Those were conscious efforts, I’ll admit, a kind of discipline for my mind. Looking back, I think that structure helps the flow of the story.

Prologue and epilogue

Although Shade is the main character of Nocturne (the book is named after his title in the story), he’s not the first one we meet. That was another conscious decision. I didn’t feel right beginning with a first-person perspective, so I came up with the “wrapper”, the bookends of prologue and epilogue. These third-person bits set the stage and take it down, something I thought was absolutely needed. The prologue naturally leads into the first chapter, while the epilogue was my cooldown, and a chance for me to do a bit of story-internal criticism. It also served the function of keeping things open for a sequel, should I choose to write one.

The opening arc

The first four chapters (not counting the prologue) are the same ones you can read for free over at my Patreon. They’re the introductory phase of the story, showing off the world, the protagonist, and the magic system. They set the tone, construct the central conflict, and provide the impetus for characters to begin moving.

Personally, I’m not that big a fan of in medias res. I prefer my stories (those I write, specifically) to begin at the beginning. With Nocturne, that was hard to do, but that’s where the prologue helped matters. Yes, it made the whole story a flashback, but that let me start off the main body of the work without diving into the deep end. The best of both worlds, you might say. I certainly thought so.

The inspector

Chapter 5 introduces the third and final point of view. At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to introduce another narrative voice, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I couldn’t write a complete novel in the first person. I mean, I could, but I’d rather not. Thus entered Kellis.

From a personal perspective, she was hard to write. I’ve got a post on here about characters I hate, and, although she’s not one of them, her chapters were hard. Here was a case where I forced myself out of my comfort zone. Given who I am, I didn’t feel the least bit of reservation writing a social pariah like Shade. But a police officer? That wasn’t easy. There were times where I had to fight my own brain to keep Kellis believable. She is, in a lot of ways, my opposite. But hers was a story that had to be told. Shade couldn’t only be seen from the inside.

The travelogue

About the first half of the book is kind of a travelogue. Shade goes to such-and-such city, meets some people, gets caught up in a rivalry, and moves on. Kellis chases him down, always a step behind, picking up the clues he leaves behind. I’ll freely admit that it gets a bit repetitive, though I like to believe I did a good job portraying each town’s unique situation.

Here, I’d also like to digress into the worldbuilding process I used for Nocturne. Namely, there wasn’t one. In my notes (all written on the spur of the moment, mind you), cities have names, rough sizes, and vague locations. That’s pretty much it. I came up with names on the fly (except Narsa, which is taken from my D&D campaign), and placed them where needed. There’s no glossary of the Velini language, no pronunciation guide for personal and place names, and no cultural notes except for those that directly affect the story.

Maybe that makes for a shallow story. I’ve certainly argued as much on this very site. But I hope I did a good enough job with the travelogue portion of Nocturne that a reader can orient himself in Velin without too much trouble. Yes, there are enormous questions left unanswered. (For example: are there nocturnes and diurnes in other lands?) Yes, a lot of details are left intentionally vague. The novel could have easily been half again as long, but my pacing is already bad enough. Adding in a bunch of “what do they eat?” type questions would only drag it down more.

The conflicts

Nocturne, as I said, was written last November and December. Now, unless you were hiding under a rock the past year and a half, you know what happened then. The novel is not a direct allegory of the events in this country over that time, but it was most certainly influenced by the political climate.

How you choose to interpret the story is up to you. I think I left it open enough that you can see whatever reflections you like in the characters and their beliefs. I will say that the conflict between Shade and Maxon, their battle of words and wills to sway the hearts of their oppressed people, is certainly inspired by the civil rights movement in general, and the Black Lives Matter protests in particular. Aures and the public army are not direct analogues of Donald Trump and his followers (or Bernie Sanders and his), but the echoes are there, and they are intentional.

I do not apologize for this. No book is written in a vacuum, and the events of the past few months have affected everyone in this country, everyone in this world. The only way I could refrain from commenting on them, even in the most oblique sense, was to write nothing at all. And I wasn’t going to do that. My intent was to cast them in a different light, to use our politics to tell a story, while also using the story to talk about politics.

The ending

Note: This section of the post contains spoilers for the ending of Nocturne. Read at your own risk.

After the flurry that was November—over 100,000 words in 22 chapters—I still had to finish the book. I knew about where I was, I knew where I had to get to. What I wasn’t sure about was the in-between. That’s really my biggest flaw as a writer. (Well, apart from all the others.)

This was about where I started plotting things out in greater detail. Chapter 22 was the eruption that had been building since the first time Shade and Maxon met; the fight scene still makes me cringe when I read it. After that comes a bit more building up of the “revolution” storyline, which begins to take center stage. Then I had to start putting the pieces into place, which finally finished around the end of Chapter 26.

From there, it was all downhill. The next two chapters (including the deaths of King Canius, Shade’s lover Raysa, and Inspector Dielle), physically pained me to write. Especially the part where Shade finds Raysa in the bed. I reread that the other day during editing, and I was close to tearing up. That was truly the “All Is Lost” moment of the story, in my opinion, and it triggers the finale.

People do strange things when they’re hurting. I know that all too well. That’s really the reasoning behind everything that happens in chapters 28 and 29. Mirac is a…conflicted individual, told he’s worthy of praise because of his family, but worthy of scorn because of the circumstances of his birth. It’s left him bitter and more than a bit irrational. Shade just found the only woman he’s ever loved dead in her home; once he learns who did it, it’s all he can do to keep from breaking—and he doesn’t entirely succeed.

I’m not completely happy with the ending. I never am. I like to think I hit all the notes I needed (Raysa, Shade finally killing someone, the bloodbath at the palace, enemies making common cause against the greater foe), but stringing them together is the hardest part.

One thing I’m certain I did like about the ending was that I didn’t tell it from Shade’s perspective. That, in my mind, leaves open the possibility that there are some things he doesn’t remember, or that he misremembers. It gives the story a chance to end a little better, since Kellis isn’t on the run. And it lets the epilogue wrap things up without giving too much away.

That’s one of the fatal flaws of first-person storytelling, I think. It’s too hard to have mystery about the protagonist. Either your character knows too much, or he acts like he doesn’t know enough. So, Nocturne ends with the two third-person points of view. That way, you don’t know how badly Shade was affected. You don’t know what he really wants to do next.

The future

Is Nocturne a standalone novel? When I was writing it, I certainly thought so. Now, I’m not so sure. The story is left open intentionally. There could be future novels involving Shade. Should they ever come to fruition, they would answer the questions he left behind.

As for other books, well, I’m working on it. I’ve got a few ideas kicking around, and this coming November will have an all new attempt at a novel. If what I come up with then is anything like last year, I think it’ll be even better.