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January 3, 2011
Posted at 6:53 pm

I recently got a reply to a posting I'd made in 2007 (Hogamous-Himagous). As the person who replied's email bounced back as inactive, I thought I would post it here.

There are two ways to prepare and work on a novel (or a series of novels). The first is to outline the story, working on the background, characters, and so on. The other way is to let the story grow as you work on it.

I've tried it both ways. I will confess that I've favored letting the story grow as I wrote it, but to do that I had to know how the story ended before the first word was written. That doesn't mean I've got the last chapter or scene written; I have it in my head, usually consisting of some fairly graphic images.

I've had trouble with outlining because I write to find out how the story develops. I've learned, when I outline, not to go into too much detail. A three volume story grew into five volumes, two novellas, and two short stories. The outline worked, but as I wrote the story it soon faded into the background as the story grew.

If I was to retell Devlin's Story again (not rewrite it) it would be half the size, move faster, and have about a third of the sex scenes. I disguised the slow pacing of the story by ladling on the sex. Its a coming of age story, or one of personal development, and that sort of thing takes time.

I think what you have here is an outline that is good for more than one novel. Think of it as a massive story arc with two or three different stories, at least. I think there is a lot you can do, and a lot of details you can have Tay go through. You have to ask yourself what the story is about. When you answer that, you'll know how to start the story.

One caution: I've seen a lot of stories where there is plenty of sex, but as in everything, the sex has to have a purpose. The beauty of working with Devlin was that the sex scenes were important, almost in and of themselves. In Three Valleys - Sammi, the sex is a constant sub-strata to the story, a lot of it necessary for the central theme of 'Boy Meets Girl'. It also illuminates the society where her sex life is perfectly acceptable behavior.

As for technique, the actual mechanics of telling the story, part of that is experience. There's a lot to be said for just writing the story and then revising it afterwards. The NANOWRIMO people have a point: write the story in November, rewrite it in December through March. Sit in the chair and write.

Writing technique: Elizabeth George once stated that technique can be taught, and I believe her. There are a lot of books on the subject; her book, and Stephen King's On Writing, they cover a lot of it. There are a lot of little things, and this is where a face-to-face writing group than an online group is so useful. The trouble is, I do not know of one where erotica is acceptable. In my group people got nervous if the action got heavier than kissing.

Now let's talk about the technical aspects, and by this I mean the science. Back before I sketched out the idea you were expanding on, I was researching the O'Neal colonies. There's a lot of information on the web, and more that isn't there but available through

The Russian experience with Salyut is that the environment is critical. In space you have to build in every element of the environment, but people exhale or otherwise secrete skin cells, germs, and so on. Foods and other things have elements that grown in the enclosed area. The cosmonauts spent a lot of time just keeping the place clean. Documents from the Russians suggest that you have to do this, and if you don't, the place will become uninhabitable. This matched NASA's experience with Skylab, and is being confirmed with the ISS. The people there have to spend more time cleaning than people thought, which gives less time for science (and which is one of those things you have trouble explaining to a lot of engineers and politicians who have never had to deal with an totally enclosed environment).

I think that there is a critical size where you need open areas and growing things that will allow a balance to be achieved. This is why nothing but compartments is a non-starter. A large open area would probably work. This is one of the reasons why a hollowed out asteroid would be a good idea. And this is one of the things people are worried about (and what ISS is for) in any deep-space missions right now: cleanliness and keeping the environment non-toxic.

Then we have radiation. I did some reading about the radiation hazards in space. Magnetic fields are good, but the reason Salyut, Skylab, and the ISS have worked is that they are below most of the Earth's magnetic field. Beyond the Van Allen belts you need something else, and the best solution turns out to be water. The preliminary sketches I saw for a space habitat had a minimum of six meters of water as an outer wall between the people and the vacuum. And you can always find uses for water, you just need new sources if you do. And that leads to ice mining.

Food. In post-apocalyptic stories set in a space habitat the assumption is that people will live out in the open. To avoid taking productive food growing ground out of service for habitats, we have to have some form of hydroponic growth. And the answer may be being provided by pot growers. A lot of crops do well in force growth areas, and we now know how to do that sort of thing. The logical place to put them is below the "ground level" of the habitat.

Gravity. The farther you go from the axis, the greater the gravity. I don't know what that will mean for the air circulation, and that means the internal weather. The Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center actually has its own weather pattern; the same thing happens in the 747 plant at Boeing in Seattle. What happens in something as big as a space habitat? That's where the author comes in. And it can be worked into the story for that touch of realism by something as mundane as people taking shelter from a storm.

I don't even want to get into the politics and living conditions. Those are part of the story, and this is, in effect, a blank slate. There is a long history of telling a story to show a political or social point. Look at Plato and his stories of Atlantis. I'm sure it was based on the Minoan thassalocracy on the islands of Crete and Santorini, but he had political and social points to make, and I suspect he imposed his theories on the background.

I think that in any society you're going to get the majority of people who just want to get through life. The extremes can't be sustained for too long because they are extreme. This is why societies based on, say, criminal organizations, despite looking like a feudal culture, is not sustainable. People want order, and things will tend toward that, and the police/enforcement, and the courts (a part of enforcement) will reflect that. That is if there is any of that. If there are competing groups, they'll have worked out ways of living around each other. If they're at war, there will be a winner and a lose (they can't be at all like the two tribes in the "Piranha Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death" movie who were at war for 12,000 years.


And of course the best way to do any of this is to start out telling part of the story. I have seen too many people try to tell an epic fantasy in three volumes when their idea is probably only good for a novella. Tolkien seduced them. I did a story that way where I wrote a lot of little snippets and then wrote to bring them all together. I didn't like the technique, but it worked. And the related scenes and snippets were actually fun to write.

The secret, in the end, is parking oneself in a chair and writing. Robert Heinlein said you have to write a million words before the good stuff comes out. I don't know about that. I think variety and different stories help refine the technique. One writing group I know about has "challenges" that the members work on. This helps develop techniques and letting people learn to do it in a way that people can learn from.