One Terrific Lie

Welcome to my new blog, One Terrific Lie, which will follow my progress on my new novel. Each instalment will also contain one outrageous lie that I’ll (try to) disguise as the truth. Every new week, I’ll reveal the previous week’s lie. Why would you do this? you might be thinking. That’s a good question. One day, I may have a good answer (← this is not the lie).

So, anyway, I’m about to begin a new manuscript.

My first novel, Just Another Week in Suburbia, came out in September 2017 with Pantera Press, and was described by Ryan O’Neill, winner of the 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction with Their Brilliant Careers (Black Inc. 2017) as ‘a hugely enjoyable novel which illuminates the extraordinary in the everyday, and the quirky in the quotidian.’ My second novel for Pantera, [TITLE TO BE CONFIRMED], has just been returned to me for proofing. [TITLE TO BE CONFIRMED] (← this is not an attempted pun – the title hasn’t been finalised) will come out around September 2018. And the new novel, the one I’m about to begin …?

I originally had the idea about mid-2017, but it struggled to find purchase in my imagination. A good idea grows. As it grows, possibilities develop. New possibilities stimulate further growth. Further growth creates further possibilities. And on it goes, creating this symmetric and beautiful network, like a spider’s web that – at some point – captures me. That’s when I think I know enough about the premise to start the book.

This just wasn’t happening for me, though – well, not meaningfully. There were a few spurts that got me hopeful, but they never sparked other ideas. Then, in desperation, I wondered how the story would work if I swapped the gender of the protagonist. I asked a few writers friends, who all agreed it would be a fresher story if I made the swap. Once that decision was made, things began to fall into place. What (also) helped was that the protagonist is carrying some established history into the story (but I’ll get into that next week – well, hopefully).

Ideas now flowed. I jotted a lot of them down in my phone while on a cruise around New Zealand. I never map out the whole story out before I begin. Much of it reveals itself to me in the writing – although, as I write, I will dot-point things that will or might need to occur. Equally, when I finish writing for the day and I’m doing something else – making dinner, washing up, lying in bed, etc. – ideas for revision occur to me. They’ll be the first thing I attend when I sit down to write the next day, as it helps me get straight back into it. But now I was finding lots of things were falling into place without having written one word.

My usual course – instead of outlining the story – is to map out every character (with a small backstory) and every location I think I might use in the story. This gives me a map of my world, so wherever my characters go, I know what’s there, and who’s there. This way, I don’t have to stop and contemplate these things when they come up. Also, their existence can stimulate the story. E.g. in JAWiS [MINOR SPOILER ALERT], I knew Casper had a troublesome neighbour in Vic Booth, but I didn’t anticipate how influential Vic would become.

Of course, there’s always lots of characters and locations I never use. In my [TITLE TO BE CONFIRMED] (due out around September this year – or did I already mention that?), about three/fifths of the characters I created were never used, but that was okay because they helped make that world real to me. I’m not a big believer in writer’s block. I do think it happens in extreme cases, but also believe that a writer’s lack of preparation can contribute to not knowing where to go next, which writers then mistake for writer’s block. This is my preparation – a technique taught to me by my writing mentor and one-time paramour Helen Garner.

The thing I find time-consuming – and sometimes difficult – is naming everybody. Names can’t just be random. There has to be some purpose to them. A name will immediately evoke a preconception. I say ‘Barney Hooper’, and you’ve already conjured an image of what Barney looks, although I’ve told you nothing about him.

In JAWiS, the protagonist is meant to have a name that symbolises how unobtrusive he is. His surname is ‘Gray’ – not a colour, neither black nor white, but something bland. His first name ‘Casper’ is an allusion to Casper the Friendly Ghost, because Casper is meant to be a ghost in his own existence, just slipping through innocuously. People mightn’t interpret this stuff consciously, but on a subconscious level there’s always some understanding. (You might wonder how I know this – it’s because I’ve sensed it.)

My approach to coming up with names is methodical. I’ll write out two alphabets – a lowercase a – z, and an uppercase A – Z. Then I’ll pore through two books of baby names I own, as well as a folder I’ve compiled which lists first and second names by nationality. For each first name I come up with, I cross out the corresponding letter that name begins with in the lowercase alphabet. Then I do the same for surnames with the uppercase alphabet. This means (that for primary characters) I won’t double- or triple-up on names beginning with the same letter, e.g. Bob, Bill, Burt – this can be confusing for the reader to follow (unless that’s the author’s intention). When I have lists of names, I start matching, feeling which is right for which character. If I’m looking for a specific connection, I might even fall back on what a particular name means. Then I compare the final names for any unwitting clashes, e.g. in the planning for JAWiS, I had a ‘Jane’ (in case you haven’t read JAWiS that’s the protagonist’s wife – quick! Go read JAWiS) and a ‘Dane’. Dane went.

For this new novel, I’ve got my lists, but not the names of my characters, although I do know who they are – how they factor in the story, and how they relate to one another. I had hoped to get started this week, but a severe bout of food poisoning on Saturday wiped out a couple of days. I’m hoping to nut out the characters over the rest of this week, then begin Sunday.

I won’t give away the title at this early stage, but I will give you its acronym – ‘TFSoLY’. And I will say that its protagonist is a supporting character in JAWiS (which, if you haven’t read, you should). But I’ll leave it at that.

Until next Tuesday …

Star Trek: Voyager

startrekvoyagerStar Trek: Voyager is the worst Star Trek show. And by that I don’t mean it’s the fifth-best Star Trek show. I mean it’s just a bad show.

And, yes, it’s worse than Star Trek: Enterprise, which wasn’t very good either. But at least Enterprise had some interesting crew and tried to do a few things, although it annoyingly ignored canon at times. Still, that’s better than Star Trek: Voyager, which was an exercise in the writers growing far too comfortable (read: complacent) with the genre and the era.

What Works
Interesting premise, flinging the ship and crew seventy thousand light years from Federation space. One query with this is that Kirk and Picard regularly had their ships flung to the far reaches of the galaxy, and always got back within forty minutes. But at least the idea is sound.

Robert Picardo is excellent as the Doctor, and Jeri Ryan strong as Seven of Nine. Robert Beltran brings a quiet nobility to Command Chakotay, but is underused (allegedly, because Beltran was so outspoken about the direction of the show). Kate Mulgrew is a good actress and was solid as Star Trek’s first commanding female officer but, unfortunately, Captain Kathryn Janeway is a terrible character.

What Doesn’t Work
Mulgrew herself described Janeway as ‘bipolar’ to explain why she was so erratic, although apparently the reason for this were different writers had different ideas on how Janeway should be portrayed, so were always pushing their own agenda given their opportunity.

The rest of the cast is bland – Tuvok (Tim Russ) was just a Spock clone without what made Spock interesting (the half-human side). Harry Kim (Garrett Wang) was meant to be killed off a few seasons in, which shows how valued he was. B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson) just seemed to run around being angry or frustrated with everybody. Tom Paris (Robert Duncan MacNeill) is likeable, but doesn’t get to do much. Kes (Jennifer Lien) walks around in a perpetually dreamy state, and Neelix (Ethan Phillips) is appalling, with little to offer once Voyager moves out of the regions he knows. All these characters become one-dimensional, even when their lives change circumstantially. They hit their beats, do their thing, and that’s it for them.

Following The Original Series, the writers struggled creating adversarial races. The Ferengi were initially laughable, and the writers could never make the Romulans work as this omnipresent threat. The Breen were often mentioned but never went anywhere. Ultimately, to create threatening aliens, the writers fell back on using a warrior archetype, which meant they just cloned the Klingons, e.g. the Jem’Hadar were just juiced-up Klingon, while the Cardassians were cultured Klingons. What helped the Cardassians come to life were two compelling characters, Gul Dukat and Elim Garak, played brilliantly by Marc Alaimo and Andrew Robinson. Through Dukat and Garak, the Cardassians gained depth. The Borg were genuinely good as mechanised Klingons. In Star Trek: Voyager, the initial threat were the Kazon, another brand of alien who were just Klingon Lite.

Initially, Janeway integrates Chakotay’s Maquis crew onto Voyager, which is meant to create conflict and tension. That’s briefly explored, but then dropped. The show then unfolds as a clone of Star Trek: Next Generation, with the crew stopping to investigate new life, new civilisations, and all that. You’d think given how far they are from home, there’d be some urgency about their journey, and that their Starfleet integrity would be tested more. It happens a few times, but never with any real complexity.

Robert Beltran was also critical of the show as it went on, saying that Janeway had grown tyrannical, that supporting characters were forgotten, and any time any situation came up, all Janeway had to do was consult Seven of Nine’s repository of Borg knowledge for a solution, thus it made the rest of them redundant.

The technobabble progressively grows out of control so that it undermines any dramatic tension. If you look at the climax of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as a comparison, we have a very simple set up: the ship doesn’t have enough power to warp away before the Genesis device explodes. Spock goes down and we see him fixing something to do with the engine. The Enterprise regains power and warps away. Nice, simple, yet compelling. We understand that. Technobabble used? Zero. In Voyager, you know they’ll get out of any situation just by spouting some meaningless technobabble. It becomes a deus ex machina. Then there’s the Borg: they were intimidating in Star Trek: The Next Generation. In Star Trek: Voyager, they’ve lost any real threat. Whenever the crew of the Voyager deal with them, it’s with complete aplomb.

Finally, I’m unsure why the needed so many time travel stories. The writers have the vastness of the galaxy, they’re in uncharted space, and they still have to screw around with time travel. That goes infinitely for the finale, which has to rate as one of the laziest and most offensive finales in television history.

How I Would’ve Done It
We can keep the premise. We can keep the bulk of the characters. Tom Paris is good, but I would’ve played on him as disreputable – always looking for an angle to try to get Voyager home quicker. Cut Tuvok’s long-standing friendship with Janeway. And cut him as a Vulcan. Make him a Romulan observer who was aboard (for their initial mission), and now has to integrate into the crew, but whose motivations and choices are often questionable, although he learns morality along the way. Harry Kim and Neelix are out. Instead, I would’ve used Nog (Aron Eisenberg) from Star Trek: Deep Space 9, who now has to embrace his Ferengi instincts to barter with people in the Delta Quadrant for supplies and resources. Atop of being a Starfleet officer, he has to learn to accept who he is.

Janeway and Chakotay can stay, but both are pushed way down the chain of command – Janeway to Lieutenant Commander, Chakotay to equal rank, more general experience, but no real bridge qualification. When the Voyager is shunted into the Delta Quadrant, the bridge crew – including the Captain and the First Officer – are killed. Janeway survives because she’s in Astrometics, and is now thrown way out of her depth because she has to take command. The crew are divided about her. Half want to uphold Starfleet principles, the other half feel they should just do whatever’s required to get the Voyager home as quickly as possible. Everybody’s unsure whether Janeway has the capability to command. It doesn’t help that Chakotay feels he should be in charge. Torres also stays, but not as this fledgling engineer, but chief engineer who’s been around, is decorated, and has the respect of the crew. Her support of Janeway validates Janeway’s standing.

Throughout, Janeway’s ideals are tested. But the Voyager is a big ship, and she has a lot of people wanting to get home, so there are times she has to compromise for one reason or another – either to keep the ship functioning, because she finds a possible shortcut, or simply because she recognizes the crew’s coming apart. Voyager (the ship) also experiences wear. Throughout the existing show, Voyager always looks pristine, but the ship would become scarred, run out of resources, and even go through stretches (as in episodes) where systems aren’t working. It’ not like they can just stop at a starbase and get a service, so keeping the ship up and running drives the urgency of their mission.