Brainstorming and Concept Writing
These are the first few entries in my brainstorming “diary,” which are offered without comment and are fairly “rambly.” The goal isn't to write well; rather, I'm just trying to get thoughts down as I struggle to come up with something to say. You'll see influences that I used as a spark to get things going before I eventually abandon them, and you'll notice false starts as I abandon certain ideas that I initially seemed to embrace. So it goes.
It's written in “entry form” and each entry is separated by a number of days. Mainly to give myself a bit of distance while I thought things over. That happens quite a bit. Anyway! Off we go!
I really like the ol’ Star Trek: The Next Generation episode that featured Scotty appearing in the 24th century and helping the Enterprise escape from an abandoned Dyson Sphere. I think the key thing that I loved was the fact that the Dyson Sphere was completely empty – whoever built it and then inhabited it had long since moved on. The emotional feel was kinda like Lord of the Rings (when they do scenes with old statues that have toppled over, or some abandoned tower that used to mark the outer limits of some Empire that’s been almost forgotten). I love that.
I’ve also been really interested in doing something all-ages and I keep coming back to stories like Narnia. In a way, doing a contemporary take on Narnia would be quite interesting (without, of course, the Christian allegory). Three Earth kids appear on the Sphere and have a number of experiences there. Probably with robots and other fantastical creatures (possibly akin to the Island of Misfit Toys – ‘bots whose makers abandoned when they left the Sphere).
I’m also tempted to make one of the kids (three girls) turn evil or dark as the story progresses.
The Ice Age: I like the idea of the Sphere decaying. The engines that run it (or whatever) are failing and eventually it will be destroyed. Parts of it might be encased in ice and snow while others might be on fire (think of an industrial fire that’s as large as North America). In some ways it could be like Norse myths – maybe the world right after Raganarok.
Just finished up watching Kiki’s Delivery Service on Monday night while Moggy was in Halifax. I liked it a whole bunch and, as I sit here in Ottawa University's Morriset Library chewing it over, I’m interested in doing something like that for my next book. A lot of this is touched on above, but I’m in a bit of a weird place. I just put brush to paper for the final page of the road to god knows… and there’s all kinds of uncertainty with what will happen next. Not so much in the immediate future (there are corrections and other editing to do, not to mention the grey washes that are still ahead of me) but I have no idea how that book will do over the next year. Will there even be a chance for a next book? Who knows?
What I do know is that I’d like the next story to be different. Road hit themes that were very important to me personally and were really cool to talk about in the pages of a comic book. I’d like the next story to be different and perhaps more accessible, too. I like the idea of writing something that a kid could pickup. I also like the idea of doing something all-ages that doesn’t dumb things down at all. Just because it’s approachable to kids doesn’t mean it has to be unapproachable for adults. I also think it might open a few more doors for me commercially than road will. Not sure about that one, but I’m speculating here so what the hell.
In some ways, doing a thematic sequel to road could be interesting, too. One of the things that always struck me about the Norse myths is how fatalistic they are; they live life to the fullest since it could all be over tomorrow. Even the gods die and, further, they know they are fated to die (at Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods). That knowledge gives them a tremendous freedom for they know that the world itself doesn’t end at Ragnarok.; it’s fated to go on.
Marie’s struggle in road is really one of control – there’s very little she can do to affect what’s going on in the world around her. She also knows that things can’t stay the same way for her Mom: if Betty doesn’t change or cannot change, she will be consumed by her demons; they’ll kill her. Marie can’t do anything with this knowledge, though; she can’t even communicate that to her Mom at all. Doing a story where the “letting go” is dealt with as a major theme or idea could be quite fascinating. And doing it in the pages of an all-ages book is more interesting, too. The trick is how will the “letting go” be portrayed?
Thinking back to Kiki’s, one of the things that struck me about that story was how the world just accepted that there were witches. The macguffin (and I think I’m using that right!) that the story hinged on was the fact that witches really do exist. The world wound up being an amalgam of different time periods (the 30s mixed in with the 50s and so on) but it didn’t matter; that was really subtext for the story. All you need to believe is that in this world witches exist. Hand in hand with that, though, is that her powers don’t make her that special. Kiki screws up and makes mistakes. She’s poor (well, relatively) and doesn’t dress like the cool kids. She can do things that no one else can (talk with a cat and fly) but most of these come from her strength of will. Like the comic St. George, when she loses her confidence and focus she also loses her powers.
How to deal with magic, then? I know that I want the story to take place in another world and not on Earth. I don’t want to have to explain loads of things, either. If I do go the Dyson Sphere route, the question becomes: how to the characters get there? Narnia and Alice in Wonderland have already hit the other worldly element, though. Hmmm…I don’t want to go the mad professor route (besides, that’s what Lewis did with Narnia anyway) and I’m not sure I want it to be a coincidence. Though…do I want the story to focus on random kids or have them be somehow connected? See, I think I prefer the randomness of it. The idea that it was these kids only because they stumbled across something today, but if it had been tomorrow or yesterday, it would have been someone else entirely. I don’t want to get too hung up on this, though. One simple option would be just have something from the Dyson Sphere hit the Earth and the kids discover it. Another, better option might be for them to uncover something someone else already found, so instead of being the first on the scene, they’re the first to activate it. The “thing” (whatever it is) could have been sitting on someone’s shelf for years and no one managed to figure it out.
How ‘bout this? Years ago, a young girl found an object in the woods. The object, whatever it is, is a transporter of some sort. A key to the Dyson Sphere, perhaps dropped long ago by a visitor to Earth. Or perhaps by someone who fled the Sphere. Doesn’t matter. The object has odd markings etched on its surface that no one can figure out; as the girl grew older, she lost interest in it. Maybe the girl left it on a shelf or in a trunk. As she grew older still and had a family of her own, she forgot about it. Until one day her granddaughter, full of spunk and imagination, stumbled across it (on a shelf, in a trunk…) and became fascinated by it. The granddaughter wanted it but had been taught not to ask, so she’d look at it when she was visiting but always put it back. One day, the grandmother died. And the object, whatever it was, was given (in the will, in a letter…) to the little girl. And somehow, that little girl figured out how to make it work. When she did, she and those around her (say in her bedroom or maybe on a camping trip in the back yard) vanished from Earth and appeared on the Dyson Sphere.
I could actually open the story with the funeral service and go from there. Funky way to start an all-ages story but I think it might work. I’ll need to figure out more about the device and more about why this one girl figured it out. It could still have been anyone (and maybe I should mention in the narrative that a lot of other kids have tried? Maybe the granny babysat or taught art to local kids or something?) but really it comes down to who stumbled across it first (the granny as a kid) and then who figured it out. I’m kinda thinking right now that it could be a code; but, if so, I’ll need some help making it some type of artistic or mythological code. I also like the idea that it could have been dropped many many years ago, subtly implying (without ever going into details) that maybe the survivors of the Sphere travelled to Earth and populated it.
One thing I do know is that I don’t want the kids to develop super powers by accident. Rather, I’d like the Dyson Sphere to be full of wonderful stuff that gives them abilities we don’t have on Earth. But those abilities are finite and they come from something else. With the Dyson Sphere both in ruins and quite futuristic, I want the kids to interact with all kinds of fantastic creatures both alive and mechanical. I love the idea of little clockwork robots running about. And that’ll work doubly well since it will aid language and communication amongst the characters (maybe starting as translators before the ‘bots learn English). I should also see if I can dig up that “extinct mammal” book just to get ideas for sketching very different types of animals than what’s currently on the planet. I like the idea of starting the Dyson Sphere out in a ruined town (I’ll need to create a map) and have the characters move slowly to larger and larger cities.
Thinking of Star Trek, I also really love that 1st season episode The Last Outpost where the Enterprise encounters the remnant from the “Dkon” Empire. An automated portal that comes alive and challenges the crew (in particular Riker). That type of obstacle would be cool to touch on and it would also be nifty to add characters like this in strong supporting roles; I mean, the tragedy of a guardian that realizes all that it guards are dead is an intriguing concept.
I suppose it’s time to chew over the idea of having some type of antagonist in the story. But I dunno. I’m not really keen on having them discover some heavy (a Ming the Merciless type) and I think the obstacles should be more primal (just survival at first and then dealing with the oddities of the Dyson Sphere itself). The goal should be for the kids to try and get home, at least at first, and this might be the key plot of the story. The first part should be fear and wonder, all mixed together, especially as they realize they are witnessing some great civilization laid low by time. The emptiness should be haunting – and then, of course, the realization that the kids aren’t alone. I’m wondering, though, if I could have one kid slowly go mad over the course of the story, perhaps as they discover great power or face the realization that if they go home none of it will work (that will have to be really developed). If I structure the story from the point of view of them all wanting to come home and then create conflict in that, it might work quite well. Especially if, for whatever reason, transporting them back to Earth doesn’t work without all of ‘em. Seems like a bit of a cliché but it might do the trick..
All this said, when I think back to Kiki’s, one of the things I really enjoyed about it was the lack of a heavy. Kiki’s problems weren’t as a result of an antagonist; they were a result of her own fears and insecurities, and doubts and lack of focus. Instead of having any character “go bad,” it might work really well just to have the insecurities pull and push the group in different directions. Dealing with each other and dealing with survival might just be enough to make the story work.
I also need to chew over who the inhabitants of the sphere were. Part of the trick with this is that they can’t be so far advanced to be completely unrecognizable. In some ways, I’m kinda chewing almost making them superheroes or, rather, technological supermen almost like the Silver-Aged version of Krypton. Or what some of the better stories that showcased the Legion of Superheroes had. Anti-gravity devices. Ray beams. That sort of thing. There needs to be a cool factor in the visuals and also a cool factor in the concepts. Some place that we’d all want to go. I could also really stretch myself with some of the designs (think Gaudi here with all kinds of parabolic arches and the like).
Another thing I could explore would be ghosts and the like; having a girl standing on a grassy plain, looking out at the heavens and seeing a fire that burns across half the sky is really cool. Having her realize she’s surrounded by ghosts at the same time is quite intriguing.
Just re-reading the above while listening to a variety of tunes on Real Player (especially in the mood for Final Fantasy and The Stars for some reason). Been doing a lot of touch-ups on road this week, too. Plus a photo shoot today for Sandy Hill Image and figuring out the Small Press Expo next week.
It’s funny. I like the narrative possibilities of the above quite a bit; the sense of loss and characters having to choose between letting things go (or not) could be a theme that constantly runs through the entire story. And what’s nice about it is that it can be a subtle thing (letting go of a favourite toy) to a major thing (letting go of the entire Dyson Sphere itself).
What I need to start figuring out is a little bit more about the three protagonists and also a bit more about what the Dyson Sphere allows them to do. I certainly want to avoid the randomness of classic superhero stuff (no mutagenic gene or splashing of some elixir here!) and it certainly can’t be anything that’s replicable on Earth. It has to be unique to the inhabitants of the Sphere but something that wouldn’t overwhelm kids.
I’m wondering here if I could draw on myths and legends here but make it more plausible. Some of the Norse myths drew on mystical objects (Mjnollnir or Odin’s spear) while others were more subtle (the knowledge runes that Odin gained); there should be a sense of wonder with everything, too. I’m thinking here of how well Morrison and Quitely have captured Superman in All-Star Superman – that beautiful Silver Age feel. Kirby did something similar in the pages of Thor that only Walt Simonson was able to capture later and I like that sense of awesomeness. I know I want to avoid unexplainable powers, but some things could be tied to objects of great wonder.
What I need to be careful of is having too much. There’s no point in having all kinds of objects kicking around; the temptation would be to tell a ‘smash-up’ story instead of focusing on character. Any items that the characters find should be limited and they should have consequences. One other thing that I need to keep in mind is who the Dyson people were. If I want them to be basically humans, it’s not so much of an issue. But if I want them to be more alien, then the items the kids find should reflect that. No point to have magic rings if the Dysons don’t have fingers. Same goes for weird activation rituals and the like (if you need 12 fingers to punch in a code, for example).
It shouldn’t be like the kids are lost in a magic shop, though; it should be stuff they stumble across. Stuff that can help them, sure, but not stuff they find every day. Part of what I need to figure out, then, is just how the kids stay alive. And not by just subsisting – they need to survive. What do they eat? Where do they sleep? Where do they go to the bathroom? That kind of thing. All the basics of survival has to be fairly obvious and also something that I should address. It’s part of the reason I like the idea of ‘bots and critters – some of ‘em could be set-up to care for visitors. Actually, that could be something I play up; a ‘bot that follows them, observing in the shadows as it absorbs their language, learning before it finally reveals itself. I don’t want the robots to be C-3PO, though, so it might be better to keep a lot of it non-verbal, at least at first. That’ll work if I make the ‘bot more afraid of the girls then they are of him.
The Kids: I want to start chewing over who these girls are. I’ve already got names for them (I’m going to use some ol’ favourites) but I still need to learn a bit more about who they are. The three characters are Marni, Elora, and Sophie and they range in ages from about 9-11. I have to be careful here because if there’s too big of an age gap it wouldn’t make sense that they’d be friends. And I think I want to avoid them being family; we pick our friends but we don’t choose our family. The ties of friendship will also serve them well in the early part of the story, helping them deal with their initial fear. Thinking back to what I wrote before, I like the idea of having them doing a sleepover in the backyard shortly after the grandmother’s funeral. Marni, the granddaughter, is finally given the Dyson doohickey by her parents just before her friends come over. And then the three of them, together, manage to unlock the gateway (or whatever it is) that brings them to the Dyson sphere. One advantage of this is that I can bring the whole tent (and everything inside of it) with them, too.
Character-wise, Marni should be the dreamer. She was the one that was always attracted to the gadget; it filled her with wonder and imagination and she’d have long talks with her granny about it (actually, that begs the point: do I want to do Lost type flashbacks or just keep it in the present. Hmmm…). A bit of a tom-boy, Marni is quite happy tramping in the woods, exploring. She’s probably a bit of a builder, too. Maybe constructing a milk carton boat to plop in some stream somewhere. Dirty blonde with shoulder length hair. Maybe some freckles sprinkled over her nose. Elora is a brunette with longish hair that she often wraps with a bandana. Somewhat bookish but not shy. Sophie should have longish hair that she keeps in a pony tail behind her head. Probably the youngest of the group and a little shy. Her voice shouldn’t be too prominent; she lets the other two girls do most of the talking. That might be a bit too close to Emma from road, though, so I may have to chew that over a bit. There’ll probably be a few comparisons, but I really want to go for a strong triumvirate with the three instead of just two main players and a supporting character.
This story has possibilities and I like where it’s going. But I need to start figuring out who these kids are a bit more. I touched on it above but fleshing them out is fairly important. One thing I was chewing over was making Elora more of a practical character. I was kinda thinking of making her more of a scientist then the other two. More down to earth but not in a curmudgeonly way. I don’t want her to be lecturing or otherwise correcting the other two; aside from anything else, these are all friends. And Sophie and Marni wouldn’t hang out with her if she was being a bitch all the time. So I’m thinking more she’d correct them quietly and softly but with authority (“no, the stars are different. I don’t recognize any of the stars or constellations.”). I really like the idea of her being a budding astronomer, hanging out with her granddad at a cottage and looking at the stars for hours on end, drinking hot chocolate and eating rice crispy squares on an autumn night. It might be fun to make her dad a mechanic and have her be pretty comfortable with machinery. Not so much electronics (she ain’t a ‘puter nerd) but just things mechanical. If I do something with clockwork ‘bots then she’d be a natural to fall for him, just fascinated with what they are and what makes ‘em tick.
Sophie is still somewhat tricky. If Marni is the myth-loving dreamer and storyteller and Elora is more of an astronomer, I’d like Sophie to be something in-between. One thing that might work would be to make her a musician. It could be tricky to show (but then again, check out Wahoo Morris) but having her play something abstract and non-vocal would work well. So wind-powered, huh? Then a flute or perhaps something Celtic (what the leader of The Chieftains plays?). It needs to be small so a flute would work best since she could always have it on her; in a back pocket or whatever. What’s neat about this is that she just doesn’t have to play the flute; a lot of other things could be open to her but the flute is what she always has with her. But drums (The Honeycombs!) or whatnot could be fun, too. And the musical element echoes, at least a little bit, that Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where Picard lives another complete life and learns to play the flute. Depending how I structure the world of the Dyson sphere, music could play a large part in their culture. I’m kinda chewing over having that flute be something that’s special to her in a bit of a different way then the other two girls. Marni had a close bond with her grandma that just ended sadly, but while Elora’s granddad is still alive Sophie never knew her grandfather, the musician in their family, and her memories of her grandmother are sad ones; the old lady never recovered from the loss of her lover and Sophie never got to know her very well as a result. She couldn’t cross the distance that the pain had created. So Sophie's probably been a little jealous of her two friends; not in a really negative way, but envious of the fact that they’ve had something that she doesn’t and never will have.
One of the struggles this story will present is how to deal with emotions and fears, along with the bare bones of just survival. Bathroom breaks and starvation, y’know? So I’ll need to have an “intervener” of some sort fairly early on in the story to help them out. Some of this I’ve addressed above (maybe a robot) but it’s something to keep in mind as I construct the story. That said, one of the things I found marvelous about Kiki’s was that the fable did work – you believe that there are witches out there and that they exist. I think that as long as I keep things somewhat believable I won’t need to worry about too much of the down and gritty. And, as I touched on above, as long as I have a robot intervene fairly early and then have the girls led to some type of storehouse I’ll be ok. And keep in mind that this is supposed to be a futuristic society – I can come up with all kinds of food and water pills to cut down on the bulk of what they carry. Let things be fantastic.
That’s actually something I still really need to play with: the fantastic. These kids are walking in a Legion of Super-heroes comic without realizing it. The reader won’t really get that in the beginning, either. The story feel should be somewhat evocative of The Wizard of Oz – out in the sticks with the knowledge that things are different but not really seeing the hows or whys ‘til later on in the journey. So there should be hints sprinkled along early enough. There should also be a sense of loss. It’s one of the nifty things that Jackson got right about Lord of the Rings. It felt like it was in twilight; that a real “thinning” was occurring. In some ways the thinning has already occurred and the world is slowly crumbling apart.
I may actually need to bring some books with me next time I’m here, too. I have a loose idea of what I want (that Silver Age DC feel) but I want to tie it in with some myths and legends, too. Some of it should be like that classic Arthur C. Clarke quote (“any significantly advanced technology will seem like magic to a primitive person” – I’m paraphrasing!) but I want something behind it, too. Figuring out what that something is should be part of the story.
Note that the above is excerpted from the print edition of Stargazer.