What Makes ‘Out of the Darkness’ Different?

Reading any copy of ‘Out of the Darkness’ will be a unique experience if you put enough voltage through it. Safety and satisfaction not guaranteed. Results may very with voltage and writing medium. Always read the label. Keep away from children.

What makes a book different is a topic that’s constantly discussed by writers. How to make your work stand out so that it is interesting enough for an agent or publisher to send you that mythological piece of paper known as a contract is the subject of countless blog articles and social media discussions. It’s even come up on the forums and in Elite: Dangerous related videos and podcasts—how will the writers of the fiction differentiate their stories from each others? It’s only after reaching this point in the first draft that I’ve got enough of a feel for where my story is headed that I can attempt an answer to that question.

Setting vs Story

Even as I type this there still isn’t a complete Elite: Dangerous setting. With every released writer’s guide, finalised game design decision, and illustrated concept it comes closer, but a fully fleshed-out universe? Large tracts and details are still not even twinkles in the developers’ eyes.

How to work around this has been one of the greatest challenges of writing so far. Do I make something up and hope that Frontier accept it as canon? Experience tells me this isn’t easy. Frontier is a company with a strong vision for their game and a huge number of decisions to make in a short space of time. Second guessing their vision is an exercise in redundancy—there’s just too much that I don’t know. The only options left were to not write anything until the vision was finalised, or to concentrate on the story and the characters with the setting for each scene a self-contained tableau. With much of the official setting still so far from finished, the number of options reduced to one.

Writing without the official background setting has forced me to push the story and characters to the forefront, and set each scene in its very own bubble. Other fan-fiction varies widely in approach, and some tries to be ‘authentic’ by cramming as many references to the original material onto every page as possible. Let’s just say this isn’t a trap I’m likely to fall into. As more setting details emerge I will integrate them into what I’ve written, but this won’t be a book that screams, ‘I’m Elite: Dangerous fan-fiction, me. Check out me three hundred pages of appendices.’ More likely it will whisper, ‘I’m a story, with characters, and I take place in the Elite: Dangerous universe. I am my own entity, and I humbly ask you to respect that.’ Some fans may object to this approach and think that the book doesn’t feel Elite enough, but coming from an alternative direction has its advantages.

The Elite Feel

What does an Elite book feel like? I imagine it would be set largely on board a ship. There would be travelling. Perceived through the virtual and augmented reality of the pilot’s cockpit would be space battles, trading, pirates, bounty hunters, and perhaps a sedate scene of an asteroid miner eating a McDeno’s Starburger before having his precious rock disemboweled by weapon fire in a Federal/Imperial border skirmish. Coriolis stations spin and suns rise epic-ly over the horizons of strange alien worlds  for dramatic effect. This is EliteElite, for me, epitomises space opera: Star Wars with grit, or a non-PC Star Trek. Elements of this will be in the book—they have to be to be true to the fans and the setting.

Where, perhaps, mine will differ will be the focus. (I say perhaps because I haven’t read the other writers’ work.) Leaving integration of official setting details until after the first draft is written means that I have much freer reign over the feel of the story. Call it unique; call it inspired; call it quirky; call it ‘a lamentable effort resulting in self-indulgent literary excess’ if you like pretentious critique, but this story’s feel is more influenced (at least at this stage) by my own writing style than the iconic feel of the Elite universe.

This could be a problem for some who prefer their stories to sweat Elite from every action-packed pore, but there are other justifications. There are a lot of good writers who are hungry to nail the exact Elite feel. To achieve this end they have picked iconic topics, iconic scenes, and maybe even iconic characters. This isn’t a criticism, just an acknowledgement of differences in approach. They will write tight, fast moving prose that will have Elite adventure leaping from every page. I think their stories will be great reads. I think they will enrich the game. The questions I’ve asked myself are, ‘Do we need another one?’ and ‘Does that style of story naturally fit my writing style?’ For good or ill, I decided the answer was ‘no’ to both. Hopefully, what Out of the Darkness contributes will be diversity.

Out of the Darkness: Will the Genre Feel Silky Smooth or Rough as a Badger’s Backside?

For me the the ideal genre for an Elite story is SF action-adventure. I think some of the other writers would agree their work falls into that. Some won’t. Mine is an eclectic mix: basically a police procedural with action elements, combined with literary style characterisation. There’s romance, there’s mystery, and even a little comedy in places.

The procedural genre wasn’t my first choice, but it was the one that fitted most closely with the plot. It’s a genre that some find too factual or ‘dry’, and so I’ve messed with it, trying to add enough variety, humanity and humour so that it’s engaging for those who don’t put the Kay Scarpetta books by Patricia Cornwell at the top of their reading list. The grit of the genre is there, but, if I’ve got the balance right, the story won’t be overwhelmingly abrasive to read.

Characters: Swimming Against the Tide of ‘Show Don’t Tell’ Advice

‘Show’ versus ‘tell’ is another hot potato in the writing world. Basically, it’s a style debate. Do you ‘show’ readers the character is angry by having him smash a vase on the floor, or tell them that, ‘Bill was furious.’? ‘Showing’ can increase narrative pace and lead to more reader engagement with the story. It becomes more immediate; there is less of a back-step from a what is actually happening. You see Bill throwing the vase, and so you are drawn into the scene and you can relatively easily work out he is angry. Being told Bill is furious means you observe Bill’s emotions, rather than experiencing them along with the character.

For all these reasons ‘showing’ is an effective method of writing fiction. It’s why I use it in my writing. The problem comes when you try to saw a plank in half with a hammer, or knock in a nail with a sheet of sandpaper. Every writing trick, technique and style has its strengths and limitations. If you listen to some of the more ardent advocates of ‘showing’ you would come away with the impression it is the writer’s omni-tool – the unbeatable universal screwdriver that always saves the day. I don’t agree.

You can’t show someone’s inner thoughts. You can show how those thoughts manifest: the emotions they produce, the actions and reactions. You can explain some of a character’s thought processes through dialogue, but the subtleties of internal conflict, moral dilemmas or motivations are often beyond the scope of ‘showing’ because, by its very nature, it deals with surface things. More fundamentally, ‘showing’ things about a character often leaves the question ‘Why?’ unanswered. For many scenes and characters this is fine. For some readers and writers this is fine, but I want to know a character by the end of a book. I want to understand them, as well as knowing about them and what they’ve been through.

The books that have moved me the most, the books that I re-read, are the ones where the characters are like friends. They are the books which enable me to discover who the characters are beneath the surface. For that ‘telling’ is the tool for the job. How do you show a character wrestling with the subtleties of her conversion to Islam and the conflict with her Christian beliefs? How do you let the reader know what a character is thinking when that character is taciturn or withdrawn, or maybe depressed? How do you show the reader a character’s feelings in a meaningful way if they are mute, or paralysed, or not even human? How do you explain why? I believe both ‘show’ and ‘tell’ have their place, and because I want my reader to know my characters and understand them I try to choose the best tool to use at each point in the story, and not be constrained by an arbitrary ‘rule’ that is supposed to be a guide.

I hope this choice will add both depth and interest to my characters, whilst allowing the narrative to move forwards swiftly when it needs to.

Voices, Choirs, Teams, Strengths and Peptalks

Ah, the concluding paragraph, where witty witticisms, insightful incites, and encouraging encouragements are made. I could talk about how each writer will raise their literary voice to bring forth a melodious chorus as we all sing in harmony together. I could talk about how each writer, by playing to their strengths and complementing each other, will add to the collective worth of the Elite writing team. I could end with a few-syllable-soundbites of high-five ego-boosting verbage, but I shan’t.

The bottom line is that my subconscious is writing Out of the Darkness whether you or I want it to or not. The plot, settings, and characters are taking on lives of their own. I’m tearing up scene plans and plot arcs on an almost daily basis. My original end point is still intact, if a long way off, but the route from here to there is now out of my control. I just hope my subconscious knows what it’s doing. I sometimes wonder if it even knows I’m here.

So, if there is anything you want to say me, or my subconscious, please leave a comment below. (Comments about using the force will be marked down due to lack of originality.)

 ∞

‘Individual Concept Stock Image’ courtesy of Master isolated images at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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4 Responses to What Makes ‘Out of the Darkness’ Different?

  1. John Harper says:

    The questions I’ve asked myself are, ‘Do we need another one?’ and ‘Does that style of story naturally fit my writing style?’ For good or ill, I decided the answer was ‘no’ to both. Hopefully, what Out of the Darkness contributes will be diversity.

    This is the key here, I think, T.J. There are going to be 30 odd stories and you want yours to stand out but the BEST way to do that is write to your strengths, not what you think people want to read. Your skill set is unique so that will make your story unique and I think that is what you need. Write YOUR story, and people will love it. Police procedural in space? Loving it. I’ve done some hard boiled detective stuff in the HPA saga and it was fun and worked quite well with the Elite setting.

    I share your pain about writing with no data. What do you do? I took a slightly different route. I went ahead and did what I thought was right, but written in a way that I could easily switch around when new details came to light. Will mean a bit or re-editing, such as my first combat scene which had artificial gravity, but as long as we get to the finish line it doesn’t really matter how we got there. Right?

    • TJames says:

      Hi John,

      Sound advice. Writing to my strengths is something I’m trying to do. The police procedural genre wasn’t my first choice – it can be very particular and, well, procedural, rather than character or story focused. As fascinating as this is for readers of the genre, the attraction (I imagine) comes from the feeling of being a fly on the wall during the investigation and knowing that what you’re reading is close to what actually happens. Some of the most popular are written by ex-police or CIA for that reason.

      Obviously as this is a sci-fi story sticking within the genre boundaries is impossible, and although I could reinvent the entire workings of a police department in the future and this may have an appeal to a certain section of readers it certainly wouldn’t be playing to my strengths. (I’ve never worked in law enforcement.) I’ve invented some of the possible procedural and technological aspects of an investigation in the future, but I’m adding elements from the action, sci-fi, and detective genres and emphasizing characterisation – all things I think I do better. Hopefully readers will enjoy the mix; I’m enjoying writing it.

      Approaching the holes in the data is a challenge, I agree. Re-writing is always necessary, but I find it less enjoyable than swimming with the creative flow of a first draft so I tend to avoid hole filling. My story isn’t as spaceship centred as many and so most of my scenes (so far) don’t rely too heavily on Frontier deciding the minutiae of the game world for me to progress. I will still have to re-write quite a bit, but where you fill the holes I write around them. The benefit of doing this is that it has focused me on the important scenes and what I’m actually trying to communicate to the reader – I can’t just write in a linear way as I’ll soon hit another hole. It means I’m less prone to falling into the trap of the wombling narrative. (My first part-book will never see the light of day. I managed 60,000 words before the main characters had even left their village on the quest, and still neither they nor the reader knew what it was!) :O

      The finishing line? I guess as long as there aren’t too many corpses, dismembered limbs, or any video footage we are free to cross it in whatever way works best for each of us. I’ll see you there, already sunning yourself on the beach with a cold lager when I come in sweating and breathing like a giraffe with asthma.

      • Drew Wagar says:

        I’m avoiding the spaceships to quite a degree too. There are some battles and some scenes aboard ship, but the environments are quite restrictive and tedious to work in (IMHO), particular when you don’t have artificial gravity.

        Most of the important scenes are taking place planet-side, or in ‘parked’ (moored?) ships. I’ve got one scene which labours the point of zero-gee, but that’s it – I couldn’t make myself write another scene like that, it was too tedious!

        My story is much more about people, politics and machinations than it is about the machinery. Thus, I’ve not really needed to bother Frontier too much, my story would fit (with a few mods) in most ‘universes’ I suspect.

        • TJames says:

          Hi Drew.

          Agreed. I had to think long and hard about ships, and I came to the conclusion that using them depended on the length and focus of the story. Novellas and short fiction aren’t that long, so spending a significant amount of reader time on board ship isn’t too much of a problem if it’s well written. Also shorter forms fit well focused, small scale stories, and having a ship’s bridge as the main setting may be very effective. With longer stories like ours we need to vary our settings and so the characters will inevitably move around a lot more, so ships become a method of scene changing rather than a setting. Jumping between the all-important action and leaving the how-they-got-there for the reader to fill in seems to be the best way of keeping a longer story moving.

          My approach seems similar to your own – I’m writing the story as a sci-fi piece first, to be Elite-ized later when the information is available.

          BTW – your comment got me thinking about your name, and of anyone I know Drew Wagar sounds like a sci-fi character. Drew Wagar! Bounty Hunter! Drew Wagar! Master of the Universe. How cool is that? ;-)

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