The Art of Creativity, Systems, and Miracles

Outlining: one way to eat writer's block.

Outlining: one way to beat writer’s block.

With a basic story premise approved, it was time for me to move on to the how and the what of story writing. This has been proving something of a challenge.

There have been many attempts over the years to find and market the ‘perfect’ method of writing a book. A quick search will bring up several systems developed to standardise and so focus a writer’s approach. For some writers these aids can be very useful – providing a logical framework to hang their work from. For others, sad to say, it’s an ineffective way of compensating for lack of talent. I know in this politically correct age I’m not supposed to write stuff like this, but no amount of practicing the piano is going to make me Beethoven, and I’m never going to win Got to Dance, The Voice, or any other TV talent show. Hopefully, I do possess the basic ability to string some decent words together. Practice and systems can only polish what’s already there; only a miracle can create something from nothing.

What’s this got to do with Out of the Darkness? I’ve mentioned before that I’m a natural pantser (writing ‘by the seat of my pants’), but when I tried to tackle version two of the plot in my usual style I hit a wall after two thousand words. Pantsers need springboards: launchpads for their ideas. I’d been waiting for a week for Frontier to clarify several aspects of the Elite: Dangerous universe but unfortunately these aspects are central, affecting multiple aspects of the setting and game play. They want to answer my questions, I know they do (bless their little cotton socks), but they can’t, at least not at the moment. So, I managed a few dives into the shallow end of the story, then nothing, just the dreaded writer’s block.
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David Braben: ‘Hi TJ, This All Looks Great to Me.’

It’s taken four days, multiple emails, much head scratching, lots of hacking and slashing, and the ejecting into the darkness of the first plot, but finally I have a go from His Royal Brabaness for Out of the Darkness (Mk II).

Thargoids still feature, but due to game constraints a hefty wedge of tech and the main story premise had to be ejected. Replacing them with something engaging wasn’t easy, but the new plot now sits (by necessity) much more deeply in its Elite setting and there’s lots of potential for a gripping story.

I feel sorry for Frontier. With the change in emphasis I won’t be pushing so many unusual tech ideas, but there will likely be a storm of emails and possible forum postings clarifying the minutiae of galactic workings. They’re really busy, so I’m sure we writers are not always their favourite people. You can imagine the conversation over coffee:

Michael Brookes: ‘So, how many have you had today?’

Andrew Gillett: ‘About twenty.’

David Braben: ‘What, emails?’

Michael and Andrew: ‘No, writers.’

This though, is what story and game development is all about – everyone chipping in with ideas to bring a shared, fictitious universe to life. I now have to start researching my contribution (again), but as that gives me the opportunity to bury myself even deeper into Elite lore and annoy the FILFs, it’s not all bad.

The Thargoid Guide is Done, so Now I Wait and Sit on My Bum

It’s finally done! The Thargoid Guide is now being circulated around the Elite fiction writers’ forum so that everyone writing about our insectoid friends can start putting some words on paper, including yours truly.

Playing a part in the creation of an alien race has been both challenging and enjoyable. It’s taken a lot of effort on the part of everyone to get this far, and we are all hoping that readers and gamers alike will enjoy the results when the fiction and game hit the shelves in 2014. There is still some polishing to do, but the result will be a team effort, with contributions, suggestions, and amendments provided by everyone involved along the way.

Obviously this means that many of my initial ideas have been dropped or changed from the original draft as Frontier’s vision for our space-borne antagonists became clearer. I can honestly say I am not upset by this – it’s an inevitable consequence of co-writing – and some of my suggestions have been used. It also means that I am not solely to blame if our vision of the Thargoids does not correspond with yours. Send any hate mail to Frontier: they wield the power. I am but a minion. Continue reading

‘Elite’ Game Remakes and Fan Fiction vs. The Official Version: Visions of a New Tomorrow

Elite over the years. Our boy is growing up.

Rejoicing they flew: white lines, block-filled triangles, and shaded panes of colour; the sounds of the void beeping and burping in one ear before separating and enveloping them in textured audible reality.

But they were cast into the outer darkness – for years nothing but a blanket of false hope to shield them from the coldness of uncertainty. It could have ended there, their humanity leached into the uncaring nothingness around them. Broken, cold.

We cannot die,’ a voice inside them said, ‘for if we die then The Dream will die with us as our Messiah sleeps, dreaming of rails and screaming children throwing up Slushies on the crowds 50m below. So, while He dreams of ticket sales and ice cream, we will attempt our own resurrection.’

And Alpha was born. Alpha was silent, ugly, temperamental. Alpha was no fun to play.

So they emailed, forummed, read, and coded, and Beta was born. Beta was shiny! Beta was fun! Beta lured you in, then kicked you in the fork by dying on you just after that once-in-a-lifetime fight. Beta covered your palms with sweaty anticipation at the immense riches on offer as you docked at that Anarchy space station. Your docking was perfect, you didn’t crash. But Beta did.

But they wrestled with Beta and cast it, submissive, on the ground. Then they kicked it in the head until it agreed to play nicely from then on.

The Fan-Remake was born! Rejoicing they flew: secure in their bit-mapped polygonal ships. A Universe was theirs to explore and conquer, and they did. Some even got the t-shirt.

But, in the hearts of some, they wondered what would happen if their Messiah awoke… What would he think of their creations? Would He ever dream The Great Dream again? And, if so, would they be allowed back into paradise? Continue reading

There’s Thargoids on the Starboard Bow, Starboard Bow, Starboard Bow, There’s Thargoids on the Starboard Bow, Starboard Bow, Commander!

An alien, just like your grandmother used to make.

An alien, just like your grandmother used to make.

Here we are, nearly halfway through February as I type this, amazed at how well several of the other writers working on their Elite: Dangerous novels are getting along. There’s talk of outlining, approval from Frontier, plan-draft critique and all kinds of progress. You are lucky, lucky people because there’s a dedicated crew of word-monkeys typing madly to bring you a wall of Elite fictional goodness as you read this (between peeling the odd banana and picking insects from their armpit hair, but everyone is entitled to some time off). While their creativity flows in a torrential outpouring of brilliance, what have I been able to eke out of the unforgiving bedrock of my imagination? Nuggets. Thargoid shaped nuggets.

The thing about aliens is that they are, well, alien, which means they need defining/refining if they aren’t to come off the page as humans in rubber suits. (I love the original 60s Star Trek series, but that doesn’t mean I want to recreate the rubber and papier-mâché outfits on paper!) David Braben of Frontier has sketched out his ideas for the Thargoids and I’ve been busy fleshing out (deliberate pun) that vision. Doing the writer’s guide has forced me to consider the meaning of ‘Thargoid’…

In the 1930s-40s sci-fi aliens were mostly monsters from outer space, like something my five-year-old likes to draw. Around this time a little depth began to enter the genre, and writers increasingly created creatures which could possibly exist on other worlds. They had bodies which fitted with their imagined ecology, unique minds, and goals more subtle than the enslavement of mankind and the ravishing of our womenfolk to bear their next generation. They had a culture and a history. They began to feel real.

Into the 40s and beyond hardcore science fiction came into its own, where the laws of cosmology, biology, physics and chemistry became enmeshed with the story. In many cases the science was the reason for the story – the plot was simply a device on which the SF writer hung the ideas they were interested in exploring. Those ideas encompassed every discipline and sphere of human knowledge and development, and as scientific laws they were often left intact by the writers who were inspired by them.

Over-generalising, this gives us three broad categories of SF alien: the science fantasy monster, the science fiction alien, and the hardcore science fiction alien. Some novels and their authors used one of these visions of ‘alien-ness’ exclusively, others took elements from more than one.

Which brings us back to Thargoids and the writer’s guide. It’s true that while I’m focusing on the guide the word count of my story isn’t increasing. It’s equally true that, to show other writers what a Thargoid is so there is some consistency across the Elite fiction and the game, I’m having to consider every aspect of what makes a Thargoid, a Thargoid. The most crucial decision was made before I started by David Braben and the Frontier team: the Thargoids weren’t going to be people playing dress-up science fantasy monsters. (If this appeals to you, that’s fine. What you do in your spare time is your own business. I’m not here to judge.) It turns out that both the team and I want the Thargoids to seem plausible, with coherence between their ecology, evolution, biochemistry, anatomy, physiology, reproduction, history, culture and technology. The downside, time-wise, is that takes a lot of work. The upside for me is that I get a real creative buzz from putting the disparate pieces of the puzzle together into a whole Thargoid. The upside for you will be aliens that have teeth (metaphorically), are consistent across the Elite universe and, hopefully, are interesting enough to read, encounter in-game, and to inspire the creativity of other writers and game designers.

There’s a lot to do (see the ‘coherence list’ above), but I’m a pile of research and 10,000 words in, and still going strong. Unfortunately, I can’t reveal anything at this stage. Frontier will need to sign off on all my ideas and the guide, add more of their own magic, and even then details are likely to come out very slowly. For a long time the Thargoids have been a mystery, and that’s been part of their attraction. The ‘reveal’ is  likely to be a-bit-at-a-time. But, for me, being able to play a part in the unravelling of a 25+ year mystery is exciting and a real privilege. I’m very much hoping Frontier, and you, will like the outcome.

For now, here is a short extract (unofficial and unapproved) from the first draft of the forthcoming writers guide. No, it doesn’t contain any secrets, but I wanted to reassure everyone I have been doing something over the last few weeks.

MEETING THARGOIDS IN SPACE: Travel, Make New Friends, And Come Home in an Escape Pod

Space is a freezing cold vacuum, and anyone (human) caught outside unprotected would either explode, spraying blood and meaty organ-chunks through space, or instantly freeze solid into a mammalian space-popsicle.
However appealing these dramatic images of the dangers in space are, unfortunately they have nothing to do with actual physics. For the purposes of this guide we will assume that physics actually exists and allow it, and not our latent teen-imaginings, to steer this discourse. Although this guide is about Thargoids, it helps to understand the alien-ness of our insectoid friends if we compare them to ourselves.”

For now, I’ll be continuing with the guide and learning about Thargoids as I go so I can bring you a better story at the end. If anyone has any thoughts, feel free to share them below…

(Your comments are moderated before appearing, so don’t worry if they don’t come up straight away.)


First Encounters: Working with Frontier’s Indigenous Life Forms


Frontier Indigenous Life Forms (FILFs) about to be beamed to the cafeteria.

Frontier’s Indigenous Life Forms (FILFs) about to be beamed to their cafeteria. Another example of game developers working too hard and not eating properly. Their mums will have given them each a thick ear by Monday. They’re not wearing their vests either.

Over the last couple of weeks there has been a flurry of emails winging their way through the ether (sorry, that’s steampunk, wrong genre) discussing Out of the Darkness and how it fits into the Elite: Dangerous universe. One unforeseen, and very positive, outcome was that the lovely Frontier indigenous life forms (FILFs) have asked me to contribute some ideas for the game universe by compiling one of the E: D writer’s guides. Developers and writers will use the guides when creating content for the game and the fiction that goes with it. Of course, I jumped at the chance!

Being given the opportunity to work with these talented FILFs is a privilege, but I imagine you are sitting there thinking, Why should I care? Well, it was the ideas for the backstory and setting for the book that they liked which means I seem to be on the right track, and so you get a book you will, hopefully, enjoy. The guides also mean that the Elite game universe and its fiction will form a cohesive, well thought out whole.

With such a large community of developers and writers contributing, Elite: Dangerous should be an awesome game: an epic space action/adventure with a setting and backstory as deep as that of any novel, film, or roleplaying game.

Will doing the writer’s guide slow the writing of the book? Possibly, but not significantly. Also the time spent fleshing out the background to the story by doing the guide will result in a better book. We writers – puffed up with our own self-importance – like to call it research. Whether you call it that, or messing about thinking up cool stuff while seasoning it with a little pinch of science, it will be time well spent.

Oh, I didn’t mention what the guide was about, and so what’s in the story, did I? Thargoids.

I know that’s not much to go on, but I can tell you Frontier have some very cool plans ahead that they made me promise to keep schtum about for the time being. As I’m not entirely sure about the limits of their technology at The Towers, I will hold my peace rather than end up in pieces.

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick at

Progress Report: Medical Emergency Averted

The Tinginian Bloatworm

After a prolonged course of orifice evacuation with the distilled biofluids of the Tinginian Bloatworm, and the ingestion of some immuno-enhancing Cocoa Bars, I am gradually returning to a normal level of function. Although I’m still behind, I’ve managed to catch up with a few things:

  • The Backer’s Wall on the main website is complete. (Please feel free to contact me if there is a problem with your entry.)
  • The standard eBadge is now available for download. (Those in an eligible reward tier, please see your personal messages on the Kickstarter website for the link.)
  • I’ve redesigned this blog so it’s readable.
  • The executive backer eBadge design is nearly finished, as are the certificates. I hope to send these out before the end of January.

As for the writing, I came up with a background story arc that I could use as a setting for the book, but it turns out that Frontier has been thinking of using the same themes to develop the Elite: Dangerous game in the future. I have to see if I can get my ideas to gel with what Frontier are planning, which is what I’m going to do next.

Now I’m feeling vaguely human I can’t wait to get my imagination into gear. So, until next time, remember Commanders: a shiny undercarriage is a healthy undercarriage.

A New Strain of Ackanphi Plague: Current Inoculations Proving Ineffective.

This will  be  a brief post. By now I was hoping to have finished sending out everyone’s short-term rewards and have the website done. I wanted to turn my eyes to the stars and dream of things as yet unwritten…

Instead I’ve been laid out with the worst stomach flu I’ve had in years (now on Day 7 and showing no improvement so far). I will catch up with everything when I feel human again, assuming the pathogen isn’t sentient and this isn’t just the first stage in my loss of self-determination and the subsuming of my will to a virulent cellular consciousness.

Now you have read this post, please thoroughly wash your eyeballs and refrain from blinking in public for at least 48 hours.

Welcome to the “Out of the Darkness” News Blog

Welcome to a new blog, a new website, and the start of the long but exciting road to publication of Out of the Darkness, a gritty science fiction story set in the Elite: Dangerous game universe. Thanks to the generous backing of the Elite community on Kickstarter we achieved 122% funding: enough to buy the rights to set the story in the Elite universe and to make professional editing of the manuscript prior to publication a realistic possibility.

Thank you again to everyone for your backing and support of the project.

Where next?

Practically I have several things I want to achieve in the short-term:

  • Fulfill the short-term rewards I made to my Kickstarter backers.
  • Finish this blog and website (as part of the above).
  • Immerse myself in the Elite universe to gain inspiration for the story and to ensure it fits with how the universe has evolved from the earlier games.
  • Keep you updated with any significant developments or interesting facts on this blog. (I can’t promise these will be regular because the other goals are higher priority, but I will do what I can.)
  • Get uncontrollably excited about Elite all over again and bring that energy to my writing.

For now, I think that’s plenty to be going on with…

One last thing: if you are reading this and you haven’t yet checked out the Elite: Dangerous Kickstarter project, please do so… It’s your chance to get in at the ground level of the (re)making of a great game – one of the all time classics. There’s great rewards, a lively community, and the fun of getting involved, but you’ll have to be quick because the project ends on Friday, Jan. 4th, 2013. Just click on the golden logo to the right.