New story: ‘Brain the size of a walnut’ + other writing gubbins

I’ve been more productive in 2015 than the previous couple of years put together. This may have something to do with my son being a couple of years older and thus my brain being slightly less frazzled.

Today I wrote a new short story, called ‘Brain the size of a walnut’. It’s about a sentient mouse. I’ve never written from the point of view of a mouse before.

This came about due to me stumbling across a science fiction contest on Wattpad. It only needed 800 words, which was a good job as the deadline is tomorrow, and gave a choice of opening lines. I opted for:

“My only chance of escape involved a small, dark tunnel guarded by…”

All the usual sci-fi devices popped into my head: a spaceship, a monster, a space monster, a robot, a killer robot, an assassin…a space assassin. Nothing quite worked, so I went with the next obvious choice: a cat.

Really, it was a means to an end. I didn’t want the tunnel to dictate the story or character, and a cat was a good way to just get it out the way. But that clearly got my brain whirring in a peculiar direction, leading me to the natural nemesis of a cat.

And thus Greg the hyper-intelligent mouse was born. I quite like Greg. Though this is probably the one and only time I’ll write about him. It’s perhaps the most overtly comedic story I’ve written, and is inherently very daft.

Also today…

I also wrote my first new screenplay for what seems like (and probably has been) years. It’s called A View From The Gallery and is a one location, one actor short film. It’s designed primarily to experiment with digital set extensions and lighting.

Not sure what I’ll do with it. It’s in the hands of the It’s A Trap chaps at the moment, so I’ll see what they reckon to it. Regardless, it was good to flex the script muscles again after so long, and having been focused on prose for most of the year.

Writing makes me happy. Who’da thunk it?

Creating the cover for A Day of Faces

Since April this year I’ve been writing a science fiction serial called A Day of Faces, which I’ve been publishing over on Wattpad. You can read it for free.

Much like a physical cover in a bookshop, the image representing your work on Wattpad is a big part of attracting the attention of readers. I wanted something that was intriguing but mostly abstract, and which tied in with the themes of the story without being too on the nose.

Hence this:

Flare

I’m not a designer, so it’s not the fanciest cover in the world, but I thought it might be interesting to show how I put it together. I actually used HitFilm 3 Pro for this particular image, which is designed primary for video projects but has a bunch of useful features for this kinda thing.

So the first step was to grab a 3D scan of a human head. There’s a bunch of free models available online which you can find with a quick Google.

It started off looking a bit like this:

Basic head

Adding a couple of lights reveals some additional details. I also deliberately went for a metallic blue specular highlight:
Basic lighting

Here’s the same model with the final lighting setup, which used a softer, more diffuse style. The main light was positioned above the head, resulting in shadows falling on the eyes and from the nose, with a soft fill light coming up from below:

Softer lighting

This head was duplicated multiple times. Lighting was disabled for the duplicates, such that the central head is the only one retaining full detail. The outer heads look more artificial and mannequin-like. The idea was the represent an anomaly among the population:

Multiple heads

The primary head was adjusted to be reflective, with a chrome-like appearance:

Reflection

The final step was to add some additional grading elements, first in the form of some volumetric light rays blooming out from the centre:

Rays

This was followed up with some anamorphic flaring, creating the vertical smears and a more atmospheric look:

Flare

And that’s how it was done. All entirely in HitFilm 3 Pro.

I’m taking a short break from ADoF but I’ll be back with the second story arc in August.

ADoF writing notes: Apex Predator

‘Apex Predator’ marks the big finale for the first ‘story arc’ of A Day of Faces. If this was a book, it’d be the end of part one. If it were a comic, this’d be volume one’s conclusion. If it were a TV show, this would be the final episode of the season.

Instead, it’s an online serial, so I’m not entirely sure of the terminology. Bear with me on that one.

There’s two things I want to reference here. The first is the computer game Deus Ex – the original, from way back in 2000 (or thereabouts). It was a sprawling epic, traversing multiple continents through a very twisty-turny plot. Crucially, though, by the time you got to the end of the game you could look back and see the incredible path you’ve been on, and marvel at just how much had changed. The journey itself made you catch your breath.

Deus Ex isn’t unique in that, obviously, but it’s a particularly acute example that’s always stuck with me. All good stories have a plot that goes somewhere or characters which change during the story. If you get to the end of something and everything feels very status quo still, it feels like you’ve been wasting your time.

Thus, hopefully by the time you get to the end of ‘Apex Predator’, and think back to what was happening in ‘Generation’ at the start of the series, it’ll feel like you and the characters have gone on a legit and unexpected adventure. That’s one feeling I wanted to invoke.

The other one is exemplified by the conclusion to season 1 of the 90s TV show Babylon 5. In that episode, ‘Chrysalis’, the show completely pulls out the rug, redefining itself in the process. It’s not just an exciting finale, with everything back to normal by the start of season 2. It has proper ramifications, and things are never the same again. You have a sense that things will be different from now onwards.

‘Apex Predator’ should have that feeling in spades, if I’ve done my job right.

If you’ve been reading A Day of Faces and have made it this far, or have just been reading these blog posts, then many thanks. This experiment of writing a weekly serial has been really thrilling, and I hope the results are worth your reading time.

I’m going to take a short break before returning with the second story arc. I still intend to post behind-the-scenes stuff, though, so keep an eye on the blog.

Thanks!

ADoF wrtiting notes: Lineage

After ‘Infection’s stealthy, heist-like shenanigans, ‘Lineage’ turns things up to 11 with a full-on shoot-out.

Something that’s become a bit of a stylistic theme of A Day of Faces is having little mini time-jumps between each chapter, so that the cliffhanger from the previous installment doesn’t get immediately resolved. It’s usually a chance to inject a bit of Kay’s personality into the narrative, or some additional detail which would otherwise get run over by the plot.

Hence we don’t see how they all got back together, or how Kay and Marv managed to get up the remaining floors and up into the Aviary itself. That stuff might have been pretty cool, but it would also have just been a continuation of ‘Infection’s action sequence, without really adding anything new into the mix. Better to skip forwards to when something interesting is happening, and infer what came in-between.

Something I was acutely aware of by now is that there’s a number of unanswered questions, with more coming in every episode. Hopefully I’m doing it in a way which is fun and intriguing, rather than drawn-out and frustrating. Time will tell.

The big entrance at the end fairly obviously links back to the character of Holt from ‘Interlude #1’. Originally this would have been Holt’s first appearance, as ‘Interlude #1’ was a last minute addition to the story, providing a diversion into stuff that isn’t going to resolve itself for a while. It changes the entrance of the scarred man in ‘Lineage’ from being completely out-of-the-blue into something more intriguing – it’s still not entirely clear where the characters from ‘Interlude #1’ fit in, but the puzzle’s starting to reveal itself.

That’s the idea, anyway.

Soundtrack: Repeating myself, but you can’t beat the Matrix scores for writing this kinda stuff.

ADoF writing notes: Infection

Although there’ve been a couple of action-ish moments in previous chapters – the glimpsing of the rooftop fight, and Cal’s unfortunate encounter with Kay’s dad – those have been either mostly off-screen or somewhat blundering and accidental. ‘Infection’ marks the first bona fide, full-on action sequence.

Action sequences are a lot of fun to write.

I suspect I find them a little too much fun, and probably get rather carried away. The main challenge is to not just turn it into a visual description, at which point it’s more like a movie synopsis. I don’t find that prose fiction makes for a particularly natural home for action, honestly – visual mediums are far better suited.

So with ‘Infection’ I knew it had to have some kind of decent structure, and that it had to have hooks back into the characters so that it (hopefully) had some kind of resonance.

The other thing to remember is that for Marv and Kay, this is not normal. Cal’s led a pretty extreme life, but otherwise everyone in A Day of Faces lives fairly mundane lives. That’s kinda the point. I didn’t want them to suddenly turn into superheroes.

That said, the setting does give me some license to have fun. When you have a reptilian protagonist with venomous fangs, that’s fairly inevitable. Undercutting everything is a vein of self-deprecating humour, especially on the part of Kay, which I hope keeps things light without short-circuiting the drama.

Anyway. We’re nearly there. Two episodes to go. Gulp.

Soundtrack: Went back to the Matrix scores for the first time in about 10 years. I’d forgotten how good they are, and how apt for a heist/infiltration scenario like ‘Infection’.

ADoF writing notes: Vision

This is one of those chessboard chapters, by which I mean it’s all about positioning the pieces just right. It’s setting up the series finale, which inherently involves a bit of exposition. The trick, therefore, is to do it in a way which is hopefully interesting and justifiable, without resorting to “As you know, Bob,” style clumsiness.

One way to sidestep that is to grab every opportunity possible to surround the exposition with authentic character reactions. Therefore we get to see Kay, Marv and Cal responding to the dialogue and events. The idea is to prevent the dialogue from simply being plot, and make sure it is working on other levels as well.

The big thing in ‘Vision’ is the introduction of spectres. I’d like to say that they were in the plan right from the start but, really – they popped into my head during the writing of this chapter. Or, at least, the specifics: natural camouflage was always going to be a theme in the story at some point. As with the other powers, though, it’s about exploring the practical consequences of these conditions, rather than simply presenting them as ‘powers’.

Invisible babies being lost? Genuinely freaks me out. Both this concept and a lot of the stuff in ‘Interlude #1’ have a lot of ‘me’ in them compared to the rest of the story.

Anyway, I kinda want to do a flashback episode set entirely during the time when spectres were common. Hmm.

Soundtrack: Deus Ex Human Revolution score, because it’s the sound of change.

ADoF writing notes: Adaptation

The previous chapter was called interlude but actually raised a whole bunch of questions. This chapter acts as more of a natural pause, following on from the events of Nurture but taking a deep breath before diving into the final episodes of this first series.

I’ve always rather liked cliffhangers which are resolved in slightly non-linear ways. It’s very easy to have a 1960s Batman-style “how will they escape!?” ending, followed up by a direct answering of that question. But I’ve always felt that makes the cliffhanger feel rather artificial, such that it may as well have not been there at all.

Instead, it’s far more interesting to jump time, or perspective, or something, so that the reader has a moment of dislocation, whereby they’re not immediately sure what happened after the cliffhanger. That’s what Adaptation is all about, as well serving as a slight return to the very first chapter.

Of course, what this is also doing is delivering a bit of background exposition via the convenient professor character. Not subtle, but hey. It had to go somewhere.

Sountrack: The Portal 2 soundtrack. Quirky, weird, experimental. Hopefully a bit like this story.