Writing chapter 60: Senescence

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I’m heavily influenced by J Michael Straczynski’s writing. His 90s show Babylon 5 was formative for me in more ways than one, as has been much of his subsequent comics writing.

‘Senescence’ is riffing on two specific JMS endings: the bittersweet feel of B5’s Sleeping In Light and the story of Jason Miller in Rising Stars. In the latter case he’s a figure who goes to extraordinary lengths to make amends and change the world with serious personal consequences, and that was a feeling I wanted to capture at the end of Cal’s character arc.

I had a weird plot hole in this chapter when I wrote the first draft, as I opened it with Kay riding the lift up to the World’s Council building and being greeted by Cal at the top. It was presented as if this was the first time they’d seen each other in years – until I remembered that the only way Kay could have got to Red is by being taken by Cal. Sometimes made-up pseudo-science can get a bit knotty, or interfere with the dramatic intent, but it’s critical to define rules for your magic systems, otherwise the story becomes meaningless.

This chapter flashes forwards several years, so that we can see some of the consequences of what’s happened in the main story. It’s not a huge distance into the future, so it doesn’t wrap everything up neatly, but it’s enough to get a sense of things. The trick then was to deliver the information about what’s been happening without it feeling like an infodump. Hence it’s all wrapped around Kay and Cal meeting each other for the first time in a while (which in itself tells a story), giving them the opportunity to react off each piece of information just as the reader is doing. It then becomes more about their emotional reactions to events rather than the events themselves.

There was a lot to squeeze in. What Kay and Cal have been doing, of course, drives the chapter. But it was important to get Marv and Furey into it, as well. Wynton Simons, too, as he’d played an important role in the story in the first two arcs.

Aside from the character developments, there was also the shift in relations between Locque and Earth, and acknowledging that peace and progress is inconceivably hard and needs to be worked at constantly. Leading up to her big speech outside the Aviary, Kay was imagining that it would either go horribly wrong, with everyone dead or in prison, or it’d work and be an overnight transformation of society. The reality is that there’s no such clear cut lines in politics, and that it was going to be a long, drawn-out, hugely complex process, compounded by how each of the parties demonised the others.

While writing this chapter Brexit happened in the UK, with the referendum resulting in a tiny majority wanting to leave the EU. That drama continues to play out as I write this, but this chapter is definitely influenced by those real-world events, hanging off some of the prejudices and challenges that emerged.

Ultimately, A Day of Faces is about how two people react to the world they’re in. Kay never intended to influence anything and ends up changing multiple worlds, hopefully for the better. Cal has been driven by rage and revenge almost his whole life, having never had a place he could call home. In a direct attempt to change his world, he failed to create a home, but he did in turn inspire others – and they rose above him and found a greater purpose than his more selfish anger.

Kay never wanted power, which is why she’s the best candidate for the job. She’s tired and would rather go lie in bed all day, but that’s not going to stop her from doing everything she can to make the world a better place.

A Day of Faces was a complete experiment on my part, being the first time I’ve tried serialisation – let alone ‘live’ serialisation where I’m publishing as I’m writing. Writing the final words of the final chapter was a very strange feeling. What to do with my Mondays now?

I have several other stories bubbling in the pot, though I’m not yet sure which one I’m going to pull out and develop. I’ll definitely be serialising something new pretty soon but I’m going to focus on getting Arc 4 out as an ebook, and then potentially a print edition of the entire A Day of Faces story. That’d be a satisfying way to finish.

Thanks for reading, all.

Writing chapter 59: Transfiguration

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That opening chapter is ADoF at its most meta. I knew going in that this was the penultimate chapter of the book and could feel the pressure of all the previous chapters. Fumble the ending and you can mess up everything that came before.

This is Kay’s tipping point moment. It’s when the groundwork they’ve spent so long laying finally pays off. It’s a very deliberate choice that everything goes down in a peaceful manner. This is an intellectual and experiential revolution, with Kay outlining her view and story, then Cal providing the proof. The social momentum she’s built throughout Arc 4 carries the idea forwards with such force that there’s no stopping it.

The finale wasn’t always this way. Here’s how the final season was originally described in my early notes:

War to reclaim both dimensions. Spreads into other dimensions. Cal gains total power.

After Kay’s return to Locque, the concept was that the rebel forces on both worlds would be strengthened, with Furey’s lot on Earth striking at the same time as Kay’s on Locque. The conflict would have spilled across multiple dimensions, getting wildly out of control, before being reigned in by Cal.

In Conscience Cal loses his ability to change forms, reducing and focusing his powers. Again, this was vastly different in the early concepts. Check out this line in the early plot document:

By end of series Cal can access millions of universes, becomes practically omnipresent (mind link with all the others?). At first, he can only access a few.

Cal was to have some kind of apotheosis moment, very much becoming ‘The One’ and gaining awareness and dominion across space and time. Or something. I never fully fleshed it out as I moved away from that direction as Arcs 2 and 3 came into being.

Ultimately, I didn’t want A Day of Faces to be about a super-powered god being saving the day and ruling the universe in a benevolent dictatorship. That’s what 15 year old me would have gone for, I expect. Instead, I wanted it to be about Kay, a normal girl, and the difference she was able to effect.

It makes for a smaller ending but one which is more personal, more approachable and more relatable. It’s less bombastic but, then, we see and read Big Bombastic Endings all the damn time.

As more readers flow through to the end of the book I’ll be intrigued to find out if they found it satisfying, or would have preferred something more grandiose.

Writing chapter 58: Vertigo

And we’re back on Locque. One regret I have in ADoF is that the story whisked us away from Locque, thereby reducing the time we had to explore its culture, society and people. Arc 4 brought us back to the world, very deliberately, but it was in some ways too late – with Kay already deep in her mission, there’s no space in which to experience ‘normal Locque’.

This is something I think is really important in adventure fiction, and which often gets forgotten in on-going series. It’s critical to retain the links to the ‘real world’ (whatever that may be, in the context of the story), as it’s that which gives context to everything else going on.

If James Bond movies only exist in the spy world, it’s just a bunch of homicidal, paranoid men attacking each other. It’s his tourist brochure sojourns into interesting cities and countries that make everything else worthwhile (well, sometimes). The first Matrix film goes to great lengths to establish the ‘real world’, which is largely like a dour version of ours, and it’s the juxtaposition between the real world and the real world that makes the story interesting. The sequels use the Matrix itself only as window dressing for big fight sequences, losing that frame of reference and, consequently, a lot of the audience’s empathy. The Blade films follow a similar path, becoming increasingly obsessed with the night world of vampires. The Marvel movies started off firmly entrenched in the real world, but have become increasingly obsessed with the superhero, rather than the people they’re meant to be saving.

A lot of those were movie references. Apologies. I think this is something which adversely affects cinema and TV more than literature, where plots are perhaps given a bit more time to breathe.

What this really means, I think, is that I wish Arc 1 had been a bit longer and a bit slower, giving us more time to get to know Kay before everything hit the fan.

Writing chapter 57: Psyche

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Here we have a character who suffers a terrible handicap, leaving him with only a single superpower. I thought this would make for an interesting theme to explore: that of focusing on what you’ve lost, rather than on what you still have.

More time gets spent this chapter on the long-overdue confrontation between Kay and Cal. Ever since hints started to get dropped about Cal manipulating Kay and Marv the story has been building up to this moment. The obvious raute would have been a big fight, or at least a highly charged confrontation, with lots of suppressed thoughts bubbling to the surface. It’d start with Kay or Marv raising the subject and forcing Cal to tell the awkward truth.

Instead, it’s Cal who brings it up, and it all goes down in a changed context. Cal isn’t the unstoppable force he once was, and his admitting past behaviour makes him almost pitiable. He’s the revolutionary who had no friends or comrades and had to rely on manipulation to get support.

What this chapter really does is solidify the relationship between Cal and Kay, making it abundantly clear that the power arrangement has shifted. Where Kay was once the wide-eyed teenager, she’s now the one with a plan, and her own code, and the drive. More than anything, A Day of Faces has been about her becoming a leader.

The interesting thing about Arc 4, from my perspective, is that it’s been much more focused thematically. That’s a side effect of the serialised nature of the writing and publishing – I’ve been finding my way with the book as I’ve gone along.

Writing chapter 56: Conscience

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There’s all sorts of slightly peculiar stuff going on in this chapter. It starts with what seems like a good ol’ ADoF action sequence – perhaps even the logical climax to the Cal and Holt fight that we were denied previously – and instead transitions into a bit of speculative sci-fi world building as we witness how Red handles crime, and then we get to witness the wonders of super advanced medical technology.

It’s meant to be a bit breathless, a bit discombobulating, and slightly out of control. Throughout the chapter it should have a serious feeling of oh shit, and an uncertainty of exactly how bad all this is going to get. It’s an attempt to capture that frenzied period between something bad happening and whatever the resolution turns out to be.

What this chapter actually ends up being about is Cal losing his ability to shift form. That has always been what’s defined the story, dimension-hopping aside. It’s Cal’s ability to change form which triggers Kay’s adventure in the first place, and which has kept the Powers That Be in such a panic. Of course, he retains his core dimension-hopping ability, so it’s not like I’m tearing up what A Day of Faces is about, but it’s still an important moment.

The reason it comes here is twofold. The first is that it raises the stakes, and makes us realise that we’re bearing down on the climax. It’s a signal that this story is not going to be going on for much longer, and that we’re not messing around anymore. Secondly, it focuses the themes and the plot: it’s me making it quite clear that this story is not going to culminate in an all-out action finale with Cal transforming into all kinds of forms and kicking ass. That time has come and gone. The finale is going to be about something else.

Signposting this kind of thing ahead of time feels like an important move. Arcs 1, 2 and (to a lesser extent) 3 all ended with a bang, so it’d be reasonable to expect an action-based finale the whole book. Not doing that is completely fine, unless everybody is expecting it – because that would be a fast route to disappointment.

Whether this tactic worked or not I have no idea, of course…

Writing chapter 55: Cancer

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This entire chapter is one of exhilaration and reckless optimism, building on Kay and Cal’s incursion into the Aviary at the end of the previous. Here they make their boldest play yet, and get away with it. What they’re not ready for is a problem from their past, one which they’d unwisely forgotten about.

A reader commented on Holt after finishing the Arc 3 ebook: “As much as Holt’s mind may have been expanded by his recent travels, surely he’ll revert to type at the first opportunity.” Well, ‘Cancer’ is where Holt doesn’t fail to disappoint – he’s deliberately emblematic of a particular mindset and generation; one which refuses to reconsider, and which dismisses out of hand any evidence which counters their existing world view.

A Day of Faces is, ultimately, a work of optimism and humanism. Holt exists as a character to offer a counterpoint, and a vision of the realities we have to face when we try to act in a progressive, compassionate manner. He’s the voice of reactionary, hateful people. He represents all those who value themselves over others, and who fear anybody who doesn’t fit their ideal.

The end of this chapter is what happens when we stop paying attention, or when we take things for granted. When we live in a civil society, tolerance never comes free and it’s never easy. It has to be fought for, and guarded. No matter how much progress civilisation makes over the centuries, there will always be Holts, and we need to always be ready.

But that’s OK. Because there will always be Kays, too.