Writing an online serial which gets published weekly, as it is written, is closer to creating a television show, or an on-running comic, than it is to writing a novel. Each chapter commits me further down a particular path, and there’s no going back to revise or fix things. That also means that if I want the story to resonate over a long period of time, I need to make sure that elements are seeded way up front in order for them to pay off down the line.
Given that I write and publish a chapter every week, and given that we’re now on chapter 98, that means that I’ve been writing for 22 months – or exactly 2 years. There are things referenced in this chapter – the character of Fiffdee, for example – which were planted in the story right back at the start. There was no direct requirement for Tarn to have a ‘friend’ down in the machine rooms (in fact, it might have been dramatically more satisfying at the time to have him be a complete loner) but I knew it would be relevant and resonate later on in the story. Fiffdee created an anchor for Tarn, so that there was an element of the machine rooms he was still linked to, rather than them being only a place to escape from. There’s countless examples of that kind of thing throughout The Mechanical Crown, where elements pay off over a long period – some of those elements were planned out from the start, others have evolved over time to be something different to their original intent, and some are merely fortuitous accidents.
My specific reference point, from a storytelling structure point of view, is Babylon 5. Of course. I mean, for me, it always comes back to Babylon 5 sooner or later. B5 was a show in the mid-90s which upended how television worked, demonstrating that you could tell long-form stories rather than one-off, isolated episodic television. Anytime you watch tightly structured, forward-moving shows these days, the DNA can be traced back to Babylon 5. We take that form of television storytelling for granted now, but B5 was the first to do it properly. Back at the time, outside of mini-series, the most any other show – in any genre – was attempting with regards to longer form storytelling was with occasional 2-parters.
In Babylon 5, an element could be introduced in season 1 which wouldn’t pay off until season 3. This was unheard of back then and still doesn’t happen much these days. Shows now are either shorter and very tight and single-plotted, like Netflix and Amazon shows, or they’re based on novels with pre-existing plots, like Game of Thrones.
My goal with The Mechanical Crown was to create that kind of complex web, which is immensely satisfying for readers who have been around from the beginning. It’s a bit of a brain-melt for me, but it’s rewarding when it works – and, so far, it seems to be.