This chapter is called ‘Traversing neurons’, or: How to disguise an infodump. It was an especially challenging chapter (I feel like I’m saying that a lot these days) because not only did it have to do a lot of heavy-lifting of the plot and backstory, it also had to depict a scenario unlike anything in the book thus far (other than, perhaps, some of Tarn’s dreams) without leaving the reader behind.
I reckon it’d be interesting to delve into the chapter’s development, so here goes…
Back in 2009, when I was finishing the first draft of these chapters, the narrative structure of the book was very different. Each ‘arc’ back then was told from a single narrator perspective. Arc 1 was 100% Tranton’s story, all the way up to when they leave Treydolain by caravan. It then switched to Kirya’s POV for a long while, all the way until they reached the northern mountains. Fenris then took over narrating duties, all the way through to the destruction of Aviar.
Only THEN did we get Tarn’s POV.
Based on what you’ve read of The Mechanical Crown, can you imagine the story working when told solely from those perspectives? No, me neither – that’s why I fundamentally altered how the story was structured for the version I’m currently publishing on Wattpad.
A consequence of Draft One’s approach was that we never saw Tarn’s escape from the machine rooms, at the time when it happened. In fact, Tarn didn’t enter the story until the end of the first arc, when Fenris essentially took Kirya to his Treydolain safe house, said “ta-da!” and revealed Tarn in a cage.
Yeah, I know. If I’ve got better as a writer, I feel like this is a good bit of evidence.
The curious thing is that Draft One still had a metaphysical exchange between Aera and Tarn, during the transferral process. The big difference is that I used this as an excuse to flashback to what had happened to TARN previously in the story, fleshing out his journey from machine room slave. This had all kinds of structural issues – for a start, the reader already knew most of this from his conversations with the others; also, that vagueness didn’t help readers to understand or empathise with his character.
Because all those events got told sequentially in Arc 1 of Draft Two, this chapter clearly needed a different approach.
Instead we have a remarkably similar structure, except this time we delve into Aera’s past and memories, with occasional interjections from her thoughts. The weird thing is that the Draft One chapter was similar in its presentation – but I hadn’t read that chapter in over 9 years, until preparing to write these notes. Clearly my writing brain still has some connections to how it was all those years ago.
(incidentally, it took me 8 years to write that first draft. Under my weekly regime of public drafting, I’ve got to this stage in The Mechanical Crown in about 2 years. Nice!)
Deciding to tell Aera’s story backwards – in fact, entirely in reverse – and from Tarn’s POV was qutie a tricky thing to figure out. I wanted it to feel weird, but not so weird as to be confusing and nonsensical.
Figuring out the tone and pace of the chapter took some doing. My odd reference point was the video game ‘Distance’, which is an experiential, cyber-metaphysical(sorta) racing game with an astonishing audio-visual design. An odd anchor, I know, but it helps me sometimes to have a tonal anchor decided up front, on a per-chapter basis.
I knew I wanted Aera to progress through a few different emotional states. And so jotted this down:
From here, I then worked out a bunch of notes and themes to explore in the chapter, which looked like this:
Aera blade runner speech
Aera tries to hide the truth from Tarn
At first we don’t know whose POV we have in the chapter
It shifts between the two of them distinctly
[redacted] visiting accidentally triggered the war?
Reskinning is destructive: like analogue copying a vHS
Finally, I produced a beat-by-beat pacing guide to the chapter. Usually I tend to only put these together for action-heavy chapers, when the precise positioning of players is critical. Here’s what I ended up with:
1. Darkness. No sense of self. (Tarn cocooned)
3. “Oh, what are you still doing here?”
4. Both incapacitated. Aera too weak to simply get rid of Tarn; instead thinks she might convince him to give up control
5. Slip backwards through time and space
6. Kirya’s attack: still unclear what happened?
7. Previous reskinning (not as nice as people think)
8. End of the last battle: lifting Aviar
9. The trick: when Aera was banished from the valley
10. The war of the elements
11. Tarn keeps pushing at the truth
12. Back further, before the War of the Elements: roaming the world
13. The other scientists, before they warred
14. Arriving [redacted], disoriented, thrown to different locations
15. The accident that led to [redacted]
16. Before: prepping the machine – last hope to end/win the war (in [redacted]). They were hoping it would [redcated] etc, instead it was a calamity and they were all [redacted]
And from there emerged the chapter itself. This is the onion skinning approach to planning I tend to take: I have a paragraph for each entire arc, that then gets broken down into a paragraph for each chapter within the currently active arc, and then sometimes each chapter gets broken down into a series of paragraphs, depending on complexity.
And there you have it. ‘Traversing neurons’. The chapter hopefully does three things at the same time:
1. Answers some long-unanswered questions.
2. Throws up a whole load of new ones.
3. Wraps it all up in a compelling, character-driven battle for Tarn’s soul.