From dream to release date – writing Higher Ground
It all started with a dream.
Back in I think 2009 I had a rather vivid dream, which involved me and other people climbing up hills, to rising sea water. This appeared to be in San Francisco, as I looked back to see the top bits of the Golden Gate bridge still just visible out of the water.
Next day I wrote some notes down, thinking it seemed like an interesting idea, to maybe put a group of characters together, and have them cope with having to climb away from rising water. I imagined what kinds of incidents they could have. It was an idea that appealed to me, since I like a story where characters have to cope with a disaster and pull together to survive. I like to see the characters tested, and grow; finding potential in themselves they didn’t know was there. That’s why I like books like The Stand and The Day of the Triffids and movies like 28 Days Later, or TV shows like Lost. They all influenced me to explore my own take on these themes.
In fact Lost later freaked me out when, after the draft of Higher Ground was written, the final episodes included bits of the island starting to sink down into the sea, making me shout “No, don’t do that!” at the TV, fearing too much similarity. Fortunately that was only a small part of that story. Phew!
NaNoWriMo 2010 approached and I started brainstorming on a few ideas. I wanted a science fiction m/m romance idea of course, and one of the bunnies I worked on was this “climbing away from rising water” idea. I figured the story could centre on a couple brought together by a disaster, and how their relationship unfolds under this extreme pressure. I started to work with the idea that the relationship that might have otherwise been quite conventional is forced into a kind of fast forward mode, taking them on an express ride through phases of a relationship that would otherwise have taken them weeks and months to work through. So that gave me a structure to the love story, as well as the obvious structure of the background story that the love story is playing out against. It came together quite easily.
For the characters, well going on the idea that I wanted to explore the way characters are tested in the situation, and have to come together to succeed, I found I wanted to have two guys who were relatively young and untested in life, and who would become a team as much as they’d be a couple. To that end I wanted them to be very much equals, so there’s no one guy “in charge” of the team or the relationship. So I kept them of around the same age, both at similar stages in their careers, intellectual near-equals. And I didn’t want either to be the alpha hero who would naturally take charge of the group. They do take charge of the group, but I didn’t want that to be something that comes naturally to either of them. That’s all part of the testing! They’re both “beta” heroes for sure. Perhaps they’re on a journey to become alpha heroes, or at least beta + heroes. I’ll talk more about beta heroes next week!
I chose this story out of the others I was considering, as it was the one really speaking to me. The characters had started to come to life in my mind. I chose the names – which is always a big deal for me, being slightly name obsessed. I wavered for a while between Zack and Zach, before going for the version with an H. It’s softer somehow, suiting a beta hero, where Zack is for an alpha for sure. Of course, I ended up regretting choosing a name starting with Z, as shift and Z can be quite awkward to type!
It was a smooth ride through NaNoWriMo. I followed the outline without much deviation and finished the story at 72 thousand words, inside November. I think a story like that suited NaNo rather well. The plot has that inevitable progression to it – the characters have to keep moving or they’ll die. The water will keep coming. Just like the NaNo novelist has to keep writing as the deadline gets closer all the time and word count debt will drag you down.
After I finished it, it went away for a rest for a while. I worked on editing Stowaway and I wrote another draft, then went back to Higher Ground and edited it. Meanwhile Stowaway sold and I was doing publisher edits on that. I finished the edit of Higher Ground and submitted it to my editor at Loose Id around the time Stowaway came out.
It was rejected.
However, it wasn’t one of those “and the horse you rode in on” rejections. It was a Revise & Resubmit rejection, with notes as to what they’d like to see changed if they were to reconsider it. It would have been easy to be lazy and just send it as is elsewhere. But I liked working with Loose Id and I trusted my editor to know what she was talking about. The main change to make was to extend the start of the story and as soon as I read the email I started getting ideas for that. So I decided to go for it and spent the next few weeks working on that, ending up adding about 15,000 words to the start of the story, and made other changes.
I sent it back in and this time – yes- it sold! Phew! So it was definitely worth taking the time to make those changes. The story is better for them. And I now know that I have to watch myself for starting stories too late (I had to add some scenes to the start of Liar’s Waltz too.) Very useful.
So I had a contract and an alarmingly close release date making me nervous – especially with Christmas right in the middle of the time my editor and me would have for making edits. They came a bit closer together than before. But we made it through them with plenty of time to go, and now release date rapidly approaches!
Things I never planned and only afterwards realised I’d done – Time. At the start of the story the time of day it is matters and the people in the story are as concerned with it as most of us are. There are many references to what time it is. By the second half of the story onwards there are barely any, or at least no more fine-grained that “day” and “night. I didn’t consciously do this, it’s something I’ve noticed after the fact and realised fits perfectly.
Things I changed – there was going to be a character called Sam in the story. Until it occurred to me that a guy called Sam climbing a mountain had been done before! I didn’t want to look like I was making a deliberate reference to Samwise Gamgee, especially as this Sam isn’t anything like as heroic as that Sam.
So it’s been a combination of a smooth and bumpy ride with this story, but it will be out there soon and I can’t wait for people to read it.
Want to read an excerpt? Check out Chapter 1 here!