When We Left Earth

It seems I’ve arrived once more at the decision I seem to face every few months or so.

For those who’ve only recently begun following my endeavors, allow me to provide some background.  It’s a popular fact that virtually every science fiction writer has, somewhere in his repertoire, one story that holds a special place in his heart: a story that represents his honest idea of how the future will look.  For me, that story takes the form of a planned series of novels, collectively titled When We Left Earth.

It’s almost hard to believe, looking back now, that the entire series began with a story that, according to my current plans, would become one of the final installments of the series (assuming it even makes it in at all).  The genesis of the series, so to speak, began with a story that served as a commentary on the modern struggle between religion (notably ultraconservative Christianity) and science.  Over time, as I’ve grown older, more pragmatic (and perhaps more tactful), I’ve cooled somewhat on the original idea.  However, in the interest of providing a rich backstory, I began writing pages of lore notes for the original story.  And it was there, in notes originally intended simply to detail how mankind got to that point, where I found far more compelling material.

Over time, the story unfolded seamlessly, stretching back centuries, and it seemed the further back in time I went, the more interesting I felt the story was.  With each new chapter of this fictional history, my initial story installment was pushed further and further back, until at last I reach what I felt to be a good starting point: a story titled simply The Colony, set in the early 22nd century, nearly 150 years prior to my original concept.  It was there that I first began to breathe life into the story: historic events and figures became plot points and characters.  I believed I’d found a launching point that would work.

Thus, my earliest attempt at writing a novel came when I set myself to writing The Colony.  I managed roughly a page or so, and what little I wrote was disappointing, to say the least.  Looking back, perhaps I was too bogged down in knowing everything that was to happen after the initial story.  My scope was too wide, I was too caught up in the details and trying to steer the story exactly where I wanted it to go, rather than allowing it to develop organically.  In any event, eventually I grew deeply frustrated, and abandoned the story.  After some intense soul-searching, I decided to revisit some of my other story ideas, eventually coming across the notes for what would become Wide Horizon.  The rest, safe to say, is history now.

Through two years writing Wide Horizon, however, I never stopped thinking about When We Left Earth.  I felt then, as now, that this was a story that needed to be told.  As such, when I finally completed Wide Horizon, I was excited to get back to the story that started it all.  Still, the frustration I experienced during my initial pass at The Colony remained fresh in my mind.  I felt my writing would benefit from a new approach, and I found it buried in my background notes.

The first several installments of When We Left Earth form a single story arc, dealing with the earliest human space colonists, collectively known as the Pioneers.  Successive arcs will chronicle their initial planetfall on distant worlds, their efforts to survive, tame and eventually develop said worlds, their struggle for freedom from the rest of mankind, and their eventual acceptance (mostly) of the value of human unity.  Through it all, the story revolves around one man: Randall Holmes.  Originally conceived of as a historic figure in my background notes, the more I wrote about him the more I was taken with this eccentric, revolutionary figure.  For me, it was a watershed moment: I’d found my protagonist.

Eventually, the story came to follow the exploits of a reluctant hero: a dynamic character who began as a somewhat bitter naturalist and developed slowly into a revolutionary and a military leader, eventually becoming little more than a resented relic of a bygone era.  It was a beautiful tragedy, a commentary on the nature of development in human society.  But every story has to start somewhere, and eventually I decided that Randall Holmes started out as an astronaut.

By the time I’d completed the first draft of Wide Horizon, Holmes’s background story was a series of vague notes regarding his experiences spending several years stranded on an alien planet, which I’d earmarked as the potential plot for a prequel novel which may or may not be written.  Perhaps it was because I’d spent so much time out in space, in the distant future with Wide Horizon, but upon setting myself to When We Left Earth yet again, I found Holmes’s backstory intriguing, and decided that would be the best place to begin.

When I began writing the resulting story, Pathfinder, things went well…at first.  Yet once again I got bogged down, once again I felt the story grew hollow, and when I attempted to inject some of the more free-form writing approach I’d used in Wide Horizon to let the story develop organically, instead I found myself wandering off into countless dull side stories, few of which had any real point to make.  Once again I grew frustrated, and soon I found myself spinning out into various side projects once more, even considering writing a sequel to Wide Horizon.  In the end, however, I found fresh inspiration in the most unlikely of places: The Colony.

While I’d found the story tedious and frustrating years earlier, after putting some solid experience under my belt I found it almost comforting.  After slogging through pages of notes and actual writing that mixed contemporary space missions with the complex geopolitics of a united Earth, I enjoyed the original story’s simplicity: a small cast of characters, a story taking place on an uncharted world far from Earth.  This was something familiar.  This was something I could do.

Since that point, I’ve found myself bouncing between the two stories, torn between the allure of writing a more intimate story with a better-defined plot and characters and the sense of obligation to start at the beginning.  I feel Pathfinder is progressing, but amidst work and the tedium of readying Wide Horizon for publication, progress has been slow.  What’s more, I feel the urge to actually write something.  Simply churning out further pages of notes on a story without writing it leaves me feeling idle, as though I’m simply spinning my wheels and not going anywhere.  Thus, it seems every few months I gravitate from one story back to the other, left once again with the question of which I should write first.

Recently, however, I’ve started wondering just how important it is to simply focus on one of these two stories.  After all, both are part of the same overall story arc.  One cannot happen without the other, and in writing both simultaneously I may find that each serves to inform and improve the other.  Frank Herbert famously stated that, at various times, he was writing Dune and its first two sequels simultaneously, and if my prior experience is any indication, at some point in all of this I will inevitably take off with one of the two stories and plow through to the end.

To that end, over the past few days I’ve decided that, for the moment, I’m going to stop fighting the urge to work on one or the other, instead considering the entire series my current work-in-progress, at least for the time being.  Writing is work, yes, but as a creative endeavor it should carry an element of fun.  It’s my experience that a story written reluctantly will be no more enjoyable for those reading it than it was for the one writing it.  Since completing Wide Horizon, I feel I’ve lost sight of the simple fact that writing is supposed to be enjoyable.  I’ve tried to make it work: to focus entirely on one project, no matter how hard it is, no matter how little I’m enjoying it.

We’ll see how this new approach pans out for me, but right now I feel as though a weight has been lifted from my shoulders.  If nothing else, this approach leaves me with both a project I can research and one I can sit down and actually write, and that certainly feels liberating. – MK

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