The following article was written by author Tom Julian. Thanks for the advice Tom!
There comes a time in every novelist’s journey when he starts to feel that the ladder he is building to the sky may not have all the nuts and bolts. That what he’s stepping on rung by rung might collapse. I was there in a bad way during the writing of my first book, Timberwolf. I came to a point when I looked at my pages and I didn’t really have an idea of how to get from where I was, to where I needed to be. Let me explain.
Timberwolf is a big story, it’s got a lot of action, moving parts, motivations and important relationships. It also started as a screenplay and after shopping it around for a while, it became clear that it was better suited to be a novel. The story was just a little too involved for the medium of film. I had my screenplay, which I used as the framework, but I quickly figured out that I was not looking at a copy and paste and color-in-the-edges job. I was writing entirely new stuff. Whole other characters and relationships emerged. Different, and more fleshed out motivations guided the action. This was challenging, but it was all going well until I got to Golgotha.
In the original screenplay, Golgotha is a planet that has about two minutes of screen-time, in which the titular Timberwolf does not even appear. The antagonist, Emmanuel Gray goes down to the lawless, backwater planet to hire mercenaries after his original crew gets their asses handed to them by Timberwolf in a fantastic battle aboard a crumbling space station. I cannot stress “fantastic battle” here enough. You really need to check that out. Golgotha is named after the biblical “place of the skull” on which Christ was crucified. Of course I’m going to have writer’s block here.
Timberwolf can be described as Apocalypse Now + Aliens + Wizard of Oz. Yes – it’s as awesome as it sounds, and it’s available on Amazon.
Timberwolf Velez – agent of the Department of Peace Enforcement – must stop his former mentor Emmanuel Gray from restating an interstellar war.
For my novel, there were just too many threads missing. In the screenplay, I used movie writing tricks to just have Timberwolf doing something else important while Gray went down to Golgotha and was able to gloss over the place. At first I wrote it fairly close to the screenplay but it felt like there was a giant hole. It was like the antagonist and the protagonist retreated to their separate corners to prepare for the next round. But my characters and the style of my book were nothing like that. They don’t rest and recover. They go after each others’ throats until they literally can’t go any more. What I wrote felt by-the-numbers and like I was checking off a box. “Yeah, Gray hires a bunch of Mercs. Glad that’s out of the way.” I knew the place was important. There was gold down on Golgotha and i needed to figure out what it was.
One huge piece of advice to writers suffering from the block – If you need to figure out where your story is going, ask what the current situation means for your characters. Science-Fiction should not just be a series of set pieces and alien encounters. Remember, there’s a “fiction” part of it to. That means your characters can feel and do things, have relationships and act like people (or aliens if that’s your bag). Part of the key to this was making Golgotha personal for Timberwolf, so I made it his home planet. It fit. He’s rough, Golgotha is rough. He seemed like a natural extension of the place. But what do I do with that? I didn’t know what it meant. I was still mentally constipated.
I am lucky not to experience writers block very often and this was writers block on steroids. On top of not knowing where my story was supposed to go, I was having some anxiety about this whole “writing a novel thing.” If I didn’t beat this, it might break me. So I did what a writer does. I wrote… yeah that probably sounds stupid, but I wrote material that I had no intention of putting in to the book. I wrote with no prose, no artistry, no dialogue, no real direction. I just wrote in search of answers, engaging in some typing therapy that would hopefully wring my story out.
What was Timberwolf’s childhood like? What made Golgotha such a lousy place? Why did he leave? What were his parents like? Did he have a brother or a sister? What’s it like growing up in a small colony where everyone knows each other?
I needed to know this character better and know the world he came from. I ended up with about 8 pages of single-typed, run-on sentences. It saved my ass. And the Golgotha stuff is frankly my favorite part of the book.
Beyond showing me the way to write out of my current predicament, it helped me flesh out the world of Timberwolf. Here’s a little summary of the background I created via this exercise.
The Awesome Stuff
- Human colony worlds are low-population, closed systems with frontier justice. For the most part, people can’t leave and when violence happens, things can quickly spin out of control with people taking revenge on one another. Ongoing feuds are common. Things quickly escalate. A bar fight can lead to retribution and then to murder and then to extended families or groups taking up arms against each other.
- Timberwolf Velez’s family had come to Golgotha to work on the terraforming tower. A nuclear accident at the second tower had stunted the project, leaving 100,000 people maintaining one massive tower, and the other expansion towers unstarted. All the residents are clumped together in ramshackle housing made from old shipping containers (like double-wide trailers) because the o2 zone only exists at the base of the tower.
- Timberwolf had a brother (Relaund), a dad and a mom. His mother could never get used to the low o2 and began taking “relief drops” (AKA opium) sold by the Racker family – the local mob. She died of an overdose and Timberwolf’s dad had to raise Timberwolf and Relaund himself. Relaund was a “Tower Hound” – a construction worker who maintained the tower – and a brawler. Wanting to buy his family off Golgotha, he robbed two Racker couriers. Before the family could flee though, Relaund is beaten almost to death by the Rackers and is paralyzed.
- Timberwolf’s dad is a drinker and is shooting his mouth off at Leedy’s bar, talking about taking a gun down to the Racker place. The Rackers hear this and kill him in front of his house. Timberwolf finds his dad in the street and realizes that the Rackers will probably be looking to get him next and eliminate the chance of retribution. His dad was a blowhard, but he really did have a gun. As most of the Racker gunmen come out after him, Timberwolf (only 18 at the time) sneaks in to the Racker compound and kills the family patriarch, Penn Racker and several of his Lieutenants.
- As he’s coming out of the compound, the head of Golgotha security, Heelo Tembe captures him. Heelo was an old friend of Timberwolf’s dad who had found a much better fortune on Golgotha – and he’s not above wetting his beak. With the Rackers out of the picture, Heelo sees an opportunity to take over their elicit drug business, thanks to Timberwolf. He shuffles Timberwolf off Golgotha with just the clothes on his back and enlists him in the Assault Corps. The stipulation is that Timberwolf can never set foot on Golgotha again, or his paralyzed brother will be killed.
So I had much higher stakes now and some really personal connections (or disconnections) from Golgotha. Instead of just some random depot, it became a test of Timberwolf’s will. Does he have the drive to follow Gray here and stop him? Is it worth sacrificing his brother’s life to prevent Gray from capturing Highland? It gave me a chance to take away all of Timberwolf’s technology – his rig of fighting armor, his sub-light connection to his handlers – and force him to survive by his wits and his fists. It also lead to the creation of one of my favorite all-time paragraphs ever…
Timberwolf covered himself with a sheet and leaped to the porthole. Below was the gray and brown landscape of the world he grew up on. A sorry, downtrodden place so many had come to help build, only to work themselves to the bone for pennies. A place of ramshackle, double-wide cargo-container domiciles. Cheap hooch brewed in leftover coolant tanks. Barefoot kids running up and down unpaved streets as sharply dressed bosses with fancy breathers ignored them. It was the one place in the universe he’d swore he’d never come back to. “That’s Golgotha alright. I can piss on my house from here.”
I like that. You like that? Let me know if you have any questions in the comments. ; )
Written by Tom Julian.
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P.S. Timberwolf has a giant psychic alien spider stuck in his head. I really should have mentioned that before.