Saturday, 10 May 2008

Creating SM4200

In response to a comment from Ledde, who asked how I go about outlining monster chapters, I thought it might be more interesting to go through the whole process of how SM4200 has come to be. (Then again, it might not. Well, you're under no obligation to read it.)

This will be a fairly monster post, so be warned.

So. SM4200 wasn't my first Sailor Moon fanfic. That honour went to Recessional, which was also my first fanfic of any kind. I still have a soft spot for it. But after Recessional I started writing Ranma stories, with some success, and I was perfectly happy in that territory for a while.

At the same time, though, I had an interesting idea, the same on that's at the top of the home page: What if Crystal Tokyo didn't last nearly as long as everyone seems to think? What if it isn't the happily-ever-after point? What if it all comes down around their ears—and a lot sooner than they think? What if, in the far future, everything has to start all over again?

I toyed with the idea for a while. I was working on another fanfic at the time (Autumn and Spring), but it stayed at the back of my mind and I worked with it a little. Pretty quickly, I decided that the cast would be a mixture of old and new characters. A few of the regulars would have survived, but most of them would be new faces. It was an interesting idea, and one that I hadn't seen before, so I hoped it would be fresh.

I don't remember how or when I decided who would have survived and who would be new. I took it as a given that Moon herself would be a new face, though, and I don't think I ever even considered replacing Pluto. I do remember deciding that I should have one original cat and one new one, and thinking that the new one should be very young and inexperienced. That being the case, I thought that a young and inexperienced female cat might be more fun to write than a male one, and that's the entire reason why Luna died and Artemis got to live.

(Bendis was one of the few cases where I actually researched an appropriate name for a character. Mostly I just used a big list of Japanese names that I have; and in fact that's still where I get my character names from. But for Bendis I knew I needed a "moon" name. Bendis was a Thracian or Phoenician moon goddess, and was associated by the Greeks with Artemis, so I thought that seemed appropriate. In the first few chapters I kept sprinkling lines about "what kind of name is Bendis?" in the hope that someone would ask me, so I could appear well-educated. But nobody ever did. ^_^)

At around this stage, I actually went and wrote the Prelude. I started it in script format. Yes, seriously. This was because my previous fanfic project had been fairly moody and angsty, and I thought SM4200 should be a bit more light-hearted. (Yeah, that lasted.) It's pretty hard to get very moody in script format, and this was at a time where a lot of fan fiction was still appearing in script format anyway, so I thought I'd give it a try.

I've never posted that initial script version publicly, but if you really want, you can read it here (text) or here (HTML). I got half-way through the prelude and realised that the format just wasn't gelling for me; so I gave up and switched to prose, and finished that fairly easily. I posted it on the FFML, which, if you haven't met it, is the best fanfic mailing list on the globe. It attracted a grand total of zero comments, so I went away and wrote a sequel to Autumn and Spring instead.

I still planned to continue SM4200, and I started making notes on names, characters, and so forth. I knew who the big enemy was, and more or less how the good guys would win, and I had a vague idea of the general setting of the story, the city of Third Tokyo, and why it was the way it was. All the cars were electric, for example, because this was just after a new Dark Age, and the world of 4200 had little easy access to oil reserves, most of them having tapped in the 20th and 21st centuries. And so forth.

I started building a World Guide, with the names and a few character notes on all the new senshi, including the ones who still haven't turned up yet. Many of the original concepts for the senshi changed beyond recognition, later; for example, I didn't have the idea that Suzue should be a member of the church of Serenity until I was writing chapter 6.

At work one day, I thought that I really ought to have a rough outline of the whole story, because you can foreshadow events a lot better if you know they'll be coming up in a few chapters. Also, Rei is psychic and I wanted to give her occasional visions of the future.

So I started by deciding how long I thought the story should be. 26 chapters (to match a full "season") seemed a bit long, and in the end I thought 21 sounded about right. Then I simply got a sheet of paper, wrote down the numbers 1 to 21 down the side, and started sketching in events. Just the very big ones to start with, because those were all I really knew at this stage. There needed to be a climactic battle at the end, of course. I knew that I'd be introducing senshi in a different order, and I thought it might be interesting to not introduce Sailor Moon herself until half-way through, so I pencilled that in at chapter 12. Then I put down the introductions of the other senshi, almost at random, in the earlier chapters, so that Moon would actually be nearly the last one to appear. I decided that the story of the Fall would be told in chapter 9, and that Miyo was going to get thrown out by her parents when they found out she was a senshi. (I think I was somewhat influenced by LeVar Bouyer's story Mizuno the Senshi, in which Ami gets thrown out by her mother; but I may be misremembering that.) And so forth. It really didn't take all that long before I had a few sentences—all I really needed, at this stage—on each chapter.

And then I started writing.

Later on, I expanded the outline, of course, and I've continued to do so. The current working outline is a 59K file, filled with not only a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of events, but also containing a big section with notes on why certain characters behave the way they do, and bits of dialogue and lists of scenes that I want to work into the story sometime, and so forth. It all remains a work in progress, and gets updated regularly. Likewise, the World Guide file continues to be developed, as does the Who's Who and the Timeline. (The latter two are also published as appendices 3 and 4 on the SM4200 home page. Except that the published timeline is only an extract from my working document, whereas the published Who's Who actually is my working document.)

Naturally, that original outline is out-of-date now; but less than you might think. It only ever listed two or three key events per chapter, and I've seldom had to reshuffle those. The most prominent example, perhaps, was that originally Sailor Venus was going to have another crime-fighting scene in chapter 4, which I scrapped; and the training session in chapter 10 was originally pencilled down for chapter 9, but got moved when chapter 9 became so enormous.

Let me give you an example or two. Here's the original outline for chapters 12 and 13:

Chapter 12

Mark asks Miyo out.

Itsuko returns to Olympus by night, to transfer the Sacred Flame (and maybe to get her henshin stick, which she still has even if she can’t use it). Masao’s team are waiting for her. She’s captured. (Masao very dubious about capturing a Senshi, especially one of Serenity’s Senshi.)

The other Senshi realise Itsuko is gone, and rush to Olympus.

Battle begins at the Olympus. Sailor Moon appears.

Chapter 13

Conclusion of battle. Tuxedo Mask appears to help out.

Escape from the Olympus. Preservation of the Sacred Fire.

Aftermath of battle: evidence found that some special equipment used to ‘S’ forces were made by ‘M’ Division. Quick (unexpected) raid planned.

Raid on ‘M’ Division. Dhiti meets M. M escapes from ‘M’ Division.

Obviously that changed a little. Mark never asked Miyo out, for example; their relationship had long ago become more complex than that. (I'm not sure if those two will ever get together or not, at this stage. We'll see.)

But here's my current outline of chapter 13—slightly edited to remove spoilers, and omitting a couple of bits that got moved to chapter 14 when I realised that the whole chapter 13 would take place over the course of a single night.

Chapter 13: "The Face of the Enemy"

Conclusion of battle.
DURING FIGHT: Miyo wakes up.
Hiiro tells her to keep down, he'll protect her.
Miyo: Damn you, I'm a warrior. I don't need protecting, I need to fight!

Ghost of Serenity speaks with each senshi, and with Itsuko.

Escape from the Olympus. Preservation of the Sacred Fire.

Moon unmasked as Ochiyo. NB: She has a FULL moon on her forehead, not a CRESCENT.

Aftermath of battle: they were fighting Council people. (Miyo finally remembers where she's seen Lady Blue: on TV.) Final definite realisation that the Council is their enemy. Evidence found that some special equipment used by 'S' forces were made by 'M' Division. OR: The phoney "Sankaku" meeting on chapter 10 tips them off that 'M' Division are involved. Quick (unexpected) raid planned.

When Mars tries her Burning Mandala, with plenty of heat to amplify, NO EFFECT!

Raid on 'M' Division. Dhiti meets M. M escapes from 'M' Division.

Ochiyo to Dhiti: "Aha! You're the Masked Avenger!"

Number Twelve to Chairman: The Master was hard-pressed. Half-asleep, it was difficult to control so many vitrimorphs. And that box -- the blocker effect [rename this!] that severed the Senshi's powers -- hurt the Master too. You're to see that 'M' Division stops any further research on the device!
(Oh really? Chairman makes a mental note.)

The night after meeting Serenity, each new (ie, not reincarnated) senshi meets her predecessor in a dream: Suzue with Haruka, Beth with Minako, etc.
Haruka: So, you're my successor? [...] Where's your sword? [...] That sword is your birthright. If you're truly Sailor Uranus, look for it ... within yourself.

As you can see, a few things still got changed. But this is what I started with, back when I began to write the chapter.


Writing a Chapter

My actual writing process goes like this:

All my writing is done in plain text, using a Macintosh application called BBEdit. I start with a new blank text file, and paste the outline text in. This gives me the key events that need to happen. From this, I make a list of major scenes.

Then I start inserting extra scenes. There are a lot of running subplots in SM4200 that never actually appear in the main outline at all. I actually have a separate file of plot threads that need to be resolved sometime; it's depressingly large—over 2000 words. (For example, one entry is about "Seki and her new black-market contact, Gensai Eri." I've no idea how that's going to turn out, but I'll find out sooner or later.) So I add scenes that are needed to continue subplots from the previous chapter.

I also sometimes add scenes simply as character filler—scenes that may not add anything to the plot, but which keep the character "alive". If, for example, I notice that Beth hasn't really appeared much or done anything significant for a while, I might add a short scene with her doing something prosaic, and no doubt musing on current events. This can be a good way to start a new chapter, because it helps to fill the reader in, and gets things warmed up a little. It is, in fact, how chapter 14 opens, at least in the current draft.

(Actually, it's surprising how often those filler scenes end up being significant after all, and sparking off new subplots. That certainly happened in the chapter 14 scene…as you'll see, in due course.)

As I outline the chapter, I'm filling out each scene, adding notes on points that should be covered, or little bits of dialogue that occur to me. After a while, I have a list of scenes in the chapter, each ranging from a single sentence (e.g. "Iku at home") up to several paragraphs.

Then I start writing them. I work very sequentially; scenes get written one at a time, in order. I almost never start work on a later scene when earlier ones haven't been finished; it makes me feel quite uncomfortable.

For each scene, I start inserting text at the beginning of the text, leaving the scene outline alone to start with. As each plot point gets covered, it gets deleted; so the chapter outline gradually gets shorter as the chapter itself increases.

The outline still isn't set in stone; from time to time, I add scenes if they seem necessary. Also, since I'm working sequentially, all my writing tends to be toward the end of the file; and thus, when I open it, it's quickest to scroll to the bottom and then page up to the point where I'm currently working. This means that I'm seeing, at least briefly, the entire outline for the rest of the chapter, every time I open the file; and that in turn keeps the remaining scenes fresh in my mind, so I often end up adding to them. The outline therefore tends to get more and more detailed as the chapter gets longer. At this stage, for example, I have seven major scenes left to write in chapter 14 (one of them partially complete); but the outline for those scenes is nearly 7000 words!

I break the chapter into "major" scenes, by the way, each of which is broken into one or more "minor" scenes. The difference is that a "major" scene ends when there's a significant break in time or location, or at least when the present action is clearly complete. A "minor" scene break is where the basic action of the scene continues, but I'm shifting to a different character viewpoint, or doing something else that seems to need a stronger break than simply starting a new paragraph. Major scenes are separated by lines of asterisks in the text version of the story, or by full-width horizontal lines in HTML; minor scenes are separated by a "--**--" marker in text, or by a shorter horizontal line in HTML.

And that's it. That's pretty much how I work. Sound kind of prosaic, all laid out like that; but of course it leaves out the really fun part of the process: namely, trying to make the characters live.

It's also more than enough for a single post, I think! I hope it was at least of some interest to, er, someone.