Writing the Future

The challenge:

A current, almost-completed, piece of writing (due for publication as an ebook in April 2016) is set in the year 2097.

This was a deliberate dual challenge to myself. Previous ebooks have been set in the present and have adult narrators. This next one was to be from the perspective of a teenage girl and set in the future.

There are several common devices for writing about the future;

  • Set it in another, totally separate world – so the future there has no connection with the present of this world
  • Set it so far in the future that there are no realistic links back
  • Set it in the future but near enough for extrapolations to be made from life today – often for one aspect, eg genetic engineering, whilst many other things remain relatively unchanged from today
  • Build it on some basic worldview eg dystopia or utopia, as an extension of current social trends (eg. an elite in their fortified/gated community surrounded by inner-city collapse)

‘The future’ may itself be a device, using the future to comment on the present; stretching things of today to make a point. Did 1984 seem that far in the future when it was written in1949? When that date was reached, and surpassed, there were a number of articles comparing the ‘future’ of the fictional world with ‘now’ of the real one. Was it about the issues emerging in the post-war society: was it read as a novel of the future or a novel of the day?

 

The criteria:

The ebook I am writing has had to meet a number of self-imposed criteria:

  1. Everything had to be grounded in some actual development or piece of research that is available now as an innovation that can realistically be put into practice on a large scale.
  2. Whilst there would be uncertainty about the direction this future society might take, there was to be nothing that would strike today’s reader as fantastic and implausible.
  3. It would be based on predictions about the infrastructures within the society of 2097 but, just as importantly, it would also be about the inner world of people: their thoughts, hopes, ambitions and ideals.
  4. The characters in the book would need to act out their lives within the constraints of the imagined future, but that imagining should not clutter things with so many predicted things that the characters have no room to breathe.
  5. It would need a style of writing that let the predictions about the future play out within a strong storyline. It was not to read like a storified textbook guide to the future.
  6. It would need to be a story that worked (at least to a fair degree) for different readers across genders, across cultures, and (to some extent) across ages.

The writing and editing decisions

  1. Point of View:

Who was telling the story and from what perspective? Having got a basic idea of the main character – a teenage girl – there were finer details to be decided. Was the girl a 12 year old or an 18 year old? Which age would give the better characteristics to get a good fit with the story?

Was it imagined that 12-15 year old girls were all pretty much the same; or having a wide range of potentials as a character? Were 12-15 year olds going to be pretty much the same in 2097 as now; or was the future teenager going to be very different in outlook and interests?

I settled on a first-person approach, telling things directly as seen and imagined by the young woman. This would give a sense of immediacy, allowing the possibility for a sense of a special relationship built up between the character and the reader. It would limit me to only writing what that one character knew but this could be an advantage if I was wanting to create partial understandings or outright misunderstandings. It would suit a work that might have some puzzles, mysteries, things to be delved into in the ways that a bright 12-15 year old might do.

  1. Place:

When deciding where to set the plot there are some set-piece options: eg the open-ness of a story ranging across several cities; or the closed world of an isolated country house or small cut-off village. I decided on a small-area setting – a newly-developed neighbourhood or small town – but one that was connected outwards rather than being inward-looking. I wanted to get the sense of close-knit contacts in a small community that also had a strong sense of there being an Outside, an Elsewhere, an Other.

I would attempt to avoid lengthy descriptions of Place. The storylines would keep revisiting some salient points – hooks to help the reader to keep re-orientated around a few fixed beacons: a line of houses, a pattern of connecting streets, a corner café, a barrier, and so on.

Any place has its own histories. So do the characters, within that shifting location. There would need to be a credible logic for any changes that had taken place. How did society get from its form today to its form in 2097? What had happened to people and places across those years?

At the same time as writing this ebook I was writing a couple of connected articles to go on my www.thewordsthething.org.uk website. One was about the identity of individuals and the other was about the identity of places. The thinking from my last-published ebook (about five different men) and the thinking as I wrote the current book (about several characters in their 2097 setting) fed into these articles.

  1. Plotting and planning:

This piece of writing was not over-planned. I had the criteria above. I had my main character, which suggested 5-8 supporting characters being her family and friends. I had a list of research themes that I wanted to weave seamlessly into the narratives. The main events and the ending emerged as the writing took shape. Certainly, the storylines and the ending were unknown at the beginning – and even at the halfway mark things were still a bit hazy. The narrative arc shaped itself as it built up a certain momentum. Things were open-textured and it took a bit of revisiting sections and filling-in gaps – all the time trying to avoid the patchiness and the clunkiness that might emerge from that.

  1. How far in the future could I realistically go: Why 2097??

I didn’t want to write a future-fantasy. I didn’t want things to be so far in the future that it anything could happen. Nor did I want it to be so near-future that it became a simple extension of now. I settled on 2097 through a bit of mentally going backwards and forwards across time until I had something that seemed to work for what I wanted to write. 2097 is almost eighty years in the future. Going back eighty years takes us to the mid-1930s. Anyone from then time-travelling to 2016 would recognise the town, the style of housing, the road layout, the local beat policeman, the food, the markets and shops etc. At the same time the familiar would be unfamiliar: Chugging steam trains becoming high-speed electric ones; the few squarish cars on the road having been replaced by traffic jams of sleeker models; rare sightings of rickety aeroplanes, for the use of a few, replaced by jet-engined huge planes for use by many; occasional valve radios with a few programmes replaced by ubiquitous radios sets with an endless supply of 24-hour broadcasting; coin-operated phones in boxes at the end of the street replaced by several handsets in the house that can be simply picked up and used. Some things would be absolutely novel: computers, internet, mobile phones, helicopters, medical services, and so on.

That world, of the 1930s, did not seem sufficiently different for my purposes. The time gap was maybe too short for my leap into the future. The world, however, is not developing at a linear speed. It is accelerating. The rate of development of the next eighty years will have been equivalent to the development over the past 150 years or so. So we need to go back not to the 1930s for a comparator but to somewhere around 1860-1870: the time of the industrial revolution when many industrial towns were being built. A visitor from them, popping up in 2016, would be in a society in many different ways but with lines of sight back to the past of the mid C19th. That is the sort of known/unknown distance I wanted to work with. Eighty years in the future (at a faster and faster rate of change) might just do it. 2097 it was.

  1. What might change, and how?

A strong aspect to the writing was my own background first as a scientist and then as a sociologist. Early on in the writing I had my list of aspects that I wanted to project forward in order to create a believable setting for the future, with each one having a credible thread back to real trends and discoveries of today.

To me every aspect was a puzzle, a challenge, an intellectual exercise. What would today’s emerging activities most likely lead to as things began to unfurl into that future?

What would the eighty years of double-speed change mean, at the local level, for housing; food; fuel; family structure; finance and money; work; communication; technologies; clothing and fashion; shopping; medicines, health and well-being; transport; crime and social control; education and learning; or governance and community decision-making?

What would the wider structural changes be in terms of global warming; air pollution; viruses and plagues; weather patterns; politics; national and international relations; cities; wilderness spaces?

 

So, what now?

The text is 90-95% finished. The remaining work, before it can be uploaded as an ebook, is mostly editing (which may involve some minor rewriting of sections).

The text has been deliberately put aside for a couple of months. Some describe this as letting the text stew for a while, as if it does something, unseen, to itself during that period. The change, really, is in me. It gives time for some distance to be put between myself and the text. Having been closely entangled in the detail of the text for a long time, I can now return to it with fresh eyes and a fresh brain. I might see things differently. Things that are wrong, and that I could no longer see before, might now leap out at me.

I have set myself a one month deadline.

During that time there will be a spell-and-grammar check using the facility within Word software.

There will be an edit for continuity: making sure that no characters have suddenly changed names (Was it consistently Gramp or Gramps or Grandad? Was it Granny or Nanny throughout?); making sure that no character has simply disappeared or mysteriously come back to life again having already been killed off; making sure that events have not got out of sequence with any cutting-and-pasting I may have done.

There will be a separate edit for ‘flow’, removing any clumsiness. Then a final read-through, probably out loud to myself. Then a final spellcheck and a final, final overall read-through.

The cover is already done, in my chosen house-style (which may not be to everyone’s taste but is the style I have chosen). There will be a bit of blurb to write to accompany the book.

Then, and only then, will it be anywhere close to being ready for putting in the format for publishing.

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Filed under a selection of ebooks, My approach to writing

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