While excavating the drawers of my former desk, I came across a bunch of development sketches for Thinker Traitor Soldier Spectre (TTSS), my Mass Effect novel from 2019. It’s mostly maps and scenography plans.
Here’s an evolution of the overall itinerary:
One of the major challenges while I wrote this was to establish (for myself) and impart (to the reader) a passable sense of space and time. How far from one scene to the other? How long does it take to cross 5 km of jungle? Is 20 km enough for the flora and fauna to change perceptibly? Being anything but an outdoorsy type myself, I don’t have a lot of personal experience to go on and the decisions I made were largely arbitrary/intuitive.
This was also a challenge because I wasn’t overly invested in the worldbuilding. I only came up with names for a few places and skipped naming everything that could possibly be skipped. I had no special concepts for the alien plants or wildlife and the few examples where they interfere with the plot and characters are nearly random. Conjuring sensory details (what might it look/smell/taste/feel like?) was a struggle and a pain past the obvious discomforts of sweating in the humid heat, getting annoyed by insects and tiring more rapidly in an elevated gravity setting.
I remember having way too much trouble imagining that the river flows in the indicated direction, and that the sunset, which gets relatively little screen-time in the text but figured quite prominently in my mind when I imagined Nihlus’s conversation with the squad, was to the left of the village. It was on the right side in my mind’s eye, but that doesn’t match some other geographical hints with wider impact that I wouldn’t change just to fit the whims of this one scene. It was incredibly difficult to re-orient it. Even today, when I imagine that bit with Nihlus, Theeka and Lantar just before Okeer drops on their heads, I see the setting sun shining from the east.
Now it occurs to me that I could’ve set the scene at sunrise instead; but as the last leg of Nihlus’s troubled army service, it seemed appropriate to cast it at dusk.
And here’s a sketch of the combat scene in House in an Invictus Jungle:
This scene/chapter took a lot of planning, designing and redesigning, with at least 3 or 4 major versions that I still remember as distinct, and countless rewrites — yet even my best sketch has the east and the west mixed up. It takes a special brand of confused to make that mistake moments after drawing the compass rose half an inch away!
Compass issues aside, House in an Invictus Jungle went through so many changes because it’s the resolution (or immediately leads to the resolution) of several subplots so that almost every change in previous chapters propagated to this one. But unlike the muddy middle, the finale always had a clear direction and a relatively small number of things it needed to achieve, so this chapter was fun writing and revising, and remains one of my favorites.