Monday, October 2, 2017

Rocktober: The Hanging Gardens Of Hell

What I would come to name The Hanging Gardens of Hell coalesced into a story around a year ago from loose elements hanging around my notes. I combined these elements with a setting I'd created at the end of 2014, hoping to create a story that would introduce that setting and its characters. Last February I started a novella, running completely out of energy after around 11,000 words when my outline stopped supporting me. Ideally I should have re-outlined and continued. We'll see if I can pick up better habits this time.

In this post I'll summarize the story as I have planned it so far. Later posts will get into the outlining and restructuring process.

The Series
What started as a plan for a no-frills high fantasy has bloated and expanded into an epic journey across a continent many times larger than Earth, and I've accommodated that muse as well as I can. I plan to write several novels, novellas, and shorts in this setting, with loose continuity and recurring characters. Here's the basic summary:

There was a nation high in a gold-sand desert, called Laure. They sent exploration parties in the four directions, seeking the ocean that according to their ancestors binds the continents. The party sent west found the way hard and turned around, but some of their number took a half-dozen vehicles and mutinied, intent to find the ocean or perish on the wayside.

Our hero is Henri, who in his time in the militia contracted a rare disease that gradually turns him invisible to sunlight. He expects to die before they find the ocean. He rides with Emeraude, who they recovered from stasis in an ancient tomb. There are other Laurians and guests who will have recurring roles, but not in this story.

The Characters
Young explorer, was a desert prospector when recruited for the expedition and a soldier before that. Wants to travel as far as possible before his illness catches up with him. At this point in the story he cannot see any sunlight but is not yet invisible in it.

Was a friendly bandit in her time, long, long ago before man tamed machines. A wicked king placed her in a gallery of his enemies doomed to spend eternity in stasis and never see him in the afterlife; Henri and his friends rescued her, and she sees the expedition as a new lease on life. Wants to see as many things as possible and not feel as pressured as when she wanted to save the world.

The Yarowe, dwellers in the dead cities.
They escaped to this land when the ground in their eastern ancestral homeland turned to stone, built a strong nation, and lost it all in a war with the Tandan. Their life cycle does not have a gradual puberty like most humans; children around the age of 10 enter a stage of precociality where they grow slowly, have an eidetic memory, and are almost completely uncreative and unemotional. Around the age of 16 they hit a growth spurt where they finish all their physical growth in a month and enter a state of rapid-fire waking dreaming. If they are not restrained in this state they are very likely to suicide, and even if they do survive they will be physically and emotionally stunted.

Nang, a precocial.
She is our heroes' first contact with the Yarowe, tending Henri's wounds after an attack by a giant stray hog. Her specialty is maps, keeping contact with what few other survivor groups remain and memorizing the patterns of Tandan flyovers.

Brai. Nang's brother-in-law.
He overcame stunting during his growth spurt to become de facto leader of this survivor group, and is excited to meet travelers from another part of the world. Mourns his wife, Nang's sister.

The Tandan, the invaders.
Formerly bred as food animals by their now-extinct masters. They are determined to never be slaves again, or have neighbors with any chance of making them slaves. They do not consider any atrocity they can commit to be as evil as what was once done to them.

A Tandan captain sent to perform the ritual of reconciliation.

The Story
Henri and Em have rode far ahead of the expedition, mapping the way across a petrified moor. They find the empty cities of a haunted land, killed off only a few years previous, where the ghosts of the fallen saturate the airwaves. In a city built over a bottomless pit they meet Nang, a strange, precocious girl, who leads them to her band of survivors. They learn that these people are distant cousins of a country far to the east, and implore our heroes to contact them and beg for aid.

They successfully contact their base camp to relay the message, but Nang enters a lifecycle stage unique to that people, where she undergoes a month of fast growth and intense psychosis before reaching adulthood and is restrained and force-fed. While our heroes help tend her, trying to grasp this situation, commandos from the nation that killed the cities arrive and take them all hostage. Their colonization efforts are hampered by the radio noise of the ghosts, and they've found a ritual to placate war dead: the ghosts will be forced into a scapegoat animal, which will be hunted by men of both sides of the conflict.

The survivors reluctantly participate, unsure if such a faithless ritual could be effective, but the massed malice of the fallen overpowers them, and the hog used as a scapegoat escapes into the vast ancient factory complex in the bottomless pit - accompanied by Nang, who the invaders, disgusted by this reminder of their enslaved past, have released.

The combined party follows the hog through a dark underworld where plant life has adapted to grow towards the infrared light rising from the pit. Their newly awakened lust for revenge overcomes their desire for survival and they turn on their captors while they're battling with abyssal monsters. The demon-hog is attracted by these emotions and arrives to gobble them all up, but is stopped by the arrival in turn of Nang, who now bears with her all the love and goodwill of the war dead. The hog runs headlong into the abyss and the battle is over.

On their return to the surface they find that the survivors' long-lost cousins have arrived in great nuclear-powered bombers to punish the invaders with nuclear fire. Our heroes translate for their joyous reunion, and on the arrival of the remainder of their expedition continue together to the west.

What I'm Trying To Do Here

I've got a number of plot threads and character motivations loosely woven through this. It's a dark story with a high bodycount, and not just in the backstory, but I wanted to give it a clear moral direction, let there be good guys, and let the good guys win. Some of the foreshadowing and callbacks were deliberately planned, other parts came together beautifully with hardly any concentration on my part.

I want to give Henri a chance to be a hero, to push him to his limits. I want to show Emeraude bringing out her talents, helping strangers with her mystic knowledge, and I want to let both of them geek out about first contact. I want to show a stage in their relationship where they're just starting to function well as a team, learning to implicitly rely on each other, and I want to show how lonely and exciting their journey is.

I want to tell the story of the Yarowe's epic journey across the petrified land, and to communicate how dearly they hold it and why they would refuse to leave it in the face of death. I want to show Brai holding together the survivors through sheer willpower, to show how his grief for his wife runs through him like hot lead and how his sister-in-law's quiet, emotionless presence complicates that. I want to show how this disaster has brought the survivors together, how the moment of truth is welcomed for those in trials, and to tell their story of holding on and fighting back in a city of graves. I want to show the suffering of the Yarowe youth and the glory each adult feels for having borne it.

I want to tell the story of the Tandan and show how their selfishness in the cause of familial love has led to tragedy for others and ultimately for themselves. I want to paint Ferez as a tragic hero, a champion of his kind in his way trying to redeem them.

I want readers to feel the wind in their face, feel their hackles rise when a ghost is near, feel the warmth and love of the survivors' bunker. I want them to be afraid of the dark beneath the city, to be awed and saddened and relieved by the false dawn that ends the story, to fall in love with all of the characters but especially Henri and Emeraude, as they'll be in future installments. I want to show them as they see each other...

But I'm still not sure what that is. There are a number of issues with my outline as it stands, especially around the climax. Bringing all of the story threads together will take something extra, something I haven't figured out yet. I've been adding and removing details in times of quiet contemplation and focused planning, tweaking themes and placing ideas, and this month I hope to develop a self-contained, satisfactory story that combines all of these threads.

In the next post I'll show my latest outline and discuss the issues with it.

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