As I write, the oppressive heat and humidity of July in this city situated by a big lake has lifted momentarily – but a few days earlier as I tried to work on an outline for my novel – it was scorching. Inside my head, I was feverish – wrestling with choices for the direction my story was going to take. First I had to figure out my main character’s origins. If only it was so easy! I had a small reprieve from struggle when I visited my osteopath. He’s a gentle man who twists and bends my body like a pretzel and luckily has an office with air conditioning.
Like so many people who use a computer for a living, I’ve developed RSI aka Repetitive Strain Injury that gradually leaves my body as stiff and unyielding as a cement block. My shoulders and arms ache and tingle and the muscles in my back seize up. If I had the ability to unsnap certain parts of my body and replace them with spares – like a Lego model, it would be a relief. But unfortunately, I’m no cyborg or plastic brick so that’s just not going to happen.
Instead I lie on a massage table and endure being bent and pulled one way and the other. But that day, rather than concentrating on my body’s sensations, I decided to use that time to work out my writing problem. It was a little like astral projection. I rose out of my sore body and dropped into the futuristic world of my character and tried a few ideas out.
As I left my osteopath’s office, a blast of heat and humidity slapped me in the face the moment I was street level, but I was nonetheless feeling lighter in body and a bit lighter in spirit. I had managed to make a decision about my character’s origins and that was going to help where I take the story. Or where it takes me…
[As an aside – I urge all writers to get a good desk, chair, mouse – whatever will help your body from deteriorating and ensure it stays in top form. Ergonomics. Don’t just learn to spell it. You gotta consider it!]
The feeling of elation I had leaving my osteopath was fleeting once I got back to my desk at home. I started to feel overwhelmed about what I needed to accomplish – create an entire world. It’s daunting! So many decisions; so many possibilities. How do you decide? And everything I was brainstorming seemed insipid and cliché. And then I heard a ping on my phone…
The TIFF Bell Lightbox located in downtown Toronto was advertising Pop02, its second Virtual Reality (VR) event described on their website as “VR + Empathy + Real world storytelling”. The exhibit was 18 works that used VR – whether augmented reality, Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, or HTC Vive. The stories were a range of documentaries, animated films, and 3D projections of altered spaces.
I figured since I was having trouble building my own virtual reality for my novel that seeing what other artists were doing could jump-start my own creative engine. So off I went.
In addition to writing fiction, I’m also a filmmaker and have a great interest in new technologies to tell a story. In fact, one of my films Travels with My Brother, produced in 2008 explored how my autistic brother views the world around him. We used animation to explore his unique POV. Today if I produced a sequel – I’d probably use Virtual Reality technology to do it.
Only two hours were allotted to explore the exhibit so I decided on my top five choices and concentrated on lining up for those. Before entering the exhibit, I had to sign a waiver that I understood the hazards of Virtual Reality – including possible motion sickness and/or dizziness and ensuring that I was aware of my physical surroundings. That got me a little nervous since I suffer from motion sickness at the drop of a hat.
The first exhibit Never Forget: An Architecture of Memory used Oculus Rift and an X-Box controller to move through the world of a 93 year-old Dutch woman who had lived through WWII. As the Oculus Rift goggles were placed over my head I was unprepared for the dizzying effect of being transported into an alternate multimedia space. At one point, I looked over my shoulder and I was teetering at the edge of a precipice. My heart started thumping and I felt disorientated. I couldn’t tell what was real and what was not in that moment.
The second and third exhibits A History of Cuban Dance and the animated Colosse required goggles fitted with Samsung Gear VR. The goggles were heavy on my face but it was much easier to enter the worlds – even though the dipping down to black in A History of Cuban Dance between segments made me panic. I’ve always been extremely phobic of utter darkness. Not sure why… But it got me thinking perhaps VR would be a great way to help cure people of their phobias.
Much like the classic red Viewmaster we all had as kids or other stereoscopes (that date as far back as 1839) which allow the viewer to see images in 3D, Virtual Reality technology goes a step further in images that surround the viewer, putting them in the virtual space or in the case of the exhibit 3VR/ THREE²’ x ‘3P2 VR the user enters another realm while standing up and moving around.
This work used HTC Vive technology and headphones. The HTC goggles were the most comfortable I experienced since they had cushioning. This exhibit was where I felt the most transported into another space. Pixelated orbs and other shapes surrounded me as if in space and if I walked through certain orbs – I was transported into yet another space. The walking through motion dropped me into pitch blackness but because I was moving and using my entire body – I didn’t feel so panicked. It was surreal and beautiful.
The final exhibit I had time to see was in many ways the most simple but also among the most complex. Two OCAD University (Formerly Ontario College of Art & Design) students created The Lovely Room which they described as the abandoned underwater study of the late 19th century mathematician and programmer Ada Lovelace. Ada’s study was filled with real objects and drawings you could pick up and touch and a game of exploration played with a Samsung tablet.
I did feel like I was entering a real person’s study and every element of the room was visually stunning. I didn’t need to wear any sort of goggles or audio device and I certainly didn’t get dizzy!
I left the TIFF Lightbox energized. All the VR stories I experienced were inventive and it got me thinking that reading was in so many ways a virtual reality experience and because the imagination is fully engaged it’s extremely satisfying. It will be exiting to share my own virtual reality once I get this novel written.
The following day, I was back to my novel outline and found myself moving forward a bit more on crafting the world and my characters’ stories.
Now, not all writers start with an outline. Some simply launch into the story and work on plotting that way. But personally I’ve always found doing an outline is what feels right for me. Maybe it’s due to my TV and film background where beat sheets, outlines and story-boards are standard operating procedure.
Outlining her novels is something that best-selling author Marissa Meyer swears by. She’s the author of the Lunar Chronicles – a quartet of sci-fi YA novels inspired by fairy tales that I really enjoyed. I’m looking forward to her new series inspired by Alice in Wonderland.
Marissa doesn’t outline each and every scene but rather uses it as a launching pad to the first draft. In her blog article From Idea to Finished Step 2: The Outline she explains:
I know of writers who do write super intense, long, detailed outlines in which every question is answered, every plot hole filled. My outlines are a lot more sparse than that.
My goal with an outline is to make sure I have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that they all connect to each other in a somewhat logical way. I want to make sure that my stakes are increasing and that the story builds up to a satisfactory climax and resolution.
My outline for Heartless was only 3,000 words long, but it covered the major plot points and gave me an idea of how the story would connect from beginning to middle to end.
That’s all I’m going for!
Even through I won’t have all the questions answered, I trust that they will reveal themselves as I start to write. I also know that things always, always, always change when I launch into my first draft, and it doesn’t seem that any amount of plotting and outlining can keep that from happening. Characters will surprise you. Plot twists will catch you off-guard. That’s part of what makes it fun! So I’m happy to leave some space for the story to grow and change—it will regardless, so I might as well expect it from the beginning.
Marissa Meyer has got some great advice and writing tips for aspiring novelists on her blog.
As for me, I’m nowhere close to finishing my outline just yet. I have no doubt I will have more frustrating than satisfying days but world building isn’t done in a day.
I’ll get there. And that’s no virtual reality!
How do you approach world building for your writing? Do you outline or simple start writing? Please share your thoughts and advice!