Gareth L. Powell: Five Things I Learned Writing Hive Monkey
With a barrel-full of trouble and a chamber-full of attitude, charismatic but dangerous former Spitfire pilot Ack-Ack Macaque has gone into hiding, working as a pilot on a world-circling nuclear-powered Zeppelin. But when the cabin of one of his passengers is invaded by the passenger’s own dying doppelganger, our hirsute hero finds himself thrust into another race to save the world – this time from an aggressive hive mind, time-hopping saboteurs, and an army of homicidal Neanderthal assassins!
1. WRITING SEQUELS IS FUN
I had a blast writing Ack-Ack Macaque (Solaris Books 2013). It was a such a lot of fun to write that I was truly sorry to finish it. However, that sorrow quickly turned to delight when Solaris commissioned a sequel, and I was given the chance to step back into the world I’d created. I’d spent so much time in the heads of the main characters that coming back to them felt like meeting up with old friends. I knew them, and I already knew how they’d react in any given situation. All I had to do was drop them into the midst of a new plot and watch them fight their way out again. Sometimes you hear people say that a book “almost wrote itself”; I wouldn’t go that far – I worked damn hard on this book – but I can understand what they mean. The characters were so well established that sometimes, I felt almost as if they were with me, acting out the story while I took notes.
2. WRITING SEQUELS IS HARD
To pick up on the “I worked damn hard on this book” comment above: while the characters and their world were ready and waiting, the first challenge I found was coming up with a plot worthy of the first book, which had already received some stunning reviews. Somehow, I needed to stay true to the spirit of that first book, while simultaneously taking everything up a couple of notches.
Casting around for inspiration, I tried to come up with a list of sequels that were better than their original. I started with The Empire Strikes Back, of course, and Godfather 2; then I ran into trouble. Personally, I’ve always preferred Aliens to Alien, but I’m aware that isn’t a universally held opinion.
What I needed to do was to find a story that somehow built on the themes and action of Ack-Ack Macaque, which was largely concerned with the nature of reality and what it is that makes us human. It started as a murder mystery and then quickly broadened out as the investigation led to the discovery of a global conspiracy.
Looking to mirror this structure, I started Hive Monkey with another murder – but the investigation this time wouldn’t lead to a sinister plot for world domination; instead, it would take us somewhere far stranger…
The second challenge came when I started writing. I had to decide how much information from the first book to include in the second. Should I assume that everybody was familiar with the story so far, or include big chunks of explanation?
After much agonizing, I decided to do what I could to make Hive Monkey accessible to new readers without boring those who had already enjoyed the first installment. I didn’t want to reveal too much, and thereby bog the narrative down, so I compromised by including an early scene, in which a member of the paparazzi pesters our monkey hero. This allowed me to refer to previous events through dialogue, avoiding clunky expository passages, and revealing much about the way Ack-Ack felt about his newfound fame.
3. WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW CAN GROUND THE STORY
My previous novels – at least, the ones with scenes set on Earth – had most of their action take place in London or Paris. With Hive Monkey, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to set the book in my hometown.
Although the ‘macaque’ books take place in an alternate timeline, because that timeline only diverged from our own in the late 1950s, its still close enough to be recognizable, as it shares our history up until the beginning of the 1960s, and therefore contains most of the same buildings and locations as our world.
It’s always fun to set stories in your hometown, because you can use locations you know intimately and that familiarity can add an extra authenticity to your writing. You don’t have to imagine a setting because you can visit it and walk around in it. You can see the stage on which your characters will play out their scenes.
However, doing so can also cause problems. You can fall into the trap of assuming too much knowledge on behalf of your readers. If you set a story against a local landmark and they’ve never visited it, they might not get the significance you assume it’s bringing to your story. They might miss the details you take for granted. In your mind’s eye, you might be constructing the most dramatic scene you’ve ever imagined – but if the reader doesn’t know enough about the locale to picture it in their own mind, if you’re not describing it properly, all your hard work will be wasted. You have to take a step back and ensure you’re being fair to them, that you’re avoiding in-jokes and describing the scene the same way you would if you were describing one on Mars or Jupiter, and not letting your familiarity with the place blind you to the reader’s needs.
On the other hand, it can be just as difficult to set stories in exotic or imaginary locales. You still have the same duty to describe the scene vividly, whether it’s Buenos Aires, Tokyo or the dark side of Moon.
One thing I’ve always enjoyed about the SF genre is the way it can transport you to some other time or place and fire your imagination so you feel you’ve been there and experienced something above and beyond your everyday routine. What you have to do as a writer is make sure you treat your local environment the same way – because it may well be exotic and mysterious to some of your readers.
In the case of Hive Monkey, I felt my familiarity with the setting helped ground the story and kept a fanciful narrative in touch with reality.
Bristol has always been at the edge of the civilized world – a city with a restless spirit. In 1497, John Cabot sailed from Bristol to discover the North American mainland. It was the departure point for expeditions of discovery, conquest and piracy; but also the home city of Paul Dirac, the jet engine, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
I was born in Bristol, in a little hospital a couple of hundred metres from Brunel’s famous Suspension Bridge, and I’ve spent most of my life in its environs. Choosing to set Hive Monkey on its streets was more than simply a case of “write what you know’, it was also a way to say something about the place that I call home.
4. WHEN WRITING A NON-HUMAN CHARACTER, YOU HAVE TO THINK LIKE A NON-HUMAN CHARACTER
When your main character is a monkey, you have to take care to make him more than simply a man in a hairy suit. You have to convincingly portray him for what he is – which means more than showing him eating the odd banana or going “Ook.”
When writing the character of Ack-Ack Macaque, I took pains to consider his needs and wants. As an uplifted monkey, his motivations would likely be different from those of a human. Certain behaviours and reactions would be hardwired into him. For instance, in some species, direct eye contact can be interpreted as a physical challenge – a reaction that makes it difficult for Ack-Ack to hold a civilized conversation with a human.
Above all, monkeys are social animals with hierarchical relationships, and Ack-Ack is alone, the only one of his kind. At the start of Hive Monkey, there are no other talking monkeys in the world, and so he is feeling lost and friendless, stranded on a planet of humans. How he overcomes those feelings and finds himself a ‘troupe’ supplies much of the story’s emotional core.
5. FACING THE FEAR
Although Hive Monkey is the first sequel I’ve written, it’s also my fourth novel, so this time around, I found I was starting to recognise certain parts of the process. For instance, after four books, I’ve come to accept that the first 20,000 words will be hard going. I’ve come to expect that difficulty and not let it intimidate me. I know that by the halfway point, the story will have taken on a life and momentum of its own, and that’s when everything will start to fly. A novel has its own inertia; if you put in enough work at the beginning, it will start to move.
However, the unique thing about this book for me was that it was a sequel. What if it wasn’t as good as the first book? Did I have enough left in the tank to do the characters and setting justice second time around? Did I still have something to say?
Fortunately, the answer to the last two questions turned out to be ‘yes’ – but that didn’t stop me lying awake worrying about it. Self-doubt and insecurity are the bane of a creative life. You are only as good as your last book. Every time a new one comes out with your name on the cover, people will use it to judge you and your worth as a writer. And frankly, that can be terrifying – especially if a fundamental part of your self-identity is tied around writing books. All you can do is to write the best damn book you can; and, with Hive Monkey, that’s hopefully exactly what I’ve done.
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Gareth L. Powell is a novelist based in Bristol. He has written four novels and a collection of short stories. His books have been favourably reviewed in the Guardian, and he has written articles for The Irish Times and SFX, and an ‘Ack-Ack Macaque’ comic strip for 2000AD.