The Christmas Blog Series (IX) – National Novel Writing Month

In the end, neither Cyber Formula GPX nor Redline had anything really to do with the kind of racing I wrote about save for being science-fiction, but watching them definitely shaped how I wrote about motor-racing.

This year I decided to have a go at National Novel Writing Month; I decided, rather than trying to write a 50,000 word work from scratch in 30 days, to expand an idea I had abandoned by 50,000 words in that time. For what it is worth, I still failed. But the effort put into the writing I did complete during that period drove me to continue writing afterwards and now the book-to-be is sitting at around 50,000 words and may be finished in first draft form at some point in the next few months.

This, however, is not an article specifically about my writing life. It is an article about the strange way I went about task of researching something central to the project, and what I found on the way.

Central to the piece I am writing – a young-adult novel called Garden of Eden – is a futuristic motorsport; the protagonist is a racing-car driver in the future where racing is done in anti-gravity craft. This is unashamedly inspired by video games I have fond memories of; Wipeout and F-Zero – the idea of high-speed, high-risk action, improbable courses in stunning landscapes and such is hugely evocative and if, as some suggest, young people are looking for other fiction to become more gamelike in its sources (as the apparent success of things like Scott Pilgrim, Wreck-It Ralph and, according to The Guardian, Dora the Explorer for younger audiences suggests), drawing on cult games as one of many inspirations seemed like a good idea.

I had never been a particular fan of watching Formula 1 races; on the other hand, I had always been interested in sports cars, the idea of motor-racing and above all the glamorous image of it – everything around the race but perhaps not the race itself. Thus I began writing with a concept and plot in mind; what would drive the action would be the aspects of motorsport I was most interested in – the cycle of preparation and drama and gamesmanship that seemed to define it. A high-risk sport played by the idle and wealthy in a futuristic utopia provided a good backdrop for a more personal story. In this way Eureka Seven’s continued return to the avoidance of the sport which apparently defined it – and the continued demolishing of its protagonist’s preconceptions – began to shape the story I was working on. The motorsport itself became something in the distance of the plot that provided a logical point of dramatic climax but which was not the real subject of the book. What was more, the science-fiction aspects of the whole allowed for the sport to be created in terms that suited the plot; I hold very strongly the idea that the freedom of SF can be used to make a specific point, be it imagining no scarcity of resources to consider socialism, or in this case inventing the details of a sport to make it less of an albatross around the plot.

When the time came to write the race I had happened to have seen a particularly relevant film recently; Redline. Redline is a visually stunning film which centres on a futuristic motor-race and an underdog driver and while its dynamic and exaggerated style was completely useless in getting a handle on writing about racing (for ultimately I feel there are some kinds of action that prose cannot adequately describe in a way that makes both the detail of the scene and the speed of the action clear) it was in its own way a solution to half of my problem. The race in Redline is only a small part of the film; much of it is about the drivers preparing for it, and the bizarre science-fiction race meet was a source of great inspiration. It made much of the anticipation and excitement of the whole event, and that – combined with the chance to have visited the preparations for the Monaco Grand Prix in the summer – meant I had a good idea of how the science-fiction race meet of Grey Cliff in Garden of Eden would be. Redline was surreal and fantastical, full of bizarre aliens and dreamlike landscapes. Monaco had been its own kind of fantasy world – a town overrun and barricaded up, everybody’s attention focused purely on one small section of it. In some ways the reality of Monaco was more alien than the futuristic landscapes of Redline.

This still left the race itself; I had some idea of the strategies behind professional racing (in part gained from a visit years back to the Nurburgring, and from schoolfriends obsessed with F1) and was coming to realise that the best way to write about something as indescribably fast and intense as motorsport was to stick with the idea of strategy and the big picture. The details of how the protagonist overtook, or approached corners, could be left to the imagination of a reader who would probably know something of motorsport in reality and who had from previous chapters gained an idea of how this fictional version differed. What was more interesting – and the thing that could be written – is why. Redline had obviously focused on the moment-to-moment flow of the race, the collisions and the sprints and the setpieces on the track, because visual media could do that. While thinking on this and looking for other depictions, I stumbled upon an entire franchise of science-fiction racing anime, Cyber Formula GPX. What of it I watched seemed to take a similar line; without the immense budget to commit to spectacle that Redline would have years later, even when it depicted races it spent much time focusing on the pit crews, the commentators and the audience.

This all confirmed what I had originally thought when setting out to write a novel about motorsport. The most interesting focus would not be on cars being driven fast around a futuristic course, but instead on the concentration and tactics that it required. Redline showed that racing was at its heart a visual medium, while Cyber Formula proved more useful to me as a writer – ultimately as a result of its format as a TV series or OVA series. In a feature film, with a high budget for visual effects, it is possible to make full use of this to turn a race into a visual spectacle. Redline‘s conclusion ultimately crams the tension and excitement of a grand prix into a non-stop barrage of visual action. In a novel, trying to cram all that visual detail into a scene makes it slow and lengthy – it is very difficult to get intense description in prose travelling fast. Here, the much more laid-back pace of Cyber Formula was a much better visual inspiration for the writing process; the cliches of its genre – the emphasis on character drama and small crises exploded into episode cliffhangers – were a far more appropriate kind of pacing.

This ultimately was proved in my mind from a kind of personal experience; anything involving intense concentration like one-on-one sport feels like time is travelling at a different rate – something very fast can feel slow and lengthy. Trying to capture that – the sensation of time slowing down resulting from needing to concentrate absolutely and juggle all the distractions of competition simultaneously – was what would come to define the race sequence of Garden of Eden. So to close this meandering train of inspiration, to write the race sections of a novel about (to some degree) a racing driver, I looked more at how different visual media (for ultimately I did want to try and get some sense of the visual across) paced and contextualised their depictions to try and write about the entire race – not simply the cars.

The result was informed by the video games that inspired the whole idea, the anime I found that reflected futuristic racing in different forms and by various bits of real-life context (although, being without a ticket to the race, my time in Monaco was more useful for capturing the raceday atmosphere than the racing itself) – the intention, for what it is worth, being to try and write a novel which retained the strengths of prose but drew on visual media in order to see if what made those visual formats so exciting and captivating could be recreated or reformed in a different medium.

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