Dispatches: the Writing Technique

Carl and I came up with Cameron Lake, a freelance journalist visiting Mars and documenting its people, events, and culture, as a medium for using interesting elements of the Ares Project universe that we didn’t have room for in books or stories. And then we sat on the concept (and about two dozen story ideas) for about two years, until we got the idea to do Anatomy of a Disaster as an April Fool’s Day gag.

And that went well. That experience led in turn to my taking on a personal challenge while on vacation this summer to spend the ten weeks after I returned producing ten detailed outlines of new Dispatch stories. (I finished with #8 yesterday, with ten days to finish the remaining two.) I’ve settled into the following technique or method for this, which seems to work quite well – start with a new document, and the kernel of an idea:

The Gimmick: write out in 1-2 sentences what the core idea of the story is – the gimmick, twist, gee-whiz technology, character quirk, whatever the inspiration for the story is.

The Summary: in one paragraph, explain in simple language what the story is about…that is, how the gimmick manifests in a plot.

Discussion: this is the brain-vomit or stream-of-consciousness part – brainstorm about the plot, characters, setting, twists and turns, science fictional elements, etc. using bullet points to document what you think up; use this section to document any relevant research you do regarding these things; it’s a catch-all, so keep it open-ended and unstructured, and don’t worry about dead-ends (you might use them later somewhere else); explore variations on the mechanics of the story, how characters relate, and the logical consequences of actions and any technology used; profile your characters, how they think and act, who they are, what the look like – ditto any relevant social structures or trends; this is also the place to document any peripheral thoughts or expand on an idea relevant to the story but which might bog down the Structure or Working Outline sections below – for example, thinking through a character’s backstory at a level of detail that informs his presentation in the story but isn’t shown in full, or working out the real-world ramifications of some technology that appears in the story, or explicitly documenting something that will affect or should be cited in related stories in the fictional universe.

Structure: as you brain-dump in the Discussion section, you’ll get a clearer idea of the story you want to tell and how its plot should work; here, use a numbered list to arrange the steps of the plot in order; treat each line item like a summary of one chapter; raid the Discussion section until you have captured all the high-level elements you want to use and have them ordered into a coherent plot that flows from one section to the next; if any character dialogue suggests itself at this point, I’ll document it in this section; explicitly establish here how the story ends (I try to make up a tentative last line for the ending), so that you know your destination.

Working Outline: once you’re comfortable with the quality and detail in the Structure, copy and paste it at the end of the document; at the beginning of each line item insert a tentative chapter title (useful even if the finished story won’t use them) and a simplified one-line summary of the chapter; break the copied text for each chapter into sub-bullets (the simplest way to do this is to make each sentence in the copied text into an individual sub-bullet); work through the outline, adding, reworking, and reordering the sub-bullets and chapters to make the story flow and show the action and ideas you want it to include; to keep from getting bogged down in minutiae, use placeholders for character or place names you haven’t already chosen and mark any technical details for later review unless they are essential to know in advance (i.e.: the plot hinges on them, vs. they’re generic enabling devices or part of the setting); when you gut-feel that the story is sufficiently organized, make a rapid pass through the whole Working Outline changing all of the sub-bullet text into the proper tense, making it read like actual prose where possible, and turning it into dialogue where relevant.

I’ve gotten to the point now where about half of the story is written when I’m finished outlining it, in that most of the sub-bullets are sentences in draft form and ready for editing. (In the case of these ten outlines, I then send it to Carl for his input). Finishing it then involves doing more research to fill in the missing details, reworking particulars to make both of us happy with the story, and finally polishing the text into its final form.

In practice this results in a really long document for a mere short story. The Gentlemen Adventurers, the outline I finished yesterday, originated as an idea only last Monday and a blank-sheet document on Wednesday. In the intervening 8 days I produced a document of 20,150 words, 3,835 of which are the Discussion, 5,570 are the Structure, and 10,700 are the Working Outline. Obviously I didn’t actually write that many words from scratch, as the Working Outline started as a copy-paste from the Structure – in the end, recognizable copy-paste accounts for about 40% of the Working Outline. The number also doesn’t account for two chapters which still exist only as extended summaries, as they will require research to flesh out in detail.

I started in this morning on the ninth of the ten Dispatches, which will be a comedy of errors concerning the first British Trans-Marineris Expedition. Beginning with a roughly 200-word Gimmick and Summary, the Discussion so far brings the word count up to 2,670 words. Not bad for about an hour and a half of writing before going to work. Unfortunately, in this case it’s all context and social trend backstory – I haven’t even started in on the details of the failed expedition yet…


Innovative Science Fiction

I may have to read this one – I have never seen these novel elements in science fiction before, let alone woven together in the same story. So original! I can’t even.

Now, after more than a century of exploring the stars, Keith Stoner returns to find that the world he has come back to does not match the one he left. The planet is suffering the consequences of disastrous greenhouse flooding. Most nations have been taken over by ultraconservative religion-based governments, such as the New Morality in the United States. With population ballooning and resources running out, Earth is heading for nuclear war. Stoner, the star voyager, wants to save Earth’s people. But first he must save himself from the frightened and ambitious zealots who want to destroy this stranger—and the terrifying message he brings from the stars.

Disappointing – it reads like a grab bag of threadbare 1970s SF cliches. I thought Bova was a little more creative than this. Or for that matter, creative. This is less imaginative than the mashup of lefty tropes in Robert J. Sawyer’s Hominids.

Mars Needs Mixers: Nano-spike catalysts convert carbon dioxide directly into ethanol

The team used a catalyst made of carbon, copper and nitrogen and applied voltage to trigger a complicated chemical reaction that essentially reverses the combustion process. With the help of the nanotechnology-based catalyst which contains multiple reaction sites, the solution of carbon dioxide dissolved in water turned into ethanol with a yield of 63 percent. Typically, this type of electrochemical reaction results in a mix of several different products in small amounts.

Hmm…Mars has 25×1016 kg of atmosphere, of which 23.99×1016 kg is CO2. Passing all of it once through this conversion process produces 1.512×1016 kg or 1.3 Lake Superiors worth of ethanol.

Given the technique’s reliance on low-cost materials and an ability to operate at room temperature in water, the researchers believe the approach could be scaled up for industrially relevant applications. For instance, the process could be used to store excess electricity generated from variable power sources such as wind and solar.

Our Martian rovers will be fueled with ethanol. As will our Martians.

Science Must Fall?

“Science as a whole is a product of Western modernity, and the whole thing should be scratched off…If we want a practical solution for how we can decolonize science, we have to restart science from our own African perspective of how we experience science…”

Mmkay. Good luck with that.

“It’s not true!”

“You see? That very response is why I’m not in the science faculty.”

You don’t say.

The rest of her word salad – I thought to fisk it, but the addled thinking and pomo whargarbl speak for themselves:

“Western modernity is the direct antagonistic factor to decolonization because Western knowledge is totalizing. It is saying that it is Newton and only Newton who knew or saw an apple falling, and out of nowhere decided that gravity existed, and created an equation, and that is it. Whether people knew Newton or not or whether that happens in western Africa or northern Africa, they say the only way to explain gravity is through Newton who sat under a tree and saw an apple fall. So, Western modernity is the problem which decolonization directly deals with, to say that we are going to decolonize by having knowledge that is produced by us, that speaks to us, and that is able to accommodate knowledge from our perspective. So to say that you disagree with her approach it means that you have vested in the Western and Eurocentric way of understanding which means you yourself still need to go back, internally, decolonize your mind and come back and say ‘how can I relook at what I’ve been studying all these years’ because Western knowledge is very [pervasive?] to say the least. I from a decolonized perspective believe we can do more as new knowledge producers as people who are given the ability to reason or whatever it is people say we do when we think or rationalize. So, decolonizing the science would mean doing away with it entirely and starting all over again to deal with how we respond to environments and how we understand it, thank you.”

The best part is at the end when she nods sagely to the crowd, proud of her oration, then pulls out a smartphone and starts fiddling with it. Umm, sweetie? Yeah, giving up science means giving up all the goodies it has produced, too.

Better Never than Late?

Barrack Obama has been busy writing OpEd pieces lately, including one in my favorite magazine, The Economist, and an extremely curious one published October 11 on CNN.com.

While I might take issue with a few of the assertions in the piece, I certainly don’t disagree with the overall message that we will go and that this time it is to stay.  However, the timing is bizarre, and the message odd from a President that hasn’t displayed an overwhelming interest in space exploration.  I do not tend to be cynical, but to me this screams of a transparent attempt at legacy building on the cheap.

On a curious note, right below the President’s piece is another by Michelle Obama advocating improving access to education for girls the world over.  Right now the link is titled “Michelle Obama:  Let’s get girls to school”, but here’s what it looked like earlier today when it was originally published:



Gemini-Mars Winner Announced

The Mars Society recently announced the winner of the Gemini-Mars competition, the culmination of a program that was originally announced last year.  Awhile back I described the benefits of such a program here and here.  Gemini-Mars is a proposed Mars flyby mission, so named because it would include a two-person crew and also because it would pave our way to reaching the Martian surface, much like the Gemini Program did for the Moon in the 1960s.


The top team, from Cranfield University in the UK, was one of 10 teams invited to present their plan at the 2016 Mars Society Convention held last month in Washington DC.  Details of the plan were not included in the announcement, but will presumably be contained in the conference proceedings.  I was unfortunately not able to attend this year, and thus haven’t yet seen the presentation.

The original contest announcement included the statement that the plan “could be placed on the desk of the President-elect in late 2016 and be completed by the end of his or her second term”.  Well in a matter of weeks we’ll know who that will be, and hopefully that individual will have an interest in taking this next bold step.

Zubrin on SpaceX to Mars

Robert Zubrin was quick to post some suggested improvements to Elon Musk’s recently announced Mars plans (quicker than I was to post this follow-up):

The key thing I would change is his plan to send the whole trans Mars propulsion system all the way to Mars and back. Doing that means it can only be used once every four years. Instead he should stage off of it just short of Earth escape. Then it would loop around back to aerobrake into Earth orbit in a week, while the payload habitat craft with just a very small propulsion system for landing would fly on to Mars.

Used this way, the big Earth escape propulsion system could be used 5 times every launch window, instead of once every other launch window, effectively increasing its delivery capacity by a factor of 10. Alternatively, it could deliver the same payload with a system one tenth the size, which is what I would do.

So instead of needing a 500 ton launch capability, he could send the same number of people to Mars every opportunity with a 50 ton launcher, which is what Falcon heavy will be able to do.

The small landing propulsion unit could either be refilled and flown back to LEO, used on Mars for long distance travel, or scrapped and turned into useful parts on Mars using a 3D printer.

Done in this manner, such a transportation system could be implemented much sooner, possibly before the next decade is out, making settlement of Mars a real possibility for our time.


SpaceX to Mars

Some detail on what Elon Musk is proposing. I like the idea of landing directly on the launch mount and attaching a new payload while the stage is refueling. It’s sporty. If they’re serious about this architecture, it suggests that some of SpaceX’s near-future developments will involve a different sort of launch mount/hold-down scheme that facilitates this idea of landing a returning stage directly on the mount, rapid checkout/turnaround of returning stages (without moving them from their landing spot), and a means of rapidly integrating payloads to boosters at the pad (something that DARPA FALCON and ALASA have worked on, albeit at a significantly smaller scale).

But it strikes me that they’d be better off in the near term to simply have a second booster ready to move to the pad with the refueling vehicle. Sure, it’s got a gee-wiz factor to land directly on the launch mount, refuel and restack, and launch again, but I don’t see how developing all of that special-purpose technology could compare economically with simply building a second reusable booster.

AIAA Panel Discussion on Mars Settlement

Back in May, Carl and I sat on a panel at the AIAA Annual Technical Symposium in Houston. The panel was given a future scenario in advance, describing a number of technological and economic elements fifty years from now, just as Mars settlement is about to begin. During the luncheon, we were asked to consider a half-dozen questions relating to how Mars settlement might play out under the given scenario. In addition, there were 3-4 questions from the audience – regrettably, the camcorder battery ran out in the middle of my response to what I thought was the best question of the bunch.

It’s five clips, about an hour and a half in total.

Life Imitates Art: the Farmer ‘Bot

Readers of In the Shadow of Ares will recognize this invention: FarmBot is an open-source CNC farming machine  — it even resembles what I imagine the prototype of the farmer ‘bot at the Jacobsens’ homestead would look like:

The three-axis machine employs linear guides in the X, Y, and Z directions, which allows for tooling such as seed injectors, watering nozzles, sensors, and weed removal equipment to be accurately positioned. Impressively, FarmBot can cultivate a variety of crops in the same area simultaneously.

FarmBot is controlled via mobile device or laptop, while its web-based interface makes customizing your garden as simple as playing FarmVille. You can also build and schedule sequences by dragging and dropping basic operations, adjust the parameters to your liking, and save. Meanwhile, a decision support system adjusts water, fertilizer and pesticide regimens, seed spacing, timing, and other factors based on soil and weather conditions, sensor readings, location, and time of year. And of course, FarmBot can be manually operated in real-time as well.

I liked their term “precision agriculture” – we may have to adopt that for the name of one of the Martian startups.

Note that in the comments, they refer to using machine vision and grippers to weed the robotic farm – while that wouldn’t be an issue in Martian agriculture since weeds would not be imported from Earth, that same capacity gives the farmer ‘bot the ability (described in the book) to automatically recognize and prune unhealthy leaves/plants and to harvest produce at its optimum moment.

Now take this technology and scale it up to 20m-wide gantries hovering over kilometer-long fields, and mate it to automated fulfillment center pick-place robots in city-block-sized hydroponics installations, and you get the bubbles at the Green.