Category Archives: Process

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…


Stuck On Mars With Nothing But Disco

A good column on Andy Weir and The MartianStuck on Mars with nothing but disco: Ars talks with The Martian’s Andy Weir.

What I found surprising was that he actually never worked for NASA – I apparently misread other accounts of his background. I was also astonished by just how much detailed work he put in to calculating orbits and ECLSS functions and such. Sure, it’s clear in the writing that he worked out the math, but when he explains just what went into it behind the scenes his efforts sound like a real design project, the nature of work we did during the proposal phase(s) and initial post-ATP period on Orion.

Reading this reminded me that I need to re-read the book and write up the amusing coincidental points of similarity with In the Shadow of Ares. The most obvious one: disaster striking the third mission of the Ares Project. I’m guessing Weir also concluded that the “first landing” sub-genre is a bit overdone and decided like we did to join the fictional program in medias res.

Worldbuilding 101

Anyone interested in speculative world-building could do worse than reading Carroll Quigley’s The Evolution of Civilizations.

I just finished chapter 5, which is for such purposes a scaffold on which one can construct a fictional society – whether on the small scale (an organization, corporation, colony, etc.) or large (an extrapolation of current civilization into a future history, a galactic empire, an entire alien civilization, etc.).

As it happens, Quigley articulates in the earlier chapters (whether its his invention or he simply applies it, I don’t know) the PERSIA template that we applied to the development of the Ares Project future history. PERSIA is a mnemonic for six broad subject areas one should consider in examining a social entity or period: political, economic, religious, social, intellectual, and aesthetic. (Note that this is how I learned it in high school – Quigley adds military and subsumes aesthetic under intellectual, which makes more sense but wrecks the mnemonic.)

The earlier chapters are interesting, but consist of laying the groundwork for what starts in chapter 4 and really blossoms in chapter 5. The former chapter lays out his concept of instruments vs. institutions, and specifically the instrument of expansion central to all civilizations. The latter chapter is an exploration of seven stages through which each historical civilization has progressed, and how different civilizations have fared against each other (or against uncivilized societies/cultures) at differing stages.

So far, a much, much better read than Tainter’s oft-recommended (but probably seldom-finished) Collapse of Complex Societies. And it’s a quarter of the price.



Sarah Hoyt offers some advice on cover design for independent publishing: Of Covers and Sales.

I’ve never been entirely happy with the cover for In the Shadow of Ares, mainly because it’s a landscape with no explicit connection to the events of the novel. This is mainly the result of wanting to get the thing out the door without further procrastination – I was worried that if we looked around for an artist and went through that whole process, it would involve another six months of fiddling and dawdling.

So, I did it myself.

It’s attractive, but the problem is that it tells you nothing about the book itself and perhaps gives the impression that it’s meant as a mainstream rather than young-adult book. When it comes time to publish Ghosts of Tharsis, if not before, we’ll have to redo the cover — there are only so many suitable pictures of Iceland-as-Mars in my photo archive, so if we can get some of our stories and sequels finished, we’ll quickly run out of those options anyway.

But I Don’t Even *Like* Cats: Blake Snyder’s Template

To put it mildly, I was disappointed when I read this article and the associated sidebar: Save the Movie!

Summer movies are often described as formulaic. But what few people know is that there is actually a formula—one that lays out, on a page-by-page basis, exactly what should happen when in a screenplay. It’s as if a mad scientist has discovered a secret process for making a perfect, or at least perfectly conventional, summer blockbuster.

Not just because it explains the poor quality of Hollywood writing of late, nor that it made me feel like a sucker for having paid to see some of these formula-based movies, nor that my vague suspicions about the plots being formulaic to the point of predictability turned out to be have a basis in fact No, it’s that just as we’re finishing up the detailed outline for Ghosts of Tharsis (aka Book 2, aka The Sequel) after a prolonged delay, I discover that our outline follows the sequence of Snyder’s template almost perfectly.

Which is unintentional, I assure you. It’s been through so many changes (including a recent retooling of one of the villains, with significant consequences for the plot) that it could only have gotten this similarity by coincidence. Yes, admittedly, we follow Syd Field’s three-act storytelling structure, but as the article says Field’s approach is more general while Snyder’s is essentially a paint-by-numbers approach.

I suspect that despite being overused or too zealously followed, Snyder’s template isn’t simply a contrived or otherwise arbitrary way to tell a story, in the sense that it’s just one of many possibilities but one which Snyder picked and systematized. More likely, his structure reflects one particularly effective way of telling stories, one which maintains tension and interest by springing surprises and emotional ups and downs on the reader, and which has evolved and refined into a pattern over time.

The problem is not that there’s this pattern for storytelling, it’s that it appears to be taken as the only such recipe and is adhered to so diligently that every movie seems to be the same story distinguishable only by differences in the setting, character, and marquee names. Slavish adherence to a formula (down to actual page numbers) limits the opportunity to include real creativity, and as the article notes, can actually drive plot elements and character behaviors that make no sense.

Really, I’m not too put out by the resemblance of our outline to this template. It’s entirely coincidental, for one thing, and it follows only the general sequence and not the portioning out of page counts. Plus, we blatantly violate the Finale and Final Image sections so as to set up the third book, so there’s that…


I was an hour late to work this morning. Why? Because while getting dressed I got an interesting idea.

Which I had to write down.

And which, an hour later, had become seven handwritten pages describing a fictional universe and its central SF gimmick, exploring a number of social and political-economy consequences of that gimmick, and a handful of short story ideas and interesting conflicts that could become the premises of longer stories. (Imagine a mix of the Barrayar universe, Augustan Rome, Victorian Britain,  A Handmaid’s Tale, Marcus Aurelius, The Mote in God’s Eye, and the eugenics movement.)

Rand Simberg started an interesting discussion yesterday about handwriting and the obsolescence of cursive. As I noted there, my handwriting is a peculiar but not-unattractive evolution of mechanical drafting script (unless I’m rushed or working on an airplane tray table, in which case it can look like the vibratory scribblings of a new-to-the-pencil first-grader after a feedbag of Skittles and a bucket of Coke). Naturally the keyboard is useful for composing and organizing material, especially material Carl and I need to share with each other on the new book or short stories or whatever, but handwriting is indispensable to me.

For one thing, I think I can write just as fast as I can type, and I like the feel of handwriting, particularly since I discovered gel pens about ten years ago. Consequently, I do a lot of it:

  • Notebooks: I am never without a notebook close by, typically a Cambridge 7″ x 4-3/8″ 140-page spiral-bound notebook — forget goofy, overpriced, under-large Moleskines, these guys are ideal in size and quality. Not so thick your wrist cramps from the elevation (and being spiral bound, the thickness is always the same), not so big that you waste paper on short items, perfect size to fit into the small pouches in a book/computer bag or to carry around in your hand. Bonus: a pen stores perfectly in the spiral binding. The only way to perfect them would be to make them in the same green-on-green combo used for engineering pads. Speaking of…
  • Notepads: I wrote up this morning’s ideas on a half-sized legal pad, simply because there was one on top of my dresser for some reason. I generally hate legal pads (not even sure where this one came from) because the yellow is hard on the eyes. In college, I came to prefer engineering computation pads (pale green paper with green graph ruling on the back side, so that it shows through faintly on the otherwise blank front) for this reason. They’re also better (even than notebooks) for “digit multimedia”, or combined writing and sketching/doodling, since the paper doesn’t have hard, visible lines to disrupt or confuse the images. The downside is that unless you make an effort to stick them into a binder, the loose sheets make for clutter or (worse) can get separated or lost. Being composed of full-sized sheets of paper, pads are more clumsy and cumbersome to use away from a desk environment than are small notebooks.
  • Index Cards: This came from an attempt to re-implement as an engineer an organizing technique I developed for myself when I worked in customer service. It didn’t work in the different environment, but it did spawn a useful means of capturing ideas. I mostly use it at work, where I have a stack of blank 3″ x 5″ cards sitting on the base of one of my monitors. If some observation or idea strikes me, and it’s a fairly short or simple thing, I’ll grab a card and write it down on the spot before I forget it (if it’s something more detailed, I’ll grab the notebook instead), and then stick the card away into a pocket in my bookbag. Periodically, usually when I’m on a plane or sitting in a dull meeting, I’ll pull the cards out, sort them, and copy them over into the notebook, usually with some elaboration. I find it a useful complement to the notebook because I tend not to overthink or overwork these little kernels, since I know I’m going to rewrite them at some point.

I think I produce on average about 2-3 index cards per day (often in runs of 8-10 in a single day), and my use of notebooks is running at about one every three months and accelerating.

It’s a lot of handwriting, some but not all of which at some point gets typed up. Why not just type it in the first place? Simple: if I find notepads too cumbersome, imagine what a pain I must find dragging around a laptop. When tablets are as comfortable to use as a paper notebook, and can replicate the feel of handwriting and not merely “recognize” it, who knows, I might just get one.

(Oh, and this, a little more blocky, is kind of what my peculiar handwriting looks like.)

Human Wave Science Fiction

I think Sarah Hoyt is on to something:

For too long writing what we do has been considered verboten or at best “stupid.”  By revealing the philosophical underpinnings of our way of writing, we will hopefully convince some reviewers and critics to consider that our way is as valid as what has been accepted as expression in Science Fiction and Fantasy (and other genres as well, because at least some of these apply there too.)  More importantly, by codifying and giving our principles a name, we will free other people to try it out.  And by linking our blogs and cross publicizing, we will perhaps confer upon our congeners a little advantage that, in these transformational times, might be enough to – if not surpass – at least stand up well next to the establishment mode of writing.

The part about “linking and cross-publicizing” is akin to something Carl and I have discussed off and on over the past few years, based on my experience with People’s Press Collective (which does exactly what I think she’s referring to here).

The bigger part, though, is the set of (draft) guidelines she lays out for participation in this literary movement — in a nutshell:

  1. The story is conclusive – “someone wins”;
  2. Villains are crafted, not cast by type (racial, ethnic, gender, species);
  3. Ditto for heroes – “identity group” no more makes the hero than the villain;
  4. Story first, “message” after;
  5. Stories can touch on timeless human themes without serving quotidian present-day politics;
  6. A story concerns events – something happens, or has happened, or will happen;
  7. A writer’s job is to entertain, first – other motivations are secondary;
  8. A writer respects the buyer (i.e.: reader) of his stories by giving him quality and entertainment value that make him want to keep reading;
  9. Science, technology, commerce, and guns are not inherently evil;
  10. Envy is ugly – witnessing another author’s success, respect it as success, respect his readers for buying what they like, and don’t snipe about what they should like.

A few of our readers might quibble (have quibbled) about #4, but I think In the Shadow of Ares and its in-work sequels fit.

This is a good exercise, and I’m glad someone with some clout is pulling it together. A literary stream with an optimistic, human-positive, technology-positive thrust is needed. Indeed, the need for it was apparent back in August 2001 when Carl and I got the idea to write books in that vein, and when I started getting turned off by the negativity, misanthropy, and nihilism I was seeing in Analog and elsewhere.

UPDATE: a valid suggestion here, which might be phrased as: Don’t spread a single story into two or more books. Make each book in a series a worthwhile story in its own right, and stop serializing if you’re just milking the characters/setting.

Good advice, and something we’re trying to do with the Ares sequels.

Bright Young Minds

It was my pleasure this afternoon to speak to the After School Writing Club at Travis Elementary in Houston, TX.  I was invited by a fourth grade fan of our book (thanks, Anthony!), and enjoyed the opportunity to speak to them about writing in general, and In the Shadow of Ares in particular.

Based on the level of interest and strong questions that met my presentation, I have no doubt that some really good stories will emerge from this smart, enthusiastic group.

Denver Area Science Fiction Association February Meeting

Now that I have a little more free time on my hands, I’ve been looking for ways to get more plugged in to the local science fiction fan and author communities. To that end I attended DASFA’s February meeting this evening.

This month’s meeting featured a panel of three local authors, discussing the topic “Salty Language is In Effect: The Outré in Genre Fiction.”  The panel consisted of Jesse Bullington (The Enterprise of Death), Jason Heller (Taft 2012) and Stephen Graham Jones (Zombie Bake-Off  and It Came From Del Rio). The three were not strictly science fiction authors (second-world and various shades of fantasy), and the primary subject material is not something I’ll recount here on a blog with young-adult readers, but there were a few interesting takeaways applicable to science fiction:

  • If you’re waiting for a completely original story that nobody’s ever done before, you’re not going to find it — originality lies more in the presentation, the setting, the characters, etc.;
  • One doesn’t have to include gore, violence, sex, or other “outré” material to tell a good story, and conversely, it’s tricky to include such things in a way that doesn’t seem gratuitous, offensive, or (worse) creepy or sleazy;
  • Having something to say, in the sense of something political, moral, or  philosophical, isn’t a bad thing and perhaps even unavoidable in all but the most anodyne writing. A writer should however be sensitive to the audience and present both sides of such matters in a fair manner (yes, yes, stop giggling — I freely admit we are a little blunt in places in In the Shadow of Ares, but there are stylistic and trilogy-arc reasons for this, as you’ll see in the second book);
  • There are more genre authors and genre events in the Denver area than I had suspected, and this may be true of a lot of small cities.

The last point is perhaps the most valuable – aspiring writers can benefit from involving themselves with these events and the organizations behind them, through the opportunities the latter provide for peer review, mutual feedback, motivation, and marketing. Networking is essential when you’re e-publishing — sitting at home behind your keyboard watching your Kindle sales reports and hoping for the best isn’t going to improve your writing or your royalties.