Category Archives: Process

“Look How Smart I Am!”

Thinking back on what I read in Analog over a twenty year span (as I’ve done a few times here recently), another all-too-common tropes that comes to mind is the use of some obscure scientific idea in a manner contrived to show off just how smart the author thinks he is.

There’s obviously going to be some element of science in science fiction (otherwise it’s space romance or space opera or fantasy or some other “soft” genre). It may be pseudoscientific, it may be totally fabricated but handled consistently as established knowledge for purposes of the plot, but central to the plot will be some element of systematic inquiry into natural phenomena or speculative technology or the like. The problem is not science in science fiction, it’s what science is used and how it’s handled.

What differentiates this kind of science fiction from others is the author’s selection of an obscure concept or theory which they then elaborate on to excess. The tell is that the story is more about this concept than its effects on the characters involved, more a demonstration of the author’s brilliance or cleverness in finding and relating the concept than an exploration of its consequences or potential.

I don’t have the time to delve into the 50-year collection and pick out specific illustrative examples, but in general any story involving obscure concepts from cosmology or quantum mechanics will fall into this category. The more jargon-laden and compulsively detailed the presentation of the concept, and the more tortured or cringe-inducing the effort to make it relevant to the plot, the more certain the reader can be that this is what is going on.

Like so many bad aspects of modern science fiction, this quirk seems driven by the need to demonstrate a superior intellect to others rather than the desire to explore ideas. It’s the class nerd shouting: Look at me! Look how smart I am! My brains make me special and superior! In short, it’s both a product of and a product aimed at the brand of socially-inept but delusionally self-important outcasts observed in the recent Hugo Award controversies and “pink SF” generally.

It’s also, I suspect, what turns a lot of mainstream readers off with regards to science fiction. They might like a popular science fiction movie and decide to give written science fiction a try. But when they encounter one of these stories, they are reminded of the gamma losers they knew in school, and it sours them on the genre as a whole. Whether that association is made consciously or not, I think plays a large role (along with the creepy sexual perversions and taint of pedophilia that stained the genre in the 1960s and 1970s) in why despite the success of science fiction in film and television, reading and writing science fiction are still looked down on.

Coming Soon: Dispatches from Mars

In addition to the full draft of Ghosts of Tharsis, we have several stories in the works, more Dispatches from Mars by freelance journalist Calvin Lake, author of “Anatomy of a Disaster”. While that story was written tongue-in-cheek as a satire of several “sci-fi” tropes (notably the fiery redhead stock character and the annoying cat-fetishism of SF writers, indulged in by hacks and masters alike), it was the first use of Lake and his Dispatches as a framing device through which we could explore elements of the Ares Project universe that wouldn’t fit into one of the novels. We have at least ten of them outlined, with two substantially completed and one now finished and out for review. I’ll throw in a bonus description of a fourth story that has a full detailed outline, because I’m generous like that.

  • “True Crime” (working title)
    • Lake investigates an incident at Redlands Automation (makers of, among other things, the science pins mentioned in In the Shadow of Ares and “He Has Walled Me In”). When celebrity science popularizer Silas Hudson and his producer are murdered while visiting the settlement, order threatens to dissolve into mob violence as the settlers improvise justice for the killer. Eyewitnesses recount the murders and the dangerous days that followed – but are any of them telling the truth?
    • The story tackles a surprising number of themes for a 22,000 word short story, including:
      • The nature of science popularizers like Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson. Silas Hudson is their inverse, in that he’s actually brilliant in his own area of expertise and has learned through embarrassing experience to consult with experts in other fields before talking out his ass. He’s philosophical, he’s engaging, he shares credit with other experts, he’s earnestly curious about the way the universe works, he’s everything you could ever want in a science popularizer (apart from being dead).
      • The problems of civic order and justice in a frontier settlement where there is no established law and order. This theme is meant to be explored in depth in a different Dispatch and in the third novel, but here you get a glimpse at what can happen when there are no formal methods for dealing with serious crimes.
      • The invisible threat of “the crowd” in small, isolated populations like space settlements. We draw on Charles Mackay and Gustave le Bon to show how “extraordinary popular delusions” can spread as a social contagion and grow rapidly out of control and out of all contact with reality.
      • The unreliability of personal accounts of crimes and other dramatic events.
      • The value of sticking to the truth over taking the easy route of lying, which can be dismayingly tempting even to scrupulously honest people under certain circumstances – one seemingly small lie can snowball into tragedy.
      • A variety of recurring themes in our stories, such as the “baby taboo”, immigration on bond/contract, the protection of scenic places, commercial development, the practical operations of a Martian settlement, “facers”, etc.
    • This story is complete and out to our test readers for review and feedback. I expect we’ll have it published in the next 3-5 weeks.
  • “Pipeline”
    • Lake shows us the single largest development project on Mars undertaken to-date, and the colorful businessman behind it. His attempt at obtaining an interview with Jedediah Thoreson leads to an unexpected journey through Thoreson’s past and Mars’ future.
    • There are a few parallels to Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” here, but the development and outcome of the story are very different.
    • The main themes here are free markets vs. anti-business zealotry camouflaged as environmentalism and humanitarianism, the importance of a clear vision to a large project, how large projects might be organized and funded on Mars or the moon, industrial development and future industrial technologies, and how people aren’t always who or what they seem to be.
    • Despite our original intention that “Anatomy of a Disaster” be non-canonical given its farcical nature (remember that it was first published on the blog as an April Fool’s joke), there is a cameo appearance by one of the characters from that story, and Thoreson Polar Water itself is mentioned in that story as a reference to this (future) Dispatch.
    • I especially like the narrative substructure of this story. Describing it here would reveal a lot of spoilers, unfortunately, so readers will just have to uncover it for themselves.
    • This story is around 80% written out from the detailed outline.
  • “Marineris”
    • This Dispatch describes the First British Trans-Marineris Expedition. An eleventh-hour leadership change initiates an escalating spiral of bad decision-making. Initial successes despite bad choices lead to hubris and eventually catastrophe.
    • The feel and certain elements of the story are modeled on the exploration missions of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, and specifically Mawson’s account in Home of the Blizzard. While none of these real-world expeditions went awry for the reasons shown in “Marineris”, those reasons are exaggerations of various leadership and mission planning flaws those early explorers experienced mixed with the authors’ own real-life leadership experiences.
    • The main themes in “Marineris” are of course leadership and the planning and conduct of complex missions. In particular, why you don’t put gamma males in charge of anything, ever, and the importance of sticking to a plan, preparing for contingencies, and not overextending yourself. Other themes include the practical elements of such a mission (i.e.: an architecture by which settlers on Mars might pull it off), the stultifying dead-end of technocratic socialism, team dynamics under reckless and incompetent leadership, the thrill of discovery, and the majesty of wild nature (even when it seems to want to kill you).
    • This Dispatch introduces a special-purpose hopper which will figure prominently in both Ghosts of Tharsis and “The Olympian Race”, and shows the origin of its name (it being the only named hopper in the MDA fleet). It also ties in to an unnamed Dispatch in which Lake buys a second-hand rover and runs into unexpected company on his way back to Port Lowell.
    • This one is currently about 70% written from the outline.
  • “The Olympian Race” (detailed outline complete and ready to write)
    • Lake relates the dramatic true story of two “gentlemen explorers” vying to be the first man to reach the top of Olympus Mons. Each thinks he has an insurmountable head-start over the other, only for their rivalry to converge at the end in a deadly all-out race to the summit.
    • This Dispatch is more an action story than a big-theme story. It’s a character-driven mixture of extreme sports and crime caper (remember that the MDA forbids all unapproved access to the Wilds, i.e. the lands outside of the settlement tract, which includes Olympus Mons and all approaches to it).
    • For crossovers, it’s the only Dispatch we’ve outlined so far in which The Green makes an appearance, and as noted above, it features the special purpose hopper from “Marineris” (as well as another key piece of hardware used on that Expedition).

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.

 

Covers

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…

(Hand)Writing

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.