Category Archives: Short Stories

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…

 

Reminder: New Ares Project-Related Mars Stories on Kindle

At $0.99 apiece, they’re steals. Why would you not buy them both?

He Has Walled Me InHe Has Walled Me In

Recently recovered from a crippling illness, Leon Toa sets out on his first solo trip to Port Lowell. For any other Martian settler it would be a routine drive, but for Leon it’s a chance to rebuild his battered self-confidence and demonstrate his regained independence – both to his fellow settlers and to himself. When unseen forces interrupt his trip deep in an unpopulated and unexplored network of canyons, he must uncover the truth about his past before what’s left of his future runs out. An homage to H.P. Lovecraft’s “Within the Walls of Eryx”.

 

Dispatches from Mars – Anatomy of a Disaster: The Mars Environmental Works Catastrophe and the Death of Margaret Steadman

In this Dispatch, freelance journalist Calvin Lake explores the unlikely truth behind the worst industrial accident in Martian history: the destruction of Mars Environmental Works. Going beyond the bare facts and curiously self-interested evasions of the official Mars Development Authority inquest report, Lake’s account uses exclusive eyewitness and survivor interviews to paint a fuller picture of the catastrophe of April 1, 2050. A pun-ridden spoof of several science fiction tropes.

The next short story will be another of Calvin Lake’s Dispatches, this one concerning entrepreneur Jedediah Thoreson and his North Cap Water Pipeline project mentioned in Anatomy of a Disaster. Unlike that story, Pipeline will be a serious treatment of its topic. The Dispatches will be a series of essays on various aspects of life on Mars in the Ares Project fictional universe, written by fictional freelance journalist Calvin Lake (who will also play an important role in the upcoming Ghosts of Tharsis).

“He Has Walled Me In”

Just a reminder, our new Ares Project universe short story, “He Has Walled Me In”, is available on Kindle for only $0.99: “He Has Walled Me In”

Recently recovered from a crippling illness, Leon Toa sets out on his first solo trip to Port Lowell. For any other Martian settler it would be a routine drive, but for Leon it’s a chance to rebuild his battered self-confidence and demonstrate his regained independence – both to his fellow settlers and to himself. When unseen forces interrupt his trip deep in an unpopulated and unexplored network of canyons, he must uncover the truth about his past before what’s left of his future runs out.

The story takes place (like another short story we plan to have finished in the next couple of weeks) in the period between In the Shadow of Ares and Ghosts of Tharsis. While it doesn’t feature Amber Jacobsen, it does give readers a glimpse into life in the other Martian settlements and shows some of the technology available to the settlers – and how it can be used for both good and ill.

New Short Story: “He Has Walled Me In”

He Has Walled Me In - Cover ImageTired of waiting for the sequel? Wondering when or if we’ll ever be done with it? (We will, still working on it.) Well, here’s a little something to tide you over: “He Has Walled Me In”

Leon Toa sets out on what for any other Martian settler would be a routine drive to Port Lowell. When unseen forces interrupt his trip, he must uncover the truth about his past before what’s left of his future runs out.

To give a bit more detail, our protagonist’s trip is as much a business necessity as it is a personal one, meant to rebuild his self-confidence after he survives a disabling illness.  A static discharge damages his rover en route, and he is lured into a life-threatening mystery he must think his way out of.

The story takes place in the Ares Project universe at the time of In the Shadow of Ares, and was inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s “Within the Walls of Eryx” (no spoilers – the two are quite different). At 15,000 words it’s a fairly long short story, so you get your money’s worth at $1.50.

 

See? We Told You So

Forbes has a short piece on the ethics and practicalities of having babies on Mars: Birthing Babies On Mars Will Be No Small Feat.

They cover the core reasons why having children (at least for the first fifteen or so years of settlement activity) is a taboo in the Ares Project universe: mainly, there’s no telling whether it will be safe to do so, and in small commercial settlements, babies and small children will consume scarce economic resources without near-term economic return. This originated early on in writing In the Shadow of Ares in the need to explain why Amber Jacobsen was still the only child on Mars after almost fourteen years of settlement activity, and the more we thought about the reasoning behind such a taboo the more real-world sense it made (and the more influence it had on her character and the story, especially the coming-of-age subplot).

Of course, in Ghosts of Tharsis and “He Has Walled Me In” we show that this taboo is starting to break down. This happens in large part because several of the settlements are large enough by the time these stories take place to absorb the economic impact.

[via Transterrestrial Musings]

Work Update and New Year’s Resolution

Work continues on the sequel to In the Shadow of Ares, tentatively titled Ghosts of Tharsis. We have the book fully outlined, in detail, with the prologue and a bit of the first act boilerplated. Amber and Ivanka get new friends, Amber gets a little more than she expected from her first off-Mars trip, and in yet another example of life imitating art in the Ares Project universe, electronic/data security (and indiscriminate violations thereof) are a significant element of the plot.

Just before Christmas we finished the first draft of a short story set in the Ares Project universe. The story takes place between the two books, and involves a different character with rather different problems from Amber’s. Oh, and it’s an homage to H.P. Lovecraft…

Given how straightforward it was to write up the short story, I’m making it my goal to turn out at least three more Ares Project short stories this year. We’ve got a long list of ideas for these, including one gimmick that lends itself to an ongoing series of related stories. I’m also making a goal to publish Ghosts of Tharsis by the end of the year, if our work schedules permit it.