It’s my 51st birthday! Have a party favor!

Today, I reached Level 51 Human and am spending it at my parents’ surrounded by writers on a mini-retreat. I’m going to do some serious cooking tonight, but meanwhile, I have a party favor to share with you.

I thought I’d show you the evolution of a story, from initial seed to published product. A lot of times, people compare their work in progress with someone else’s finished product. Don’t do that, even if the finished product is your own.

The story is Articulated Restraint, which came out last year.

Now, I’m going to suggest that you start this by reading the finished story and then we’ll jump back to the beginning. Why? Because I want you to see how many really cool ideas didn’t make it into the final version and how you totally don’t miss them at all.

Ready?

All right, let’s talk about the way this developed.

The idea started after I got to watch an entire dev run (dress rehearsal for a spacewalk) at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab.

I took a ton of notes by hand when I was there, shadowing Kjell Lindgren (Thank you, Kjell!) as he prepped. Once I was settled in good spot to observe, I took some atmospheric notes, and then captured a bunch of pieces of dialog. You can see pieces that wound in the final story.

Things like:

“The answer is definitely APFR. I can pitch back. I can grab the door. Close it. I can maneuver my body and not have to pitch or roll the handrail.”

“The settings are 11 poppa poppa julia 3

I knew that there was a story there, but it took me a while to find it. Here… Here is my brainstorming dump.

 I like the idea of doing a story with Ruby Donaldson and touching on her meeting Elma. The question is if that is the beginning of the story or a midpoint or just an element. I guess the questions to ask about Ruby meeting Elma is when in her lifecycle that happens. She’s clearly already an astronaut since she’s on the moon. Is she a candidate for Mars?

Maybe that’s a possible goal is to get selected for the team? Or possibly she’s already assigned when they meet. No… the way Elma talks about her, I think they met before Ruby was Mars material. Interesting… I need to consider why they did NOT meet until they were on the moon and Ruby was learning to drive the rover. Or maybe… maybe they did and Elma just didn’t remember. That’s also fair play.

So what does Ruby want?

  1. Write down gee-whiz idea. – Ruby Donaldson meets Elma York
  2. Where does it happen? – The moon
  3. Characters who would be there (general list).
  4. Ruby
  5. Elma
  6. Parker
  7. Administrator
  8. Other students
  9. Colonists
  10. Support “divers”
  11. Mars Mission candidates
  12. Journalist
  13. Asshole classmate
  14. Rival
  15. Geologist
  16. Miner
  17. Engineer
  18. Mechanic
  19. Cook
  20. Nicole
  1. From the list, pick three you want to focus on.
  1. Ruby Donaldson
  2. Elma York
  3. Asshole classmate
  1. You’ve picked the three you want to spend time with. What do they want out of life?  Go for the deep wants (i.e. to look good, not to diet).  One technique: write down a want, then ask why the character wants that.  Repeat until you’ve reached a deep desire.

Ruby –

  1. Medic – wants to help people
  2. Lindy hop – daredevil
  3. Ruby Donaldson was a fine medic and a wicked hand at bridge. She could dance the lindy hop and make it look like she was in zero gravity, even on Earth. We were in the same class of astronauts, and I will never forget the first day we met. She had those pigtails that make her look like she’s twelve years old, and when some guy asked if she’d gotten lost from a school tour, she looked up at him and said, ‘Yeah. I’m from the fucking school of hard knocks and I’m here to teach you not to make assumptions.’
  4. Ruby Donaldson was a dedicated astronaut and a compassionate doctor. She took every part of her job seriously, even when it wasn’t glamorous. I never heard her complain about long hours, and she even offered to stay later if a teammate needed help. The first time I met Ruby, she was on the moon to learn how to drive a Rover. I will never forget her yelling ‘Yee-haw.’ I wanted to buy her a lasso
  5. Competative
  6. Desire to prove herself
  7. Tired of being underestimated.
  8. Wants to be pushed.
  9. Chip on shoulder because she’s so used to being undervalued because of stature and gender.
  10. Wants to be seen as herself
  11. Wants to be valued
  12. Wants a partner. Lindy-hop. Bridge. Surgery. These all involve teams of people or at least partnering. She enjoys them because skill matters there and also the connection.
  13. She’s exhausted and just wants to be accepted without having to push. She knows she looks young. She wants her abilities to be valued, not her surface attributes.
  14. Aspect of self that she wants to change?
    1. Role – she was a flight surgeon and wants to push the boundaries of space medicene. Maybe there weren’t that many flight surgeons who became astronauts. Oh… What if she and Kamilah were in the same class because it was a medical class of astronauts. Oh, yes… And she’s always had to prove herself as a doctor, too. She wants to be on the Mars mission.
    2. Relationship – Who’s her family? Parents alive? Or no– Oh… what if she was in the girl scout troop that was in the Crystal cave? I like that. Family dead so she’s an orphan. Wants family. She wants connection. So she has a dance partner. She plays bridge with a group of girlfriends. She wants a family. She wants to date and get married and have children.
    3. Status/hierarchy – She was born middle class and is comfortable being there, but having been an orphan after the Meteor is used to privation. She wants to achieve security for herself and family, which means getting to the highest status she can.
    4. Capability – Ruby is short. She’s constantly assumed to be less than she is. She doesn’t want to change her abilities or even herself, but she wants people to give her the credit she deserves.
  1. Note to self: This is a MUCH clearer way to come up with what your character wants than the random lists I’ve been doing. Whoa. So much clearer.
  1. Pick the deep want that is most compelling to you. That character who has it is your main character. – Ruby

List what MC character has at stake.

“Stake” is a word a lot of people misunderstand — it is what will happen to them if they fail at what they are trying to do.  For instance, Captain of sailing ship, every time he takes a risk is to get a fleet of ships, but what he has at stake is that if he takes a risky route to earn more money, his ship could sink and he could lose everything.  Can write down a couple of things down as you’re trying to sort this out.

What is the failure state for each of her aspects of self?

  1. Role – Losing her license. Killing someone. Every time someone dies.
  2. Relationship  – Skipping a dance tournament. Leaving her chosen family in the lurch. Getting kicked out of the bridge group.
  3. Status – Going back to being entirely dependant on others.
  4. Capability – Eyesight and hands. She can handle almost anything else, but the permanent loss of her vision or her dexterity will strip her Role away as well.
  5. Choose the primary stake for your MC character.

Go back to what the MC character wants.  What is stopping the character from achieving their desires?  Why can’t they have what they want?

  1. Role – she was a flight surgeon and wants to push the boundaries of space medic.Maybe there weren’t that many flight surgeons who became astronauts. Oh… What if she and Kamilah were in the same class because it was a medical class of astronauts. Oh, yes… And she’s always had to prove herself as a doctor, too. She wants to be on the Mars mission.
    1. Her height is an issue.
    2. The competition is really fierce

Relationship – Who’s her family? Parents alive? Or no– Oh… what if she was in the girl scout troop that was in the Crystal cave? I like that. Family dead so she’s an orphan. Wants family. She wants connection. So she has a dance partner. She plays bridge with a group of girlfriends. She wants a family. She wants to date and get married and have children.

  1. Trying to be at her best for pursuing Mars means that she struggling to find time for social activities.
  2. Her dance partner needs more rehearsal time than she can give him.
  3. She can’t play bridge regularly anymore.

Status/hierarchy – She was born middle class and is comfortable being there, but having been an orphan after the Meteor is used to privation. She wants to achieve security for herself and family, which means getting to the highest status she can.

  1. The best jobs go to men.
  2. She looks younger than she is.

Capability – Ruby is short. She’s constantly assumed to be less than she is. She doesn’t want to change her abilities or even herself, but she wants people to give her the credit she deserves.

  1. Height.
  2. Round face
  1. What is the most interesting thing standing in the way of your POV character?
  2. What is your MC’s plan to get what they want?
  1. Role – Study harder. Say yes to everything
  2. Relationship – Try to get a bridge game going among fellow AsCans. Promise her partner that she’s try Lindyhop on the moon. Help him find a new partner.
  3. Status – Try to change her role.
  4. Capability – Lean into the physical stereotypes of youth, letting them underestimate her, and then puts people in their place. Takes risks.
  1. Write up 1-3 sentences summing up the decision you have made for your POV character.

Ruby Donaldson will take outrageous risks rather than admit that she can’t do something. She wants to secure a role on the First Mars Expedition because it is adventure and also because being part of that expedition means she’ll be able to write her own ticket when she gets back. The only problem is that she’ll risk cutting ties in order to go.

  1. Identify the MICE quotient element based on the conflict you’ve most connect with. Looking at the MICE quotient, use that to determine where the story begins and ends and explicitly add both to the 1-3 sentence summary.

<Character> – Ruby Donaldson hates the idea of letting down her lindy-hop partner, especially with a dance contest coming up. At the NBL, she’s trying to get onto the Mars Expedition, which means she’d be able to write her own ticket when she gets back and that will allow her to take care of her family. She finally accepts that she has to prioritize and that she’s not a terrible person for following her dream.

Event – What disrupts status quo? Getting assigned to go to the moon to study low-g medicine? New roommate? — Oooo… if her previous roommate fails out or something that would make her resent the new one. Maybe that’s Kam? Medical emergency. Maybe she’s doing a residency on the moon? Something goes wrong? That’s interesting, but it requires more medical knowledge than you probably have. On the other hand… you do know a flight surgeon/astronaut. You could ask Kjell for Things That Go Wrong. Or Sheyna. On the third hand, this is also the plot of what happens to her in Fated Sky. Let’s find something that is a different status quo disruption.

  • Change in plans about the NBL.
  • Someone else is injured
  • Bumped from being shadow to being prime crew
  • A lindy-hop contest comes up with a lot of money attached to it
  • She injures herself in a dance rehearsal
  • hurricane
  • Partner’s suit has a leak during check and she has to begin run solo
  • her suit has a leak during check
  • adopts a dog
  • Testing a new configuration
  • Lunetta is damaged
  • Gun threat
  • power failure
  • Unexpected guests

A Earth Firster arrives at the NBL as part of a tourist group and managed to get a gun into the building.

Start: When a tourist group arrives, it means Ruby has to pause for photos. She understands, it’s the only way to get this close to an astronaut in an EVA suit, but it still makes a long day longer. One of them turns out to be an Earth Firster and pulls out a gun.

End: Threat is contained.

Ruby injured her foot when she was practising Lindy-hop. When she arrives at the NBL for a training session, she learns that Lunetta has been damaged and that they are doing a run to figure out how to make the repair. She does not mention the injury and successfully completes the run.

Inquiry – How do you drive a moon rover? <– this is easiest.

Milieu – arrival on Moon <–Navigating being shorter than average.

5 1 1/2

<event> When her lindy-hop partner’s friends arrive at the NBL as a tourist group, it splits Ruby’s focus. <Character> – She’s trying to get onto the Mars team but doesn’t want to let down her partner, especially since she’s been having to cut back on rehearsals and competitions. So she agreed to the tourist group because she understands the desire to be close to an astronaut. But one of the tourists turns out to be an Earth Firster and pulls out a gun. She feels like her desire to be accommodating has caused this problem.  She’s responsible for keeping her IAC family safe. Eventually realizes that she doesn’t have to be responsible for everyone. </character> Working as a team </event>the threat is contained.

<Character> – Ruby Donaldson hates the idea of letting down her lindy-hop partner, especially with a dance contest coming up. At the NBL, she’s trying to get onto the Mars Expedition but it’s hard balancing both. <event>When her dance partner asks if he can bring some out-of-town friends to watch her NBL run it causes her some stress but she said yes. It derails Ruby’s attempts to focus on the run. She understands, it’s the only way to get this close to an astronaut in an EVA suit, but it still stressful. When one of them turns out to be an Earth Firster and pulls a gun, Ruby uses her mad Lindy-Hop skills to defeat the bad guy. </event> In the end, Ruby remembers why that the mission is the most important thing for Earth, and for her. She finally accepts that she has to prioritize and that she’s not a terrible person for following her dream.  </character>

<Character> – Ruby Donaldson hates the idea of letting down her lindy-hop partner, especially with a dance contest coming up. Ruby injured her foot when she was practising Lindy-hop. At the NBL, she’s trying to

get onto the Mars Expedition, which

means she’d be able to write her own ticket when she gets back and that will allow her to take care of her family. Ruby injured her foot when she was practising Lindy-hop. When she arrives at the NBL for a training session, she learns that Lunetta has been damaged and that they are doing a run to figure out how to make the repair. She does not mention the injury and successfully completes the run.

She finally accepts that she has to prioritize and that she’s not a terrible person for following her dream.

Ruby injured her foot when she was practising Lindy-hop. When she arrives at the NBL for a training session, she learns that Lunetta has been damaged and that they are doing a run to figure out how to make the repair. She does not mention the injury and successfully completes the run.

#

So next, I started in the first scene.

The smell of chlorine met Ruby at the door to the Neutral Buoyancy Lab’s pool.She bounded up the stairs to the third floor, braids bouncing against her shoulders on each carpeted step. Coming out on the pool level, she waved at the techs sitting poolside with their cups of coffee. Six-thirty a.m. was a cruel time to be at work.

In the pool, Kamilah Shamoun was doing laps across the short end. The actual pool was bigger than three football fields so pretty much no one swam the length. Ruby walked past the rows of oxygen tanks and rebreathing gear for the support divers and headed around to the steel table where her tools waited.

As she did, Jason Tsao turned from where he was talking with a wiry Indian man. He had a sheaf of papers and beckoned her over. “Ruby, morning. Change of plans.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah…” He gestured to the other man who she suddenly recognized as Halim “Hotdog” Malouf, one of the original Artemis seven astronauts. “Snyder broke his leg last night, so Halim has offered to step in for the run.”

She managed not to freak out. She had met the man, sort of, at the welcome reception for her astronaut class but that included shaking his hand and nothing else.

I stopped, because I realized that I had two many characters already and that the “OMG celebrities” aspect was a whole nother story line. I backed up and tried again.

Here’s take two on the opening scene.

Patches of orange light from the sodium vapor lamps fractured the dark parking lot at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab. Six-thirty in the morning was a brutal time to start work and Ruby was already exhausted, which she tried to tell herself was good training as an astronaut.

What she wanted was to do the training run and then go home and collapse in bed, but somehow she’d agreed to another lindy-hop rehearsal tonight. It was just so hard to turn someone down that you’d been dancing with since before the Meteor struck. She didn’t have that many pieces of Before left in her life.

And that meant that she hadn’t let her dance partner see how badly she’d actually twisted her ankle in rehearsal last night. The benefit of being a doctor was that she wouldn’t have to admit to a flight surgeon that she’d hurt herself practicing a Charleston Flip. It was hard enough balancing work and life without people questioning her choices.

As she limped from the bus stop, Ruby glanced across the parking lot. There were more cars that normal. She frowned. Was she late? The call time had been six-thirty, hadn’t it?

Ruby glanced across the parking lot. There were more cars that normal. Ruby frowned. Was she late? The call time had been six-thirty, hadn’t it?

She headed for the building as fast as she could without the limp being obvious. The smell of chlorine met Ruby at the door. She headed up the stairs to the third floor, grateful that no one else was in the stairwell and she could lean against the metal rail. Coming out on the pool level, she waved at the suit techs poolside with her EVA suit. As bad as six-thirty was, they’d been there since four.

Wait. There were four suits by the pool. Her run had only been scheduled with one other astronaut.

Across the pool, Jason Tsao turned from where he was talking with a tall blond man and just a look at him confirmed that something was terribly wrong. Jason’s tie was undone and his cuffs were rolled up past his elbows. She had never seen the [run director] look even marginally rumpled. He beckoned her over with his sheaf of papers. “Ruby, morning. Change of plans, as I’m sure you probably expected.”

She had missed something — a message left with her roommate, a briefing update, something — and whatever it was did not look good. All of her medical training snapped her into focus. “What sort of change?”

“I think you’ve met Dr. York?” He gestured to the other man who she suddenly recognized as Dr. Nathaniel York, the lead engineer of the entire International Aerospace Coalition. She managed not to freak out. She had met the man, sort of, at the welcome reception for her astronaut class but that included shaking his hand and nothing else. “He’s familiar with the class of ship that hit Lunetta.”

“Wait– Hit the space station?” Her chest tightened. She had friends up there.

Jason’s shoulders slumped. “Sorry. I assumed you had seen the news.”

She shook her head. “I– I was out last night.”

He took a slow breath. “A ship returning from the moon had a retrorocket that misfired and they impacted Lunetta’s main hanger yesterday evening.”

“Oh God.”  Eugene Lindholm, her partner for today’s run — his wife would have been on that shuttle. She turned, looking for the tall black man among the people working by the pool. He was at the stainless steel bench, running through his checklist with tight, controlled motions. “How bad?”

Dr. York stepped forward and held up his hands. “No one is dead.” He glanced up as if he could see past the tall roof of the NBL to the space station. “They could see coming in that they had a problem, so the hangar crew evacuated and the ship’s hull is intact. We’re incredibly lucky.”

Ruby wiped her hand over her face, still stunned. “And so we’re working on a repair today?”

Shaking his head, Jason handed her the paperwork for the day’s run, which was the only thing that seemed normal. “Rescue and recovery. The impact warped the airlock and coupling mechanism so the ship is locked to the station and the airlock is jammed. We’ve got another crew working on getting it open, but want all possible solutions, because…The crew doesn’t have EVA suits. We have sixteen hours to get them out.”

You can see that this is closer to what the final story wound up as. It’s also really long. It has characters in it that I don’t need. So I took another pass, through, looking at what characters I could eliminate or roll together. Also, I cut the parking lot, because every scenic location makes a story longer.

If you want to hop back over to look at the opening scene of the finished story, you can see the pieces that I kept and how unnecessary the ones I cut were. Did I cut some good stuff? Yes. But honestly, they didn’t need to be there for the finished story. Those bits were making it bloated and slow.

This is a lesson that I have to keep learning. I’m a level 51 human and a level 15 author. Every time I level up, the monsters get trickier, but that’s what makes it fun.

#

P.S. If you wanted to get me a present…would you consider preordering The Relentless Moon? If you order from my local indie bookstore, say “Birthday” in the notes and I’ll include a small gift. Also, you can use the notes field to request personalization. I’ll sign and number the first 100.

Hardcover The Relentless Moon

Paperback The Relentless Moon

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