Thursday, January 07, 2010

Novel Writing

To refresh my creativity and fulfill one of the items on my "bucket list," I've started work on a science fiction novel. To date, I've written one novel-length work and one book-length nonfiction book, both unpublishable for matters dealing with trademark violations or employment agreements rather than quality (I'd like to think). In any case, my primary fiction outlet has been short science fiction, with "short" getting up to as high as 60,000 words, but a novel is something else. That's usually 120,000 words or longer these days.

A science fiction novel requires a lot more work. As I noted in my previous entry, the SF author must be technically accurate (but innovative) as well as interesting and readable. Oh yeah, and entertaining. And all this technical background must feed into believable characters that the reader cares about, solving realistic problems or engaging in plausible least that's what the good stuff does. I have set myself quite a task.

My ESL tutoring student wanted to know how I was approaching this work, since novel writing is quite a bit different from short story writing. In truth, I've never written a novel before, so this is new to me. I have different things that need to be done to make this story work.

Characters and plotlines I can work out without a lot of research. There are characters I have in mind, experiences I want them to have, and outcomes I want them to achieve. That means sitting down before the keyboard or wandering the street or staring into the void while I imagine the details of these imaginary people's lives and how they will unfold.

The science and technology will take more research. I am now blessed to work at NASA and to be more familiar with space technologies and how they work. Which ones do I use? Which ones seem most plausible? How will my characters interact with them? Another blessing in my current line of work is that I'm surrounded by smart people who know the hardware and can correct me if my descriptions or speculations go off the reservation.

Additional research will be needed to consider future history. What's going on today? What do I think is likely to happen with politics, culture, and behavior in the next 25 years? Do I project my preferred vision for the future or just what I think is most likely? What lessons do I teach (without beating people over the head)? What warnings do I give? What trends do I think are important?

This is all part of what SF writers call "world building." As with historical fiction, detective stories, or any other type of fiction, your characters need to behave realistically within the constraints--philosophical, technical, cultural--imposed by the genre and milieu you're creating. If I've done my job right, at the end, my readers will have some feeling for that other world, its people, and the lessons to be learned from both.

So what kind of story do I want to tell? Without getting into specifics, I'll try this: I am interested in the psychological and social effects of human beings living on other worlds. The "new frontier" and other analogies are used to sell space to the public, but the reality is quite different. It's not just the environment that must be contended with, but the personalities of the people in the tuna cans, the mission they must perform, the conditions inside those tuna cans, and the time the crew has been given to achieve the mission. And as Kim Stanley Robinson demonstrated so ably in Red Mars and its sequels, there is two-way feedback to consider between the explorers and the people back home. So I want to understand what it will mean for people in the 21st century to live and work in space.

On the character level, there are several stories I want to tell, most of which revolve around the theme of learning to get along with the people around you. It's a paradox that happy people don't want or need to explore. Dissatisfied, restless people are the ones who feel the wild urge to explore other worlds far disconnected from most others. And yet if you fill a spacecraft or space colony with restless, cranky individualists, what sort of social dynamic does that set up? Ten years of working in and observing the space advocacy community has convinced me that achieving peace and cohesiveness would be neither easy nor necessarily achievable. And then you throw on top of that the high-powered drive required to be accomplished enough to be a NASA astronaut, and you can see why it's surprising that the Lisa Nowak situation wasn't the first.

And then there's this: nearly 15 years ago, when I was feeling useless and put-upon by my career, I said, "Hold on, pal. Quit your b!tch!ng. If this isn't the life you want, what the heck DO you want?" And I answered myself, "I wanna go into space." The answer to that question probably marked my transition to adulthood because nearly every professional development action I took after that fed that particular goal in one way or another. After a lot of hard work, shazaam! I finally got the space job I wanted. Not going into space, obviously, but working for the space business, anyway, so that much was right with the world.

But the more I've read and watched this business, the more I understand what's involved in being an astronaut or even a space tourist, the more I realize that I don't think I want to go into space. Falling sensations, confined spaces, isolation from others...really? You wanna do that forever? Now I'm not so sure. So there are practical considerations here. Since I first decided I wanted to go into space, my life has made a quantum leap in improvement. I am not that same restless, cranky 25-year-old who wanted to get the heck away from people and explore for the sake of exploring on my own. I have more connections here on Earth now, more happiness, less angst. And then there are all the psychological issues listed above. Plus the simple physical risks that one must endure: acceleration, low to no gravity, radiation, little to no atmosphere, dust and finer particles that create havoc with one's breathing, or just flat-out poisons in the atmosphere that we don't know about yet.

Am I saying that no one could or should try to live in space? No. I'm just not sure I should be the one to go. But you never know. Until the story is finished, I'm not sure where I'll end up. So there are lots of things to consider in this exercise. It's work, but it's fun work, because I'm daydreaming on paper and sharing my ideas on paper. I just need to do a little writing every day. No sweat.

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