Nightwind Follow-Up, ch 25-26

Chapter 25 continues my least favorite sub-plot of this version of Nightwind. Wait, no, it continues both of my least favorite sub-plots. Sweet.

There’s very little to say about the overall plot of the “crew gets stuck on a planet being held by hostile, primitive people” bit. It wasn’t anything but a time waster for me. This remains baffling to me, since the original draft of Nightwind clocks in at a bit under one hundred thousand words, has about twelve different plots, and doesn’t really explore any of them. I will be the first to tell you that this is bad writing. Is it the worst ever? I hope not. Am I proud of it? Not particularly.

This is one of those things that can only be learned with time and seeing other people do it well. When I started the rewrite I thought I could basically take the original and tweak it. Add in some details here. Make something less stupid there. But the book itself was fundamentally broken. I had too many plots and none were being properly served. So either I make a bigger, more detailed mess or I pull back and reimagine the whole structure.

So I pulled everything back to the point where only one plot line survived. And then I added a whole new plot line that functioned alongside the main one to bring a different perspective. It was, I will admit, terrifying. I spent a lot of time worrying that the new book wouldn’t be long enough. Then, as I approached the halfway point I started to worry I had too much. So I left a couple of big chunks basically as placeholders for some ideas I had but I wasn’t sure I had the room for. The main difference is that I started asking, “What are we seeing in this place? What are we hearing? What are we smelling?” And then I started asking what the characters thought and felt about it.

In chapter 25 we see a hint of what I wanted to do. I’ve always had a sense that Anderson was in over his head and wasn’t prepared for the job. So this is where he’s starting to fall apart. But I didn’t really do the work here. I just made him suddenly go into full asshole mode when dealing with his own crew.

Furthermore, I never bothered to answer one of the most important questions. Why does Anderson have this job? We already know that Turner and Hunt have their own ships. We already know that Horatio Semmes is the most senior captain in the Earth Command Navy. While we can probably eliminate Semmes from contention because of his age and general weirdness that still leaves Anderson as, at best, the third best option.

The rewrite has an answer for this. It’s not a very good answer, at least in the way someone outside of the universe looking in would imagine. But it has its own internal logic. The universe of the rewrite is familiar but quite different. In that universe David Anderson has a particular quality that makes him uniquely suited to this role in Earth Command’s eyes.

Meanwhile, there’s the silly little mutiny sub-plot that’s just getting dumber. See, long ago I had a throwaway line about civilians being aboard the ship. Basically, I had the civilians aboard the ship to answer the question, “Why is Jackson’s husband suddenly here?”

The best thing about this plot line, though? It’s actually survived into the rewrite. It has survived in a completely different form. I’d say it’s completely unrecognizable, in fact. But it’s there.

So we traipse along to Chapter 26 where everything is awful. Seriously.

What we’re looking at here is textbook WWII convoy action. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The transports are, well, the transports. Semmes and Morgan are running destroyer escorts. The rogue ships are playing the role of U-Boats or Panzerschiffe. And Semmes starts off by setting up for a freaking broadside. Like he’s in charge of a wooden ship of the line.

I have figured out many things about theoretical space combat since then.

The other big problem here is that everyone seems to have energy shields. The only reason for that is because Star Trek.

The problem here is that it would be trivially easy for Dragon and Wyvern to take out this convoy. Dump a whole lot of missiles at the fat, slow, transports and skedaddle while its escorts try and fail to shoot said missiles down. Or, even better, drop the missiles and then engage the escorts so they can’t actually defend the ships.

Also, this hasn’t really solved the bigger problem that I have no fucking clue why this is happening other than “because plot.”

Ugh. Let us never speak of this again.

Thoughts on a First Draft

I didn’t write anything yesterday. Which is weird, because as I’m writing this it’s yesterday compared to the earliest you could possibly read it. So I suppose what I should say is that I didn’t write anything on Wednesday.

There were times in my life when not writing anything on a given day or during a given week or month was standard operating procedure. I would think about something to write. I would sometimes sit down and pull up a word processor. And then nothing would come out. The words refused to make the transition from mind to finger, finger to keyboard, keyboard to screen. Writing was a thing I loved. Writing was a thing I hated. It was an adversary, in turn chasing and running away.

I didn’t write anything on Wednesday. I didn’t write anything on Wednesday because I didn’t have anything to write on Wednesday. I didn’t write anything on Wednesday because on Tuesday I wrote ten thousand words over the course of ten hours. This was the final culmination of a ramp up over the course of the Fourth of July weekend and the preceding days where I would write four or five thousand words. It was the final stretch, the last sprint to the finish line.

I didn’t write anything on Wednesday because I finished the first draft of the Nightwind rewrite on Tuesday. Well, technically I did write on Wednesday, since I finished it at 1:30 in the morning on Wednesday. But then I went to sleep. And the day ends when sleep begins. Perception matters more than the calendar or the clock.

Either way, I learned many, many things from this particular first draft that I never learned in previous first drafts. I need to catalog those lessons. I don’t want to lose them. Over the last two months I leveled up as a writer in ways I didn’t expect when I started this process.

————————-

One of the big problems I already see when discussing this is that final sprint at the end. Those days where I wrote four or five or ten thousand words create a false narrative. They create a world where I could sit down and write a book in a week and a half. Ten ten-hour days and you’re done. Boom goes the dynamite. But you can’t write a good book ten thousand words at a time.

Those days at the end where the word count advanced by leaps and bounds came because I’d laid the groundwork. They came not in spite or mockery of the days where I crawled forward, writing a thousand words or a hundred or a sentence but because of those days. Those early days of slog are the training. Those final days of sprint are what the training allows.

I don’t know anyone else’s process and I can’t pretend to speak for anyone but me. But for me I didn’t really know where the second half of the book was going until I was passing the first half of the book. This is odd, since it’s technically a rewrite, but it’s a rewrite because I tore everything down. I told a new story with most of the same characters in the same universe with the same overarching story. But I was gutting and renovating a house with a plan I started drawing up the day after I tore everything old out.

Some days I wrote basically nothing. On those days I looked up everything I could find on space elevators or how light refracts through the atmosphere or had long conversations about firearms technology. Some days I spent hours listening to Mike Rowe tell me How the Universe Works. It’s a lot easier to get important information like that now than it was back at the turn of the millennium when I first sat down to write Nightwind. That’s for damn sure.

Either way, I decided to do the rewrite in, what, February? In March or April I decided that I would take the rewrite in a completely different direction, since just rewriting the first version but better was creating a confusing hodgepodge. At the end of April I thought I’d have the book done by June. Because those multi-thousand word days danced in my head. I knew I was capable of it. I just forgot the reasons why.

———————-

I read a surprising amount over the last three months. I read the sixth book in Ian Douglas’s Star Carrier series.[1] I read John Scalzi’s The End of All Things. I read a couple of Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid books. I just finished re-reading Leviathan Wakes because I didn’t really remember the book that well and wanted to see what was different between the books and SyFy’s The Expanse.[2]

Let’s set Ian Douglas aside for a moment, since the Star Carrier books are actually kind of a mess and my appreciation for them begins and ends with the extreme attention to detail. Scalzi, McGuire, and James SA Corey are four of my current favorite authors. The rewrite of Nightwind owes much to both Scalzi and Corey.[3] I approached them this time not just as a guy reading books but as a guy reading books while also writing books. I saw something this time around that I’d never really noticed before.

Long sections of the books I was reading were downright pedestrian. These were books written by professional authors and edited by professional editors. And don’t get me wrong. They were good books. Hell, this is my minimum third re-read of Leviathan Wakes. I love that book. I loved it as I was re-reading it. I’ll probably read it again in a couple of years.

What holds those books together isn’t unbroken strings of perfect sentences, stringing one after another to create perfect paragraphs and perfect chapters. They’re held together by the fact that writers who have spent years honing their craft by building stories and spinning out universes and putting real, concrete characters into those universes. They didn’t assemble perfect words into perfect sentences. They assembled interesting characters in interesting places and wrote a hell of a lot of words to describe them. Some of those words were very good. Some of those sentences were great. But great words and great sentences assembled to describe stupid places where characters just lurch from one place to another aren’t nearly as effective as good words to describe great characters in memorable places.

I realized that one night while I was still somewhere in the first half of the Nightwind rewrite. I had found myself, as I so often do, doubting my ability to write. The words were often wrong. The sentences that sparkled in my head were dull and lifeless on the screen. Then, one night, I just stopped worrying about it. Because I read a few sentences in Leviathan Wakes and thought, “Huh. That wasn’t very good.” I suppose it’s arrogance on my part, but I realized that my average sentence was probably pretty close in quality to the average sentence from any book I was going to read, especially when I stopped comparing a first draft to a complete, professionally edited book and got my book to the point where it was complete and professionally edited.[4]

———————-

I knew I was going to love The Expanse almost at the beginning of the first episode. There’s a long tracking shot that passes through various parts of Ceres and ends with Thomas Jane as a world-weary detective in a ridiculous hat standing in the middle of the medina watching an OPA hothead harangue a crowd in the strange Belter language of the book. It wasn’t a scene from the book but it was a scene from Ceres. It established in just a couple of minutes that, yes, the people who made the show had every desire to turn to the source material and visualize the world that up until that moment only existed in my mind.

This was one of my most important lessons. I realized shortly after I decided to completely tear the entire thing down and start the rewrite from the foundations that I had no idea what anything looked like. I had never mapped out Nightwind’s interior. People lived there but they just kind of floated in a vast, enclosed void.

It actually started with Zaqar, which was the new name I gave to the colony ship Winged Messenger. The Winged Messenger was just a big blob moving through space on rockets or something. I never described it. So I wrote a new chapter that started with a description of the ship.

Then Kat Silas arrived. She started as an idea. Because with the tearing down of the original story I realized that I needed a new wrinkle. I needed, in effect, a b-plot. So I spent a couple of days just throwing ideas around in my head. Kat’s character solved a couple of different problems that the change to the story created. She brought with her a whole new problem, though. I had to answer the question of where she was when we first meet her and how she gets to where she needs to be.

It’s not actually that big of a deal, really. It’s the matter of a couple of chapters right at the beginning of the book, but those chapters required me to spend more time thinking about the world all of these characters exist in than I put into the entire worldbuilding of the first draft.

She also becomes the first person to smell Nightwind. This might not seem like a big deal, but before Kat Silas it never occurred to me to describe a smell. That also caused me to realize that I had never said a single word about the colors inside of the ship. They surprised me. They will probably surprise my readers, too.

There was another change that came from my first foray into describing the inside of Nightwind. The ship got a lot smaller. When I first wrote the book I just said that the ship was a kilometer long because that’s a nice, round number and the ship needed to be pretty big because duh. One night I sat down with a calculator and a spreadsheet and tried to figure out just how much space there was. I came up with 3.3 million cubic meters of space.[5] That is a lot of space. I put everything I needed to put into the ship and couldn’t fill half of it. So I made the ship smaller.

—————————-

My final realization came right at the start of the final sprint. I had this idea in my head of what would happen. Then I modified that idea a bit. Then I actually put it into the book. And a thing happened that would require a decision. So one of the characters asked, “Why don’t we [do this other thing] first?” And I realized that I did not have an answer to that question. I realized that the most logical thing to do was the thing that the character asked and also that would completely and totally ruin everything. So I deleted a chapter and a half and made sure that the question didn’t and couldn’t come up.

That change set the rest of the book in motion. All of the sudden everything snapped into place and I knew exactly what was going to happen between that point and the end of the book. So from that point out I didn’t have to think. I had my characters. They all had a series of jobs to do and a collection of motivations and everything was laid out.

But some things were still in flux even from the halfway point of the book. Some things didn’t really make any sense. Some characters did things that kind of came out of nowhere.

And that is when I learned what a first draft is for. See, I once believed that the difference between a first draft and a second was that you went through the first draft and made sure all of the words were spelled correctly. But that sort of editing is a third or fourth or fifth draft thing.

The end of the first draft is where the real work begins. Once you finish the first draft you then have to go back and make sure it all makes sense. A lot of stuff that goes into the first draft doesn’t make any sense until it’s all over and everyone has done all of the stuff they’re supposed to do.

One of the other things I realized was that sometimes, especially during the first draft, you just have to write something. Anything. I wrote some paragraphs and realized that they were just placeholders to get me through that and on to the next thing. Hell, there’s at least one chapter that I’m pretty sure won’t survive the first revision.

—————————

The weirdest thing about this first draft is that it isn’t actually the first first draft of Nightwind. It’s technically the second draft. But it’s so far removed from the original that it might as well be a first draft.

I also know that I absolutely became a better writer over the course of writing the book. One of my tendencies as a writer is to see characters as a collection of scenes. Shortly after Kat Silas introduced herself I saw her in a scene that I knew would happen in the book, but almost at the end. I wrote it anyway, since I didn’t want to lose the scene.

When I finally got to the scene I copy pasted it in and gave it a quick edit just to put it in the right context and make sure that the right people were involved. As I did the edit I realized that the scene was not nearly as crisp as the bits that surrounded it. It was shocking to see this scene I thought was great a few months back and realize, “Wow, I’m going to have to revise the hell out of this one.”

But that’s why the second draft exists.

——————————————–

[1]This is now a series that I hate read more than anything else. It’s a weird hybrid of hard core SF and hard core Mil SF. The first three books were actually quite the education, since he spent a lot of time discussing how combat would work in space and endlessly articulating how things like the speed of light would be a hard limit on tactics. He also put tons of work into making his aliens alien. It made me completely re-think how I, as a kid who grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars and Babylon 5 where most every alien was just a human with weird makeup and a universal translator, thought of human-alien interaction.

That said, his humans are all paper-thin caricatures. And he posits a universe where humanity is alone, pitted against an impossibly huge alien empire and the brave Americans lead the fight while the French keep trying to sell the brave, self-sacrificing Americans out. Also, for some reason, it’s a functionally post-scarcity society where the big political issue of the day is, “Yay capitalism!” and the brave, brilliant, not-at-all-sellout-asshole Americans just randomly go on anti-Socialist rants. As you do. So it’s basically Iraq War propaganda, but where Saddam Hussein is in control of a galaxy-spanning empire.

[2]A lot. The answer is, “A lot.” For the record, I absolutely loved the TV show. There are some things about it that genuinely annoyed me. They set up a wholly unnecessary conflict at the beginning for reasons I don’t understand. I’m still not happy about Chrisjen Avasarala’s appearance in Season 1 even though she was nowhere to be seen in Leviathan Wakes. Don’t get me wrong, Shohreh Aghdashloo was amazing and absolutely blew the airlocks open. But re-reading Leviathan Wakes the most striking thing about it is just how isolated the main characters are. They exist in their little bubbles with no view of the larger picture at the beginning and slowly piece it all together while Mars and Earth are in the background and the biggest war in human history happens off stage. I prefer seeing it that way.

Otherwise, while I was not at all on board with Thomas Jane as Miller when I saw the cast lists he was just about perfect. And Wes Chatham was spot-on as Amos. Chad L Coleman did a good job with the more limited Fred Anderson of the show. Dominique Tipper and Cas Anvar as Naomi Nagata and Alex Kamahl obviously did their homework. I only just realized that Athena Karkanis played Octavia Muss. I thought that was a wholly original character they created for the show. She certainly wasn’t the Octavia Muss of the book. Jay Hernandez played a stock character from central casting that they slapped the name Detective Havelock on.

The biggest problem with the whole endeavor was Steven Strait as Jim Holden. I don’t think it was Strait’s fault, either. Holden’s character in the book is repeatedly described as “righteous.” He sees the world in black and white terms and always strives to be one hundred percent on the right side of the line. That’s a difficult role to play and Strait did it as well as anyone. The problem is that they undermined him within a few minutes of his arrival in the first episode and that kind of broke everything. It’s especially problematic since Thomas Jane wore Miller like a comfortable coat and so much of the book is about what happens when someone like Holden and someone like Miller are forced to work together.

The other interesting one was perennial That Guy Jared Harris as Anderson Dawes. Harris so completely stole the show that when I re-read the book I was shocked at just how much Anderson Dawes wasn’t an important character. He shows up, like, four times in the book and mostly exists to hand over some key information and kick the plot in the ass a couple times.

Speaking of that, the one episode where perennial That Gal Frances Fisher shows up to go toe-to-toe with Shohreh Aghdashoo was amazing. Chrisjen Avasarala is basically an amoral force of nature until that one episode where she becomes, if not quite human, at least sympathetic.

[3]Which is not to say I’m copying them. Because I’m not. I’ll get to that later.

[4]With the exception of Cat Valente. Or, at least, Cat Valente’s Dirge for Prester John books. The average sentence in those books is on par with the best sentence I will ever write. And then, every few pages a sentence that makes everything else look like garbage just lights up the page with supernova intensity. I kind of hate Cat Valente for being so fucking good at putting words together.

[5]It was basically this: the ship was 1 kilometer long. The forward 20% was unusable. The rear third of the rear 80% was (and still is) a blank space called “engineering.” So that left me with a not-quite cylinder 540 meters long with a 100 meter diameter. The area of a circle is figured with pi * r squared. Multiply that by the height and you get something like 4.2 million cubic meters. But the ship isn’t a perfect cylinder, so I cut that down by twenty percent. It was a lot of back-of-the-napkin stuff.

Eventually I tried to visualize that. I basically realized that I had a structure with half again the footprint of the Sears Tower and that was as tall as the measurement from Wacker Drive to the tip top of the antennae. That’s just a huge amount of space. And also the actual length of the ship was another Sears Tower on top of that. Give or take.

Nightwind Future Friday, part 3

One of the strangest things to me when reading the original manuscript is that I spent absolutely no time actually describing the ship itself. It was just this giant void labeled “generic starship interior.” This is because I was being pretty damn lazy and also impatient to go do cool stuff and write about things blowing up.

This time around I’m doing things a bit differently. My decision to make the book entirely about Nightwind‘s journey forced me to come up with a, let’s call it b-plot. So I needed a new character who could be involved in that plot but who was in a different enough space from Captain Anderson to live their own life. So Corporal Katherine “Kat” Silas showed up. This is not actually the first time she appears in the book but her storyline up until this point has mostly been a travelogue/infodump about life on Earth in 2356 as she travels from Chicago (natch) to Brazil and up the Macapa space elevator into orbit. Because the original version of the book didn’t offer any of that sort of information, either. Worldbuilding. What the fuck is that?

You’re about to meet Kat. Kat is about to meet the ECS Nightwind. I hope you enjoy this little slice of my universe.

—————–

Once the shuttle was a sufficient distance from the station he brought the front end around. Nightwind appeared at the upper edges of the shuttle’s canopy. It rapidly swept across their line of vision and filled the entire view.

“How big is that thing?” Kat asked.

“Just over a kilometer long,” Carter replied. “The main section is about two-thirds of the ship and that arrowhead up front is the rest. The fore section is primarily storage and a big water shield to help with radiation shielding. There’s no gravity and, from what I heard, there was a pretty heated debate over whether or not to even put life support in.”

Carter fired a quick pulse from the main drive and headed for the prow of the massive battlecruiser. Kat stared up in silence as they swept past the ship’s prow and towards the main hull. As they passed beyond the arrowhead and approached the lozenge-shaped main section she saw a neat double row of entryways lining the middle of the main section.

“Is that where we’re going?” she asked.

“Yes,” Carter replied. “There are two shuttle bays forward, then the fighter bays, then another four shuttle bays.”

“So everything is along one side?”

“They’re on the bottom, actually,” Carter said. “Nightwind has artificial gravity thanks to the aliens we reverse-engineered the tech from.”

“Artificial gravity?”

“Yup. Funny story about that, too. The original plans for the ship called for the small craft bays to be on the sides. So we rigged up a grav generator on the Venus Shipyards and tried to land shuttles. It did not end well.”

“Why?”

“It’s really had to compensate for going from null-g to 1g in one of these babies,” Carter patted his console. “I, personally, crashed two shuttles trying to figure it out.”

“So how do you do it now?”

“Vertically,” Carter replied.

One of the small craft bay doors opened as if to illustrate his point. A grappling arm descended from the interior of the ship. Carter fired the reverse thrusters, and drifted in towards the arm. The grappler connected with the shuttle with a dull thump and pulled it up into the belly of the battlecruiser.

“Careful getting out,” Carter said. “We’re now at half a g and falling out of the command chair will really hurt.”

“I’m well aware,” Kat replied, looking back.

A dull thunk sounded from outside the shuttle and the little ship vibrated. “We’re docked,” Carter said. “I’ll go first so I can catch you if you fall.”

“Funny.”

She watched Carter intently as he leveraged himself up and out of his seat, paying attention to what he held on to and where he stepped. Once he was down the ladder and out of the way she mirrored his movements. She soon joined him on the deck of the shuttle. He’d already opened the locker and was holding her bag out for her. She grabbed it and swung it up over her shoulder.

“They say we’re going to get new shuttles specifically for these ships,” Carter said, almost apologetically, “They’re trying to figure out how to make the gravity system compact enough so we can orient everything in the same direction.”

“That would be helpful.”

“Yes, yes it would.” Carter gestured towards the door. “I’ll walk you out to the main corridor. Then you’re on your own. I have duties to attend to.”

“Lead the way.”

Carter opened the shuttle’s hatch. A collapsible airlock was attached to the outside of the shuttle. “We can pressurize the shuttle bays,” Carter said, “But in normal operations we don’t. It’s a lot quicker to go through an airlock.”

“Makes sense, I guess.”

The pair walked down the short airlock. Carter cycled an airtight door at the other end and they stepped out into a small, empty room with doors on opposite walls.

“That door,” Carter pointed to the left, “Leads to the pilots’ ready rooms and lockers. We’re going to take the other one and go up the lift to the next deck.”

He reached out and hit a sensor plate next to the door and a moment later it opened, revealing a standard personnel lift. They stepped in and Carter commanded it to go up a level. The lift quickly ascended and the doors opened again, revealing a narrow hallway. The passageway was painted in a cheery robin’s egg blue. The floor was carpeted with a thin, tan, industrial carpet.

Carter stepped off of the lift. “Take a deep breath,” he said.

Kat breathed in and smelled the ship. There was a deep tang of industrial solvents and a sharp odor of coolant and the unmistakable smell of fresh paint. What mostly struck her was that everything smelled vaguely, indefinably, new. It took her a moment to realize why. Nightwind lacked the odor of sweat, piss, and blood that permeated the rest of the Earth Command Navy ships. They were old and worn and lived in.

“It’s so, so fresh,” she said.

“And it’s not particularly Navy-like in its decoration style,” Carter gestured at the walls. “Each level of the crew decks has its own color scheme. They wanted this ship to feel like a home, since we might spend months or even years on this ship, far away from Earth.”

The idea of being that far away from home for so long made her stomach hurt. “Is it too late to request a new assignment?”

Carter laughed. “This first hop is going to be pretty short. I’m sure they have plans for volunteer crews once we get the kinks worked out.”

“I sure hope so.”

“Well,” Carter checked the time on his comm unit, “I’m sorry to leave you here, but I have work to do and not a lot of time until I have to go pick the captain up,” he said. “Your comm unit can take you where you need to go.”

“Thank you, Chief Carter,” Kat said.

He smiled. “My friends call me Wince.”

“My friends call me Kat.”

“Nice to meet you, Kat. Let me know if you need anything else.”

“Will do.”

“Oh, and there will be some parties tonight. Call me up and I’ll make sure you get an invite.”

“Thanks.”

Carter headed off down the corridor. Kat pulled out her comm unit and found it was already trying to direct her to her quarters. She pressed the button and a map of the ship appeared on the screen with a yellow route marker drawn on it. A yellow light lit up on the wall to her right. A moment later another light about thirty centimeters away lit up. Then another a bit farther down the wall. She realized that it was the ship itself telling her where to go.

She followed the flashing lights. About ten meters down the corridor she emerged into what the map indicated was one of Nightwind’s main corridors. It was wide and brightly lit, unlike any corridor she’d ever seen on a ship. She stopped and took it all in for a long moment.

The biggest problem with life as an Earth Command Marine, as far as Kat was concerned, was the enforced inactivity. Earth Command ships were tiny, cramped spaces. In her first tour aboard the Peacemaker she’d nearly lost her mind. There was often nothing to do but stare at the walls. The ship was often at low or null gravity so while it was possible to work out using the spring loaded weights and the exercycle  she’d actually felt her muscles deteriorating day by day. After that tour she’d been assigned to Ishtar Station. If it hadn’t been for that small miracle she would probably have been a civilian at the end of her first tour. Every day she’d run at least two laps around the inside of that vertigo-inducing, inside-out artificial world.

On her map of the ship the corridor she stood in circled most of the ship. It followed the lines of the main hull from the curved fore section down along both sides and then flattened out and crossed over along the bulkhead that separated the engineering section from the rest of the ship. It wasn’t a corridor to Kat so much as it was a long, looped running track. She already knew the first question she was going to ask Lieutenant MacDonough when they met.

The yellow lights kept blinking so she followed them down the corridor. After about a hundred meters she boarded a lift and took that up two decks. The main corridor on that deck was a light beige. She followed the lights down the beige corridor until she reached her assigned quarters. It was only then that she realized she hadn’t seen a single person since parting company with Chief Winston. On any other Earth Command vessel she would have already met half the crew and probably seen at least one naked.

Her quarters were small by civilian standards but blatantly luxurious by Earth Command standard. The room was about four meters by four meters. There was a bed along one wall and a desk mounted against the wall opposite the bed. The wall at the foot of the bed was a giant vid display.

Kat dropped her bag on the bed and stood in the center of the room. She spun around. Then she lifted her arms and saw how far the tips of her fingers were from the bulkheads that defined the room. The sense of space was almost overwhelming. She was a fairly small woman, standing almost exactly 1.65 meters and maxing out at about 73 kilograms when she was able to get enough exercise to maintain her preferred muscle tone.

When Marines were a purely earthbound phenomenon her size would undoubtedly have kept her out of the program. It was much less of an issue in space. In combat situations she had access to the latest in Earth Command power armor, complete with an exoskeletal structure that allowed her to amplify her strength by ten times. She was also an Earth native and grew up in 1g, making her stronger than her compatriots who grew up in Martian gravity or out in the wider Solar System. In noncombat situations she simply took up less space. This was a desirable quality for the Earth Command Navy’s personnel officers.

She dropped her arms to her side and stopped marveling at the space that belonged to her long enough to activate her vid screen and inform Nightwind’s computer that she had taken official possession of her quarters. As soon as she did a message popped up on her screen. The ship’s XO, Lieutenant Commander Gregory, had requested a personal audience as soon as she checked in.

Kat’s heart fell as soon as she saw that message. There was only one meaning for that meeting request. XOs didn’t just demand immediate meetings with Marine corporals.

Her comm unit was already showing the route to the XO’s office. She left her quarters and followed the yellow lights. Two minutes later she stood outside of the XO’s office. She took a deep breath and hit the panel that signaled there was someone waiting outside.

The door opened mere seconds later. Kat stepped through into a cramped office. The XO was sitting behind her desk, studying something on a tablet. The vid wall showed a giant schematic of the Nightwind. One section was blown up and appeared to include notations for work orders. Gregory didn’t look up at first.

Kat snapped to attention anyway. “Corporal Katherine Silas, reporting as ordered, Sir,” she said.

Gregory looked up. “At ease, Corporal,” she said. Kat shifted from the rigid attention stance but did not relax. “You have an interesting record, corporal,” Gregory pressed a few buttons on her tablet, “But I don’t know you. And that’s a problem.”

“Sir?”

“You must understand that I have been in on this project almost from the very beginning. Everyone on this ship is someone I have known for at least five years and worked with in close quarters. Everyone, that is, except for Captain Anderson, who was assigned to this ship at the last minute because that’s what Admiral Belden thought was best for the program, and you, a Marine corporal.” Gregory paused, staring at her.

“Permission to speak, sir?”

“Of course, corporal.”

“I have only known about these orders for three days myself. I had my leave cut short for reasons I did not understand at the time. I did not know about the Nightwind until I saw it. I have no authority over where I am ordered to report.”

“I am well aware of that, corporal. But I know something about your history that’s not in your official records. I am, after all, the XO of a top secret ship and was one of the main project managers and lead designers. I know people who can get me any information I desire.”

Kat’s heart skipped a beat. She forced herself to hold the same stance and not allow even a twitch in her facial features.

“According to my people you went through training for the Special Services Division. Got some of the highest marks in your group, too.” She paused, studying Kat’s face. “Apparently you excelled at counter-intel and something amusingly called ‘unofficial covert policing tactics.’ I’m sure I don’t want to know what that means.

“What I do want to know, corporal, is whether or not I should kick you off of my ship right here and now. I do not like the idea of having the sneaks covertly put one of their people on my ship. I do not like thinking I’m going to have to look over my shoulder all the time. I most certainly do not want anyone covertly policing my people.”

Gregory stopped speaking and stared at Kat. She felt the XO’s eyes boring through her own, drilling into the back of her skull. She forced herself to stay calm and took a deep breath.

“Permission to speak freely, Sir?” she asked.

“Yes,” Gregory replied, “By all means.”

“I mean, can I have your word that absolutely nothing I say leaves this room?”

“I have not told anyone what I know about you yet, corporal. I wanted to meet you before I turned you down or tainted you in the eyes of the rest of the crew.”

“I did go through the Program,” Kat said. “Special Services recruited me right after boot camp. I scored extremely highly on the secret parameters they use to measure agent aptitude on the Core Skills test. So I joined. It seemed like it would be fun and I could do a lot more as a member of the SSD to help Earth Command than I could as a mere grunt.”

Kat paused. “We got a lot of near real-time intel work. The SSD is pretty small and Mars has been making a lot of noise and they were playing catch-up at the time. I enjoyed the analysis aspect of it and was very good at the fieldwork exercises. They didn’t want me sitting behind a desk because they thought it was a waste of my talents, so they pushed me toward the counter-intel and unofficial tactics programs.

“My final exam, as they call it, was to infiltrate a base on Mars. They actually had me do it. They sent me to Mars and my job was to simulate getting into position to assassinate a Martian opposition leader who was engaging in terrorist activity against Earth Command targets. They told me it was a hypothetical scenario.

“Three months later the President of the Colonial Authority died unexpectedly in his sleep. I am convinced that they used my final exam as a dry run to see where the problems were in a real op they already had planned. Then Robert Laird stepped in to the power vacuum and I couldn’t see how that made things better for Earth Command.”

She paused and took a deep breath. “I realized that being an agent in the SSD wasn’t actually helping. Even if I was just being paranoid and it was all a strange coincidence I still couldn’t stomach the idea of actively preparing to infiltrate our own colonial bases and kill people just because they disagreed with United Commonwealth or Earth Command goals. That’s not what I stand for and it’s not what I think the United Commonwealth should stand for. So I quit. I figured that while I might not be able to help much as a regular grunt I certainly wouldn’t be able to do as much damage.”

She fell silent, waiting for Gregory’s judgment.

Gregory’s eyes had softened as she told her tale. “Thank you, corporal,” she said after a moment. “I believe that you’re being honest with me. My source also informed me that there’s no evidence you have been in communications with the Special Services Division since you returned to the Marines.”

Kat shook her head. “I have not, no.”

“In that case,” Gregory stood. “Welcome aboard, corporal. I am actually happy to have someone with your particular skillset on this mission.”

“If I may ask, Sir, why?”

“We are doing something brand new in the history of humanity, corporal. Your official record indicates you have a strong sense of duty. Your unofficial record indicates you have a keen analytical mind and the ability to get into places others can’t. Your story tells me that you have a moral compass that overrides everything else. You have also been out interacting with the rest of humanity while the rest of us have been cloistered away at the Venus Shipyards. I may need to call upon you at some point.”

“I understand.”

“Until and unless that happens, however, you are a Marine Corporal serving under Lieutenant MacDonough. You get no special privileges. You do not get to skip the chain of command for any reason. Am I understood?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Good, then. Dismissed.”

Kat drew to attention and saluted her XO. Gregory returned the salute and immediately went back to her work. Kat turned and left the office, light headed.

—————–

You might notice some familiar names. Chief Petty Officer Winston Carter is still a shuttle pilot in this world. Robert Laird is still involved in some way, shape, or form. Nightwind Executive Officer Commander Gregory is still here, too. But while in the original the character was Commander Walter Gregory the character is now Commander Vanessa Gregory. Why? Because reasons. In broad strokes I like Commander Gregory and this version should be very similar to the original. But Walter Gregory was also represented in my head by a very specific person and, well, things change over the course of a decade and a half. Let’s just leave it at that, shall we?

Nightwind Follow-up, ch 23-24

So, um, there’s not much I feel like talking about in chapters 23 and 24. They’re both pretty standard sci-fi space fillers for a plotline that I’ve already said I now find stupid. How much more can I say?

The one thing about chapter 23 is that I was trying to depict Anderson finally realizing he has no fucking clue what he’s doing and falling apart. On one level this is a key component to the process. On another level I don’t think I’ve really done the necessary work to have this make sense. One of the biggest problems, I have learned, is in the creation of internally consistent characters. Anderson and, to a lesser extent, Semmes suffer from this problem.

This is a byproduct of the problem I’ve talked about continually: I was paying way more attention to following a plot than actually developing the world and the characters who occupy said world. I have learned an interesting lesson through running the re-write concurrently with this critique of the original. The shorthand for the problem is this: the plots in the original version grew bloated and out of hand because I kept realizing I still needed to add more to pad the book out to actual novel length. So I rushed from place to place and jumped from character to character and end up with this weird mish-mash of random crap where I throw a mutiny plotline into the middle of the book because, hey, why the fuck not?

I feel this is probably the hardest lesson to learn as a writer, unless you’re Stephen King or someone like that. The characters and the world are central to everything and if you give them space to breathe they will fill out all the pages you need and more. This is, of course, if the characters are good and worthwhile. If the characters suck then you’d better have a really good central conceit to the whole thing and have something else you’re explaining the hell out of to your audience. This is one of those places where the fact that I really didn’t read fiction when I was writing the original draft hurt me and where having a lot of examples of how to do things well helps immensely.

So, um, let’s talk about that for a while. How ‘bout it?

My most important written influences for science fiction at the time I wrote the original draft were Arthur C Clarke, the Star Wars Extended Universe novels, and the BattleTech novels. This is a really weird combination of influences. It’s also not particularly helpful when it gets right down to it.

Arthur C Clarke never really created a memorable character. He left that job to Stanley Kubrick. What Clarke did was create ideas and places that just stay with you forever. Let’s take, for instance, his Rendezvous with Rama series. I remember nothing of the characters in those books. What I do remember is that those characters interacted with an amazing setting and I absolutely wanted Rama to show up and I wanted to go see it and be a part of the adventure. I also remember that as the first time I saw a reference to the Y2K problem, as one of the main characters had lost everything at the turn of the 21st Century because the computers were all fucked up and there was a major financial disaster.

Clarke loved technology above all when writing. His books and short stories were always thought experiments more than character-driven stories. He also had a key advantage that 19 year-old me didn’t: he’d been fascinated with space and technology and the implications of human interaction with both since before they were really a thing. He was ahead of his time and writing about things he thought would be really cool. I simply can’t do hard sci-fi like Arthur C Clarke could because I’m behind the curve and also I don’t really want to. I’m rather fond of the space opera.

The Star Wars Extended Universe and BattleTech novels, meanwhile, are a whole other can of worms. In both cases the universe was something that was already defined and the authors working in that space could shorthand the worldbuilding. If you open up a Star Wars novel you already know what hyperdrive is, you already know what an X-Wing and a Star Destroyer is, and you already have notion of the relative locations of Corsucant, Corellia, and Tatooine. You also don’t need an entire chapter developing the Force because you probably already watched the movies. Similarly, the BattleTech novels already offered a map of the Inner Sphere. They could assume that the reader knew what a JumpShip was and that it had DropShips and that the DropShips carried Battlemasters and Locusts to planets to try to blow up Marauders and Phoenix Hawks.

In both cases there was a built-in audience who was there for something. The Star Wars audience wanted to see badass fighter pilots in X-Wings blow up bizarrely overengineered weapons of mass destruction. The BattleTech audience wanted to see humongous mecha shoot PPCs and missiles at each other. They were TV shows or movies written on paper. The reader didn’t have to ask too many questions because “the remnants of the Empire found a new super weapon and Rogue Squadron has to blow it up” or “the Clans are invading Coventry and threatening to break the peace of Tukayyid” are all the reader needs. After that it was just mil-sf and heroic storytelling porn.

None of this is really meant to knock the books in question. Most of them were fun and the Michael Stackpole novels were genuinely good.[1] They weren’t necessarily the best place to learn how to be a sci-fi author, though, for all of the reasons I’ve listed above.

So what has changed since then? It all starts with John Scalzi.

I don’t really remember why I decided to read John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. I know that I first came across Scalzi as I was leaving Christianity because of his amazing write-up of his visit to the Creation Museum. At the time I had no idea he was a sci-fi author. Hell, I had no idea that he’d written more than one blog post in his entire life.

Old Man’s War is mil-sf through-and-through, as it its sequel, The Ghost Brigades. The cool thing about Scalzi’s worldbuilding in the Old Man’s War books, though, is the way that he moves away from mil-sf and book 3 is pretty much old-school sci-fi and then he just keeps moving on to characters existing in a vast, pre-built universe where everything is changing around them. Scalzi’s influence on me is less important for his books than it is for his blog, though, specifically The Big Idea.

The Big Idea is a series he does where he allows authors to write about their books and what lead them to write said books. I, as someone who loves writing about writing as much as, if not more than, I love writing, can’t help but pay attention to such a series. I’m always draw to authors who can explain why their books are cool. Most of my influences have come from there.

The most important is probably[2] The Expanse. James Holden is interesting. Ish. Detective Miller is definitely interesting. The world in which we met Holden and Miller is amazing. You feel like you can walk on Ceres with Detective Miller and travel the solar system aboard the Rocinante with Holden.[3]

After that we get to Mira Grant/Seanan Maguire. I first met Seanan through her sci-fi writing alter-ego Mira and the Newsflesh trilogy. It’s pretty much the only zombie property I actually enjoy, since it’s totally about how the world has changed since the zombie apocalypse came and went and people got back to their normal lives while having to acknowledge that zombie outbreaks can still happen. After that I started reading Seanan’s InCryptid series, a fairly silly series about a family of cryptid hunters who have to survive in a world that doesn’t and shouldn’t know that fantasy creatures totally exist. In both cases Maguire’s skill shines through in creating interesting characters and really cool worlds and having the characters just kind of live in those worlds.

Cat Valente is easily both an influence and a terrifyingly amazing writer who makes me feel bad about my own abilities. I actually can’t recall if it was Valente’s Habitation of the Blessed or one of “Mira Grant’s” books that convinced me to pay attention to Scalzi’s Big Idea. I do know that when I learned someone was writing books based on the Prester John myth I had to read them. They were not at all what I expected but, seriously, Cat Valente is a once-in-a-lifetime writer. Her use of the English language is masterful and beyond beautiful. Every page had a section that just leapt out and demanded to be re-read and savored.

There are others, too. Wesley Chu’s Lives of Tao is great stuff. Ernest Clyne’s Ready Player One is a fun novel that was being turned into a movie last I heard but I’m afraid that Adam Sandler’s atrocious Pixels might have hurt that one.

All of these books have taught me how to build a world. They’ve taught me that I, as the reader, need to feel like I can live in that world. The Nightwind universe really doesn’t feel that way, at least in the original incarnation. But I have spent nearly two decades living in that world off and on and I know what it feels like to walk in the hallways and talk to the people. I hope that I am finally beginning to be able to communicate that experience to others.

Tomorrow I shall be introducing a brand new character. The alternate version re-write of Nightwind is now a much tighter, more focused book and I needed a character who could walk the corridors of the ship. That was when Corporal Katherine Silas introduced herself to the world.

Tomorrow’s excerpt won’t be the first time we meet Kat, as her decidedly uncreative friends call her. It will be the first time she meets the Nightwind, though. It’s my hope that you see the ship through her eyes.

———————-

[1]Michael Stackpole wrote most of the universe defining books in the BattleTech series. He always did it really well and I looked forward to getting new Stackpole books. He also wrote the X-Wing novels for the Star Wars Extended Universe, which were definitely the most fun books in that world. They focused on Wedge Antilles leading Rogue Squadron to all kinds of heroics after Luke Skywalker went off to be all Jedi-y. I actually consider him one of my favorite sci-fi authors. One of these days I should seriously consider reading his non-other-people’s-universe novels.

[2]Definitely. There’s no probably about it.

[3]One of these days I have to write a post or twelve about The Expanse adaptation on SyFy. I was on record as saying I assumed it was going to suck. It, um, it didn’t. It was amazing. The two best shows on TV right now, without question, are Black Sails and The Expanse. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

Nightwind Follow-Up, ch 21-22

So…chapters 21 and 22. Most of the reason that Nightwind Wednesday became Nightwind Thursday is because I simply did not believe I would have time to fully parse and discuss these chapters this week. There is just so much that needs to be unpacked.

Chapter 21 sets up your basic “crewmembers in captivity” plot. It adds in the “crewmembers in captivity to a technologically inferior alien race” angle in the process. Because that’s a thing that’s always necessary to add to the mix.

In terms of overall narrative arc the chapter doesn’t really bother me that much. The sudden switchover of the narrative view from Anderson to Gregory at the end is a rookie mistake, but the individual elements are interesting enough and I don’t think it’s badly written. It’s just a stock television sci-fi plot and it has no place in the book.

I did try to use it to show Anderson beginning to fully realize he’s in over his head. I attempted to turn that into a whole thing over the next few chapters of the book. So pay attention, people. There’s a whole sub-plot afoot!

What bothers me about it now is the technology, specifically the shuttlecraft. This whole thing is very Star Trek/Star Wars where the Nightwind is conveniently equipped with ships that can just kind of travel down into gravity wells and return at will. So I guess we need to unpack where these ideas work and where they don’t.

Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that the alien planet has a gravitational pull reasonably close to Earth’s. We already know what it takes to break free of Earth’s gravity using a self-powered craft. It takes a whole shitload of thrust and a lot of fuel in the form of multi-stage rockets. This is the only reliable method we have for leaving Earth and our second-best option is the as-yet-unrealized space elevator, which is simply not an option in this scenario.[1]

This is a specific Earth and planets-similar-to-Earth problem that must be considered. It would make sense that Nightwind would carry shuttles that could travel to and from an asteroid or moon or even Mars. Let us consider, for a moment, the difference between the Apollo Lunar Lander and the Saturn V rocket. The Ascent Stage of the Lander carried some 6,000 pounds of propellant mass and managed 16,000 Newtons of force while thrusting if I’m reading this right.  The first stage of the Saturn V carried almost 4,500,000 pounds of fuel and developed 34,000 kiloNewtons of force. Since this wasn’t actually enough the second stage added another million pounds of propellant and nearly 5,000 kiloNewtons of thrust to get over the final stretch into space. All of those millions of pounds of fuel, by the way, were to get a bit over 300,000 pounds of payload into low Earth orbit. Buzz Aldrin could have practically jumped off of the moon and back to Ohio by comparison.

All of this is to say that it’s impractical, at best, for the Nightwind to use rocket-powered, well, anything as small craft. Although I am now imagining the starship Enterprise traveling the galaxy and exploring strange new worlds with a shitload of Saturn V rockets attached to the saucer section. That’s pretty funny.

The thing about rocketry is that it’s a functionally dead-end technology. We can’t really make rockets better. We can make them bigger. We can sand down the edges and refine the fuels and tweak the ratios and squeeze a little more performance out of them, but the rocket is a rocket. In the end the Saturn V was just a much larger V-2 rocket. This is why Wernher Von Braun got a ticket to the United States instead of the Nuremberg Trials after WWII. He was the best in the world at making rockets. The fact is that there may never be anyone better than Von Braun at making rockets and it won’t actually matter.

So this is where the “fiction” part of “science-fiction” must come into play. We know, for instance, that thanks to their stolen alien tech humans have the ability to create gravity. If they can create gravity it’s possible they can also negate gravity. This is a sticky point, though, since under traditional Newtonian physics it is actually possible to create an anti-gravity force equation. Under General Relativity not so much. Still, if we posit a magical technology that can create gravity on a spaceship we could, theoretically, posit a reverse switch on that machine that would make a ship gravitationally neutral or cut down its effective mass enough that gravity just kind of doesn’t apply.

Alternatively we could posit a propulsion device that works like a super rocket, creating massive thrust in exchange for very little fuel consumption. This creates a physics catch-22. Anything that’s significantly more efficient than a rocket would probably achieve that efficiency at the expense of thrust. Something with significantly more thrust than a rocket would either tear the craft it’s powering apart of do horrific damage to whatever happens to be caught in the backdraft. And this doesn’t even get to all of the math we currently have to go through to get a rocket into space in terms of things like launch windows. Also alien planets probably won’t have convenient rocket gantries just set up and waiting for us.

Given what we know now, then, the trip to an alien planet is probably one-way. Unless you drop your own Saturn V[2] and launch equipment down the gravity well on your way or bring your own space elevator. Both of these options seem sub-optimal in a hostile encounter. Luckily this is one of those places where people who want to read science fiction are probably going to just let it pass if you hand wave the whole thing away. We simply don’t think too hard about an Enterprise shuttle taking a joyride down a gravity well or the fact that the Millennium Falcon can take off from Mos Eisley and then scoot halfway across the galaxy to run into the Death Star.

So we mosey on along to the not-at-all scientifically impossible chapter 22.

I made reference to chapter 22 in last week’s follow-up when I said this:

“Do you remember General Hans Schroeder? I’ve taken to referring to him as General No Longer Appearing in this Picture. He actually got an entire story arc. This arc included a chapter that I genuinely don’t remember if I’ve gotten to yet that caused me to just stop writing the book for a while. I just had no fucking clue why I was writing that particular chapter.”

This, ultimately, might end up being one of the most important chapters I’ve ever written. But, obviously, it’s not going to be important because I like it or because it’s a pivotal chapter in this story. It taught me this: “One of the things I’ve learned about writing is that if something just isn’t working and you’re avoiding actually doing the work that means the thing you’re trying to write about probably doesn’t belong. If I, as the writer, am finding it impossible to force a chapter into a book that means that you, as the reader, will probably wonder why that chapter exists in the first place.”

The thing about chapter 22 isn’t that it’s a bad chapter. It’s actually a perfectly serviceable chapter in another book. It’s far from the best example of its type in the world, but it’s defensible as a description of ground combat. The combat itself is believable and the events are competently blocked out. Even though last week I couldn’t remember if I’d even gotten to the chapter yet when I was re-reading it I could still remember where everything was supposed to be in my head when I originally wrote it. So, hey, that’s a thing. The description of the setting could be punched up a bit, though.

The big problem with his chapter, as I’ve alluded to about a thousand times now, is that it exists in the first place. Why does the United Commonwealth have a standing Army? It seems unnecessary. And yet there it is, fighting itself. Because some of the commanders decided to throw in with Robert Laird. Why did they do that? Because I apparently thought that what this book really needed was a good, old-fashioned Tom Clancy-esque tank battle chapter. It doesn’t. I don’t know what else there really is to say about that, now that I think about it.

Also, there is a really weird mistake that stands out like a beacon. While infodumping about the Striker tank I make reference to it originally being based on the M1A4/Challenger III chassis. This is just a bizarre thing to read based on the fact that the M1 Abrams and the British Challenger don’t currently share a chassis. I believe I was attempting to imply that there would be a future version of the American and British Main Battle Tank where the two countries worked together. Which is fine in concept. In execution, though, the resulting weapons system wouldn’t be called the M1A4/Challenger III because it would be a whole new design and not an upgrade over an existing design. So it would be the Anglo-American Tanky McTankerface or something.

One of the more subtle problems with this chapter, though, is how it brings to light just how bass-akwards my worldbuilding was. The part where I detail the genesis of the Striker MBT seems to imply that a big part of the reason that the world came together was because everyone started using the same tank.

That’s just odd. If sharing weapons systems is all it takes to get countries to join together then the United States, Britain, and Russia would have become a single political entity during Lend-Lease. Unless I’m really mis-remembering my post-WWII history that didn’t happen.

There are only really two points I detailed for the creation of the United Commonwealth that I can think of right now. The first is that there was a war that threatened to blow up the whole world. The second was that everyone started using the same tank. This, then, caused everyone to say, “Hey, let’s all join together, give up our national sovereignty, and sing Kumbaya. Because that’s a thing that would happen.

I’ve mulled over the inherent problems of an origin story like that and you’ll be happy to know, dear reader, that I’ve changed things around quite a bit. What I have now is what I think is a pretty workable bit of worldbuilding. I’ve even managed to keep it almost believable and within the same timeline of the original. Although I’m not at all against tweaking the timeframe at this point.

What I have now is this: it’s the mid-21st Century and the world’s resources have noticeably dwindled. We’re on the verge of oil wars and water wars and resource wars and basic self-annihilation. The solution to this problem is probably in farming asteroids but it really sucks to get up to space to send ships off to the asteroids. The solution to the problem comes in the form of a scientific breakthrough: the discovery of a material that is actually strong enough to build a space elevator.

The task of building and administering the space elevator is handed off to the United Nations because they’re the only body that can guarantee fair access. The UN possesses the moral strength but lacks the strength of arms to enforce control. The US, Russia, and China are soon vying for control of the new space elevator, which is located in Brazil. War looks inevitable until an Anglo-French led coalition of nations steps in and gives Brazil enough support to threaten to expel America, Russia, and China from any access to the elevator. Everyone backs down and gets to work on the important task of mining asteroids.

The space elevator allows technological and scientific research to leap forward. New forms of propulsion ascend the ladder for testing.[3] Scientists also send up a whole bunch of awesome new space telescopes.

Breakthroughs in propulsion technology are announced at the same time the new space telescopes confirm a bunch of hypothesized and discover a bunch of new potentially habitable planets orbiting nearby stars. A new project to create colony ships is launched under the auspices of a brand-new replacement for the United Nations: the United Commonwealth. The Commonwealth has significantly more power than the UN and at this point the world is, for the most part, actually pretty determined to set differences aside and work for the common good.

So there we go. That’s a thing that I’ve actually put some thought into.

[1]This actually presents a huge problem in any narrative in space travel. In order to be realistic about visiting other planets using technology we know is possible a ship would be required to carry shuttles capable of deploying with their own multi-stage rockets to return or carry its own space elevator with it. Arthur C. Clarke posited the latter method in Songs of Distant Earth. It’s an interesting, if impractical, solution for Nightwind.

[2]Well, I suppose you could get away with a Titan II, which was what was used for the Gemini missions. I’ve used Saturn Vs in this bit specifically for the comparison between what it took to get a ship headed for the moon and what it took to get one back. For a sci-fi scenario you might be able to get away with simply achieving low orbit and letting the mothership pick the shuttle up. But, then again, taking a kilometer long battlecruiser into Low Earth Orbit might result in the obliteration of Cleveland by raining debris from a very expensive former warship. You might need a rocket that can carry a payload up into high orbit. Although that seems somewhat unlikely, given that the International Space Station doesn’t look like it could take too many hits from a railgun before it would turn into orbital confetti.

[3]I’ve gone with a super powerful ion engine as my main stab at it for the moment. I also threw antimatter-powered rockets in because that sounds cool.

Nightwind Follow-Up, ch 19-20

The whole existence of the Joshans[1] in this book is a problem. They’re kind of a Schrodinger’s Threat. They’re both knowledgeable and unaware, both powerful and weak. At the time I was putting them together I just saw them as a race that knew it was dying and was deeply afraid to face that truth. Their actions and motivations in that context made sense and still do.

As with everything else in this book, though, there’s a huge problem with their decision-making processes. Why don’t they just find out where the Nightwind is from, destroy Nightwind, and then go blow Earth back to the Stone Age? Why did they give Anderson their star charts and then send the Nightwind out on a crazy-ass wild goose chase? This is basically the Unnecessarily Slow Dipping Mechanism of plot points. They sent the Nightwind off where they literally could not track it and made it into a wild card and hoped the angry sea bass with lasers attached to their frickin’ heads would handle their problems for them.

Then, and Firedrake picked up on this problem immediately, they just kind of assume that Nightwind was the only form of defense humanity had and the Emperor commits a substantial portion of his dwindling resources to try and destroy Earth. These are actions taken because the plot dictates, not because they form a coherent decision matrix.

Of course it’s possible to defend this. I could say, “Well, they’re aliens. They don’t think like we do.” Unfortunately I haven’t done any of the necessary work to show that. I just made them a designated villain and had them do designated villain things.

This is one of those places where simply being older and more knowledgeable helps immensely. I have an inspiration for the Joshans now that comes from my unabashed love of the Byzantine Empire. I’ve often wondered what Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror thought when he finally entered Constantinople in 1453 and was greeted by a shrunken, nearly empty city. To me the Joshan Empire is now Byzantium in 1452.

The way Anderson and the Nightwind meet the Joshans and how the initial stages of contact goes have changed dramatically now that I have that image in my head.

Chapter 20 is just kind of one of those placeholder chapters that keep people aware of what’s going on. It’s not bad. It’s not great. It’s the base model Ford Focus of chapters. No one is excited that it’s in the book but if it wasn’t there the rest of the product wouldn’t move out of the showroom. There are some questionable physics in the discussion of the logistics of the passage from Earth to Saturn but I don’t have any major complaints.

This chapter is obviously an attempt to give Semmes a story arc. He’s fairly quiet and reserved here. Cautious, even. This makes sense, given everything that has happened. He’s the only one who really gets a character arc and I think I got it right in theory. Quality of execution, obviously, is in the eyes of the beholder.

I think the interaction with Bixby at the end of the chapter is really where I cement who Semmes is. After everything falls apart and he himself has failed on a scale he couldn’t have imagined he still realizes that it’s his job to teach. So he just does. I don’t feel Semmes should be as kind of the Dragon as he is in this chapter, though. Of course I am currently baffled by basically every bad guy’s motivation, so Semmes should be both confused and pissed rather than conciliatory.[2]

And so but anyway, I’ve been turning the re-write over in my head.

One of the things I said last week was that a book can only take so many storylines. Firedrake chimed in on the comments to echo that sentiment.

I’ve kind of hit a roadblock in the re-write.  One of the things I’ve learned about writing is that if something just isn’t working and you’re avoiding actually doing the work that means the thing you’re trying to write about probably doesn’t belong. If I, as the writer, am finding it impossible to force a chapter into a book that means that you, as the reader, will probably wonder why that chapter exists in the first place.

Do you remember General Hans Schroeder? I’ve taken to referring to him as General No Longer Appearing in this Picture. He actually got an entire story arc. This arc included a chapter that I genuinely don’t remember if I’ve gotten to yet that caused me to just stop writing the book for a while. I just had no fucking clue why I was writing that particular chapter. So when I was putting together the rewrite I just kind of forgot that Schroeder existed.

There’s a structural problem with the original that I simply cannot fix with a simple re-write. There are too many storylines. There’s the Anderson storyline, the Semmes storyline, the Laird storyline, the Joshan storyline, the Schroeder storyline, and the Turner/Hunt storyline. All I really managed to do in the re-write was consolidate the Turner/Hunt storyline and turn it over to Admiral Belden. But then I thought I still needed to have Turner and Hunt doing stuff. And I managed to add in another storyline in the process. So we’re talking, what, seven storylines? Seven or so perspective characters. That’s a lot. That’s too much.

I’ve been asking myself what it looks like if Nightwind has to stand on its own. I know that there’s plenty in the United Commonwealth/Colonial Authority conflict to create story upon story. Can I say the same about Anderson’s trip with the Nightwind? I think that question is as much an issue of whether there is enough of a story there as it is an issue of whether or not I’m a good enough storyteller.

This morning Mike Doughty put up a long-ass post on his Facebook page. In the middle he said, “As always, I feel obligated to focus on what’s new. I think it’s disrespectful to the spirit of art, which has fed me and put a roof over my head for 22 years, not to push myself, to work to the greatest extent of my creative abilities.” For me a book I initially wrote some sixteen years ago is new once again.

One of the questions I’ve asked on and off again since deciding to do a rewrite is, “Does it make sense that humanity just happened to have FTL communication at the outset?” I had considered just dropping it entirely but then I couldn’t figure out how to make the plot work if no one knew that the Winged Messenger/Zaqar had been destroyed by a mysterious, intelligent force. The existence of FTL communication facilitated this plot point but complicated the hell out of everything else. While I like the workaround I came up with in the rewrite where the Colonial Authority stands astride the lines of communication I wondered if that was really the best way to handle the issue.

This, then lead to another question. Why is everything about the Nightwind Project so secret? What happens if Earth Command launches the Nightwind in a public act of pomp and circumstance, then sends Anderson off to be the first human face the colonies have seen in a century or two? What happens when Anderson and the Nightwind get to 82 Eridani and find that it’s the ancient capital of an alien empire?

It did occur to me that if I write the Nightwind’s trip as a stand-alone then it needs a b-plot. That’s when Corporal Katherine Silas introduced herself to the world. When a new character appears that means that there’s a story to be told.

So the re-write is getting a re-write. The good thing is that very little of my effort thus far in the re-write will actually be wasted. Everyone back home still has to deal with the same problems and fight the same battles, but that’s going to be a separate book. Nightwind is back to getting top billing in its maiden voyage.

If everything goes well I might be able to introduce you to Corporal Silas next Friday. Maybe the Friday after that. She’s got an interesting story to tell.

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[1]I don’t think I’ve ever actually said anything about the origin of the name Joshan. Back when I was in grade school I used to draw (terrible) pictures of spaceships and starfighters and all that cool stuff. I have no idea what my inspiration was all the way back in the day but I have obviously loved sci-fi for as long as I can remember. The Joshans were simply an alien race that existed in those childish drawings. I don’t know why I decided on Joshans. Also, it’s pronounced Joe shan, with the second syllable pronounced almost exactly like chamois but with an n and without the e on the end. And it amuses the hell out of me that I could just write that sentence and know it makes sense.

The ship name Starfire, interestingly enough, also came from that time. When I first started drawing my little pictures my conception of a space carrier was literally an aircraft carrier with a big force field bubble over the entire flight deck. The first time I realized that was really, really stupid I drew a picture that was basically a long, rectangular box with a hemispherical control section sticking out of the middle of one end and extremely Star Trek-ish warp nacelles sticking out the sides. My idea was that there were eight or nine fighter bays that ran the whole length of the ship. Fighters would launch out the front and recover from the rear and everything could be sealed in.

The name Nightwind came along later, I think, and was for a spaceship created in a completely unrelated context. When it came time to write a book the ideas were already there, lying in wait.

The physical design of the Nightwind, by the way, has its origins in spaceships I drew in my notebooks in junior high. Or maybe high school. I seem to remember the idea for the four-drive system had something to do with the Starfuries on Babylon 5.

[2]This gives me an idea. Write a story where all of the bad guys are just hack villains from central casting and all of the good guys are normal people. Have the bad guys do hack villain stuff because the plot dictates. Have the good guys be completely and utterly baffled. Hope hilarity ensues.

Nightwind Follow-Up, ch 16-18

Chapter 16 started from a really weird place.

I was still a good little evangelical at the time I wrote the original draft of the book. You’ll notice that, among its other quirks, there’s a complete lack of cussing. At some point I realized that not-swearing wasn’t going to be enough if I sold the book because there would have to be some sort of Christianity in the book. So I just kinda shoehorned it in to Horatio’s character.[1]

On re-reading the book I knew that bit was coming and I kinda braced myself for it to be awful. In retrospect it really isn’t. It’s a bit out of place, but that’s because I don’t bother to talk about religion anywhere else in the book and I hadn’t conceived of Horatio as a character with religion. I was very much working off of the Star Trek/Babylon 5 model where most, if not all, of the people had just kind of moved beyond such things.

I really wish that I had realized the implications of this chapter more at the time. It feels like such a tremendous missed opportunity and highlights so much of what happens when you don’t really think through your worldbuilding. It’s also one of those things that goes a long way towards explaining why Horatio ended up as my favorite character in the book.

At this point the main characters are basically operating in a consequence-free environment. The chain of command has completely broken down because, well, everyone is either dead, in survival mode, or sidelined and playing the role of Greek Chorus. Horatio is the last man standing. He’s also the oldest and most experienced officer in the Navy and in this moment he’s standing up to take his place as the conscience and will of the whole of the United Commonwealth. He’s literally the only one who can see the big picture and is taking steps to hold everything together. He assembled the relief convoy. He took the initiative to find help wherever he could.

Now, almost before it’s begun, it’s blowing up in his face. He doesn’t know how to handle it. He’s always seen the Navy as a tradition and a chance to play dress up and live up to his names and legacies. He’s never killed anyone in that time. He’s never ordered the men and women in his command to take actions that will lead to their deaths. He’s certainly never made a mistake that resulted in the loss of thousands of innocent lives.

In this moment Horatio doesn’t know what to do. It’s possible this is the first time in his life he’s ever not known what to do. Who steps up to help him? A smuggler. A criminal he’s spent his career chasing down.

There’s an entire character study here. Horatio Semmes suddenly confronted with his own mortality and fallibility. Tina Morgan turning out to be a criminal with a heart of gold. There’s little doubt in my mind that I realized this at the time. I just didn’t stop to dwell on it because there was more important stuff to get done.

Horatio gets something of the same arc in the rewrite. It’s not as extreme, but it’s something I felt I had to keep in to some extent. He’s easily the most interesting character in the book. I’m thinking maybe instead of Nightwind I should call it Phoenix.[2]

Either way, I think Horatio realizes that he’s operating in a consequence free environment and he hates it. He just committed the fatal mistake to end all fatal mistakes and knows that there’s no one to keelhaul his ass. He can’t deal with that. Too bad I decided to just kind of wrap it all up in one chapter.

Chapter 17, then, is another round of Robert Laird twirling his designated villain mustache and being a cartoon.

I don’t like talking about Robert Laird anymore. This is just schlock. That’s all there is to it.

One of the interesting things about the re-write, though, is that I’ve kept Laird in the picture. He even plays the same role. It’s just that in the re-write he has actual motivations that make sense and he’s a patriot instead of a villain. One of the biggest difficulties I’m having right now is in the question of whether or not to actually include him as a perspective character in the book. As it stands right now there’s one Laird chapter that lets out some crucial information. There’s also a second chapter that theoretically could exist where I give him a voice while he takes an action that will happen no matter what. At this point it’s mostly a question of whether I want Laird to have a voice in the re-write or just be a shadowy figure that the main characters are working to counter.

I still feel like he has to have a voice to some extent. Now that he’s not a mustache-twirling stock character from central casting I want him to be something other than a voiceless villain. Laird now has legitimate concerns and someone needs to speak those words.

Otherwise, let’s avoid talking about Laird as much as possible from now on. His story is in a bad place and doesn’t get better.

Chapter 18 is one of those things that seems like a good idea at the time. I decided that I needed one of those, “Humans bumble through a first contact situation,” storylines. It’s a good storyline. It’s just a storyline that needs to be in a different book.

What I’ve learned since writing the original is that there are only so many storylines a book can hold. When I first conceived of Nightwind this story would have fit. I realized somewhere in there that the adventure and discovery aspect wasn’t something I could do particularly well, mostly because of that whole not knowing where anything is problem I mentioned a few posts back.

The other thing here is that Lindros has moved on to being openly insubordinate. She should really be in the brig at this point, but instead she’s going down to meet angry aliens. So that’s neat.

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[1]Part of the reason I followed up writing Nightwind with Second Chances was because Nightwind wasn’t at all a Christian book and Second Chances was supposed to be a Christian book. In retrospect, though, Second Chances isn’t really a Christian book, either. I mean, it’s all there, but the altar call scene isn’t conversion porn and the characters are all somewhat fleshed out, including the non-Christians. There are also a couple of Christians who are real assholes. So that’s a problem for the Christian fiction market.

[2]One of the most difficult things about the re-write is that I think I have to change the name of the book. My initial plan was for a trilogy, with each book named after the central ship. So Nightwind was to be followed by Starfire, where Captain Turner takes a central role in dealing with humanity’s new relationship with the Joshans. The third book was still somewhat up in the air. Plan A was Captain Hunt dealing with the fallout of Starfire while liasing with an alien race we haven’t yet met. Plan B was one of those jump forward into the future where a powerful warship from the past is recommissioned for some idiotic reason to save the day from some threat or another things.

I can’t really do that as a central conceit now, though. Nightwind is almost the B plot at this point in the rewrite. Semmes and Admiral Belden occupy more of the space and Turner and Hunt are actual active participants in the whole enterprise.