29 Jul 2016
As those of you who take my newsletter know, I’ve put the 223B Casebook Series on hold in favor of finishing a novel I started back in 2001. The plan was to take a month to finish “Ride of My Life,” and then get back to the publishing schedule.Ten weeks later, “Ride” is still not finished, and therein lies a tale.
My writerly mind is peculiar in that stories have a hard time sticking. I have a few in there now, the characters and situations frozen in amber, hoping to be broken out and finished.
What’s keeping them there is made up of equal parts fear and distraction. There’s fear that what comes out in print won’t be particularly good (and I’ll be judged for it), and distraction in that it’s easy to find other things to get worked up about.
I can’t get worked up about “Ride,” of course. I have been. But it’s getting in there that’s the problem.
Take last night, when we finally sat down ? we being me, my wife, and my teen son — and saw a movie we had heard good things about. It was written and directed by Adam McKay, known for doing small, intimate, indie films such as “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights” with some guy, Will Smith? Will Arnett?
It was a comedy about economic collapse.
The morning after, I had to take a walk in the morning, because I was still seething over the movie. I remember seeing the crisis play out, day after day, week after week, from the stories coming across the copy desk. All of the incidents in there, the Wall Street talk, the balloon mortgages, the sight of half-built suburbs where people were flipping houses for insanely higher and higher prices. I had read about the South Sea Bubble and the Tulip Bubble, and even I could see the crash coming.
And then it happened, and then Bush rescued the banks with taxpayer money and Obama shielded the banks and rating agencies from the criminal consequences of their actions.
And you wonder why Saunders nearly made it and Trump did?
The Problem Is …
It doesn’t get words down on the page. I had to take a walk, down the sun-beaten road to the Friendly’s and then back. That helped.
Writing this does, too. Even though I’m violating one of my cardinal rules about talking about politics. That’s how much space is being taken up in my head.
So now I’m back to focusing on the book, and the main problem: What time period to set it in?
“Ride” was written in 2001, when the idea that an average joe could win a ride on the Space Shuttle in a contest was not really that far-fetched. There was talk in the air about space tourists. Dennis Tito went up that year, paying the Russians $20 million for his ticket. When I revisited the book in 2007-8, much of the hoopla had faded.
Now, what was going to be future history is now the past. I have to decide: do I leave it in 2001 (before events in New York City and Washington shifted our history onto a new course)? Or do I set it elsewhere? And when?
Fitting the Pieces Together
There’s another problem I had to work with. “Ride’s” early drafts paid some attention to the technology, but not as much as it should. It was written quickly, with me looking stuff up along the way, such as the state of the International Space Station, and how NASA trained its astronauts.
Because I was setting the book in the near future, I didn’t concern myself with what the space station looked like and whether or not it had the equipment I needed for the plot.
So I looked at the story’s needs, especially the (long abandoned) Crew Return Vehicle, and tried different solutions. Setting it in 2001 didn’t work; the culture was right, but the station was too small to need or allow the CRV.
I thought about creating a fictional mission, maybe STS-136 and setting it in the present day. But I could see the agency’s resistance to having a contest winner fly on the last shuttle mission, at the moment when the program’s being retired. Recreating the culture inside NASA would require taking into account that the program was closing down, people were being let go, the orbiters as they landed would be prepared for museums. It didn’t seem like a very amusing time to be around.
An author has a lot of leeway in setting the story. He can ignore everyone except what’s going on in his head. I felt like I had to get it right in there before I can get it right on the page.
This was especially important, because when I stop writing, when I stop thinking, I can feel Trump and Hillary and all of their hanger-ons and allies and enemies and trolls coming closer, preparing to swarm like in one of Jack Davis’ celebrated works (Davis, the Mad magazine artist, had just died recently, so he’s on my mind, too).
Time to hit the Wikipedia pages and NASA’s extensive archive of all the missions. Time to scratch obscure notes on legal pads (“Mission goals,” “Raffaello MPLM,” “Zarya,” “Worf”) and facts and questions (“Columbia destroyed Feb 2003,” “how many space tourists?”) and think, and think.
And reach a conclusion. One I could live with.
When that’s settled, other questions become answered. I’ll use an existing mission (STS-132, to be precise) and apologize for hijacking it. That gives me the date, which tells me the configuration of the ISS. It tells me that I can have people use smartphones and talk about Twitter, both nonexistent back in 2001. In the scene currently under construction, when our hero, Ted Prescott, is meeting his crewmates for the first time, I’ll know that they’ll be talking about the approaching end of the program (still a year away by the time they launch), and how the baseball fans in the crew think Brad Mills will do in his first year managing the Astros.
Now I’ve got to get the crew to come back into my head and tell me what they’re going to do next.