September 14, 2014

WRITING ADVICE: What Went Right in “Mystery On Space Station Courage” (CRICKET 1997) Guy Stewart #6

In September of 2007, I started this blog with a bit of writing advice. A little over a year later, I discovered how little I knew about writing after hearing children’s writer, Lin Oliver speak at a convention hosted by the Minnesota Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Since then, I have shared (with their permission) and applied the writing wisdom of Lin Oliver, Jack McDevitt, Nathan Bransford, Mike Duran, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, SL Veihl, Bruce Bethke, and Julie Czerneda. Together they write in genres broad and deep, and have acted as agents, editors, publishers, columnists, and teachers.

While I don’t write full-time, nor do I make enough money with my writing to live off of it...neither do all of the professional writers above...someone pays for and publishes ten percent of what I write. When I started this blog, that was NOT true, so I may have reached a point where my own advice is reasonably good. We shall see! Hemingway’s quote to the left will now remain unchanged as I work to increase my writing output and sales! As always, your comments are welcome!

This was a long shot – but not totally out of the blue.

In 1993, shortly before we moved to a homestead farm in rural Wisconsin, I stumbled across a small, church youth magazine called HiCall. The editor was interested in science fiction with a Christian message. I subbed once and was summarily rejected. I second time also garnered a rejection, but this time with a note of apology from the editor – she couldn’t use the story because dancing (even ballet for alien communication) was not acceptable to their denomination.

Chagrined by my ignorance, I did more research and wrote another story about paramedics on an alien world. She took it, published it, and I realized I’d fallen into a genre I’d never had any intention of mining.

This bit of history led me to the summer of 1995. I started to think about seriously approaching the market with SF for children and young adults. Not “funny SF” like Bruce Coville’s MY TEACHER IS AN ALIEN, but serious science fiction like Heinlein wrote for boys in the 1950s and that had hooked me as a kid on SF and eventually science.

While I doubted a straight SF story would be saleable, I wondered what would happen if I mixed an perennially  favorite genre with it. Mysteries are the mainstay of children’s literature, ranging from NANCY DREW and the HARDY BOYS through to Kate Messner’s SILVER JAGUAR SOCIETY. If I took science fiction and combined it with a mystery, I should have a saleable story!

I postulated a space station far enough in the future that the people there would feel completely comfortable bringing up their children in space. Being a space station, no one would let the kids run around. They would have to have TRAINING in order to be safe, so these kids don’t just “go to space school”, they learn how to do something useful – not like cleaning out rocket tubes or spinning thread poisoned with lead-based dyes or anything like that – but they need to have responsibilities as did their rural forebears.

The main character, while I never said she was African American, was supposed to be and the artist picked up on that. She’s a kid struggling with a serious loss...

Ah, but this was supposed to be COOL! My market was HIGHLIGHTS FOR CHILDREN, so it had to involve something kids could understand. There couldn’t be any aliens (I’m still working on aliens and kids), so it had to be technical. So – is there something a kid would need to know in a space environment? Sure! Everywhere you go is monitored in some way on a space station. But when you’re in a space suit, your only link to the outside world is your radio.

What if the radio goes out?

It seemed logical to me that kids could learn Morse Code – they’d have headlamps on their space suit. They’d have flashlights. They could rap out a standard SOS if they were trapped somewhere.

Trapped’d expect a KID to mess up and get trapped somewhere. But what if it wasn’t a KID? What if it was an adult who got trapped somewhere? And...

I built the story around the possibility that an astronaut, working on a communication dish gets wedged into a space he can’t get out of. Trapped, he does the only thing he can think of – he taps an SOS out on the bulkhead.

Why would a young person hang around in one place? Ah! She got grounded! Why?

All of the elements of this story started to draw together as I messed around with them. I drew sketches of the antennae as well as the chamber the astronaut got trapped in. I had to review my knowledge of Morse Code (which the editor included in the final copy!)

The story HAD to move fast – stories for young people in HIGHLIGHTS are just over flash fiction. I had no spare words to use. I had to write both a mystery and a space story, so the background had to be explicit. I created a friend who’d lost a parent in a space accident – and that set the background so that the trapped astronaut made sense. Space was dangerous.

Of course getting into a car is dangerous. Going to school is dangerous. Crossing the street is dangerous. Playing soccer is dangerous. Living in space is dangerous. You can DO all of these, but you have to be careful…

A second story came out of this milieu and if you’ll excuse me, I feel another Space Station Courage story coming on!

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