Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Mimas Object - Part 6

I'm putting The Mimas Object story on hold for now, pending a major plot revision.  Below is my attempt to explain what I think went wrong and how I'm going to fix it in the rewrite.

When I reached Part 6 of The Mimas Object, I realized that several things were wrong.  Conflict existed to a degree, but nothing seemed to change as a result of it.  Julia was faced with a problem, found a solution, and moved on.  Or, a problem happened outside her control, had some effect on her out in space, and she dealt with it.  Boring!

To my dismay, this is a recurring problem with my writing.  I have never quite understood what was wrong.  I began listening to the audiobook version of Robert McKee's book Story.  It's meant for screenwriters, but is useful for short story writers and novelists as well.  McKee tells us that a Story is broken into 3 or more Acts.  Each Act is in turn broken into one or more Sequences.  Each Sequence consists of one or more Scenes.  Each Scene consists of one or more Beats.  Beats are small actions, even mini-conflicts, that move a Scene forward.  A Scene, McKee says, must feature a conflict that causes a change in a "charged value" for the main character.

For example, consider the scene I've already written in this story where Julia learns that Russian hackers have taken control of Mars Two's computers.  They demand access to The Mimas Object in exchange for not wiping her systems and essentially leaving Julia in space to die.  The politicians back on Earth believe that The Mimas Object may be alien in nature and contain technologies that would advance US interests significantly.  They refuse.  The Russians shut down and wipe Julia's computers on Mars Two.  She figures out a way to restore them from a backup on the tablet on the spacecraft and is immediately back on track to Mimas.

In McKee's terms, I've failed.  Julia's situation at the end of this scene is identical to that at the start.  In fact, if anything, it's better.  Her computers are clean of Russian influence now.  This is the wrong direction for an early conflict in the story.

Taking McKee's advice, I consider that Julia should see some "charged" (i.e., important to her) value change in the scene.  So the rewrite I'm considering is this...

Julia is on-time and on-course for Mimas.  Mars Two is behaving fine, until suddenly it comes to a halt and a message is displayed, telling Julia that the Russians have seized control of her spacecraft until such time as the American government agrees to give them access to the object she is bringing back from Mimas.  They refuse to communicate with her.  The American government refuses to share the object.  The Russians tell Julia what's happened and apologize for what they're about to do.  They trigger a shutdown and erasure of the Mars Two computer system.  During the erasure, the main and some of the maneuvering thrusters fire randomly.  Mars Two is now flying off course.  Without computer control, Julia will not be able to get it back on course to Mimas - or even return it to Earth.  She struggles to find a solution and remembers there is a backup on the tablet.  She restores the computers and brings them online, only to learn something terrible.  It took so long to recover the computer and regain control that she is now very far off course.  The computer estimates that she no longer has the fuel to get to Mimas safely, or the fuel to return to the orbital platform she launched from.  In a word, she's going to die unless she can figure something out.  

In this revised scene, we have conflict - the Russian takeover of the spacecraft and her fight to restore the systems to running order.  Her situation goes from the "charged values" of being safe, able to complete her mission, and able to return home, to being in grave danger, being unable to complete the mission, and unable to return home. 

In a nutshell, this is what I need to do in this story.  I have to decide where my climax is going to be in the story, and what happens in that Scene.  From there, I have to work back to the inciting incident that starts Julia on the path to the climax.  Then, I'll have a story worth writing.  (Hopefully.)

I'll be working on this "proper" plot for the next few days.  This post and the others in the series will remain up for the time being. When I'm ready to start the rewrite, I'll probably take them down and start with the new version of the story.

Wish me luck, and thanks for listening.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Mimas Object - Part 5

Julia had little faith in Washington after they had grounded the Shuttle Orbiter program without a replacement.  This left the astronauts to hitchhike on the spacecraft of other nations, including the one that seemed determined to prevent her from reaching Mimas.

Perhaps she could get the Russians talking again.  Maybe she could negotiate something with them.

She wanted a backup plan in place before she talked to them.  She knew they had access to the video chat camera above the display, and could see much of what we going on in the cockpit.  If she moved quickly enough, she could block the camera.  By the time the Russians could send her a message to unblock it, she could switch navigation over to manual.  She was already in the EVA suit, and needed only to put the helmet on in order to ensure she had air to breathe.  The only thing she had to worry about was the self-destruct sequence they claimed to have.

How would that work?  The only thing on the craft that could explode would be the fuel.  They might jettison that and ignite the engines, hoping to trigger an explosion.  But that would require access to the thrusters, which she was going to deny them by switching off computer-assisted navigation.  Maybe it was just a bluff.  She'd risk it.

She bent down to the food compartment under the comm display and pretended to accidentally cover up the camera with the tablet computer.  Then, she quickly switched to manual navigation, put the helmet in her lap, and ripped open the food packet.  As she expected, the comm system began a half-beeping, half-buzzing sound like a cheap alarm clock.  She picked up the tablet and looked at the screen.

"What are you doing, Commander?" The display asked.

"I was grabbing something to eat.  Hope you don't mind.  Hey, could we talk for a minute?  I have a feeling Washington won't cut a deal with you.  If they don't, give me a chance before you do that self-destruct thing, OK?"

"You are correct. Negotiation is not going well for you."

She took a bite of food from the packet and nodded.  "It's that whole 'we will not negotiate with terrorists' thing.  Since 9/11, politicians are real sticklers about that.  But here's the thing, Whatever this is, it's ours.  It's not yours.  It doesn't belong to the Chinese, the English, the French, the Israelis, or anyone else.  If this thing is what they think it is, it's too much for any one nation to handle."


"The plan is for me to bring this thing back to the orbital launch platform and wait there.  This module's designed to enter Earth's atmosphere, even though it's meant for Mars.  It was cheaper to build it that way, and it would allow us to land it back on Earth if something happened to the platform."

"What are you suggesting?"

"I'm suggesting that maybe I could bring the module, and this object, down in the water near Europe instead of Florida.  You'd have another opportunity to negotiate for access.  If you got the news media interested ahead of time, you might get public opinion on your side."

"Land the module in Russian waters."

"It's not that I don't trust you guys, but I can't do that.  If my people think I'm a traitor who's sold them out to the Russians, I'll never be able go home.  I want to go home.  I want to fly this thing to Mars.  Do you understand?"

"Land the module in Russian waters."

"I told you.  I can't do that."

"This discussion is over.  Unfortunately for you, the discussion with Washington is over as well.  We are now activating the self-destruct.  Goodbye, Commander."

As before, the cockpit became dark and silent.  She would put on her helmet when the air became too thin or too cold.  She tried to revive the computer, but it didn't work.  Their self-destruct mechanism must have wiped it clean.  She looked at the tablet, which was still working.  There was still hope.

According to the manuals she'd read, there was a system recovery image on the table that could restore the main computer in an emergency.  The Russians claimed to have infected it, and they probably had. If she restored the computer, she would just be handing control of Mars One back to them.  She had no intention of doing that.  She needed a way to restore communication with Mission Control, to get the engineers offering other options.  But how?