With a long standing interest in physics (I was a theoretical physicist long before I started crafting stories) the idea of space travel has always been fascinating.
Last year, the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination prompted the airing of various TV documentaries about the first moon landing and, coincidently, I came across a web article looking at various projects – public and private – to send manned (possibly one-way) missions to Mars. Taken together, my imagination was immediately sparked.
The process of writing never takes a single path. Occasionally I move smoothly from initial idea to a coherent first draft. Other times writing is far more chaotic. A bit like solving a physics or maths problem: sometimes you ‘get it’ straight off; and other times you don’t. This time, I certainly didn’t. I started writing all sorts of scenes. Some on earth, others on Mars. Churning out wordcount was fine – loads to play with. But nothing settled. My document (labelled, unimaginatively, ‘Mars’) reached 9,000 words and counting. But I still didn’t know, not really, who my narrator was, I didn’t have a structure, and though I knew ‘what happened’ I was failing to inject any kind of suspense or surprise. The whole thing felt unremittingly dreary. How could a ‘Mission to Mars’ feel so boring?
Time for a major rethink.
Back in my days as a budding physicist, I couldn’t abide any of what I termed ‘waffle subjects’, by which I meant any school subject where answers to questions contained more words than equations. I loved reading in my spare time, but hated (really hated) writing myself, whether that was creative writing or essays. ‘Sarah doesn’t like long answers,’ my physics teacher once said. And that pretty much summed me up at the time.
Since (inexplicably) finding the urge to write fiction about eight years ago, I’ve learned the pleasures of churning out words and – as I would have termed it – waffle. But succinctness and precision play a big role in writing too. It’s hardly unusual for me to reduce initial wordcount by twenty, thirty, fifty percent. It’s less usual to reduce something ninefold.
But that’s what happened here.The idea of a contrived structure – following the alphabet – isn’t entirely new and neither is it something that would generally appeal to me. I can’t really identify what it was that triggered the idea. Perhaps it had something to do with spotting our copy of Primo Levi’s ‘Periodic table’ on our shelves, or maybe the sight of my friend Rob Pateman’s book, ‘The second life of Amy Archer’, which has an A to Z section too. In any case, solutions to problems – be they mathematical or literary – are sometimes like that: the way in comes to you a bit out of the blue. Somehow the (highly unoriginal) phrase ‘A is for apple’ came to mind, alongside the idea that eating fresh produce was something astronauts might miss.
And so it started.
Initially, I had no idea if I’d be able to get through the entire alphabet or not, though amidst those 9,000 words most letters got a look in from time to time. I still worried about how on earth (or Mars) I’d handle those awkward letters at the end.
But once I got off the ground, the whole thing become fun and ideas began to flow. Writing certainly wasn’t linear; I moved freely back and forth through the alphabet, it was still too long, but at last I had something I could play with and refine.
Once it was more or less there, I then had to ask myself, but is it any good? Usually I have some sort of an idea whether I’m pleased with something or not, and whether something is worth sending out on submission. This time was much harder to judge.
Bravado won out.
And I’m very glad it did. I’m delighted for my Mission to Mars to be launched by The Fiction Desk.
Read Mission to Mars: an A-Z Guide in our anthology There Was Once a Place, out now in paperback and ebook.