Anatomy of an Edit – Engineering Dream

Sorry for the delay, I kinda got waylaid and stunned into inaction.  Nothing bad, not by a long shot.  Engineering dream won!

So… back to our regularly scheduled Anatomy of an Edit.

It’s time once again for my behind the look at the writing of a story.  This challenge was actually harder for me because I had to hit an exact number of words, and when I looked at the prompt, (a picture of Smoo Cave in Scotland) I had an idea that was going to need to make the most out of every word available.

Smoo Cave, Durness (Highland, Scotland). Photo taken by Florian Fuchs, WikiCommons.

So, I started this project with a concept – instead of trying to make up a story about the cave, or using a cave, or proposed ‘fire and ice’ concept… I went for a slightly deeper ‘fire and ice’ concept – a reactor core… on a spaceship.

I thought it had potential as a metaphor… I just couldn’t get it started as you can see by the first few attempts to introduce the main character and the scenario.

David Barrett stood in the cavernous engine room of the alien cruiser and gasped at the beasuty of the system. “If I didn’t know better,” he murmed .”I’d say I were back home in Scotland.”

“What?” MIssion specialist Mathers asked from within the control vehicle. “When I said ‘tell me how its looking down there, I meant tell me if the system is functioning.”

David studied the rock formations, and water as it spilled in from above. Judging by the water flow and the fact that the orange glow from the reactor chamber was barely touching the cooling liquid, he assumed it was still reacting effeciently.

“This has got to be the coolest system ever,” he answered.

“Barrett, are you talking scientifically or metaphorically?”

“Neither… both… Matt, you gotta see this.”

As you can see… I didn’t even bother dealing with the spelling errors at this point, I was trying to get the story started, but it felt like my tires were spinning and I could tell there was no way I could take this and spin it into a 200 word yarn.

So I tried again, this time trying to introduce the concept in one, albeit long, sentence.

Mattie Barnes thought she had seen everything as a member of Earth’s Space Rescue and Recovery team, and had managed to keep that belief until the day she stepped on board the alien vessel.

It still did have what it took, so I renamed the main character, made them older and tried again.

Donnal McPherson was not easily impressed. He’d been a member of Earth’s Space Rescue and Recovery for over 20 years and he thought he’d seen it all, and he had- right up until the moment he stepped aboard the alien ship from ASC21.

This still didn’t have the hook I wanted… so I tried again.

“Rudy, you have got to see this!”

Daniel Rodriquez sighed. He was on his third tour with Earth Rescue and Recovery as flight engineer, and the ‘space grunts’ always thought they’d found something ‘new and interesting’ for him when they were exploring old alien technology.

The last time they’d called him in, there had been a computer running off of some sort of algae.

“Swift,” he called. “You’re in the main reactor observation area. According to the readings, the reactor chamber has not been breached, just stay on target, we need to find their ‘Incident Monitor’ and find out what happened.

“Rudy, no, believe me… you’ve got to see this.”

This version had a decent hook, draw the person into the situation through Rudy – try and figure out why he has to see ‘this’ (whatever this is) but it still didn’t have the direction and focus I needed for a 200 word story.

There were times that Daniel Rodriquez regretted his decision to enlist in Earth Rescue and Recovery, this was definitely not one of them, although when they’d first arrived at the derelict ship, he was thinking it was going to be like any other mission.

Daniel stood staring in awe at the scene before him. All the work

Again, I didn’t really ‘feel’ the story in this – with a story this short, I had to introduce everything as quickly and clearly as possible.  And this was not going to do it.

Once again, back to the drawing board.

Alex anxiously watched the feeds as the probe went deeper into the alien craft. It was so unlike anything he’d ever seen before.

In his thirteen years as Earth Rescue and Recovery’s senior engineer he’d seen every type of building material imaginable: steel, plasteel, hyper bonded particals, polybonded ynthetics, quarts and diamond suspension glass, but he had never seen anything even close to what was now appearing on the monitors.

If he hadn’t controlled the drone’s descent himself, he would have thought they’d somehow ended up planetside rather than in the middle of a derelict ship in the horsehead nebula.

He studied his sensor readouts to verify the data the probe was sending back and held his breath as the drone reached the hatchway to what had to be the main reactor. Using the sample collector tool, he activated the lock and watched as the hatch opened revealing the main reactor control room.

The standard dials and gauges he’d learned to expect were present, but what totally blew his mind was the picture window that showed the reactor itself. There were no tubes, no heavy duty seals… just something that looked like a cave, where the coolant cascaded from an upper level, creating a waterfall to keep the fluid moving. The Fall took up a good two thirds of the area, but just off to the right, he could see the glow from the reactor itself.

This time, I thought I was on the right track, I just needed to make the story do more than just explore the engines.  I needed to bring people into the story and I decided I liked the vibe I was getting from this engineer, and since I have a friend Alex who is an engineering type it works all the better.

I just had to take that exploration and do something with it.  Something that would only take 200 words to tell… and so the story finally began to look like what I finally turned in.

Alex anxiously paced the hall with his research carefully tucked under his arm. In his thirteen years as Earth Rescue and Recovery’s senior engineer he’d seen every type of building material imaginable: steel, plasteel, hyper bonded particals, polybonded synthetics made to look like anything from steel to glass. but he had never seen anything even close to what he had found on the alien ship he was now trying to preserve.

It was a derelict, there was no sign of the aliens who had built it, but the fact that it had maintained hull integrity as well as core containment for well over a century after it was abandoned meant It was something that needed to be investigated properly.

The first few slides managed to elicit yawns from the review board, and the remained singly unimpressed until he brought up the pictures and schematics of the ship’s reactor core.

He watched as they all sat up and focused on the images the probe had returned.

“No,” he said, answering their unasked question. “This is not a planetary image. This is the core reactor of the ship, and why it needs to be preserved and researched.”

Instead of the customary cooling rods or suspensions was what looked like a series of caverns with waterfalls of coolant cascading down the one wall into a flowing pool that flowed passed the glowing chamber of the reactor only to be filtered through the rocks and recirculated in a perpetual, sustainable flow.

The board studied the diagrams, and only one looked up at him, a curious expression on his face.
“I understand the basics of fusion reactors, but what does this note mean?” he asked pointing to the notation “here there be dragons.”

This was nowhere near finished, but it was closer to target… it had an ending of sorts… not the one I wanted because that would have taken too long, but one that sort of worked.  I had something roughed in now: I just had to polish it and see if there was a gem of a story or not.

I had a rough draft in need of a better finish and 88 words to lose.

Alex anxiously watched as the preservation board studied his request to research a derelict alien craft. In his thirteen years as Earth Rescue and Recovery’s senior engineer he had never seen anything even close to what they had found.  During this pass I was focusing on two things: pairing down the words and polishing the story.  While I liked describing  the different building materials Alex had seen, when you’re writing a story that is exactly 200 words long – its too much information-  by removing the bit about having his research tucked under his arm, and making it that he was waiting for the preservation board’s ruling, I combined some information, leaving it there, but in a different form.

There had been no sign of the aliens who had built it, but the fact that it had maintained hull integrity as well as core containment for well over a century after it had been abandoned meant they knew what they were doing.  Here I removed ‘derelict’ and let the readers imply it.  ‘After it was abandoned’ be came ‘had been abandoned’ – it’s one of those changes that only cuts one word, but the tenses shift slightly and a change in nuance.

No one seemed very excited until it came to the engine room. The images were so unexpected he found himself reassuring the board. Here two paragraphs were combined into one, not focusing on the board being bored, 

“No, this is not a planetary image. This is the ship’s core reactor, and why it needs to be preserved and researched.”

It was a thing of beauty. Instead of the customary cooling rods and tanks the reactor was cooled by what looked like a series of caverns with waterfalls of coolant cascading down the one wall into a flowing pool that flowed passed the glowing chamber of the reactor only to be filtered through the rocks and recirculated in a perpetual, sustained flow. Here I made the flow of current more active,  I added a few words to do it, but as I said, this was a rough polish and cut pass.

As the board studied the images, and the chairman focused on the diagram and looked up at Alex, a curious expression on his face. Here instead of a random board member showing interest in the diagram, I made it the chairman of the board.    I gave him a little more distinction.

“I understand the basics of fusion reactors, but what does this note mean?” he asked pointing to the notation “here there be dragons.”   Again, not quite the smoth ending I wanted, but it was getting there, and it was a lot closer than it was when I began.

By now I was getting closer to the story, but I was still 36 words over the required length.  I still had editing to do and it would take me several tries to get it closer to what I wanted, each time, tightening up the story, removing extraneous bits to try and get to the core of the story and have enough wiggle room to hone the ending into a stinger that would stick with the readers.

Alex waited anxiously as the ERR Review Board studied his request to preserve rather than scrap a derelict spaceship.  In his thirteen years as Earth Rescue and Recovery’s senior engineer he had never seen anything like it, and he hoped the board would approve his request.  So… the Preservation board was turned into the ERR Review Board  – Here I also added the threat – Instead of asking for research, he was asking them to study it rather than scrapping it.  

The fact that the craft had maintained full hull integrity and containment for well over a century meant they could learn a thing or two about stabilizing their own craft, but that wasn’t why he wanted to save the ship. I removed the mention of aliens since well… it’s already implied.  And even with the desire to study it, I let the reader know there’s something special about the ship.

“This is the ship’s reactor core and cooling system,” he said, as the images appeared on their screen.  Here I managed to combine, the images of the engine room, reassuring and explaining what they were seeing.   Taking 45 words and cutting them down to 18.

It was a thing of beauty.  Instead of the customary cooling rods and tanks the reactor was cooled by what looked like a series of caverns with waterfalls of coolant cascading down the one wall into a flowing pool that surged past the glowing chamber of the reactor only to be filtered through the rocks and recirculated in a perpetual, sustained cycle. This paragraph stayed pretty much the same.  I wanted to keep the imagery, since that was the prompt for the story.

“This design is amazingly efficient and self-contained,”  Here I let our engineer speak, showing his enthusiasm and perhaps love for the reactor design.

The chairman nodded appreciating both the beauty of the design as well as it’s functionality.  “I understand  the basics of fusion reactors, but what does this note mean?” The Chairman  asked pointing to the hand written  notation “here there be dragons.”  I also expanded the chairman’s role, giving him a little more ‘page time.’  I wanted this to be… people not machines.

This was where things got interesting

And by adding the sentence at the end, I let the story finish, yet hinted at a deeper meaning. – Things got interesting because he had to explain the message  (does the message mean something totally unexplored or does it mean that the reactor is, in actuality a dragon?)  It leaves a lot up to the reader.

So, I was now a lot closer to the target– but I still had 20 words to lose and a story to refine.  It took another 5 edits to come to the final version of the story.

It wasn’t the story I really wanted to tell – but it was the story I *could* tell in 200 words.

Alex waited anxiously as the engineering review board studied his request to preserve a derelict spaceship.   The fact that the craft was still functional after a century and a half indicated that studying it could give them a better understanding of how to improve their own craft, which rarely lasted thirty years with constant maintenance. As you can see, a lot has changed.  The first two paragraphs were combined into one.  Alex’s experience, the ERR have been removed because they weren’t absolutely essential.  But I added more on the importance of this discovery.

“This is the reactor core and cooling system,” he said, as the images appeared on the overhead display.

Instead of the customary cooling rods and tanks one would expect, the reactor was made up of a series of caverns.  Waterfalls of coolant cascaded down the one wall into a flowing pool that surged past the glowing chamber of the reactor itself only to be filtered through the rocks and recirculated in a perpetual, sustained cycle. Again, very little changed in the description – it’s the middle, the focus – the why its important to Alex – 

“The design of the HTBD drive is amazingly efficient and self-contained,” Alex assured them.   Here they’d named the system with an acronym, giving the hint of ‘Here there be Dragons’ without having to say it… It lays the groundwork for it later

The chairman nodded appreciating both the beauty of the design as well as its functionality.  “I see why you want to study this,” the chairman agreed.  “But this note is rather confusing…”  Again, I have to rely on the readers to put the pieces together  (so I guess the story is in fact a ‘some assembly required story)

‘Not really,” Alex said.  “It’s why we call it the HTBD drive.” And a hint at Alex’s sense of humor

“Here, there be dragons?”

Alex smiled, this was where things got interesting.

And there you have it – The final version of:

Engineering Dream

Alex waited anxiously as the engineering review board studied his request to preserve a derelict spaceship.   The fact that the craft was still functional after a century and a half indicated that studying it could give them a better understanding of how to improve their own craft, which rarely lasted thirty years with constant maintenance.

“This is the reactor core and cooling system,” he said, as the images appeared on the overhead display.

Instead of the customary cooling rods and tanks one would expect, the reactor was made up of a series of caverns.  Waterfalls of coolant cascaded down the one wall into a flowing pool that surged past the glowing chamber of the reactor itself only to be filtered through the rocks and recirculated in a perpetual, sustained cycle.

“The design of the HTBD drive is amazingly efficient and self-contained,” Alex assured them.

The chairman nodded appreciating both the beauty of the design as well as its functionality.  “I see why you want to study this,” the chairman agreed.  “But this note is rather confusing…”

‘Not really,” Alex said.  “It’s why we call it the HTBD drive.”

“Here, there be dragons?”

Alex smiled, this was where things got interesting.

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About mtdecker

Just your average writer- which is to say, I have a full-time job developing and testing software.
This entry was posted in Commentary, Editing, Flash Fiction, writing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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