I've roadtripped with Curtis Chen, so can vouch for the fact that he knows all about the tensions of long voyages in small confined spaces with questionable travel companions. Here Curtis tells us who walked the plank in one of the many drafts of his debut novel, WAYPOINT KANGAROO.
One of the many things I love about writing genre fiction is playing with the tropes of a particular story type. But sometimes you have to make a tough choice: do you “lean in” to an expected trope, or do you work to subvert a cliché?
When I started writing my novel Waypoint Kangaroo, I knew I wanted to set most of the story aboard a cruise spaceship traveling from Earth to Mars. I also wanted the main threat to be the runaway ship crashing into Mars--a planet which, in this future, has close to twenty million permanent residents. (Speaking of kinetic projectiles, check out Charles Stross’ “Towards a taxonomy of cliches in Space Opera” blog post for additional trope awareness.)
There is, of course, a long tradition of adventures in which a motley group is thrown together by disaster. In this case, since we’re talking about a cruise ship, the obvious comparison is The Poseidon Adventure--in space! Except that the protagonist here is a trained operative, and there are actual bad guys, so it’s a bit more like Die Hard.
And therein lies the problem: your story can’t be both Die Hard and Poseidon Adventure. Either you focus on the hero’s journey, or you focus on the ordinary people who get swept up by extraordinary circumstances. Maybe the hero runs into a few feisty bystanders, like in Speed, but they’re still just comic relief.
(Aside: we shall never speak of Speed 2: Cruise Control. NEVER. Moving on.)
I knew my story would revolve around Kangaroo, the superpowered secret agent, but the idea of an interplanetary pleasure cruise was too much fun not to play with. I had imagined a propulsion system that could simulate close-to-Earth-normal gravity by accelerating the whole way--speeding up for the first half, then slowing down again to get into Mars orbit. And if you need to stop the engines and turn the ship around at midway, why not allow the passengers time for some fun and games in zero-gravity?
The problem was, Kangaroo wasn’t enjoying this so-called vacation--his handler had ordered him to leave Earth while their department was being audited. So Kangaroo wouldn’t choose to indulge in any of the frivolous activities offered aboard the cruise ship. I had to find ways to force him to experience those moments of wonder.
Enter Laura Ann Monroe.
The Laura Ann character was a “woman of a certain age” who pursued Kangaroo around the cruise ship, thinking he was just another young, unattached, male passenger and looking to score a quick and dirty vacation romance. This amused me because:
- It inverted the hoary (and problematic) “Bond girl” trope;
- it allowed me to show just how bad Kangaroo was at pretending to be a normal human person on vacation; and
- it was literally a cougar chasing a kangaroo y’all.
The problem (pointed out to me by a literary agent I was querying at the time, but that’s another story) was that Laura Ann’s prominence in the middle of the story made her absence at the end all the more conspicuous. The agent’s precise words were:
“The crazy flirty lady drops out of the story with no resolution. She's such a presence that I thought she was part of the plot.”
That was, as the kids say, my bad.
When shit got real, there simply wasn’t anything for little ol’ Laura Ann to do. She was only a passenger, and didn’t have any particular skills that would help save the ship--certainly nothing that would cause her to continue interacting with Kangaroo. I brainstormed a number of ways to modify the character or convolute the plot to require her presence at the climax (NO PUN INTENDED), but I just couldn’t make it work to my satisfaction (AGAIN, NO PUN INTENDED, GET YOUR MIND OUT OF THE GUTTER).
Ms. Monroe had to go. And I had to find other ways to drive Kangaroo to those same story beats.
It took a lot of rewriting, but I did find ways to hit most of the thematic targets above using other characters and situations. In fact, during later rewrites, I got pretty good at hollowing out and refilling individual sequences: the plot framework was already set (and pretty finely calibrated), so each scene had to start and end in roughly the same place, but the actions and emotional beats therein often needed extensive rewiring. I did lose a great slapstick bit involving a hundred-pound concrete ball in zero-gee, but overall I believe the story works better now. It’s more Die Hard than Poseidon Adventure by design. And only a little bit like Fifth Element.
But that wasn’t even the biggest revision I made! I later rewrote the entire second half of the book based on three words my editor said to me--but explaining that would get us into serious spoiler territory. If you want to hear about that whole thing, read Waypoint Kangaroo first, then ask me in person later.
Once a software engineer in Silicon Valley, CURTIS C. CHEN now writes speculative fiction and runs puzzle games near Portland, Oregon. His debut novel WAYPOINT KANGAROO, a science fiction spy thriller, is forthcoming from Thomas Dunne Books on June 21st, 2016. Curtis' short stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, the Baen anthology Mission: Tomorrow, and The 2016 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide. He is a graduate of the Clarion West and Viable Paradise writers' workshops. You can find Curtis at Puzzled Pint Portland on the second Tuesday of every month. Visit him online at: http://curtiscchen.com.