Review: Nick Lake’s realistic YA science fiction SATELLITE

I was not going to bypass a story pitched as THE MARTIAN for teens, and SATELLITE fills its brief fabulously: you won’t be disappointed if you come looking for realistic space-exploration science. But this book delivered lots, lots more…so much that I’m planning to read it again.

SATELLITE follows 15-year-old Leo Freeman, one of the first babies to be born and raised on a space station, after his astronaut mom was discovered to be pregnant once in orbit. Leo’s got two older friend-“siblings” from a different mom, who got together with another fellow astronaut when they were on a long-term research program in orbit, part of preparation for human colonisation-journeys to other worlds. Continue reading “Review: Nick Lake’s realistic YA science fiction SATELLITE”

Your manuscript: build the world and let it go

Bill Anders earthrise from the moon image courtesy NASA

I’m girding my loins for something many of my SCBWI friends already know well: the ordeal of submitting a finished manuscript to childrens’ literary agents. I’ve been here before, including with an early draft of the not-bad-but-could-be-more-sparkly science fiction novel I’m about to do the rounds with again. That experience last autumn was an eye-opener and a heartbreaker. Doesn’t matter how much you’ve heard about submissions: until you’ve put your own work forward to be judged by professional sales agents, you don’t know what words like inadequacy and anxiety really mean.

As one of my SCBWI friends Fiona said, I was one of the lucky ones, because while my early draft didn’t find an agent, I got a handful of “glorious rejections” that gave me hope, pointers on improvement and ample encouragement to send further projects to them for consideration (read: they didn’t want to see that manuscript again, even if revised).

But I have revised it, thanks to the incredible SCBWI network which connected me with a full-manuscript review from a Faber & Faber editor, courtesy of the SCBWI raffle prizes at last year’s Winchester conference. Have I mentioned what a lifesaver this incredible SCBWI organization is? On Christmas Eve, no less, the hard-working editor sent me a full editor’s letter analyzing the strengths and shortcomings of my manuscript, and packed with specific advice on ways to deepen it.

So that’s what I’ve spent the last four months doing: absorbing the Faber feedback and beta readers’ critiques, and using the remarkable resources I was introduced to by BookBound UK (they’re offering an amazing weekend workshop in Edinburgh September, by the way – don’t miss this if you’re a children’s writer in the area).

I realized, as I think I said recently on twitter, that all you really need to get published is an incredible idea, and the skill and discipline to work every day to tell it as dramatically as possible. But there’s something else I’ve realized, which is why I’m writing this post. You need a heart of Kevlar to find the agent who can sell your manuscript, if traditional publishing is the way you want to go (and it is the way I want to go).

Nerves and more nerves

In the last two days since I’ve finished my current revision, I’ve let myself think about what’s ahead: submitting the manuscript again. I’ve had to give myself a stern talking-to because I’m not up for a repeat of how I did it last time: compulsively checking the inbox, watching and wondering if agent tweets are about my manuscript, looking at who I’ve already submitted to and their reactions and trying to calculate – incorrectly – my odds of success.

I’m an ex-journalist and run my own copywriting business, and I regularly have to drum up business for myself and the other copywriters I employ, so I’m telling myself that’s how I’ll approach this agent search thing.

It’s no good – to anyone – if I approach potential agents like a craven supplicant seeking validation of my writing and myself as a person. Because rejections– if they come – aren’t about me, they’re about my product. In business, I contact potential customers who might need what I have to sell: in my case, it’s copywriting skills that can help virtually any company put themselves into words, even if their product is high-tech.

That’s how I’ll approach agents this time. They are, simply, sales agents (and, yes, career partners) who might very well need what I have to sell: a polished manuscript aimed at middle grade readers. The key difference from non-artistic products is that the agent doesn’t just need a well-written manuscript, he or she needs a “taste match” in order to take my manuscript further, and sell it on to influencers deeper within the industry that producers like me don’t have direct access to.

That means fiction writers have to cast their net several times wider, probably, than they might realize, because they’re looking for that elusive taste match: an agent who feels the manuscript chime with them, right down in their gut, because that’s the engine the project needs in order to find a home inside a publisher and a place in bookstores.

You’re a professional, not a supplicant

And – I’m just guessing here – if I were a literary agent, I don’t think I’d be too crazy about starting a professional relationship with a supplicant-style writer who’s approached me with a fabulous manuscript but a heavy dose of needy, demanding continuous contact and affirmation of their skill and worth. I probably can’t afford to devote that attention to any one writer if I’m to focus on my real job, which is closing deals.

But it’s so hard, isn’t it, for writers to trick themselves into maintaining that mental distance from what they’ve written? I reread what I’ve written above, and it all makes sense, but when I do start the submissions process how, truly, can I defuse the inevitable anxiety of it all?

I think the problem is the manuscript itself. A writer has so much grief and love tied up with the product they’ve made, and let go. The manuscript is like a planet: with such weight, such irresistible gravity, the closer you are to it. Only the distance of time and space can help you see it more clearly, and let the turbulent emotions of creation and separation mellow into something else, something like the wonder and admiration that others who had no part in its creation may feel.

So that’s my visualization I’m sharing with you: I’m picturing my manuscript from lunar orbit rather than satellite orbit, far, far away, a complete and finished blue marble that I can admire, but that I can still cover up with my thumb.

And yes, I’ll need to fly in to land at a later point if my book is taken by an agent or sold: there could be seismic changes and re-building on a global scale. But I’ll make the changes, and take off again to leave it behind. It’s my manuscript, but it’s not my home anymore.

I think of other things I’ve written – the small and big pieces of literature that all the writers around me have created – and so many of them drift around like aimless comets. Only a few become finished planets, settled in orbit, fully formed.

But I think they’re all beautiful. Whether it’s a dirty snowball or singing sphere, that star in the sky is the world you made, writer, and you can be proud.

Good luck to us all.


Image by Bill Anders: earthrise from the moon, courtesy NASA

Moving to Mars: it’s life, but not as we know it

Earlier this year I was lucky to meet Bas Lansdorp, Dutch entrepreneur behind the MarsOne project to establish a permanent colony of human settlers on Mars. He was delighted that, in a lecture theatre full of Edinburgh Science Festival-goers, dozens of volunteer settlers kept their hands raised, even after he clarified that it was a one-way trip. (Later, Lansdorp’s venture would receive 78,000 applications in the first two weeks of its open call for volunteers).

As a science-fiction writer who’s taken Mars as my main topic, I’m struggling with the MarsOne concept, because I hate the idea of it. It’s not that I’m worried about contaminating the magnificent desolation of Mars (my storyline has settlers terraforming with impunity). Rather I’m afraid a team of four humans, given a life-sentence of co-confinement, will literally tear each other apart.

Experiments in extreme confinement haven’t always gone as planned: Biosphere 2 ended in interpersonal conflict, including clashes among the commercial management of the operation, which ended the experiment prematurely. During Mars 500, as covered recently by New Scientist, confinement contributed to psychological stresses that severely limited the productivity of certain participants. Admittedly, some good science was done, including the observation during Biosphere 2 that exposed concrete in a sealed biosphere is a very bad idea, as it depletes oxygen levels.

Thinking about this human element has led me to incorporate some isolation-related neuroses into the backstory of one my characters my SPACE KIDS book: an artist who’s developed a nomadic lifestyle, phobic about staying anywhere for too long.

Listening to Lansdorp, I was impressed with his obvious commitment to the project — his board plans to oversee the public’s selection (yes, X-Factor style) of the 200 groups of four who will be considered for the four-person mission crew in 2023.

Two-yearly missions to Mars will supplement the first four with additional crews. The first contractors (Paragon) and university partners (University of Twente) are already on board. Plans for radiation management (2 metres of soil over the Martian habitat should provide adequate protection) and diet (mostly vegetables, supplemented with insects) have been thought through.

But what on Earth will we make of the settlers — our ground-dwelling, bug-eating brothers and sister who we blasted off to a wildly inhospitable planet? They’ll be the best-known names in our history (“No one will remember who the Prime Minister was in a thousand years, but everyone will remember these people,” Lansdorp said in Edinburgh). But in time, how will the colonists as a whole be viewed?

I’ve been watching too much Battlestar Galactica

On Mars they will live in space suits permanently, never feeling wind on their faces, and physiological changes expected from the 40% gravity will probably make it impossible to survive a trip back to Earth. Have I just watched too much Battlestar Galactica, or does it seem possible that, with separation, this second human settlement will slowly change into a “them” (versus “us”), and eventually rouse that xenophobia that human society is known for? And that’s saying nothing of the physical hardships, and the thorny question of whether and how to have children in that environment.What kind of life will that be? Not life as I know it.

Then I started thinking: travelling to the new world in the belly of a rat-infested ship, nibbling hardtack probably wasn’t too attractive in the 1600s, but people did it. In fact that’s how and when my grandmother’s pilgrim ancestors came to live in America around 1740. Things in my book’s storyline — shiny space stations, smart robots, advanced propulsion and terraformed planets — don’t come first; pilgrims do.

What do you think of the MarsOne project and other planned missions to Mars? If you’re a sci-fi writer, have these real-world developments affected your stories?

Image: Mars Pathfinder images of Mars Twin Peaks, Dr. Timothy Parker, JPL, NASA

How NASA sent my question about kids’ books to space


When not writing kids’ sci-fi, my day job is to help organisations use social media more effectively. I have to say, the way NASA and its international space agency partners use social media is teeth-chattering impressive – and I’m not just saying that because I got to participate in their most recent social media outreach to the public (my question was selected to ask the astronauts live in space; see video above).

What NASA is doing is simple: using social media to let the public, especially children, feel closer to missions and the scientists who carry them out. If, like me, you feel your spine turn to jelly when you see a rocket take off, or catch sight of the famous “big blue marble” picture of Earth taken during the Apollo missions, you will be delighted to discover the steady diet of thrilling content NASA and its partners are offering up on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus and other social platforms.

Reach out and touch space

Here’s just some of what I personally have been able to do over the past six months thanks to social media:

Not just NASA

One of the brightest stars in all this activity is of course not a NASA astronaut but Cmdr. Chris Hadfield from the Canadian Space Agency, who is on board the ISS currently and has gathered a huge following due to his regular tweets, including pictures, sharing what he sees out the window and inside the station. Hadfield’s tweets and pictures regularly make the front page of national newspapers and he also, quite wonderfully, answers children’s questions whenever possible, like this beautiful exchange about spacewalking.

The guitar-playing commander also participates in Reddit AMAs (“Ask me anything”), where he gives insights into everything, from how to shave in space to what space smells like — he’s even done live music collaborations with the Barenaked Ladies and the Chieftains, singing “Moondance.”



(pic from Commander Hadfield on Twitter)

Incidentally after my question about kids books, Commander Hadfield contacted me on Twitter to say he’d actually reread his most inspiring childhood space book, Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire, just weeks ago while he was in quarantine prior to launch. (You can imagine my deep thrill at being contacted by the Commander – I think I spoke only in exclamation marks for the following two hours.)

Going direct, and spreading the word exponentially, with social media

I’m old enough to remember the later Apollo launches, and the fact that broadcast television had lost some interest in what was becoming rote: rockets go into space; astronauts do missions and come home. Social media has given international space programs the chance to be their own broadcasters, conveying live images on platforms like YouTube without relying on mainstream media.

But their use of social goes beyond self-broadcast. NASA brilliantly exploits the viral, tell-your-friends power of social media, most effectively in last Friday’s Google Plus long-distance hangout with the International Space Station. The hangout was the first of its kind for NASA, and allowed us earthlings to post questions directly to in-orbit astronauts. The event, directed by NASA’s tireless social media manager John Yembrick, was publicised across all social platforms, with the help of a dedicated hashtag (#askstro) that NASA promoted for some weeks before, gathering questions, including video questions recorded and uploaded to YouTube.

For a social media geek like me, what was probably most interesting to witness was the morning of the event, when the NASA social media team put up a new Facebook post where anyone could comment, suggesting a question for the astronauts. Refreshing the page every few seconds, I watched as thousands of new “likes” accumulated on that Facebook post: each of those likes spread the message about this live event across thousands more Facebook friends, replicating the message instantly and exponentially.

NASA knows exactly what it’s doing on social media — it even has a fascinating program that allows influential social media users to apply for full press accreditation to visit NASA (at their own expense) during launches, and tweet and share what they experience under the dedicated #NASAsocial hashtag. That’s like the equivalent of the White House press corps suddenly opening itself up to any really great tweeters who can prove they should be there. That’s what I call enlightened.

What does all this mean?

I hope it means that the space program is starting to inspire kids again, thanks to the marvellous accessibility now possible over social media. Twenty years ago, who’d have thought it would be so easy for kids to chat with in-orbit astronauts, and hear those astronauts describe the childhood experiences — the eye-opening books, the inspirational physics teachers — that set them on their path to space? The space program really is alive and well, and it’s all good.


Review: Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce 2008

Cosmic from Walden Pond Press/Harper Collins Children's
I’m doing a grand tour of all the best writing in my own novel’s age range, and Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Walden Pond Press/Harper Collins Children’s) is my favourite so far.

The story opens with 12-year-old Liam trapped in a rocket that’s spun out-of-control beyond earth orbit. It uses the well-established diary device to allow Liam to tell his tale of how he got stuck in space, taking us back a few months to when it all began – around the time when he first realised he had grown facial hair.

Liam describes himself as “above average in height and maths,” and his unlikely presence on the rocket is down to a number of factors, some to do with him (wanderlust, stubble) and others to do with the adults around him (pettiness, an inability to listen).

Early in the book, Liam and his friend from drama class, a girl called Florida, are mistaken for father and daughter because of Liam’s unusual height. Being mistaken for a grown-up gives Liam a holiday from the misery of premature puberty, and he encourages Florida to take their playacting as far as they can push it. Things go awry when Liam gives his worried parents the slip and gets Florida to compete with him (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-style) in a ‘Best Dad Ever’ contest: the grand prize is a rocket trip.

The book has plenty of space gaga for fans like me, from zero g training in the vomit comet to a terrifying EVA in space (NASA even co-sponsored a competition for readers to win a trip to NASA, yay!) but the exploration of fatherhood is the best part of this story. Boyce comes at it from every angle: Liam and his dad, Liam and Florida, Florida and her absentee father, the other dads in the contest…it goes on.

Writer’s lessons from Cosmic

Deadpan has a peculiar power: having read A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime just before this, Liam’s deadpan delivery was especially noticeable for me. Liam’s way of describing events, with real economy and restraint in the writing, has a great power.

Brilliant in-character reactions: you can almost feel Boyce sinking into the persona of Liam when he writes his reactions to events; Liam reaches to his best frame of reference, his World of Warcraft gaming experience, when trying to describe how things feel for him. Scottish author and speaker Nicola Morgan says voice is the quality that allows the writing to disappear, so readers suspend their disbelief and become lost in the story…the difference between an amateur theatrical production and a professional. Boyce does voice flawlessly.

Secondary character’s emotional arc: Florida’s journey is as satisfying as Liam’s own, intertwined but discrete. Florida’s metamorphosis is just about credible, and like Liam, she is not overdrawn, but sketched with delightfully restrained strokes.

Boyce wrote a hasty, flawed draft first: that’s what he reveals in the interview at the book’s end (I read the US version). He was excited about the story and tore through draft one rapidly. Boyce’s daughter pointed out the problems with it, which he addressed carefully, seeking also the input of NASA veterans. This should give all writers heart: you might have your story, but your book takes a bit more chiseling before it comes forth from the stone.

I need to read more brilliant adventures for age 9-11…please help me by leaving a comment below with your suggestion

What astronauts do

L to R veteran astronaut Gus Grissom, first American spacewalker Ed White and rookie Roger Chaffee
L to R veteran astronaut Gus Grissom, first American spacewalker Ed White and rookie Roger Chaffee

I came across this image on the NASA archives – these are the three crew members who died when a fire broke out in the Apollo 1 capsule. From left to right they were veteran astronaut Gus Grissom, first American spacewalker Ed White and rookie Roger Chaffee.

Continue reading “What astronauts do”