(2) Tue Jan 19 2021 09:15 Situation Normal Author Commentary #5: Deleted Scenes: The first draft of Situation Normal was about 182,000 words. My original concept was a science-fiction Song of Ice and Fire-type epic with many overlapping points of view. Unfortunately, this made the novel unsaleable—that length is the main reason you didn't see this novel years ago. Fantasy readers will devour 182k words and come back for the other two books in the trilogy, but science fiction novels usually run around 80k-100k. Constellation Games is around 120k which is already really big.
To sell Situation Normal I had to cut the word count down to no more than 150k. (Final count is about 147k.) I also rearranged scenes to dramatically cut the number of POV switches—frequent switches work for television but put too much cognitive load on a reader.
To get to 147k I had to cut a couple subplots and some fun scenes. In today's commentary I'll list the main ones and mourn them with some choice quotes.
The bakery that only sells flowers: First, a scene that was rewritten rather than deleted. I did a lot of "writing the other" in this book, and took critiques from a number of sensitivity readers. I want to highlight a big change I made with the help of a sensitivity reader.
In the draft I sold, when Den enters the awareness station on Magna Carta she is overwhelmed by a "horrible stay-away smell" which turns out to be Churryhoof's must telling Den, fellow uhaltihaxl female, to scram. Sensitivity reader: "[T]his was such a sort of familiar scene (older-lady sexuality is stinky and embarrassing) that I kind of wanted the exact opposite."
When I get any kind of critique, I try to find a way of addressing it while also improving the story in other respects. That attitude short-circuits my defense mechanisms and moves the focus away from whether I personally think a critique is reasonable.
In this case I do think the critique is reasonable—that was lazy writing— and the sensitivity reader also provided a good solution. "The exact opposite"—Churryhoof's pheromones smelling so good that it makes Den woozy—made just as much sense as the cliche I'd written originally, and was a lot cooler.
Coffee: In the second draft I wrote an introductory scene that basically does the job of "Four Kinds of Cargo." It walks you through the Outreach, the Fist of Joy, the differences between them, and the fact that they're about to go to war.
The scene stars Styrqot, everyone's favorite doomed dad. Just before the war starts, he's importing a shipment of coffee beans from the Outreach. He gets a cursory inspection from Outreach customs, and then a more thorough inspection from the Fist. One of the customs inspectors mocks Styrqot for importing luxury goods instead of going off into glorious battle.
"Due respect, ma'am, I won't take this from you. I ran logistics in the last war."
"Oh, the war we lost!" said the mehi-peri. "Well, thank you for your service!" She hopped down off the pallet. "Excuse me, didn't realize we had a fuckin' hero here."
Stung by this rebuke, Styrqot decides he'll do one little military job and call it even. Of course the 'job' turns out to be transporting Vec to Cedar Commons, and you know the rest.
There's a little twist at the end which might make it plausible to turn this scene into a bonus story, but it's not my best work. In the draft I sold, I cut "Coffee" and moved the Battle of Unicorn Sector to the start of the book, so we could open with an exciting set-piece. But eventually I moved that scene back to its original place, to preserve chronological order. The book now starts exactly as I originally wrote it: nice and quiet, with Hiroko waking Becky on Cedar Commons.
Overall I feel like I tried a bunch of flashy stuff to sell the book, but it didn't make the story any better and I should have focused on cutting the word count.
Fish Dinner: In the first draft, our first glimpse of Sour Candy is from Kol's point of view. Immediately after Sour Candy lands in the ocean on Cedar Commons, Kol pops the hatch and goes up with Arun to scrape flash-baked carp off the spacecraft's hull:
"[These fish] are supposed to be neutral," said Kol.
"They're invasive, is what they are," said Mr. Arun Sliver. "Whoever terraformed this planet spent about a centishift planning its ecosystem. We're going to get very tired of eating this particular fish."
This is why you see the Sour Candy crew handling fish in the subsequent scenes, and why Kol calls the land-in-the-ocean maneuver the "Fish Dinner" in chapter 34. This scene still happens but I don't need to show it, and cutting it left space for a much better Sour Candy introduction in the final draft:
To put it in cinematic terms, Becky arrives on the scene, is taken hostage, and brought on board Sour Candy; but the camera doesn't go into the ship with her! It peels off and starts following Kol as he climbs into the stolen hovercar. The POV has changed and we are now seeing things from the "enemy" perspective.
Admiral Norton: In the final draft, Mrs. Chen shows up to Cedar Commons immediately after Sour Candy bugs out. She gets there quickly because she never stopped tracking Sour Candy after "Four Kinds of Cargo". This definitely keeps the story moving, but there's a great scene I cut, where Churryhoof brought Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka back to the fleet in disgrace, was relieved of command, and lectured by an Admiral Norton, apparently one of her mentors. This is the "tradition of glorious suicide" scene I mentioned in my weblog a while back.
Something was seriously wrong. When your superiors chew you out, there are certain rote phrases that tell you approximately how fucked you are. Norton was not using those phrases. For instance, "completely unacceptable", "colossal blunder", or the most popular, "no place in this Navy." ... What was this "lapse in judgement", "cannot have front-line officers" crap?
The mystery of why Churryhoof is being given the kid-glove treatment, given the horrible thing she did on Cedar Commons, was solved when Norton announced that Churryhoof was being reassigned to Echo Division under Mrs. Chen—Chen heard about that horrible thing and saw it as showing a promising Echo Division mindset. Chen and Churryhoof then go right back to Cedar Commons, which in retrospect was kind of silly, so it's a good cut overall.
Until I made this edit, Brown v. Board was a pretty big operation, crewing maybe fifty people. Because of this edit I had to make it much smaller—I couldn't have dozens of people left on board after the loss of the scoop, because everyone except Churryhoof must be moved quickly offstage. So now Brown v. Board starts out with a crew of seven. This caused some rank inflation—do you really need two officers on the equivalent of a Swift Boat?—which I didn't bother fixing, under "ten percent more accurate than Star Trek" rules.
Here's a fun paragraph I cut from the return voyage to Cedar Commons, when Churryhoof sees Mrs. Chen seemingly dead (she's actually on an Evidence trip). "No acknowledged rank" is a thing from earlier drafts. You can see why I had to cut this bit, given all the explanation I just had to give:
Perhaps it is indicative of a personal flaw that Churryhoof's first instinct was to eulogize. Mrs. Chen may have been a cranky old human who considered herself Churryhoof's superior despite having no acknowledged rank, but there are only two good ways for a spaceman to die, and dying quietly in bed en route to a war zone splits the difference in a way guaranteed to please nobody.
And this might be my favorite joke in the whole project, a rare moment when Situation Normal flat-out becomes a Star Trek parody. Mrs. Chen is quoting Churryhoof from a book she assumes they've both read:
"I happen to know it's required reading at the Academy."
"There was a lot of required reading at the Academy," Churryhoof said, "and I didn't necessarily do all of it."
This joke would work great in Star Trek: Lower Decks, so feel free to take it! BTW, other moments I consider pure Star Trek parody: the death of Captain Rebtet, "scan for life signs", and the bit where Kol solves a problem by reversing the polarity. The space marines calling Dr. Sempestwinku "bones" is a loving tribute, not a parody.
Mexican Coke: In the first couple of drafts, there was a point where a) Becky had left Sour Candy, b) Cedar Commons was under occupation, c) Myrus was at the Youth Festival, d) the Navy personnel were hiding out at the Cametrean monastery. At that point there was an act break and the story skipped ahead a few weeks, letting things mellow for a while. I removed this gap to make the story move at an even pace. This gave me the opportunity to cut a lot of scenes, including one I really like. During this gap, Becky emigrated to a planet called Ototho and set up her marketing consultancy to the Fist of Joy:
It was going all right. A little data modeling, a little advice the customer could have gotten elsewhere, and some good old American flim-flam. The customers kept quiet about her. They were embarrassed, like cheating spouses. You could imagine two businessmen talking shop at a pub. "I know this American lady, she's worked with brands." Business grew by word-of-mouth.
We see Becky with Kugeif, a client whose business sells snack foods. Sales are in decline, and he blames his ugly packaging. He wants sleek, modern branding, like Coca-Cola has. But after analyzing his sales data, Becky concludes that the guy's ugly packaging is actually driving sales to hipsters in trendy neighborhoods. The working-class authenticity of his packaging is making his product more upmarket than he originally intended:
"Be listening to me!" said Becky. "Coca-Cola is owning a thousand companies like yours. Their boys are working all day long to be seeming like a small business instead of a you're-knowing-what. They're inventing some crusty bastard like you, not offensing, and pretending he's owning the company instead of them. They're making the packaging ugly so it looks like your boy came up with it. They're faking it. You are having the real thing, and hipsters are loving the real thing."
"The real thing!" said Kugeif. New possibilities were dawning in his mind. "Like Coca-Cola."
Unfortunately, halfway through this scene, the Errand Boy, having chased Becky down, makes his way into her office unannounced and really harshes the vibe. I love this scene because apart from the horrorshow at the end of Situation Normal, it's the only time we get to see Becky being good at marketing. In the final draft, the Errand Boy is much faster on the uptake, intercepts Becky en route to Ototho, and we never get to see what might have been.
Cardparticleboard: And what did Myrus do all those weeks he was at the Youth Festival? Well, he and Professor Starbottle took a very detailed trip through the Fist of Joy Youth Festival Equipment Library, looking for wood. This gave me a chance to name-check technical equipment from other science fiction stories, but as for wood, the cupboard was bare—a real obstacle to Myrus's plan to teach Starbottle woodworking. So Myrus got the idea of making wood—particle board—out of all the empty cardboard boxes lying around the Equipment Library.
Apparently something like this happened offscreen, because in the final draft, Starbottle mentions the particle board procedure in his letter to Den. I researched this while writing it and it does seem possible to make extremely shitty particle board out of cardboard, but who would do that? You'd have to be a civilization completely without trees... who did business with a civilization that had lots of trees...
Hiroko's un-venture: In the first few drafts, Hiroko didn't get sent to prison with Dwap-Jac-Dac, Tellpesh, and Heiss. She claimed to be a civilian, and was sent to the Youth Festival with Myrus and the kids, to provide adult supervision. At the Festival, she pieced together intelligence to figure out that the Outreach was losing the war—something that is no secret in the final draft.
Hiroko went with Myrus from the Youth Festival to Nimar, where she re-met Becky and had an unpleasant time with her and Arun. Luckily, Hiroko escaped Nimar with nothing worse than a busted foot, rescuing Myrus and fleeing into the Hestin box. She in turn was rescued by Ethiret-Jac et al. and ended up on Sour Candy as the latest object of the Chief's affections—exactly where she ends up in the final draft.
TBH, separating Hiroko from the other Navy personnel was mainly a way to torment Myrus with proximity to his crush. In this trajectory Hiroko had very little character development and not much to do. Fortunately, those drafts also featured two extra grunts, Mantri and Zaid, who also didn't do much.
So I moved Hiroko to the Arzil storyline. I changed her military specialty from "intelligence analyst" to "pilot". She got Mantri and Zaid's scenes and ended up with their rre inside her. Her old scenes were cut, or went to Myrus or Arun. She's still not the best-developed character, but I cut almost all her POV scenes, so it's less important. (Hiroko's one POV scene in chapter 4 is the last vestige—I tried and tried and couldn't cut or rewrite that scene. Hiroko's the only person on that side of the planet!)
Here's a little scene I cut from the Youth Festival. Hiroko, the POV character in this scene, has discovered Myrus's estrus (musth, I guess) and is trying to let him down easy.
"You want to hear a funny story?" [Hiroko] said, in a normal tone of voice.
"Not... really?" said Myrusit.
"I had a girlfriend back when I was working at Jonar Solutions," said Hiroko. "Uhalti lady. And I tell you, Myrusit, she always fell hard for the girly types. She'd be sitting on the train next to some ditzy redhead with the big cleavage and her horns would unroll, like a cartoon, sproing! And then she'd be in quite a fix, because, take it from me, ninety-five percent of those girly-girls are straight."
"I fail to see the humor in this story," said Myrusit.
"Well, let me finish. This eventual girlfriend of mine. Her insurance didn't cover antiestruals, so she drank lots of licorice-nel tea. She'd carry around a big Thermos of tea all day. And one night she's at the Seven-Eleven, waiting in line with her box of Soothing Fragrance licorice-nel tea, and this uhalti guy gets in line behind her. And she sees that he's also holding a box of Soothing Fragrance licorice-nel tea.
"And he says 'Hey, you wanna...' and she says 'I'm gay.' This is supposed to be the end of the conversation. But this guy can't drop it. He has to try to back out gently. So he turns purple and stammers 'Uh, oh, yeah, I am also gay.'"
Hiroko snickered. Myrusit's face was a face of stone.
"And if that isn't funny enough for you, she dumped me by throwing a snowball at my head and running away."
In the final draft, Tellpesh's story about boot camp kinda fills in for this story. I only regret I couldn't find a way to reuse that cartoony image of the horns unrolling.
Crinoline White: The single biggest cut: a massive subplot starring a really fun character. See, after Becky goes AWOL from her job on Cedar Commons, the two brands involved—Trellis On-Site Security and Eserion Natural Resources—have a passive-aggressive conversation that ends up with Trellis hiring an assassin to hunt Becky down and murder her.
Crinoline White, the assassin who takes the job, is a glamorous super-femme lesbian who seduces her way across the galaxy before boarding Sour Candy, posing as a passenger. In what's now Chapter 23 we hear of someone "whose species and gender was unknown because they were wearing a black Cametrean shame robe with a one-way veil"—that used to be sneaky Crinoline.
In the final draft, when Becky encounters the Errand Boy, she has some internal monologue that he's not acting like a hitman 'cause hitmen "just garroted you while you sat on the toilet." In the draft I sold, Crinoline did in fact garotte Becky while she (Becky) was walking to the head on Sour Candy. In an epic action sequence, Arun captured Crinoline, Becky peed her pants, and they all ended up with radiation burns from exposure to space:
Arun cracked the hatch. "We've taken some X-rays," he told the rre outside. "We all need to visit the medical chamber."
"Isn't the medical chamber the thing that takes the X-rays?" Becky asked.
"I mean, we were bombarded with X-rays from the gas giant," said Arun.
In Chapter 27, when Sour Candy is docked at a space station and Yip-Goru comes in and says thon found some replacement capacitors, that's a generic bit of spacecraft maintenance I slipped in to stand for the hull damage caused by the Crinoline/Arun fight.
In the draft I sold, Crinoline is the reason Becky flees Sour Candy. As soon as Crinoline leaves the medical chamber, the Chief starts making eyes at her and, in a massive room-reading failure, suggests a threesome between herself; Crinoline; and Becky, the person Crinoline just tried to murder. This is Becky's cue to leave along with Arun. Crinoline replaces Arun as the muscle/negotiator on the Sour Candy crew, and the book ends just in time for the Chief to dump Crinoline for Hiroko. Crinoline, like Becky before her, flees the crew, joining Kol in his Tok-Bat.
Although Crinoline is hilarious and her scenes are great, it's questionable whether you, the reader, really want fifteen thousand words of her during an already crowded book. The good news is that cutting Crinoline made Becky and Kol much more active as characters. In the draft I sold, they both stuck around Sour Candy much longer than they should have, waiting for Crinoline to force their decision. Now each makes the decision on their own. Becky decides to leave much earlier than she used to. Cutting Crinoline also let me bring in the Errand Boy earlier and foreshadow him as a threat to Becky.
The biggest downside of this cut is that Crinoline is a match for the Sour Candy crew in a way that poor Becky never is. She has an awesome fight with Arun, plays chilling mind games with Kol, and her absence makes the Chief much less important to the novel than she was to "Four Kinds of Cargo". When I cut Crinoline, I had to cut a key piece of dialogue where the Chief explains why she does what she does:
"Let's paint the Fist on the ship and get it over with," said Crinoline. "Me and Yip-Goru don't care about the Outreach. It's fine. It's just some paint."
"We will not paint anything!" said the Chief. "This ship is freedom! In the Fist everyone else tells me what to do. In the Outreach some brand has always gotten first where I want to go, and makes me pay for my pleasure. In these societies, the only free person is the criminal. So I build this little space in between, where a few people can be free."
And here's Kol passing up the chance to kill Crinoline and solve a lot of his problems at once:
There was already a moment out of time when a man had disintegrated because Kol had flipped a switch. A normal person who'd lived through a war might have one moment like that in his life, but two was the start of a pattern. If Kol allowed two, there would soon enough be three.
I would really like to rearrange the Crinoline scenes into a side story for you, but I'd have to make up a whole new final act. Even if that person in the Cametrean shame robe is Crinoline, there's obviously no fight with Arun, and when Sour Candy shows up at the end, Crinoline ain't with them. So it would probably be a story of her pursuing Becky, forever one step behind, until she gets iced in the big space battle or something.
I had to leave one little hook for Crinoline's story in the final draft: the "adorable soldier-boi" in Chapter 27 who checks Becky and Arun into the refugee ship. Her name is Xiaofei and prior to the Battle of Unicorn Sector (where she got zapped with Evidence) she worked in Outreach Navy communications under the call sign Mudskipper. I wrote a great scene where Crinoline seduces Mudskipper, taps into her capital terminal, and uses the Navy's military context to track Sour Candy. Could still happen!
Dodgy wodgy: I cut the very last scene before the epilogue, set in an Outreach minimum-security prison—basically a hotel you can't leave. Kemrush (Myrus and Den's dad) and Maskitenny (Den's mom) are confined in a cell awaiting trial for their part in the Jaketown draft-dodging mishegas. Someone looked at their disposition contexts, noticed they were a 'couple', and decided to do them a favor by putting them in the same cell, but they can't stand each other. Like a rom-com running in reverse. The scene isn't great, but I really like this bit of worldbuilding:
When he was four Kemrush had spent a year on scholarship at an English-intensive boarding school for uhalti children. The house pudding was what the kids called wadxy or wodgy, although in English it was simply called "pudding". A bland lump of cake lying like a waterlogged corpse at the bottom of a dish of white cream. If you ate with eyes closed and the utmost focus, you might detect a hint of citrus flavour, but sensory deprivation does strange things to suggestive young minds, so who can tell?
Dodgy wodgy, they'd called it. That was the term. Sharing a cell with Maskitenny Xepperxelt was dodgy wodgy: a punishment presented as a reward.
Anyway, when Clear Perspective mindfucks all the Outreach brands, the hotel brand running the prison decides that the Jaketown draft-dodgers are political prisoners—bad PR—and it has a guard release them.
This scene wouldn't work in the current draft because the whole point of the Den/Myrus project is to concentrate Kemrush's genes, and Maskitenny would have put a stop to it if she'd come to hate him. Like I said, not a great scene, and cutting it let me cut Kemrush as a POV character, but it does show you that the parents survive.
Posted by Brendan at Wed Jan 20 2021 11:40
It was an interesting moment of dissonance to click on "also didn't do much," see your tweet, and be unable to read my own response to it, because that account is locked and I'm not logged into it anymore.
Posted by Leonard at Thu Jan 21 2021 08:03
For the record, you said: 'I wondered if this was going to happen. My draft email starts with "I can't remember which one is Mantri."'I reused the name Mantri for one of the fake MPs at the end, but it's probably a different guy.