Marianne J. Dyson

SF Writing Exercise

By Marianne J. Dyson

Want to write a science fiction story but can't think of a character or problem to write about? Below is a suggested way to use the Mission Control chapter of the multiple-award-winning book,Space Station Science, as a springboard to create your own short story. The Mission Control chapter is posted below (in pdf form), but for best results, you'll want a copy of Space Station Science to complete the activity.

Copyright Note: this writing activity may be downloaded and copied for personal or classroom use, but may not be posted on another website or printed in any publication without my written permission.

Step 1: Your Story Needs Character!

A short story needs a main character to provide the point of view and others to provide conflict and/or support. If you are writing a story as an individual, I recommend you choose to be an Astronaut on the space station, an alien visitor, or the Flight Director in Mission Control. (You do not need to have a Soyuz crew visiting.) Remember that the character will only gather information by using/testing equipment or communicating with others. He or she will not know everything that you the author know!

If this is a group project, I recommend that the positions below be placed on index cards and each group member draw a "character" to play. If there are fewer than 25 people, assign the two flight directors and space station characters (alien and lab animal are optional), and then have everyone else play multiple roles. The Mission Control and Space Station characters should move to opposite sides of the room and communicate via index cards. The station crew can only accept messages from the Capcom. In the event the crew abandon the station, both Soyuz's will leave and receive messages only via the Russian Flight Director.

Mission Control Characters (5 to 17 people)

Note, since the publication, three new flight control positions: Chronus, Ethos, and Spartan, have taken the place of five: Cato, Odin, Eclss, Phalcon, and Thor. Also, ACO and Gemini positions (Atlas and Titan) have been retired. The new positions are reflected below.

  1. Flight Director (makes decisions, responsible for safety)
  2. Moscow Flight Director (propulsion systems, direct communications, in charge of Soyuz flight and escape ship)
  3. PAO (public affairs, announcer - in group activity, records quotes)
  4. Capcom (astronaut and communicator, in group activity records all commands sent to crew)
  5. Ops Planner (crew timeline and procedures, in group activity records crew actions versus time)
  6. Surgeon (crew health)
  7. EVA (space walk specialist)
  8. Robo (robotic arms)
  9. Spartan (was Phalcon/Thor: solar arrays and batteries and external cooling systems)
  10. Oso (maintenance and replacement parts)
  11. Chronus (was Cato/Odin: communications, computers)
  12. Ethos (was Eclss/Thor: oxygen tanks, life support systems, internal cooling)
  13. GC (ground links)
  14. Adco (attitude and jets)
  15. Optional: Family or friend of a crewmember (gets info by HAM radio)

Space Station Characters (3 to 8 people):

  1. Space Station Commander (talks to Mission Control, runs robotic arm, will fly escape ship, makes decisions on what to do, in group activity records all commands from Mission Control versus time and messages sent)
  2. Space Station Flight Engineer (will do spacewalks and repairs)
  3. Space Station Payload Commander (in charge of science experiments, will do spacewalks)
  4. Visiting Soyuz Commander (is Russian, flies escape ship, is in charge of tourist, in group activity, records all commands from Moscow Mission Control and messages sent)
  5. Visiting Soyuz Flight Engineer (is not American, can be Russian or from any country. Will be professionally trained scientist and engineer. Is also in charge of tourist and can fly escape ship if needed.)
  6. A space tourist (had $50 million bucks to spare, in group activity, chooses the real cause of the failure and writes it in journal)
  7. Optional: A station research animal (such as "Pinky and the Brain")
  8. Optional: A visiting alien (use your imagination!)

All characters should study the "Talking to the Crew" diagram on pages 44 and 45. It is important to understand how communications flow when the system works before tracking down the cause of failure.

Begin the exercise by reading the Mission Control Chapter out loud either alone or as a class to become familiar with the positions and NASA terms. To reflect the new/combined positions, replace Cato and Odin with Chronus, Eclss with Ethos, and Phalcon and Thor with Spartan.

Step 2: Your Character Needs a Story!

If you're writing as an individual, your story takes place initially on the space station or in Mission Control depending on what main character you've chosen. For a group activity, the characters in the two places decide what actions to take, act out the story, and write it down as it unfolds. Use the description of Mission Control and the station plus photos provided in the book to describe your characters' surroundings.

For the individual writer or the group, the problem is that communications have been lost with the space station. It is up to your characters to find out what caused the loss and to try various actions to restore communications. Only the author, or the space tourist in the group activity, will know the real cause of the failure. Choose one or more reasons from the list below. The author/tourist must not tell the characters the answer. They must figure it out!

In the group activity, the Flight Director will have the controllers submit questions to ask the station crew. They may also ask them to test equipment or go on a spacewalk to find out more (the tourist will answer only yes/no questions from the crew and not talk to Mission Control). The station crew will report what they see and hear, and Mission Control will decide what they think is causing the problem (the tourist will NOT tell them if they are right!). The Flight Director will then order the crew to take various actions (up to abandoning the station) to restore communications. The station crew - and the tourist - must obey these orders. Only when the communications are restored will the tourist's journal containing the real cause be shared with the group. After the acting is over, each person will write what happened from their point of view and make use of the quotes, timeline, and commands recorded by the other characters. Embellishment (especially of feelings - i.e. the order made me flaming mad versus a little irritated) is allowed and encouraged!

In the Mission Control chapter, there are 9 suggested reasons for why communications were lost. Note, these reasons do not explain how the failure happened, the extent of the damage, or how the solution is achieved. That is up to your imagination! Reference data is provided to give you some ideas.



Reference Data*

1. Ground radio link damaged or interrupted.

Will require repair or replacement of equipment at White Sands or Johnson Space Center.

Check pages 44-45 for how the communications system works. What caused it to fail? Terrorist bombing? Tornado? Accident?

2. Oxygen tank or other explosion onboard.

Will require replacement by resupply flight and may require crew evacuation.

Check pages 24-28 for how the air system works and what happens during a fire, and 63-65 for ideas on contamination sources - too many beans for dinner!

3. The "alien" ice vaporized or damaged the antenna or hull.

Will require robotic inspection and possible spacewalk by crew to repair. If bad enough, may require crew evacuation.

Check pages 39-42 on shielding, 80-95 for spacewalk, 86-89 for how arms operate, and 93-96 for ideas on experiments that might have turned "alien."

4. The antenna was pointing the wrong way or blocked.

May require new computer commands, robotic inspection, and possible spacewalk by crew to repair.

Check pages 44-46 for when antennas are turned off and what blocks radio waves, 80-85 for spacewalk information, and 86-89 for operating robots.

5. A bad computer command caused a jet to spin the station.

Will require new computer commands and possible refueling mission to repair. If spin too severe, crew may have to evacuate.

Check pages 35-38 for how the computers work, 57-59 for how radiation might have caused interference, and 114-118 for an emergency return to Earth.

6. The crew woke up and turned something off or on.

Will require returning system (such as robotic arms used to look for source of odd noise that woke them up) to normal operation. If sabotage, may require medical help for crewmember and emergency return.

Check pages 60-61 for how long flights affect astronauts, 75-77 for sleeping conditions, and 114-118 for an emergency return to Earth.

7. The robotic arm moved in an odd way or broke off.

May require new computer commands, robotic inspection, and possible spacewalk by crew to repair.

Check pages 86-89 for how the arms move and where they are located, and 80-85 for how they are used during spacewalks.

8. A meteor or piece of space debris hit a radiator, solar wing, or module.

Will require robotic inspection and possible spacewalk by crew to repair. If bad enough, may require resupply flight and crew evacuation.

Check pages 30-34 for information on power and cooling systems, 39-42 for what happens when there's a hit, 110-111 for meteors, and 114-118 for an emergency return to Earth.

9. Some communications equipment failed on the space station.

Will require crew (internal to modules) or robotic (external to modules) inspection and equipment repair or replacement with a possible spacewalk. May also require resupply flight.

Check pages 35-38 for how computers affect communications, 44-45 for how communications work and where antennas are, 80-85 for spacewalks, 98-102 for the kind of research animals or bugs that may have gotten stuck in equipment or chewed something.

*Page numbers are from Space Station Science.

Step 3: Your Story Needs a Beginning, Middle, and End!

Once you've chosen a main character to tell the story and know what the basic story is about, you are ready to write. Be sure that your story has three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The beginning introduces the place, time, main character(s), and problem through dialogue, action, and description.

The middle increases tension as the consequences of the problem become clear, the problem gets worse or more complicated, and various (humorous or dangerous) solutions are tried by the characters. For a short story, I suggest trying at least 2 ways to solve the problem that don't work or having 2 attempts fail before letting the characters succeed or totally fail.

The ending is when the characters solve the problem either by correcting it (happy ending) or causing disaster (unhappy ending).

Summarize or outline your story, writing a few sentences on what you will cover in each story part. This is your plot. Use this to write your story. Then take your first draft and run it through your spell-checker and correct the grammar and punctuation. Congratulate yourself on your good work! Then set that story aside at least overnight.

Step 4: Your Story Needs Editing!

It is amazing how much a story can change overnight! When you reread a story you wrote the day or week before, you may wonder how that mouse on page 2 became a rat on page 4? Or how you managed to get astronauts out on a spacewalk without first waking them up? And how did the crew call Mission Control if the computer had failed? These are the kinds of things that get corrected in the editing/rewriting process.

Make it Consistent

Mistakes in consistency, logic, and timing are common to first drafts. They are also easier to spot by someone other than the author. This is because authors often have such a strong picture in their head of a "mouse" that they mentally don't even see the word "rat" on the page. Also, they just "know" that a character would act that way without explaining why to the reader. For example, the author might set up a scene where Chris (a man) wakes up wearing a bra. The reader may have assumed Chris was short for Christine and totally missed the joke. Therefore, if possible, find a friend who is willing to read your draft and tell you what they found confusing, amusing, or not clear.

Cut to the Chase

Even if you are not over your word limit, your story may be improved by making it shorter - what some editors call getting rid of the "fluff." First drafts often include side characters and descriptions that aren't important to the story or main character. Delete them. Does the dialog have real information in it? If not, cut it. Does the first sentence grab your attention? If not, cut it. Do the readers need to know what color shirt and pants and shoes the character has on? If not, cut them. The mantra for the rewrite: If in doubt, cut it out!

Lights, Cameras, Action!

Do your characters talk or mumble? Do they go or dash? The words you choose make a huge difference in the images formed in your readers' minds. Replace "There was" descriptions with dialog or action. For example, "There was blood floating in the airlock," becomes, "She stuttered, 'Bl-Blood in the airlock!'" or "Wiggling beads of blood swam in the airlock." Replace overused verbs like "sat" with "slumped" to reveal mood. Add more mood and character with adjectives. Is he wearing a dark shirt or a sweat-stained Aggie T-shirt?

Who Said That?

A common mistake found in first drafts is the lack of tag lines and references. The author knows who is speaking, but often the reader does not! Use character names, positions, and habits ("he said, twirling his mustache") often enough so readers will not be confused which man or woman is the "he" or "she" talking or being discussed. Another way to tell characters apart is the way they talk. You might give one a foreign accent (Germans tend to reverse the order of subject and verb and Russians leave out "the" and "a") and Southerns use "y'all."

Internet Editing Help

Grammar Girl (Mignon Fogarty) has all the answers! Listen to Grammar Girl's website for podcasts, books, and answers to all your grammarly questions.

Common Errors in English by Paul Brians (help with lie/lay, quote marks, your/you're):

Purdue Online Writing Lab (help with punctuation):

English Grammar:

Help From Writers/Editors

I recommend a critique before you submit your work to a publisher. If writing for young people, I urge you to join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Look for the nearest chapter or join an online critique group. Critiques by editors are offered through SCBWI conferences. Some science fiction conventions also offer critiques and workshops. If you want a technical review (to check your science) and personal editing help, I can provide an estimate by email. I do not critique adult novels.

Science Fiction writer Jeffrey Carver has set up a great website full of resources for new science fiction and fantasy writers:

Hugo and Nebula winner, Robert Sawyer, offers workshops:

Consider a subscription to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) . SFWA membership requires publication in a professional market, but you don't have to be a member to subscribe and learn all about the field and markets by subscribing to the Bulletin.


After all the work you've done, don't let your story lose points because it is messy. Dress your story for success! If this is a story for school, use the guidelines given by your teacher to set the margins and number the pages. If you want to send it to a contest or a magazine, write to them first for guidelines. (Contests generally require a cover letter and no name on the story pages.) Printed manuscripts should be double-spaced. Check your local library's copy of Writers' Market for sample formats and addresses of magazines. Also, take out multiple exclamation points. One is enough!!!


How do you find a publisher? All of the SF magazines and book publishers have web sites (Analog is my favorite!). If you are serious about publishing science fiction, you ought to be READING science fiction--send to markets that publish stories YOU like to read!

If you get your science fiction story published - in your school paper, an anthology, or magazine - you may qualify for associate membership in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). To find out more, go to Congratulations and welcome to SFWA!

Space Station Data

Space Station Science cover Space Station Science is out of print, but used copies are often available via Amazon. Space Station Science Amazon link

FREE Mission Control Chapter pdf to use in this exercise.

scale model of ISS. - Best prices on space station patches/shirts/toys.

Market Information - Ask the pros in the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America for advice. Check the Writers Beware pages to avoid scam publishers and agents. Read the stories that won the Nebula Awards recently.

// - David Brin's Recommended Reading for Young Adults.

Student writers, check Stone Soup for ages 6-13, stories to 3,000 words.

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