keep us focused on our goals even while we embrace our failures. What great insight she has! Please be sure to check out her new release, The Freemason's Daughter, at the end of her post!
How to Botch a Rocket Launch by Shelley Sackier
(And other super important writing lessons from NASA)
Yeah, you read that right. NASA. I’ve learned more about craft of writing from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration than I have from the one gazillion how to books lining my workspace shelves. And that’s not meant as a dig to any of the fine titles filled with sage words and collected wisdom I refer to on a daily basis, because those guys have been there for me too. They’ve become dependable, trustworthy, dog-eared old friends I repeatedly turn to for advice and guidance. But ultimately? Yep. NASA, hands down, gets the gold.
Except it’s not just writing skills I’ve learned from the pile of scientists and engineers all pulling levers and pushing buttons behind the great big curtains at any of their national space centers. They’ve passed on Life Skills. Life Lessons. A guide entitled Here’s the map to finding your dreams.
And never once have they asked for a thank you.
Let me explain.
I think three of the most frightening and exciting words spoken together in the English language are: three, two, one. And the space that comes right after it? The silence where we then announce the outcome? Talk about a pregnant pause. Talk about stress and hope and anticipation and the new physical knowledge of the phrase gut twisting.
Because sometimes after the countdown you hear the word Liftoff.
Or Action! Or Go!
What nobody wants to hear is Three, two, one … uh oh.
But it happens. And it’s said. With a lot more regularity than most of us would believe—or admit to.
Now, I happen to think most of us ordinary folks can probably scare up a decent quote or two from marvelous, mind-blowing space moments, right? Things like:
“Uh, Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
Or “That’s one small step for man ...”
Or “Failure is not an option.”
Or is it?
The whole failure thing, I mean.
Winston Churchill said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
Really? Without loss of enthusiasm? Good grief that’s harsh. And full of expectation. I think he might be missing out on the very important step where in between failures I eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s before getting back into the saddle again.
On the other hand, I like to think his quote perfectly defines one of my favorite words: resilience. This word is a little bit like a rubber ball that lives—just sort of bouncing back and forth—in between the two words of failure and success.
And I also think that Churchill would have loved to have taken a peek inside one of the many locations dedicated to our American aeronautics and aerospace research to see his words in action. Because when we think of NASA we think of astronauts and rockets and launches—and what is a rocket launch except a controlled explosion, right? It’s funny how when we step back and see the big picture here, an explosion—a word we typically associate with the images of catastrophe and devastation—is actually a desired event.
But the road to those desired events is filled with rutted potholes that had the fingerprints of tragedy all over it.
The point is … failure is really necessary.
I write about failure all the time. Nearly every day. Definitely in every one of my books. And I practice failure often and in super grand style. Because I don’t think it’s nearly as easy to write about something if you’ve not had a least a little bit of experience with it.
There are plenty of “styles” in storytelling. Authors can weave a tale in myriad ways, but one I’ll use as an example is just your basic “Average Joe” saga. It goes like this:
Once upon a time there was a guy. He had a problem. He figured it out. The end.
There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Our hero goes from—This is the world as I know it to—Oh my godfathers, what the heck is going on? to—Aaaand here’s the new normal.
Beginning. Middle. End.
It’s a journey—this one specifically is called The Hero’s Journey—but a journey is never quite as interesting or worthy if there is not some sort of pizzazz involved.
And by pizzazz I mean grand and colossal disaster—some unexpected, undesirable event—often physically injurious. Whatever the phenomenal fiasco ends up being, in the storytelling world, it’s usually—beyond everything else—also … a life lesson.
You really cannot overcome adversity through some wretched battle and emerge triumphantly without using what you learned along the way. You now possess accumulated wisdom that came from the episode that brought you that attractive patch of road rash you’re now sporting.
Because failure hurts. It’s miserable, it’s distressing, and insufferable. Failure is like a big pile of rubble we tend to shove underneath the nearest sofa and not show our friends by outlining it on the floor with glitter.
And the best thing one can do when eyeball to eyeball with failure is …
Be prepared for it.
NASA rehearses for failure relentlessly and gravely.
When every single penny of your budget is scrutinized, questioned, and arm-wrestled for—like it is at NASA—and, more important, when human lives are a big wager in the game, you cannot afford a whoopsie poo from out of the blue.
I know this firsthand because last summer I got a peek behind the scenes at NASA.
My daughter Chloe, whose first words were something like Neil Armstrong or jet propulsion—I can’t remember—has always, always, always wanted to study space. She’s dragged me out of the house in the middle of the night to see blinking lights, or fiery lights, or streaking lights more times than I’ve had hot dinners. And somewhere around the age of five, she found the mouse to my computer and immediately figured out how to reprogram satellites for fun.
Anyway, she’s at university now. She studies aerospace engineering at MIT. And this last summer? She got her first internship with God—or actually her god. She was building space rockets with NASA. Well at least that’s what sounded like because every time I asked what she was up to she’d roll her eyes and remind me about this little piece of paper she signed called a non-disclosure agreement.
This is a euphemism for the phrase, tell anyone what you’re up to and we’ll slice off your legs at the kneecaps.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t that bad. Maybe they’d only slice off her legs at the ankles, but she wasn’t budging. I tried. She is super committed.
Anyway, I got a glance at that amazing level of preparation NASA employs with its projects when I went to pick her up at the end of her internship because I was given a tour. And as much as I would love to reveal everything I saw that day, they only thing I’m allowed to talk about are the … walls.
Now don’t roll your eyes because the walls were unbelievably important. They were lined with pictures, graphics, renderings, and sketches of all their accomplishments and failures.
Yeah, you read that right. Failures.
I’m not saying it was a gallery of shrapnel and explosions meant to terrorize and paralyze—it was more like … the “Mars Exploration Family Portrait.”
If I remember correctly, and was paying attention the last time Chloe was telling me about all of this—because she uses a lot of really big words—there have been around fifty-five missions to Mars to date.
Guess how many were success. Fifteen. Fifteen out of those fifty-five have been considered “successful.”
So on these walls, surrounding the pictures of the “successes” are also a bucketload of pictures of the not so much successes. And beneath those pictures are footnotes that say things like, Stranded in Earth orbit, or Crashed on surface, or Destroyed during launch.
One example of “spacecraft failure” up on that wall was the Mars Polar Lander. The reason for this misadventure was the Mars Polar Lander Failed to land.
A lander that has failed to land.
That one—this project— was a lot of years … years—as in somewhere between fifteen and twenty—where all the people involved spent it in the “head down, butt in chair” position, planning and calculating and designing and building, and then that one moment—the three, two, one, contact moment I mentioned earlier—when they finally got to look up and work on that knot in the back of the neck—was met with gasps ... and a collective groan, a lot of knees collapsing to the floor, and, I’m betting, a swimming pool full of tears from all the people involved.
Failure. On a pretty grand, pretty expensive, pretty crushing scale.
And what did NASA do? What did the heroes of this pretty grand, pretty expensive, and pretty crushing story do next?
There’s a good chance they ate a lot of Ben & Jerry’s. I’m not sure. I could be wrong.
But I do know that they pasted a picture of it up on a wall. Next to all the other grand, expensive, and crushing defeats.
But how many of us would actually snap a selfie as we stand in front of an epic bungle and then nail it to the wall, poster-sized, right outside our office so that a couple dozen times a day we get to eyeball the lead balloon bomb that is our past?
I think not many of us.
But with each new person I met, or heard about on this tour, or simply saw beavering away in their government issued lung compressing cubicle that day, I began to wonder if maybe these people’s parents might have peppered their bedroom walls with exactly that kind of décor.
Not to be cruel. But to be … constructive.
Imagine this: in front of you, you see our young scientist’s bedroom wall, and up there, right next to his American Mathematics Competition medal, his National Latin Exam Award certificate, and his Presidential Physical Fitness badge, there are two school exams. One is a Latin essay with whatever Latin words are the equivalent to this paper is atrocious scrawled across the top of it, and the other is a math exam with a big bold red F next to his name.
And how about next to that, on the wall, is a pink slip—that’s a notification that you’re fired—from … let’s say …Burger King with the explanatory words Malt machine too complicated for employee to master.
Yep. Victories and defeats.
Up on the wall of our struggling scientist are pasted all of his wins and his washouts.
Because it’s rocking horse manure rare to have one without the other.
Most people who have had any splashy headline success in their lives will be the first to tell you that before they found the thing that worked, they found a million things that didn’t.
And as storytellers trying to create a narrative that will capture a bazillion eyeballs hungry for something other than the next anorexic yarn, or as authors who face rejection from agents and editors who say, I think I’m going to pass, the most valuable advice I’ve learned from NASA is …
Don’t fall at the first hurdle.
Because what people often misunderstand is that right up until the moment of the wreck is not a colossal waste of time or effort. The result may be called failing, but the rest is called learning.
So … there’s a lot to be said for scars and skinned knees. Our war wounds can be epic and extraordinary tales. They can prepare and instruct and inspire us to reach for the stars.
To fly to the moon. To land on Mars.
And maybe more important, to live to tell the tale of it.
ABOUT THE BOOKThe Freemason's Daughter
by Shelley Sackier
The Outlander series for the YA audience—a debut, full of romance and intrigue, set in early eighteenth-century Scotland.
Saying good-bye to Scotland is the hardest thing that Jenna MacDuff has had to do—until she meets Lord Pembroke. Jenna’s small clan has risked their lives traveling the countryside as masons, secretly drumming up support and arms for the exiled King James Stuart to retake the British throne. But their next job brings them into enemy territory: England.
Jenna’s father repeatedly warns her to trust no one, but when the Duke of Keswick hires the clan to build a garrison on his estate, it seems she cannot hide her capable mind from the duke’s inquisitive son, Lord Alex Pembroke—nor mask her growing attraction to him. But there’s a covert plan behind the building of the garrison, and soon Jenna must struggle not only to keep her newfound friendship with Alex from her father, but also to keep her father’s treason from Alex.
Will Jenna decide to keep her family’s mutinous secrets and assist her clan’s cause, or protect the life of the young noble she’s falling for?
In Shelley Sackier’s lush, vivid historical debut, someone will pay a deadly price no matter which choice Jenna makes.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shelley Sackier grew up in a small farming community in Northern Wisconsin continually searching for ways to grow warm. Realizing she would never be able to enjoy ice cream like real people should, she left the state and lived the blissful life of a traveling musician. Discovering her stories needed more space than two verses a bridge and a chorus could provide, she began storytelling in earnest.
Her first novel, DEAR OPL (Sourcebooks 2015), is a tale about a snarky, overweight thirteen-year old, who suffers from loss everywhere in her life except on her body. To learn more about Shelley, visit Peakperspective.com where she blogs weekly about living on a small farm atop a mountain in the Blue Ridge and how it’s easiest to handle most of it with home grown food, a breathless adoration for tractors, and a large dose of single malt scotch.
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