The Making of Middle School Robots

Last month I published my third novel…called Middle School Robots. It’s a book I’ve had in my head for almost 4 years now, and it started as a TV script.

For anyone who follows me on social media, you might have heard that story. But I also want to tell the story here on my blog.

And I’ll include a little more detail here.

And by the way, the TV pilot was first called Ordinary Robots, so I might refer to it as that, or Office Robots, which I called it at some point after Ordinary Robots but before Middle School Robots.

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I wrote it in 2016.

From 2015-2016 I lived in Los Angeles for 10 months. Middle School Robots was written towards the tail end of that, in June.

The sequence of events that led to writing it, however, started in May of 2016, when I got really sick.

I don’t know exactly what I had, but it seemed like the flu. My body hurt all over and I had a 103-degree fever. I got better after about a week of rest, though immediately after the flu I got a UTI.

And as soon as I got over the UTI, I got another issue. The worst back pain of my life.

At the time, I had been driving Uber and working as a freelance Production Assistant on film sets to make money. After the back pain came, I couldn’t do either of those things. I went to urgent care three or four times, and they couldn’t get rid of the pain for me.

It lasted like two months.

And in those two months, I couldn’t drive Uber anymore. I tried once, and after two hours the pain was so bad I had to stop. I also didn’t trust myself to take a PA (Production Assistant) job. I was scared that if I did, I’d have to leave in the middle of it, or I’d hurt myself worse. A lot of the PA’s duties involve manual labor.

And so the only real work I could do was write.

I was working on another project the day I wrote Ordinary Robots, but having trouble finding inspiration.

And I didn’t want to spend time writing anything that didn’t inspire me. Not when my back hurt like it did.

So I wrote something else.

I wrote Middle School Robots.

And I think, looking back on it, I just wanted to create a world I could escape into. I wanted to get away from the pain I had.

I wrote the TV pilot in just one day. I didn’t do any outlining or any character work before writing it. I just wrote it using what I knew about how to craft good stories and my own imagination.

Later I submitted it to some contests. It scored quarter-finalist honors in two contests – Scriptapalooza and Fresh Voices in 2017. It was also nominated for the Courage & Fortitude Award for Fresh Voices.

And then in 2019, I started adapting it into a children’s novel.

But once again, I didn’t go into adapting it with the intention to.

Actually, I was trying to write another book. It was a young adult sci-fi novel, about superheroes. It was based around a Jean Gray type superhero who could control the molecular bonds between elements, thereby creating and destroying anything at will.

I still like the idea of that character. But honestly, she needed more to her character than that power.

And I realized, a couple chapters into writing it, that I didn’t understand who she was beyond a superhero with that really cool power.

And that left me feeling frantic.

Because I couldn’t write the story until I knew.

This was June of 2019.

I wanted to write something, to get another book in line to be published, but suddenly I knew that the book I had planned to write wasn’t something I could write.

And so this caused me to search around for other ideas.

And I had a couple, but the ones I did have were not ready to be written yet.

They were still ideas, and still needed more work. They needed to sit with me longer before they’d feel formed enough to start on.

And then, I realized that what I needed was a story that I had already written in the past.

I had written a few TV pilots. But the one that came to mind immediately was Ordinary Robots, since renamed Office Robots.

In just a few days, I realized that the script was perfect because it was like The Time Twins. It was the same genre, sure the TV pilot wasn’t kid-friendly, but the book could be.

Now here’s the part where I admit to you a dirty little secret. So if you’re a parent reading this to your kids you might want to skip this part.

But Colossal Time, the crazy smartwatch robot in the book, was originally an alcoholic.

It was a TV pilot meant for Adult Swim!

But I changed it so that he was a sugar addict instead for the book.

Ok, kids can start reading again here.

I also changed a few other things. In the TV pilot, there was no mouse. The robots snuck out the front door.

Also in the TV pilot Joe never got separated from Thomas and Alexa. Instead, all three of them encountered the school teachers, who were office workers instead, and then all three of them just went back to the office.

I made Joe get separated to add more danger, excitement, and another layer of stuff to think about to the book. And out of it came some good stuff, I think. The idea of swarms of kids holding smartphones, the tidbit about Alzheimer’s disease.

The other major change I mad was the ending. Originally, Alexa tore up the constitution. But when writing the book I realized that couldn’t be the ending.

When I was writing the TV pilot, I just thought it was funny. But actually, the ending needs to be serious. Because the matter of the robots overcoming oppression is serious, even if there’s a lot of humor at other points in the book.

Overall, I wrote the book over the course of a month, in June alone, using the TV pilot as a template and stealing almost every line from it, then adding a few new ones.

Then, I didn’t touch the book again until late October, when I read it over and made some structural changes I thought needed to be done.

In November again I took a break for another book I was writing, and in December I made the last changes to the book, over the course of three weeks.

I thought I was done with it after that but I did end up making a few slight edits in January before publishing in February.

And, that’s it! After that I published it and now it’s done.

The Making of Sand and Smoke

It came about, quite simply, when I asked myself the question: what would a book look like that had both dragons and cowboys?

Good news everyone!

I’m creating an exciting new series for my blog!

The Making of… is an in-depth look at each book I write. I’ll examine one book per blog post. I’ll examine characters, story, the concept, individual scenes, and maybe more all in an attempt to give more information than is available anywhere else on how that book came to be.

First up, I’m starting with Sand and Smoke. It’s a dragon-rider western, and it came about, quite simply, when I asked myself the question: what would a book look like that had both dragons and cowboys?

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After that idea came to me, I began to brainstorm. Among my favorite fantasy authors currently is Brandon Sanderson, and I was inspired a lot by his Mistborn series when first starting this book. You should check it out!

In particular, I loved the idea of a crew of criminals working together against impossible odds. So out of that was born the idea for my crew in the western side of my story to take on this terrifying weapon.

At the same time, however, I wanted to make my story very unique and based on things in real history and the world at large. For Sand and Smoke, I did a lot of research and a lot of plotting and outlining. More than I probably have done for any other project. I visited Powell’s in Portland, visited two different libraries, and read through a number of different books about things like the various mythologies surrounding dragons, what life was like in the old west, and world religions.

I compiled a whole document, actually, detailing what things were like in the world I had created, including the food people ate, the religions they practiced, what the educational systems were like, and more.

In the early drafts, the nations of Eltolix and Arus were quite a bit culturally different. Eltolix takes a lot of inspiration from Asian culture and mythology. The Sun dragons are serpentine like Chinese, Japanese, and Korean dragons, and they have magical abilities. Also, the Old Religion of Eltolix shares similarities with Hinduism. Arus, or at least southern Arus, is largely based off the old west with saloons, gunfights, and a kind of lawless feel. And their religion is largely based off of Christianity.

With subsequent drafts, I molded these two cultures together by attempting to add more cultural elements that both countries share. Things like both calling their parents by the terms mama and papa, both referring to their religious centers as temples. In large part, I mixed in elements I could find of Aztec and Mexican culture into both countries. Since they were separated by a civil war 200 years ago, I wanted them to feel like countries that could have once been one and the same, and I have some Mexican ancestry which inspired me.

After molding the world, I created the characters. I did a lot of research on tvtropes.com to come up with some character archetypes that I thought would work well together and weren’t too often used. I rounded out those character archetypes with their own backgrounds and skills.

Then I plotted out the novel, trying to give all of my characters at least one arc, and my major two, Maya and Al, more than one.

When writing the chapters, I tried to advance at least two plot points per chapter. But even with all the plotting I did, there was a lot I realized wasn’t working in the revisions.

Al’s chapters probably went through the most extensive revisions. In the early drafts, I had his power being the ability to dodge bullets. I realized after draft one that that power didn’t work for the purposes of my novel, because of the big reveal about him at the end. So I changed it to him being able to control the wind.

Another major change I made to Al’s chapters was having him meet Li a lot sooner. Originally, he met her about halfway through the book, but I brought that scene up to roughly the quarter-way through mark and I fleshed out her character and background a lot more.

I also fleshed out a lot of Al’s backstory. In the first draft, he only touched briefly upon his mother’s death. But in subsequent drafts, I added a lot of flashbacks to that point in his life. Though I don’t usually like flashbacks, I thought they were important for him in this book. Because they made him much more relatable. Rather than just being a lone boy who’s riding through the desert engaging in battles with gunslingers, suddenly those flashbacks help us to see where he’s come from, and help us relate to him and see the pain he’s gone through.

The idea for the Wesech dragon plot was, like the criminal crew plot, born out of my love for Sanderson. In particular, I was inspired by his intermissions in The Stormlight Archive novels. In addition, based on my world-building I thought it’d be cool to have both western and eastern dragons, so since Maya was already going to be a dragon-rider on an eastern-type dragon, I figured the Wesech’s world would be a good one to explore during the intermissions.

Other novels I read while writing that inspired features of Sand and Smoke included Six of Crows, Child of the Daystar, Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, and Sanderson’s Wax&Wayne trilogy.

One thing I struggled with was how to weave the dragon plot into the main thread, and I did a lot of work in rewrites to make it smoother. Originally there was very little in Al’s chapters about Wesechs in Arus, but I worked to increase their presence in subsequent drafts.

I started writing Sand and Smoke in October of 2018, and I wrote it in spurts until I finished the first draft in April of 2019. I wrote mostly all of Al’s chapters together, and then all of Maya’s chapters switching only sporadically until I got to part 4.

I think the exact sequence I wrote in was all of Al’s part 1 chapters, all of Maya’s part 1 chapters, one Wesech chapter, then all of Al’s part 2 and 3 chapters, all of Maya’s part 2 and 3 chapters, another two Wesech chapters, and then part 4.

In regards to Maya’s chapters, the most substantial change I made while revising was at the end of part 3. Originally, she left the school fairly peacefully, but after notes from some members of my writing group, I realized Vidal would not let her do that. In subsequent drafts, I made her departure much more rocky, and I also made her deal much more with the consequences of her choice regarding Manzin.

While writing the first draft, I was in a writing group here in Portland, OR and shared pages with them, gathering feedback and improving it to some extent as those pages went.

But after finishing the draft and making those changes, I sent it off to my close friend Alex for him to beta-read it, and then made a lot of comprehensive revisions over 3 months: July, August, and September, both working on things that my writing group had suggested which I hadn’t managed to find a way to do before sending it to Alex, and working on things Alex suggested after reading it.

At that point the book became what you can read now. Fully formed and fleshed out with Al having the power to manipulate the wind, the Wesechs plotting something with Arus, and Maya’s single-mindedness driving her to make the choices she does.