Should you ever decide to study rocketry, you will get to the point where you learn the staging equation, and you should probably perform a little exercise for yourself. Take the staging equation, and calculate the result for three stages to orbit, and for one stage to orbit, and compare. That comparison will tell you why there are no viable single-stage-to-orbit rocket designs using current technology.

For those who are not interested in studying rocketry, here is what this exercise demonstrates. Without getting too into the weeds, the staging equation relates the dry mass (mass of the rocket without fuel) to the wet mass (mass of the rocket with all fuel), and expresses the change in velocity that can result. It is really just a serialized variation on the main rocket equation, and the output is the change in velocity resulting from the rocket’s burn. It takes a certain minimum change in velocity to reach orbit. The equation also includes the effective exhaust velocity, which is a measure of how much useful velocity is coming out of whatever reaction you are using in your rocket. It turns out that when you implement staging, your total change in velocity across the stages will be much, much higher than your total change in velocity for a single, large stage of equivalent capacity.

The reason for this is as intuitive as it is frustrating. By using staging, you get to drop off significant chunks of useless mass as you travel along. So when you’ve consumed all the fuel in your first stage, you can drop off the dry mass of that stage: the rocket body, the engine, the fuel tanks, the feed systems, the coolant systems, the sensors – all of the components that go into making a rocket. With each stage, you are improving the effectiveness of your rocket. There are other advantages to staging, like the ability to optimize your nozzle design for the supersonic expansion at different atmospheric pressures (or lack thereof) at different altitudes, but the effect upon the mass ratio, wet mass to dry mass, is the prime reason staging is implemented.

Despite those advantages, a single-stage-to-orbit design is considered something of a holy grail in rocketry circles, because there are enormous disadvantages to staging that can be summed up in a single word: complexity. Adding stages to your rocket means adding enormous amounts of complexity in the form of at least double the number of components, plus separation systems, sequencing controls, adjustments to the guidance systems, thermal design…I will stop listing complications now. An effective single-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle (in the business, “rocket” technically refers only to the actual engine, while the structure/system is propels into space is referred to as the “launch vehicle”) would almost certainly be vastly cheaper, simpler, faster, and safer than a staged design, but the limitations on effective exhaust velocity that we can achieve from current fuel sources and engine designs means that it is impossible to design a single-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle that would generate sufficient change in velocity to reach orbit. Which is not to say that it will never happen – some designs for nuclear powered rockets have the potential to be single stage, and as materials science produces new materials for rocket construction and new fuels, new designs will arise – but for the moment it remains out of reach. So yes, it really is rocket science.

Other than indulging my penchant for expounding on space-related topics, and perhaps providing you with some insight into rocketry, I bring this discussion up because it informs a way I have been slowly coming to approach writing. I, probably like a lot of new writers, was approaching the writing of my stories like a single-stage-to-orbit. When I sat down to write, I had an expectation in my head that I would sit down and craft all of the components of a story in a single pass, and that revisions were mostly just for changing around wording and cleaning up typos. Which, it turns out, is really challenging to do, because stories are complicated, and have a lot of different components to keep track of that may or may not come easily or subconsciously yet. As I’ve been working through the Blood Magic season one revisions, I’ve been studying what Brandon Sanderson has shared about his revision process, and have begun to put together my own.

In my new paradigm, instead of sitting down with the mindset that I’m going to write my story into orbit in a single pass, I’m going to sit down with the understanding that when I write up the first draft, what I’m really doing is the first stage burn, getting off the launch pad, and that there will be additional stages (later drafts) that will propel the story to completion. That will take pressure off during the first draft, since I won’t be trying to hold the entire story whole-cloth in my head, which will probably mean that I finish that first draft faster. It should also make for stronger writing, because I will be able to focus with each draft on improving a specific aspect of my writing, instead of trying to keep all of the different things I’ve learned about how to write in mind simultaneously while I read through a two hundred thousand word manuscript. With that in mind, here are my new “stages” of writing.

First Draft: just tell the story. This is the draft where I want to get the story out of my head and onto the page, without worrying about things like character voices, plot intricacies, word choice, or anything else.

Second Draft: flesh out the world-building and ensure continuity. In this draft, the goal is to make sure that the world is consistent throughout, that I know what the distinctive traits of different places or regions are, and anything else that might be relevant in later revisions.

Third Draft: refine the characters. Make sure that each character is distinctive, has consistent and relevant voice and traits, and has a solid arc. I want this to come before the plot so that I can change the plot to adapt to the characters if necessary.

Fourth Draft: clean up the plot. It might seem strange to not focus on the plot until the fourth draft, but a lot of the plot will have been vomited out in the first draft. This one is mostly going to be focused on pacing and twists, rather than the simple “what happens” level.

Fifth Draft: improve word choice and fix typos. This is the draft where I finally do what I have traditionally thought of as the primary work of revision: fixing typos, changing obtuse sentence structures, optimizing diction, and other aspects of the technical side of writing.

If you’ve been struggling with getting through your first draft, or with your revisions, maybe consider trying this sequence. On the one hand, it’s a little intimidating – I look at it, and think that it takes me at a minimum probably six months to write a whole first draft of a novel, and that’s when I don’t have other writing projects going on – but on the other hand, it gives me a process, and I have high hopes that it will let me write first drafts faster and more easily, since I won’t be worrying as much over them. If I get to a point where I don’t think a scene is as strong as I would like it to be, I’ll just keep writing, knowing that I can fix it as needed when I go through the later drafts.

I’ve noticed that I develop a lot of comparisons, analogies, and metaphors between writing and engineering, to the point where I’d say it’s probably part of the IGC brand (and that seems fitting enough). As much as people like to put a hard line between “technical” fields and “artistic” fields, I find there is far more overlapping than people in either field would like to admit. So while my new process is probably more difficult and time consuming, it also might be a way to take me to the stars.

11 thoughts on “Staging: Making Rockets and Stories More Effective

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