It seems some story ideas take longer than others to turn into books. COUNTDOWN: 2979 DAYS TO THE MOON (illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez) was one of those ideas. Ironically, my journey to create this book was about 2979 days. And it’s finally releasing tomorrow—September 1st!
Of course, the “2979 Days” subtitle doesn’t refer my writing journey. It’s the number of days in the story—from Pres. Kennedy’s 1961 announcement that America should land a man on the moon—to Neil Armstrong’s first step on lunar soil in 1969.
During those 2979 days, the Apollo team encountered many surprises, successes, and horrific tragedies. Yet, they never stopped pursuing their extraordinary goal of landing an astronaut on the moon.
The idea for this story began in July 2009, during the 40th anniversary celebration of first moon landing. As a mechanical engineer who’d worked on rockets, I knew writing a technical piece about spacecraft, flight trajectories, and mission details for young readers would require enormous energy and research. Just like the precise moon missions, there was no room for error. Such a complex project seemed overwhelming, so I pushed the idea out of my mind.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I envisioned a special book for the 50th anniversary—one that not only shared the team’s remarkable ingenuity, bravery, and persistence, but also their surprises and setbacks. For example, did you know the Apollo 1 command module caught fire during routine testing and all three astronauts died on the launch pad?
Apollo 1 crew: Ed White, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee Apollo 1 capsule after the accident
Soon, I found myself researching Apollo missions constantly. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. And the rest, as they say, is history. So here’s a brief summary of my 2979 days on this project (and a few writing tips along the way.)
Day 1: I started COUNTDOWN in earnest November 20, 2009. This early research included astronaut autobiographies, reliable books, and NASA websites. After a few weeks, I had a basic story outline.
[Tip – When writing a book targeting an upcoming anniversary, start early!]
Day 44: January 2, 2010 I dove into the Apollo mission transcripts (Apollo Flight Journals and Apollo Lunar Surface Journals). It was fascinating to read the astronauts’ own words as they faced surprises, solved problems, and joked around. (Did you know the astronauts often called each other “Babe?” It was the groovy 60s after all!)
I shared many astronaut quotes from various missions in the book, such as —
Apollo 7: On this first manned Apollo mission, the crew did live TV transmissions which fascinated Earth viewers. Their popular telecast was named “The Wally, Walt, and Donn Show” (astronauts Wally Schirra, Walt Cunningham, Donn Eisele.) Although the crew was overworked and stressed, Eisele kept his sense of humor as he welcomed millions of viewers one morning: “Coming to you live from outer space,” Eisele exclaimed, “the one and only original Apollo orbiting road show…”
The crew also wrote fun messages for viewers, which Tom shared in this magnificent illustration:
Apollo 8: On this first manned mission to the moon, the crew couldn’t see the moon for days because all their windows were facing Earth. When they finally soared around to the dark side of the moon, the men caught their first glimpse of it’s gray, dusty surface. This dialogue expresses the enthusiasm Lovell and Anders felt, and how Borman shut them down to keep their focus on work.
Jim Lovell: “Hey, I got the moon. Right below us.”
“Oh, my God!” Bill Anders shouted excitedly.
“All right, all right, come on,” Frank Borman barked. “You’re going to look at that for a long time.” (Love his Matthew McConaughey impression!)
Apollo 9: When quotes were unwieldy, I used facts from the dialogue to create more concise text. For example, I thought it was interesting the Apollo 9 crew kept losing things. So I summarized 25 lines of dialogue into one line: “… lost cameras, toothbrushes, and dried-food pouches play hide-and-seek with crew who forgot to velcro them in place.”
Tom brilliantly captured the mayhem is this illustration:
[Tip: Solid research is a must for nonfiction stories. Recorded or written interviews, transcripts, etc. are priceless primary sources.]
Day 198: June 5, 2010 I began studying the Apollo image gallery. The photos were so mesmerizing, the hours flew by. Here are 2 of the 52 phenomenal photos included in the book.
Apollo 8’s breathtaking photo of Earthrise, Christmas Eve 1968:
President Nixon welcoming the quarantined Apollo 11 crew back to Earth (Drs worried about “moon germs.”):
[Tip: Photographs are awesome sources!]
Day 370: I completed a detailed outline listing key events from each mission the book would include.
Day 685: I visited the Chicago Adler Planetarium “Mission Moon” exhibit where I examined an Apollo module, spacesuits, helmets, a moon rock, and more.
[Tip – Along with the usual sources such as books and websites, check out museums, historic artifacts, and other “hands-on” sources.]
Day 1485: December 13, 2013 was one of my most exciting writer days ever! After weeks of exchanging emails with astronaut Alan Bean (the fourth man on the moon), he agreed to an interview and we chatted on the phone for hours. It was thrilling to hear what it was like to “bounce” across the moon. He discussed how he became an astronaut, his friendship with fellow moon walker, Pete Conrad, their harrowing launch (their rocket was hit by lightening twice!), and his one regret—he wished he’d smuggled a football to the moon and thrown the longest pass in the universe. (à la Alan Shepard’s golf shot on the moon)
Astronaut Bean collecting lunar soil samples
Six months later, Alan and I chatted again. He shared his thoughts about working with others and how to do your best in your job. I’ll always remember his humility, wisdom, and kindness.
I also exchanged emails with Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham, who answered questions about their landing. I’m extremely grateful both astronauts graciously shared their time!
[Tip – Although it can be intimidating to reach out to famous figures, sometimes they’re happy to help with a writing project. When making a blind inquiry, be brief and professional.]
Day 1660: After years of research and taking notes, I began writing a first draft on June 6, 2014. The first chapter was penned in the Grainger Engineering Library at the University of Illinois surrounded by their phenomenal collection of Apollo books. Their library also has a quiet basement with no windows, which was the perfect place to write.
[Tip – Many university libraries have “rare book and manuscript departments” with original documents and hard to find rare books. Appointments are often needed to review items in their collections.]
Though it wasn’t planned, the very first words of the story came out in short, lyrical lines or free verse. I was surprised, but the voice felt right for the immediacy and tension of the story. So I went with it. It took about 6 months to finish the first draft.
[Tip – Sometimes a story knows how it wants to be told, and other times you may need to experiment with different formats and points of view before you find the best way to convey a story.]
Day 1850: I began sharing the manuscript with critique friends. For the next two years they provided feedback on various versions. They asked for more details about the astronauts’ emotions and the various roles of the team, offered suggestions on quotes, helped revise the ending, and more. Many thanks to my smart friends: Mary Dunn, Lori Degman, Janet Nolan, Natalie Rompella, Debbie Topolski, Brad Novak, and Alan Woodrow.
[Tip – Feedback from critique friends is invaluable. A fresh eyes set of can spot issues that an author might miss.]
Day 1888: I decided the story would end with Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon (Apollo 11.) Yet I’d researched all the Apollo missions (1-17) and wanted to share the incredible discoveries made by the twelve astronauts who’d visited the moon. So I wondered—could those discoveries become a different project? Perhaps a book about the Daring Dozen? (But that’s another story for another time.)
[Tip – Try to determine the scope of a story early in the project (though that’s difficult until you’ve finished extensive research.) If you find compelling facts that don’t work in your current story, maybe they’ll spark a different piece!]
Day 2111: During revisions, I noticed several words that appeared frequently in the story, such as “spacecraft,” “small,” and “powerful.” So I made a list of “word echoes” and beside each one put the page numbers where they appeared. Using a pink pen I circled the pages where the word could be omitted, and made red circles around page numbers where I planned to replace the word with another.
Day 2510: Peachtree Publishers decided to acquire the project Oct. 3, 2016. (Specifically, Kathy Landwehr. Yea!)
[Tip – SCBWI conferences are a great way to meet editors and sharpen your craft. I met Kathy at a conference years before we worked together (we did DANGEROUS JANE before this book.)
Day 2630: I sent Peachtree my 51-page Sources Doc with source listings for all facts in the manuscript to forward to NYT best-selling illustrator Tom Gonzalez. Peachtree had discussed the project with Tom earlier, so he was already researching and sketching.
[Tip – My Sources Doc contains the exact location of every fact, number, and quote in a story, along with “extra” content I may want to use later and photos for the illustrator. During revisions, I continually update the Sources Doc.]
Day 2766: Tom Gonzalez emailed me asking about Apollo 8 details. As the project continued, we emailed and chatted over the phone many times about items such as Schirra’s beard, Schweickart’s spacewalk, gloves, and more. I looked forward to Tom’s calls because he was so enthusiastic.
[Tip – Authors and illustrators usually don’t communicate during a project, but Peachtree was fine with Tom and I chatting as needed. Maybe that was because of the technical nature of the book and the fact that they’d worked with both us on other projects.]
Day 2874 : The first PDF of Tom’s work arrived in my inbox October 2, 2017. I enjoyed reviewing several rounds of his glorious sketches/art for technical accuracy.
Day 2920: Dr. Dave Williams from NASA agreed to vet the entire story. Over the next year we exchanged dozens of emails. One sticky challenge was determining the last words uttered by the Apollo 1 crew after the fire broke out. Three “reliable” sources each had different quotes. For weeks Dave and I tried to determine which was correct. Eventually, he unearthed an audio recording of the astronaut’s last, desperate transmission. While it was hard to listen to, that recording allowed the book to share what we believe to be the crew’s final words.
I also received invaluable feedback from an aerospace engineer, Luke Alexander, and expert help from the photo editor at NASA.
[Tip – It’s very helpful to have experts, curators, or others vet your manuscript.]
Day 2940: My editor emailed to say the book’s title, “2979 DAYS: THE LONG JOURNEY TO THE MOON,” needed to change. The publisher’s smart sales team explained it’s hard for readers to remember a specific number, especially such an odd number, and they’d had alphabetizing/shelving issues with previous “number” titles (14 COWS FOR AMERICA, SEVEN AND A HALF TONS OF STEEL.) So we brainstormed a new title: COUNTDOWN: 2979 DAYS TO THE MOON!
[Tip – There’s lots to consider when crafting the perfect book title, so it’s helpful to keep an open mind.]
Days 2934 to 2964 Blur: As we raced to the finish line in December 2017, I worked 60+ hour weeks: editing, compulsively rechecking facts, and researching photos. It was exhausting and exciting to see the book coming together so beautifully.
Day 2979: After 8+ years on the project, I submitted my last edits and “thoughts to consider” to Kathy on January 15, 2018. Finally, the 144-page book was going to the printer. Whew!
Of course, the next day I began to worry. (Which often happens after a book goes to press.) Did I drive Kathy crazy with my endless “thoughts to consider” emails? Should I have checked each quote, fact, and caption one last time? Will readers think the magnificent illustrations Tom painstakingly created by hand were somehow copied from photos because they’re so detailed and rich?
To avoid worrying, I redirected to other projects while waiting for the book to release.
[Tip – Creating a book is long, unpredictable journey. So fasten your seat belt and enjoy the (bumpy) ride!]
Last, my heartfelt thanks to the incomparable Tom Gonzalez and the entire Peachtree team for helping one idea become an out-of-this-world book! I hope readers enjoy this inspiring, true story of bravery, innovation, teamwork, and perseverance.
COUNTDOWN display in Peachtree booth
BookExpo: New York, June 1, 2018
Sidenote: COUNTDOWN contains magnificent, full-spread illustrations picture book readers will enjoy. The recommended age range for the book is 11-14 years, which officially makes it a middle grade, so I hope you don’t mind its debut on Picture Book Builders.
“Elegant and informative, this is sure to attract casual browsers and true space nerds alike.”—Booklist, STARRED REVIEW
* * * * * * * * FREE Resources (For Teachers and other curious Earthlings) * * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * * * * * Out-of-This-World Giveaways * * * * * * * * * *
Leave a comment or question on this post for a chance to win one of the prizes below. Get one additional entry for each Facebook post, original Tweet linked to this post, or Retweet (from @AuthorSSlade.) Prize winners will be chosen at random.
Autographed copy of COUNTDOWN
Autographed COUNTDOWN poster
COUNTDOWN bookmark with an authentic rock from the Moon! (3 winners!)
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PS. I’m presenting COUNTDOWN at the National Book Festival in Washington D.C. at 3:20 pm tomorrow (Sept 1) & book signing 4:30-5:30. The festival is free. If you’re in the area please stop by. You can also visit awesome authors like Loren Long, Matt de la Pena, Jacqueline Woodson, Sonia Sotomayor, and more!
I’m also signing at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum 12:00-2:00 pm Sept. 2.