Saturday, December 31, 2005

The End of the Year

Tonight is, obviously, New Year's Eve, so it's customary to reflect back on the year that's now past. 2005 has been a very ... interesting ... year for me and my family. We rang in the New Year at my parents' house last year and almost as soon as we got back to Arizona, I began the final two flights to prepare for my private pilot license flight test. I took the test on the 5th of January and checked off one of my major life goals. Huzzah!

In February, my son turned 16 which is a milestone even for boys. He got his driver's license, and I grew about a dozen new grey hairs. Most of all, though, it dramatically pointed out that my little boy is well on his way to being a man. It's both a scary and proud time for a parent, let me tell you.

In March, my daughter turned two. Over the past year I've watched her grow from "baby" to "little girl." The transformation has been amazing. She is literally not the same person she was at the beginning of the year. Her language development has skyrocketed. She speaks in complete sentences, can carry on a good conversation with an adult, and can even recognize the first dozen or so letters of the alphabet. She can also spell her name, a fact she is inordinately proud of. What I find interesting is that because her "hardware" has changed, it is now incompatible with the early version of her "software." She no longer has access to her memories of being a baby or even a young toddler. A year ago she was still breastfeeding, but when she saw a picture of her nursing, the idea of drinking milk from Mommy's breast was completely foreign to her -- and yet a year ago she would even ask for it. It's amazing to watch the child and the child's personality bloom. I don't regret not going to Clarion this year. I can't imagine having missed the huge changes in my little girl.

In May, I decided it was time for me to make a major life change and leave NASA. I wasn't terribly happy at work (for reasons I won't go into), and at that point I was finally convinced that not only were things not going to change on their own, there was also nothing I could do to change them. I got the "Sunday night dreads" and knew it was time to move on. At the same time, I realized that my real overriding life goal was to be a science fiction author. I knew I could write -- I've had professionals tell me so -- and I had gotten a lot of practice refining my craft through writing educational curricula. The smart thing would have been to stay with NASA until I was firmly established in my writing career. But about this same time, my wife was offered a full-time position as a professor at the community college near here. This was her dream job, and it also meant that she would be making almost as much money as I did at NASA. We talked it over and decided that happiness with life was more important than having lots of money (and if we had remained a two-income family, we'd have been doing quite well). At that point, I set into motion the plans that would lead to my taking up my dream career myself. While we did have two incomes, I worked on paying down all of our debts (our home equity loan is the only one we have left, and we cut it in half) so that we could be financially secure ove rhte next year. I still get my military retirement pay, of course, and while we couldn't live on that, it does make a huge difference. Overall, we've been doing okay, even though working at home full time for the first time in my life still feels a little strange.

Over the summer, of course, I started this blog. :)

In August we sent the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter on its way to Mars, and it was fabulous being a V.I.P. at the launch. It was bittersweet because I knew this would be the last time I would get any "special treatment" from NASA. After this I would become just another member of the interested public. The spacecraft will arrive at Mars early this year, so there is still excitement to come. It's too bad I'll just be tracking it through Still, no regrets there.

In September I finally left my job at NASA and struck out on my own. I'm still working half-time for them until February (when this last project is due), as well as working on my Ph.D. The end result of that is that I haven't spent all day, every day writing fiction and articles as I had hoped, but that time will come in just a couple of months. Even so, I've already managed to sell a couple of articles as well as sent out some short stories to make the rounds. Most importantly, I've made significant progress on my first novel, so that's a major thing as well.

So now as we roll into 2006, it's been an eventful year, but there promises to be even more excitement in the year ahead. Part of me has this paranoid fear that it's all going to come crashing down this spring. I've never had as few safety nets as I do right now (but I've got some even now). A bigger part of me, though, is glad that I've finally taken steps on the adventure that I now realize I've always dreamed about. I'm happier than I've been in a long time, and that's no small thing.

Here's to 2006!

Friday, December 30, 2005

Spin Gravity

One of the recurring problems of science fiction is how to create artificial gravity for our characters. In novels it's not such a big deal -- it's easy to write scenes showing they are in freefall the whole time. Movies have more problems, as freefall is very difficult to recreate convincingly on Earth (Tom Hanks actually took his entire crew up on the "Vomit Comet" to film parts of Apollo 13). Aside from that, we know that there are physical problems associated with long-duration exposure to freefall, so some kind of artificial gravity makes a lot of sense.

The easiest way (and only way, that we know of) to achieve this is by spinning the spacecraft or habitat on its axis. Centripetal acceleration will cause objects to be attracted to the outside of the spin (that is, radially, or perpendicular ot the spin axis). The amount of acceleration you get depends upon the radius of the rotation and the speed of the spin, specifically:

a = omega^2 * r

where omega is the rotation rate in radians/second (there are 2 * PI radians in one rotation) and r is the radius of spin in meters. The acceleration due to gravity is 9.81 m/sec^2, so, for example, a 21-meter radius and 5 revolutions per minute spin (2 * PI radians per 60 sec) yields a centripetal acceleration of approximately 0.6 g. If you want higher "gravity" either increase the spin rate or increase the size of your spin radius. As you move inward radially, the "gravity" decreases to the point where it is zero in the exact center.

But, alas, it's not quite that simple. There are two effects that we have to be concerned about. First of all, we cannot have a gravity gradient that is too large. Simply put, we can't have our crew feel significantly less gravity at their feet than they do at their heads. Not only is this physically disorienting, dropped objects would not only accelerate as they fall, the rate of acceleration would increase as well. Our reflexes are tuned to a constant force of gravity, so learning to deal with things in this environment would be difficult in the extreme. The formula for the gravity gradient is:

DeltaW / W = (Rb - Ra) / Rb

where DeltaW is the change in apparent weight, W is the weight, Ra is the initial radius, and Rb is the final radius. In practice, DeltaW needs to be less than 20% or so. All this means is that your habitat must be greater than about 7.5 m in radius. So, rotating your little Apollo capsule is not going to help you very much.

A much more serious problem is the Coriolis force. This force is felt by any object moving linearly (in a straight line) in a rotating system. If you've ever tried to walk straight on a rotating merry-go-round, then you've felt Coriolis force for yourself. The force also affects the fluid in the semicircular canals of the ear. This is why when you are rotating and turn your head rapidly, you become disoriented to the point of nausea. The magnitude of the force is given by:

F = 2 * omega *v

where v is the linear velocity of the moving object. So, the more slowly you move, the less Coriolis force you feel. Similarly, the slower your habitat rotates, the less force you feel. Since we have established that "gravity" depends upon both rotation rate and radius, and since we now know that rotation rate must be kept as slow as possible, this means we need to make our habitat radius as large as possible. Studies have shown that most people can adapt with minor difficulty to a rotation rate of 2 rpm, and almost no one experiences symptoms at 1 rpm or less. So, if we choose a fixed rotation rate of 1 rpm (omega = 0.105 rad/sec, omega^2 = 0.011 rad^2/sec^2), then the gravity we get is determined solely by the radius of the habitat. In order to get an artifical gravity of 1 g, we need a habitat 894 meters in radius. Basically, the ship is 18 football fields across! Needless to say, we can't build anything this huge anytime soon. If we can live with Martian gravity (0.3 g), however, we can get by with a third of this, or 268 meters in radius. That's still a really huge ship, but it's getting into the realm of reasonable. As a benchmark, a 100-meter radius habitat will produce about 0.11 g.

There are some other strange effects in a rotating habitat that could be put to good use in a story. If you are moving, the direction of your motion changes the gravity you feel:

  • Moving outward forces you against the direction of rotation
  • Moving inward forces you along the direction of rotation
  • Moving in the same direction as the rotation increases the effective gravity you feel
  • Moving against the rotation reduces the effective gravity you feel

So, by simply running in the direction of the spin, you get heavier! Run in the opposite direction and you get lighter! Pretty cool... A native could use these forces very effectively against an attacker who wasn't conditioned for them - a definite cool use of science that can drive a science fiction story.

Thursday, December 29, 2005


I was thinking about dialogue today, and that led me to thinking about the languages our characters speak. Now, of course, not everyone in your story is going to speak English as their primary language -- in fact, in a fantasy story, it's highly unlikely that anyone will be speaking English! On the other hand, your reader likely isn't fluent in Elvish (although Klingon is becoming more and more popular). How do we resolve this? Most writers simply ignore the issue, and that's fine in general. For myself, I take the "Farscape approach." In the SciFi Channel series Farscape all of the aliens speak their own languages -- none of which are English. The Earth-born protagonist wonders aloud, "Why are you all speaking English?" To which one of the aliens responds, "We're not. You're hearing English." Each of them has "translator microbes" that translate speech into the host's native tongue. It works, even if the microbes are a little cheesy. When everyone in your story is speaking the same language, it's easy enough to just say, "You're hearing English; they aren't speaking it." Star Wars does this -- have you ever noticed that all of the text in the movie is an alien script? Many fantasy writers, however, like to add "foreign" (invented) words to their tales, particularly names for things. This violates self-consistency in many (if not most) cases. If the characters are all speaking Elvish (or whatever) but the reader is simply hearing it as English, then there should be no Elvish words at all in the book. I don't care how cool it looks or how "other worldly" it makes your book read -- it doesn't make sense. Same thing for alien cultures in science fiction. Don't make them speak broken English unless they aren't fluent in their own language (which is unlikely).

On the other hand, if some characters speak one language and some speak another, then you're justified in using words from the other language in your story. In this case, we learn the "new" language right along with the characters. This can be fun, and also it can also convey a sense of what it's like to meet an alien culture. More importantly, it's self-consistent. This, I think is what bothers me most about many fantasy stories (other than the fact that so many of them are "Quest for the Item" stories): They don't follow their own rules. Fantasy authors need to think even more carefully about rules than "realistic" authors. Since the writer makes the rules, he has to think through all their ramifications -- and some of them aren't immediately obvious! Nevertheless, those ramifications can add layers to your tale that will make it much more powerful in the long run.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Vanity Anthologies

A while back my son posted a portion of a short story to a website that allows comments and critiques (theoretically, though I've never actually seen it happen). A few days ago, he was contacted by the representative of a company saying they had noticed his writing (it is good), and they were putting together an anthology of short stories by new writers. Would he be interested in submitting a 1000-word story?

My son responded asking for more information, and received an email back from one of the two (!) guys who run the company. From their response and the impersonality of the original email (which he showed me today), it's obvious that they simply spammed everyone on this website. I went to the company's website and read the information there. The "company" is really just a vanity press. Although they aren't charging authors to include their stories in the "anthology," they are up-front about the fact that they don't expect to sell copies to anyone but friends and family of the author.* A lot of their statements show that they are somewhat ignorant about the publishing world, though. They say they formed their company when one of the partners was unable to get his book published due to "getting the run-around" from publishers. I've never known a publisher to turn down a good story -- for any reason. Odds are the book simply wasn't any good. That's why people use vanity publishers anyway. But they also talk about how the "author gets to keep the copyright" -- duh, you never sign away the copyright; you just license someone the right to publish your work. They also say they will shop the book of short stories to agents to see if there are any authors the agents are interested in. Sorry, agents decide if they are interested by looking at submitted work -- and they almost never deal in short stories.

The bottom line is this: writers get paid to write. If all you want is a bound book with your name on it, by all means, find a print-on-demand service and print a few copies of your masterpiece. It's definitely cool to see your name on the cover of a book. But don't pretend that it means you're published. These guys aren't trying to scam people, I don't think -- they don't make any money at all if you don't buy the book -- but I do think they are misrepresenting themselves as a "publishing company." Even on their FAQ they mention that the two guys met in business school. This definitely sounds like a project cooked up in a classroom. The idea of a "vanity anthology" is a bit of a twist on the old theme, but it doesn't change the tune. Vanity presses are not evil (generally), in spite of what you may have heard. But you do need to always keep in mind exactly what you are buying -- and you are buying your book, not some reader. It's just as important for a writer to learn the business of publishing as the mechanics of creation. Sometimes it's easy to forget that not every young writer knows how things work. My son was flattered to be asked to contribute to this book. I think he's starting to realize that everyone was asked to contribute -- they didn't even know his name. For that feeling of disappointment, I'm pretty pissed off at this company. They may not be misrepresenting themselves in a legal sense, but to an inexperienced writer they certainly are.

*In this way it's very much like the "Who's Who Among American High School Students" book my parents were suckered into buying when I was in high school -- anyone can get in and the only real "honor" is seeing your name and picture in print. You still had to buy the book to do it, something none but those inside would do.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Ship Designs

(First off, we've been drinking apple martinis made by our friend who is staying with us, so apologies in advance for typos...)

I've just finished the deck plans for the ship that features prominently in the novel I'm working on. I'm really pleased with how it's turned out. As I've mentioned before, it really helps me to have maps of the area I'm writing about -- seeing the layout not only helps with descriptions, it also helps with practical things like getting how long it take to get from point A to point B. In this particular case, for example, I'v edecided that the cargo hold -- wher ethe protagonist will stow away -- is unpressurized. That should lead to a very nice tense scene as she has to decide whether to give herself up (and risk being spaced) or run out of air in her suit (which would accomplish the same thing). It's the little details that lead to huge conflicts.

In keeping with my business model, however, I've also made sure that the deck plans follow the format and rules of the gaming magazine I've been writing for. I'm hoping I can use these deck plans as the basis for an article I will write. I'm also probably going to make a 3D Poser model of the ship, which I can also likely sell. I think that's a big part of writing in addition to just putting words on paper -- figure out how many different ways you can sell your work.

Have you sold any of your development work lately?

Monday, December 26, 2005

Creativity Boosters?

What gets your creative engine in gear? I know a lot of people who have to have music in the background before they can do anything, be it write or study. I've never understood that. If I'm listening to music, how can I focus on the task at hand? If I have music in the background, I'll just end up procrastinating, not getting any useful work done. I might could see instrumental music turned down low -- it's the words that I think would distract me. Now, except for songs I've known well for a long time, I can't actually understand the words to most songs, so maybe straining to make them out is the actual distraction, I don't know. But it seems to me that two tasks involving language -- listening to to the words of music and writing words on paper -- almost have ot be mutually exclusive. And yet I know a lot of people who do this and are, in fact, productive. How does this work?

I might could see instrumental music, though. The idea of a "soundtrack" for a particular scene is appealing. By envisioning the scene playing on a movie screen, I can definitely see where you could be more descriptive in your writing. In general, though, I like to have sunny days and maybe an ocean sounds CD playing in the stereo, just because I'm most happiest at the beach. Other than that, most anything else is just a distraction. It's interesting how the brain works -- and is so different for everyone -- isn't it?

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas!

Hopefully things have settled down for everyone, having spent the day playing with new toys and spending time with friends and family. We have a good friend from grad school staying the week with us, and she's practically family, so we're getting both in one package. :) My daughter had the first Christmas where she really had a clue of what was going on, so it was fun to watch her. As she opened each gift (and lemme tell ya, a cute two-year-old red head makes out like a bandit) she would be so entralled she'd completely forget about the rest of the presents. She was continually surprised when there was another one for her to open. She got lots and lots of books, which, along with her baby doll and stroller that Santa brought her, are her favorite things in the world -- yes, I'm starting my kids young.

And, really, it pays off. My son is planning on majoring in creative writing, but even if he hadn't gone that route, his love of books has really broadened his mind a lot more than many of his friends. He will sit in a bookstore and read an entire book in the time it takes the rest of us to do our shopping. I have friends who say they have always hated to read, and I have never understood that. One of my friends saidd her parents made them spend an hour a day reading -- which they sorely resented. Obviously force is not the way to inspire love for something.

I think the answer is to get them fascinated early, to tap into the deep human instinct that loves a good story. People complain that our kids are so into movies and television that they never read, but really, whose fault is that? How many of those parents read themselves, much less to their kids? If you want to introduce a child to joy of reading, to the new worlds waiting to be discovered, there's no better way than to simply read to them. If you've got older kids, let them see you reading -- they may start to wonder what's so interesting!

Of course, I'm preaching to the choir here, I know. I doubt anyone without at least a passing interest in writing bothers to read my ramblings -- and every writer I know of started out by being an avid reader. But maybe we can carry the message to our non-writing friends. Maybe there's a niece or nephew waiting to be read to right now!

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Santa's On His Way!

'Twas the night before Christmas, and Kilo's blog beckoned
So he sat at his keyboard, his thoughts he did reckon.
The gifts were all wrapped, the toys were out too,
He suddenly realized there was naught left to do!

Christmas is here, the stores are all shut
No more shopping, no driving, no pre-Christmas rut.
There's nothing left but to bask in the time
Of a quiet evening spent with good friends and wine.

A bit of that peace I wish for you and yours:
A warm night of snuggling and steamy cocoa pours.
My thanks to my readers, faithful and true,
Here's my hope that Christmas is also good for you!

Happy Holidays to all of you, from all of us.

Friday, December 23, 2005


At this point in Wiesner's outlining method, you are allotted seven days to do "background research." This is as important in fiction as it is in non-fiction. Nothing will turn off a reader faster than getting the facts blatently wrong. Even in fantasy or science fiction, once you have established the "rules" of your universe, you're bound by those rules. Your background research in this case may consist of formulating those rules, or in making sure you follow reality where you claim you are doing so. In science fiction, it's particularly important to get your background right, as the average science ficition reader is not going to allow you many outright mistakes (or even things that look like mistakes) at all. Wiesner recommends interviewing experts in the various subjects and keeping a file of those interview notes for use in all of your work.

In my case, I'm in the enviable position of being one of those experts, at least for a lot of the fields of physics, astronomy, and space exploration. Having worked at NASA as a spaceflight engineer is a huge advantage in writing science fiction, so I really count myself lucky. In fantasy, of course, I'm as clueless as the next guy -- which may be why I tend to write science fiction instead! :) In spite of all of this, I do background research of a sort. As I mentioned in earlier posts, I like ot map out the locations my characters will be living and interacting in. Part of it is just because I enjoy it, of course -- I am a confessed cartophile, after all. But I do find that it really helps for me to a have map of the area while I'm writing, so I know (for instance) how long it takes to walk from one location to another. As a side benefit, I can often sell these maps and descriptions (with a lot of extra material) to gaming magazines as campaign settings, so in some sense I'm killing two (or three) birds with one stone.

The main thing is to do whatever you need to do in order to really see the place or action in your mind. Once you can do that, you're golden!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Author Websites

My brother has kindly hosted several websites for me over the past several years. Nowadays, registering an Internet domain name is quick, cheap, and easy. For $15 you can register any name you like for a year. The only catch is that the name has to link to some page on the net -- even if it's just a "holding" page. With my brother hosting the site(s), that wasn't an issue.

Alas, situations change and he's not going to be able to host it for me any longer, so I signed on with a hosting service that charges $6/month. So far, I'm quite pleased with it. I've had two domain names (my wife owns one as well), for a while now, one for my consulting business (Kepler Educational Consulting) and what until now has been my personal site, Exodus Project. Originally, Exodus Project wa a site for articles, gaming scenarios, and stories set in my Exodus Project background, but once I decided I might someday write professionally, I realized that I can't publish my work online -- publishers generally want to buy first print rights. The site quickly became just a personal home page. A few months ago, I basically gutted it, but never got around to refurbishing it. Switching hosting servers has given me an excuse to do something about it.

Having an author website, preferably with a domain that is your own name, is increasingly becoming an essential marketing tool for writers. Not only do your readers get to know more about you as a person, it helps you to maintain visibility in-between book releases. Unfortunately, there are companies out there that have caught on to the value of particular domain names. Apparently a company in Africa snapped up "" and all the other various deriviatives. They then sell these domain names back to the person with the name for huge sums of money. It's a pretty lucrative business, I guess, even if I find it somewhat morally repugnant. For $15 they can register the name and for next to nothing they can host a page on a slow, cheap server. They can then sell the name for thousands of dollars to the person desperate enough to pay it.

I'm not that desperate.

But I am technologically competent. You see, there's a great little UNIX tool called WHOIS that gives all the domain registration information for any domain name you want -- including the date their registration expires. I simply marked my calendar for when the first "keithwatt" variant was due to come up and jumped in ahead of them. For $15, "" is now up and running! There's not all that much there, really -- people who read this blog will find a lot more of my thoughts here than there -- but there are some cute pictures of my kids for the curious.* Still, it's fun to do and I'm pleased with how it turned out. I'm also pleased with my success in out-teching the tech geeks. Take that, ye survy knaves!

*And for the really curious, the two lovely young ladies in the last picture are my son's half-sisters (his birth mother's daughters). There's an interesting tale in that, but that's probably what my son calls "T.M.I" They are super, super kids!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Longest Night of the Year

For those that don't know, today is the winter solstice, the longest night (and shortest day, obviously) of the year. For those in the Southern Hemisphere, of course, it's the summer solstice -- the official beginning of summer. What many people don't know is why we have a solstice at all. Earth's axis of rotation is tilted by 23.5 degrees relative to the plane of its orbit (called the ecliptic). Yeah, okay, most of us did know that. But contrary to what a lot of people believe, the Earth's axis does not wobble back and forth over the course of a year.* Relative to the stars, the axis always points in the same direction -- coincidentally, very near the star called Polaris, or the "North Star." As we orbit around the Sun, however, the effect of this is that when we are on the "Polaris side" of the Sun, our axis is pointing away from the Sun, while when we are on the side of the Sun opposite form Polaris, our axis is pointing towards the Sun. A simple diagram makes this clear:

The labels are for the Northern Hemisphere, and this is not even close to drawn to scale, of course. So, while it's true that the Northern Hemisphere is pointed towards the Sun in northern summer and away from it in northern winter, the axis itself hasn't (really) moved. Solstices are a result of our position in our orbit, not because of any wobble of the Earth's axis. we will be in the exact position of the winter solstice at precisely 11:35 A.M. MST (18:35 UT).

The seasons result from the fact that during winter the rays of energy from the Sun strike the surface of the Earth at a steep angle. Because of this, the same amount of energy is spread over a much larger area, so the energy per square foot shining on the Earth is much less. Seasons have nothing (much) to do with the length of the day. After all, at the poles, we have six months of continuous daylight, yet they are still the coldest places on Earth! Here's a diagram which shows what's happening:

The area on the ground at B is much larger than the area on the ground at A, but each area is receiving the same amount of sunlight. As a result, it is colder at B than at A. This is also why it's colder in Boston than in Florida!

Now don't you feel smart?

*It does wobble, but very, very slowly. This is called precession, and is the same thing that makes a top wobble as it spins. Precession will make our axis point towards Vega instead of Polaris when I'm a great grandfather -- in about 23,000 years or so. The effect over the course of a year is too small to be noticed. The great pyramids are aligned to the North Star, but it was not Polaris.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

First Drafts

As I've mentioned before, I still work half-time for the Mars Education Program writing a curriculum package that we had committed to before I left to strike out on my own. I'm writing this set of activities for the Phoenix mission, which will be launched in 2007 to Mars, if all goes as planned. The activities are designed to teach students what the major properties of soil are and how we measure them so that when the Phoenix lander starts sending back similar data about Martian soil ("regolith," technically, since "soil" implies there is life present) they will be better equipped to understand what the data mean. There is a companion soil habitability curriculum that I was originally going ot write as well, but have luckily managed to farm that off on someone else (much rejoicing!).

Tonight, the director of the education program asked if I would send them some of the early drafts I've completed. They are starting work on the soil habitability curriculum and want to make sure the formats match as closely as possible. I think that's a great idea (and in fact, I'm surprised as they typically don't do things until the very last minute over there). There's only one problem: I'm extremely uncomfortable letting anyone see my work until it's finished.

Now, fiction writers "workshop" their works-in-progress all the time. The idea is to get feedback on the early draft so that they don't have quite as much rewriting to do later on. I don't like it at all. I don't want anyone to see anything less than my current professional best for any reason. I will often submit a piece for comments that I think is as done as I can get at a particular stage (even knowing that the piece isn't really finished), but I find it hard to evaluate (or accept the evaluation) of a piece that isn't at least complete. The reader has to guess what is missing and try to fill in the missing pieces herself. Unless she is a particularly amazing psychic, her imagination is probably not going to match mine.

The same thing is true in the educational products I develop. I've acquired something of Scotty's (of Star Trek) reputation as a "miracle worker" in the field. I think a small part of that reputation is because I don't let anyone see the junk I write that makes up the first draft. Ego? You betcha! But building a reputation for being the best is much easier when no one sees anything but your best work.

For some people, getting comments on a early draft is very helpful to them, and I think that's great. For me, though, I usually have a pretty clear idea of what I want to say in the story before it's written. The early reader may or may not get that, depending on how far along in the process I am, but I don't think it's worth her time to give me comments when I haven't yet communicated what it is I'm trying to say. I recognize that not every piece I write is going to work. But I want to at least try to say it my way first, and we'll talk about changes after that.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Cranking Up the Conflict

As I've been working with the novel I'm writing, I've been enjoying telling the tale from the point of view of the antagonist as well as the protagonist. You may have heard that "every villain thinks he's a hero" and that your villain should be so complex and so well-developed that he could easily be the protagonist himself. I decided to take that one step further and actually give equal time to the antagonist. Now, he is a ruthless guy, but he's not evil. In fact, from a certain point of view (and it's a view he holds, of course), his actions really are altruistic and motivated to help those people that the protagonist and company say are being hurt by them. What I'm trying to do is get the audience believe both sides -- both contradictory sides -- of the issue at the same time. Its not easy to do, especially since I have decided that the antagonist is going to clearly be the antagonist. I'm handling it by making him an extremely charming and persuasive guy. Hopefully, the reader will fully understand how the protagonist could fall in love with him, even as she has to strive against him. In fact, their love for each other is real. The irony, the twist of the knife, is that they know there is a way they both can "win," a way in which they could both be happy. Unfortunately, in order for that to happen, the protagonist would have to turn her back on bringing about change for her people. Is it worth disrupting the status quo when all it can do is make you unhappy? Instead of adding one conflict after another (which is typical and a good way to handle plot), I'm trying to layer the main conflict deeper and deeper. In the end, she will have to choose between literally love and death (either hers or the antagonist's or both). I hope by that time, you won't envy the choice she has to make because you will really understand that both points of view are, to a certain extent, valid. It's a lot of fun knotting the rope!

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

At my son's request, we rented Mr. and Mrs. Smith today and had a family movie night (after the baby went to bed, of course -- she was entralled by The Polar Express before bedtime). I managed to make it through the movie, hoping that I'd see something good from Angelina Jolie.

What is the attraction of so-called "action movies"?

I was bored out of my skull almost the entire time. There is essentially no plot to this movie, and I think it has that in common with a lot of action films. I'm sorry, but it takes more to hold my attention than people diving around in obviously choreographed moves (no real soldier would hold a gun the way these two do -- the recoil would destroy your aim every time). Blowing things up continuously doesn't earn you any points, either. I thought there might be some interesting dynamic between Pitt and Jolie, but the dialogue is flat and forced throughout the movie. This seems to be true of most action movies, at least the few that I've seen.

It doesn't have to be that way. The Bond films are action movies, as are the Indiana Jones movies. Yet none of these are action for it's own sake. They have a complicated plot, usually a puzzle that has to be solved. How much harder is it to add a layer story instead of endless scenes of flying bullets and knives? Pretty hard, apparently. Mr. and Mrs. Smith seemed to rely on it's cute premise: boring married couple turns out to be competing super-assassins (wait, wasn't that done already in True Lies?). Unfortunately, the premise doesn't hold any longer than it takes to read the synopsis.

At least Harrison Ford can deliver a witty line...

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Dancing on Air

My wife and I have been taking a swing dance class every Friday night this semester (since she is faculty at Glendale Community College, we get to take classes for free). It was a lot of fun and was basically our weekly "date night"; it was good to get out of the house (as it turned out, we didn't actually get to dance with each other much, but it was still fun). Our instructor teaches at a local Bally's on a weekly basis, and tonight that class was having a dance party to celebrate Christmas. Our instructor invited us, so we went. It was a good time!

This got me wondering. What will people who live in free fall full time do for social recreation? Dancing is certainly possible, and would be very fascinating to watch. The dance would have to consist of controlled push-offs from walls in a large open area. The dancers might have "wings" attached to their sleeves that they could use to change direction in mid-air. They would literally be "dancing on air." How cool is that?

I can also imagine teenagers coming up with clever ways to show off in free fall. In the YA story I just submitted, one of the characters meets up with the protagonist in a corridor. The corridor is covered in Velcro on all sides, and the characters wear Velcro booties so that they can hook to any wall surface that's convenient. Transport down corridors, however, is still a push-and-glide affair. One of the tenagers in the story launches herself down the corridor at an angle, hits the floor with her hands, and uses the impact to push off, twist in mid-air, and lock her velcro booties on the ceiling. In the end, she is upside down with her face ten centimeters from the protagonist's face. How's that for showing off?

It's important that when we imagine our worlds in science fiction (and fantasy too, for that matter) that we make sure we carry each environment's situation to its logical conclusion. Otherwise, our stories could be taking place in an office building or a shopping mall instead of aboard a ship, for all the difference it makes. Part of the way we carry this off is to think about how the environment affects things like recreation. Recreation isn't likely to drive the plot -- in fact, it might not even be mentioned at all, except in passing -- but it's the small details such as this that turn your story world into a living, breathing world of its own.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Plot Summary

Moving along with Wiesner's outlining method, days four and five has me write up a summary of the plot, or as much as I know to start with. I actually have a pretty good idea about the whole story, so this is a rather long document. While I don't usually write this kind of information down, I usually do keep up with the major scenes in my head. What I don't usually keep up with are the smaller scenes that occur in between. One of the troubling points about outlining in general, I think, is that you don't always know what scenes are going to be there until you actually find yourself writing the scene. For example, I knew I would have a scene in which the antagonist and protagonist meet and he tries to tempt her to his side. What I didn't realize initially, however, is that they needed to have a social engagement -- I had them go out to dinner -- to highlight the differences in their statuses. The outline wouldn't have picked that need up.

Now, in defense of outlining, so long as you never force yourself to stay exactly on the outline, this isn't really a problem. But if the point of outlining is to anticipate future plot holes, how can it do that if all the scenes are there? I suppose I might have thought of this missing scene while writing the outline, but I'm not completely sure of that. The scene just flowed naturally from the dialogue between the characters -- something that wouldn't have been included in the outline. It remains to be seen if other scenes from later in the story occur to me as I'm writing the summary of scenes I already know about.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Plot Threads

Day three of Wiesner's outlineing method involves writing out all the plot threads and the overall plot goal of the story. Now, this is not a bad idea, and writing out the subplot threads (some of which might only be minor side interests and not what I would consider a real subplot at all) can be very useful. With the list in front of you, you can look out for opportunities to weave these threads into the story. On the other hand, I really think that McKee's Story does a much better job with this. Wiesner's worksheet is pretty superficial. I don't know if she will do more with it later, but right now I'm not too impressed with it. Anything that gets you thinking about plot is good, but I would look to McKee for good theory-based suggestions over just random brainstorming (even though that, too, has it's place).

One thing that does concern me about my story is that I don't normally think too much about real subplots. Most of my fiction-writing background is in short stories -- where having subplots is a really bad idea. I'm concerned that the novel I'm writing won't have enough depth, although I will admit I had no trouble identifying a number of subplot threads as Wiesner defines them. This is something that wold be very difficult to add in later, so it's somewhat important that I deal with this in the first draft. I am telling the tale from the points of view of both the protagonist and the antagonist (who is also a somewhat sympathetic character), so I don't really want to confuse the issue with needless subplots. But are they needless? That's the real question here...

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Setting Sketches

(I had some problems posting last night -- sorry for the delay.)

Day two of Wiesner's First Draft in 30 Days involves creating setting sketches for all of the locations that appear in the story. She specifies two different kinds of sketches: one for each location in its own right, and one for each character showing where that character goes during the story. I did both, since I'm trying to give her outlining method a fair shake, but I think this is somewhat inefficient. The character setting sketches ask for specifics about things like where the character works, where she lives, etc. The general setting sketches are more for things like cities or other large areas. I see her rationale: You need to be able to see vividly where the action is taking place in the story, but you also need to know how the "story setting" fits into the larger "world setting." All well and good, but there is a lot that gets repeated between the two sheets. If I were going to use these, I'd give serious thought to redesigning these sheets.

But I'm not likely to use them. As I've mentioned in previous posts, I have a program called Campaign Cartographer. This is the ultimate mapmaking program (though it's a bit arcane to use sometimes due to it being a Windows shell placed on top of a DOS program). I really think that the best way to visualize a setting is to completely map it out. This can be done much more thoroughly and much more rapidly than making written descriptions. And there's no need to imagine what you are seeing -- you can actually print it out and show it to people! I carry maps of the mining complex that is central to the storyline around with me everywhere. If I need to know about how long it would take to walk from location to another, I just pull out my map and look at it. That's extremely hard to do with a written description. The written description is of necessity incomplete -- otherwise you'd write a book just on the setting.

If you really want to be able to see what the place looks like, you could also render it in Poser. This is a lot of work, and I don't think it helps enough to justify the level of effort required, but it sure is impressive! Campaign Cartographer has an add-on called Perspectives Pro that will let you make quasi-3D perspective maps very rapidly. The only real problem is that almost all of the symbols they have are for fantasy rather than science fiction or modern settings, but for rapidly giving you a sense of "being there" the program is hard to beat. Hopefully they will come out with some modern symbols for PP soon.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Point: Wiesner

As I was finishing up the character sketches that Wiesner recommends for her outlining method, I realized that I had a problem. One of the secondary characters, who won't make her appearance until about halfway through the book, was slated to be the protagonist's older sister who disappeared years ago. This character is now a bounty hunter who has been sent to "recover" the protagonist. The character sketch form asks for the character's birthday. Well, I hadn't thought about it (since she hadn't appeared in the story yet, there wasn't much point), but in the interest of completeness I tracked back through Exodus Project timeline to see when she could have been born.

Uh oh.

You see, it's critical that she be an adult when protagonist's parents leave Earth. But if the parents are going to be the age they need to be (and have a teen-aged daughter), then that simply isn't possible. In short, there's no way this character could be the protagonist's sister. The dates just don't work.

Now, I haven't mentioned anything about the journey from Earth -- it happened nearly twenty years before the story takes place. But if I change that part of the timeline, it will have an effect on the entire "future history" of the storyline. I created the timeline specifically to make sure all the events I refer to happen in their proper timeframes. So, even though the date of birth or the age of this secondary character isn't mentioned, it still is going to cause problems down the road. The protagonist has already made a passing reference to a "sister" in the part of the story I've written so far (about a fifth of the book).

After thinking about it, the character works just as well as the protagonist's mother's sister (the protagonist's aunt). The dates work out perfectly, and in truth, it makes more sense that the aunt would be left behind on Earth than would an older sister (even an adult). But the point is this: If I hadn't caught the inconsistency now, I would have had huge amounts of text to rewrite and no guarantees that I would catch all the changes that needed to be made.

So score one for Karen Wiesner.

Maybe there's something to this outlining business after all, I dunno. There's nothing magical about Wiesner's "method" -- in fact, I wouldn't call it a method at all, it's just simple planning ahead. Nevertheless, it's planning ahead that I don't usually do. Editing and revising is easy for me. I don't mind it at all -- in fact I enjoy it. But I have to admit that catching things like this early will get me to a finished book faster, even if it means I only eliminated one rewrite. That may be worth the price of admission on it's own.

Monday, December 12, 2005

More on Character Sketches

Per the instructions for day one of this outlining method, I have spent today creating written character sketches for all of the characters who play an important role in the book. That works out to something like six major characters (three of who are most important) and a couple of secondary characters. I'm not going to bother to create sketches for characters who only appear in a couple of scenes. Now, in all fairness, I already had fairly detailed sketches worked out for the characters who have appeared int he story so far, but I do think there was value in creating sketches for the others as well. Each character has his or her own internal and external conflicts, so I may find a way to weave some of that into the story -- which will only make it richer. I would have gotten around to doing this once they walked on stage anyway, but maybe since I've done it early I'll do more with foreshadowing. Or maybe I won't. We'll see how it goes. The one thing that I don't like about this outlining is that I'd rather be working on writing the story itself. Still, the book claims that you can produce deeper stories using this method, so I'm willing to give it a try. It's all an experiment anyway, right?

One way or the other, I find that I'm really liking my characters. Coincidentally, The Writer last month had an article on creating imperfect characters, something we all know we should be doing. Still, it's a useful reminder. I do like how they are fleshing out to be such interesting people though!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Character Sketches

Day one of the "30 day method" for outlining involves doing character sketches for all of the main characters. This is something I've always done in my head, but have occasionally also put on paper. A while back I also suggested using role-playing game character creation systems to get the creative juices flowing. All of these techniques can work extremely well. While I think it's true that you will come to know the depth of your character's personality as you write about her and see how she reacts to various situations, I also think that it's important you have at least some idea of what the character is like before you start writing.

The book suggests cutting out photos from magazines that remind you of the character. I think this is a great idea, as having a strong visual image of the character can go a long way towards making her a fully-realized human (or whatever). For those who are so inclined, though, I'd like to recommend another approach: the 3D character design program, Poser. Poser is very easy to use and gives amazing results. Not only can you design unique and realistic characters, you can also render them in backgrounds that inspire your writing even further. The full version of Poser isn't cheap, but there is a scaled down version (Poser Artist, I think it's called) that might be a good entry-level program. I've got the latest version of the program and (no kidding) three DVD-R's worth of clothing, hair, props, etc. so there's a lot I can do with the program. I'm going to create images of all of the main characters for this story in Poser. Who knows, it may serve as an inspiration for whoever does the cover art for the book, should it ever sell. I don't have the first renders for the novel ready, but I thought I would post some panels from a webcomic idea I had a year or so ago. These don't include the lettering, so you can see all the artwork. I set the renderer to give a "comic book" feel to it, but you can also render images that are almost indistinguishable from a photo. It's pretty amazing!

Saturday, December 10, 2005


As I've alluded to in several earlier posts, I don't generally outline my stories before I write them. Part of the fun of writing, from my perspective, is having your characters surprise you -- it's almost as if your subconscious is telling you a story. I can't really imagine writing any other way. I feel like if I did write an outline, I'd simply be wasting my time, since I know I'd never follow anything on it.

For the past several months, though, I've been interested in experimenting with different techniques related to writing. No matter how much you think your way of doing things is best, there are still tricks to be learned from others. And after all, until you've tried the other approaches, you certainly can't claim that your way is best -- even best for you. So, I've tried to keep an open mind to other ways of doing things. In that spirit, I recently picked up a copy of First Draft in 30 Days. This is not the NaNoWriMo book (that one is No Plot? No Problem!), and in spite of the title, the book is not really about putting together a first draft in thirty days. In reality, the book is about outlining. The author lays her method for outlining a book, which she claims is so detailed, you generally only have to write the final draft once you've completed the outline. No endless major revisions of the novel. The fact that she's broken it up into steps that extend of thirty days is really just a marketing ploy (which is a negative thing in my mind -- an instruction book should be honest in its selling points). Nevertheless, having thumbed through her suggestions, I think there might be some merit here, so I've decided to give it a go. I honestly can't see it making me want to outline before writing, but she does acknowledge that many people write the way I do, and she says her method is not incompatible with that. We'll see. As I said, I do try to keep an open mind, and I'm always interested in experimenting!

Friday, December 09, 2005

Sweat, Tears, and Angst

Today is the last day of the term at the community college where I've been teaching part time. I've actually got everything graded that's been handed in, so all I need to do is tabulate the grades, work out the final averages, and assign the letter grades. That actually doesn't take very long, since I track everything in an Excel spreadsheet from the start of the semester.

It's somewhat humerous (and from another perspective, somewhat sad) how the students act during these last few weeks. Everyone is stressed, and I don't find that humerous at all, of course. But so many of the students here are more interested in trying to see what they can "negotiate" than in actually buckling down and studying. I've had a couple of students come up to me and say, "What do I need to do to be able to pass this class?" Umm, let me think... Do the work starting at the beginning of the semester, maybe? "Well, can't I do some extra credit?" Let's think about this: You want me to take the time to come up with additional (valid and reliable) evaluation instruments, give you an opportunity no other student in the class gets, spend hours grading it, and then scramble to get grades posted by the deadline?

Ah, no, I don't think so.

Or here's a classic: "But if I don't pass this class, I won't graduate this semester!" Well, gee, if you knew the class was that critical, why didn't you make sure you were actually in class and oh, maybe turn in the homework every once and a while? This one I can't fathom. I mean really, if I were graduating, I think I'd make doubly sure I was on top of everything in all my classes.

The thing is, many of the teachers around here (much more soft-hearted than me -- I'm vicious and cruel) give in to the sob stories. So many times, in fact, that the students have come to expect it. It's much less work to do an extra paper at the end of the semester than it is to actually keep up with the work and learn the material throughout the semester. They aren't stupid. The other thing I see a lot of is students who blow off a class and then withdraw in the last two weeks. Most of these students have their tuition paid by their parents. This is just extended high school to them. You can bet that if the $300/course came out of their pockets, they'd be a lot more upset about not getting anything for that money. This is one of the many reasons we are going to make our son pay his own way through school. Too many times, it's just a waste of money if the parents pay for it -- it doesn't mean anything to the kids, so they don't put in the work to get something out of college.

Ah well, one way or the other, the semester is over, and I'm glad of the break. I've had some really good students this year, in spite of what I've said above. In fact, I've actually had less of the above-mentioned behavior this semester than I have seen in years past. I'm a tough teacher, as any of my students will tell you. But they come out of my class with a feeling of accomplishment. A feeling that, yeah, I worked my butt off, but I actually did something to be proud of.

I think that lesson is just as important as the astronomy they learn.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Book Six Complete

I finished reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince this aftrnoon, and while I still don't think it's as good a book as the first one in the series, unlike The Order of the Phoenix, it's a very respectable piece of writing. Very entertaining, and even though I knew the "secret" at the climax, I knew nothing about how it was done or how it would get there. One of the things that I thought was best about the book was that Rowling successfully pulled off what I call "the reversal." By that I mean that she presented clear clues to the ending that are misinterpreted by the reader (and the characters, of course), so that when the climax is revealed we are left amazed and surprised -- yet we don't feel she cheated, since all the clues were there. At the climax we get a rush as we instantly re-interpret all the clues we've been given. In this case, of course, it was the fact that Snape really was working for Voldemort and was not just a spy for the Order. He defends himself and his loyalty to Voldemort to Draco Malfoy's aunt, but again, we think that he is only playing a role. We now know that he wasn't, so instead of an act, we instantly re-interpret that scene as truth. It's a tough trick to pull off, but Rowling did a very good job with it.* We trust Dumbledore's judgement, just as the other characters do, even though we know that Dumbledore makes mistakes -- Rowling makes a point of telling us so. Everything is well within the bounds of fair play (from a writing standpoint), so the effect thrills rather than disappoints. Very well done, indeed.

I also approve of the fact that Harry will not be returning to Hogwart's next year. There's not much new to discover at Hogwart's, so while it is still a location we're going to want to visit in the next book, it's not really appropriate to base the story there. Harry has come of age and has now taken up the quest for the final battle. It's not appropriate that he have to worry about getting detention any more. Incidentally, this is also why Dumbledore was the perfect main character to kill off. Dumbledore is Hogwart's, as any of the characters would tell you. But throughout the last two books, he has played less and less of a role in the day-to-day lives of the characters. This is also masterfully done. We still care about him, and that's why his death hurts, but by the sixth book, we've already learned to live without him somewhat, so the series can still go on.

I will at some point write up my theories of the Harry Potter phenomenon, but I haven't fully worked everything out yet. One of the key foundations of that theory, though, is that Harry is the original Everyman. He's not a great hero. He didn't do anything special himself to get his reputation. Fame has been forced on him, completely against his will, and he doesn't want it. This innocence is part of his attraction. He is a hero, so we want to be him, but because he is also Everyman, we still identify with him. More than any other fantasy protagonist, Harry is a hero we feel we could be ourselves. What I think is interesting is whether this will work against Rowling as she tries to write the seventh book in the series. You see, Harry can't stay the innocent Everyman any longer. If he did, we would no longer buy into the story -- too many events have taken place which should have changed him. On the other hand, he is now a true hero, not someone who just wants to live as a normal kid. We won't be able to identify with the Harry of book seven quite as much as we have in the past. Will we still be attracted to him? There is enough of an audience for any Harry Potter book that we all want to know how the story ends. The book will sell, no matter what. But will it be a sensation on its own merits, or will it just ride the coattails of the first few books? Time will tell...

*Of course, if it turns out that Snape is still a spy for the Order in the 7th book, then we're all going to feel robbed. But killing Dumbledore can't be interpreted as good for the Order no matter how badly they need a spy, so I don't think that is the case. At least, I hope not.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Half-Blood Prince: First Impressions

I am about two-thirds of the way through Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and so far I'm much more satisfied with it. The story isn't as conflict-driven as some of the other books, but it is more of a mystery, with clues being dropped every so often. We're left wondering what both Dumbledore and Draco Malfoy are up to, and that's a good thing. I do find it a little annoying that she is being so coy with Dumbledore. Why doesn't he just come out and explain what's going on to Harry? The answr is, I believe, specifically because Rowling wants to string us along. That's fine as far as it goes -- you definitely want to write in such a way that your reader wants his questions answered. I wish it weren't quite so transparent that was what she was doing, but it's not tragic. Similarly, I'm very interested in the flashback scenes, since they tell us about Voldemort's background, something we haven't known much about until now. Again, though, the device comes across as being a bit contrived, even if it is something we all want to know.

Overall, though, I'm enjoying the book. I had to force myself to get through The Order of the Phoenix, but not so with this book. While I still don't think it compares (so far) with the first book, it still definitely harkens back to that style, and that pleases me. I know what happens to Dumbledore in the end, but I don't yet see how it happens, so that's all good as well. Here's hoping the book continues to live up to its promise!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Moving On

I finished Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and while things did finally start happening, I can't say this was even close to as good a book as the first three (the fourth wasn't bad, either). In fact, the "problem" is almost a classic "non-problem": The Ministry of Magic is causing all the problems for Harry and Company because they think Dumbledore is trying to stage a coup. He's not, so most of the conflicts that have driven the entire book magically (no pun intended -- really this time) go away as soon as Voldemort is revealed. Of course, like most of the books, this one ends with major changes for Harry, and that's a good thing -- the characters must not be left unchanged by story events, and victory should always be mixed with defeat. But most of the events of this book could have been told in a standard-length novel, and the events and background revealed that are really important to the series could actually fit in a short story. It's almost as if Rowling got too busy with the movies and public appearances (which even she admits interfered with the writing) and just needed to crank one out the door.

I'm probably going to be roasted alive because of my disappointment with the book, but I'm doing my best to evaluate it based on the principles you've read about in this column. I've heard that in the next book Rowling is back to her old style, so I'm very much looking forward to that. Other than the big surprise at the end, I know nothing about it, so I'm hoping this will be a good read. The fifth book, though, came across to me as more of an example of how not to write than how to write a blockbuster. Moving on!

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Order of the Phoenix

I decided that this time I would make it all the way through Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I'm now on page 600, and finally something is starting to happen in the story. How can an excellent YA author manage to tread water for 300 pages? I mean, really -- nothing happens of any consequence for the first half of the book! As just one example, she spends ten pages describing the cleaning of the drawing room in the Order's headquarters solely, as far as I can tell, to include two paragraphs about Sirius Black's family tree. There's a lot that could be cut here without hurting the plot (what little there is so far) in the slightest. So why wasn't it cut? The answer, of course, is simple: It's Harry Potter.

And herein lies the magic (no pun intended -- well, okay, maybe just a little) of serialized novels. If you can write a blockbuster that introduces a series, then you can slack off on one book and it will sell anyway (though, as I recall, book five didn't sell nearly as well as the previous four). The writing is still very good. And for all the true fans, I'm sure it's great to get an in-depth look at what it's like to be a wizard in the Muggle's world. But up until now, there's been no story, no real conflict.

We all write scenes that we love, but eventually have to cut because they don't further the story. Rowling, obviously, does the same thing. But why weren't these scenes cut by the editors before the book was published? I think the answer is twofold. Frst and foremost, the book would only be about 300 pages long (novel-length, not coincidentally). There's nothing disgraceful about that, but this book would look out of place on the shelf next to the mighty tomes that are the first four volumes in the series. People would have felt cheated. The second reason, though, is that it is simply Harry Potter. Fans can't get enough of him and his world. And that's something that Rowling should be proud of. I can't count the number of kids I've met who really want to go to Hogwart's. This is not idle fantasy, they want to be there with all their hearts and souls. If adding 600 pages to the book let's them live the dream for a few hours longer, well, that's all well and good. It's certainly going to sell a lot of books.

I think, though, that as I look for clues to the phenomenon, I'm going to have to go back to the first book. I've actually got some theories, but they don't quite work out yet. It's certainly interesting to think about though!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Sleeping Again

I had an appointment with the ENT doctor and went over the results of the sleep study with him. I've been a bit anxious about this, as it will have a rather major effect on my life (flying, CPAP machine, etc.). The doctor said that they recorded a number of "mild apnea events" (I wasn't aware that "apnea" could beused as an adjective, but maybe I should get ticky... :) ), but that they were of such short duration that he wasn't willing to diagnose them as actual sleep apnea. Now, he's a pilot as well, and he knows that once I've been diagnosed, that's it for me. I don't think he was just cutting me some slack -- after all, sleep apnea can be quite dangerous in the long term. I do think, though, that he wasn't willing to cause problems by giving a diagnosis "just ot be on the safe side," as I've heard of other doctors doing, so I really appreciated that.

In the end, they are going to keep me on nasal steroids for a while, since that seemed to be doing some good. The doctor assures me that there are no long-term effects of being on nasal steroids, but I'm not convinced. Anyone know of any studies on the matter?

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Harry Potter

The open-captioned version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire finally came to the theater this weekend, so my wife and I went to see it. It's a good flick! I'm told it doesn't match the book as well as the other films did, but I honestly can't remember much of what happened in the book, so that didn't really bother me. I remembered the scene when the Dark Lord returns, and I remember that Hermione ends up dating Krum, but that's really about it. Since they got both of those scenes right, I didn't have a problem with it.

What I did have a problem with is that the cast can no longer convincingly play a group of fourteen year olds. When the first movie came out, I was amazed at how much the cast looked like the characters from the book. They did a really good job. I don't think they should have recast the parts (Dumbledore was recast, sadly, for obvious reasons), and it simply takes longer than a year to make a movie (or a book), so I don't know really what they could do. Nor do I know what they will do for the next one. At some point, the age of the cast is going to be so out of whack with that of a bunch of high school students, that it will distract from the story. Really, this should be the last Harry Potter movie, from a practical standpoint.

I am absolutely certain that won't happen.

A Harry Potter movie -- any Harry Potter movie -- will make its producers a fortune. Hollywood has never been one to let a sure thing pass by, to say the least. It's the safest movie ever made. The series is simply that huge a phenomenon. I don't know how J.K. Rowling did it. I really wish I did. I wish I could even identify what it is about the books that makes them such a sensation. Maybe it's time to dig out the books and read them again, this time with a critical eye. I never finished the fifth book, and really didn't care much about the sixth either. Nevertheless, there's an education to be had here.

If I can just figure out what it is I should learn from it...

Friday, December 02, 2005

ARCHER is a no-go

Well, it seems ARCHER training just wasn't meant to be for me. I spoke briefly with the office manager at Civil Air Patrol Headquarters a couple of days ago, and she said she would email me travel information. I told her that I needed to leave "as late as possible" on Friday, but since she seemed to be in a huge hurry (and it was long distance), I assumed she would send me some possibilities to choose from via email, and we work out the details that way.

As you've probably heard many times, never assume anything.

She went ahead and booked me on a plane that leaves Phoenix at 11:40 AM -- not exactly what I would call "as late as possible," especially since there were in fact later flights. I had agreed to take over another astronomy faculty member's class on that Friday (the last class meeting), so there is no way I could leave that early. Now, apparently they do things differently in Montgomery, AL, but where I come from you don't book travel for someone without getting their okay that the flight is workable. I called her to let her know that flight wouldn't work for me, and when I finally got her to take my call, she was quite, shall we say, snitty to me. She basically said, "Well, these tickets are bought, there's no way I can change them now, you'll just have to come then." Umm, hello? Civil Air Patrol is an all-volunteer organization. I'm willing to volunteer four days away from my family to further the mission, but I'm not willing to turn my back on my responsiblities just because you didn't have the foresight to check with me before buying that ticket.

Needless to say, I was most annoyed. I kept my squadron commander in the loop (old Navy habits come back to you quickly), and he is totally supportive of me, as was the Arizona Wing Commander when my commander called him. I logged on to and found any number of flights that would work (though I will admit they were now hugely more expensive since there is now less than a week left). I finally talked to the head of the program and another officer this morning, and they basically said that the program is too strapped for cash to fund a ticket change. I respect that. The last thing I want to do is jeopardize the ARCHER program -- I think it is literally the future of Civil Air Patrol. In hopes of finding other solutions, I had arranged with the college administration to get permission to move the final for this class into finals week (through a bizarre twist, this class actually ends a week early), but the catch was that all of the students in the class would have to agree with it, or it couldn't go. Of course, the odds of that happening were pretty small, and in the end that didn't work out.

I emailed the officers involved at lunch withdrawing my name from the program.

Of course, I may can get into a future class, but there's no way for me to know if the schedule will work out any better. I'll still be teaching this same class on Fridays next semester, after all. At this point, I'm not counting on it. I'm disappointed, as you might expect, but there's not much to be done for it. On the positive side, I won't be away from kids (my son's youth group is doing a performance that weekend, so now I don't have to miss it). My participation in CAP is going to decline next semester anyway, since I'll be teaching a night class during squadron meetings. Ah well, things usually have a way of working out for the best.

In writing news, the short story is out the door and on its way. Hopefully I'll be doing the happy dance in another two or three months. We shall see!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Another One Out the Door

I finished all the edits that I wanted to my short story, so it is ready to go off in the mail first thing in the morning. I really intended to mail it today, but when I got to the post office I sat down in the lobby to do one last read-through -- and naturally, I found some things that I wanted/needed to change. So, I got the envelope weighed and bought the postage for it ($1.29, for the curious -- 16 pages plus the return envelope), made the changes at home, and I'll put it in the mailbox tomorrow.

I'm psyched to be sending out some fiction. While I've been writing non-fiction almost continuously (salaried and freelance) for the past several years, I haven't delved into the fiction realms of publishing in a while. This market is sort of like submitting to the New Yorker, both in terms of pay and in numbers of submissions they receive each month -- over a 1,000/month, according to the writer's guidelines. But I figure you may as well go for the big leagues from the start, eh? If they don't buy it, I can always work my way to smaller markets. The story really is exactly the type they would buy (in my opinion, of course, but I think it's a justifiable opinion). It's written spot-on for their target age group, deals with issues that teens often face, and is (again, in my opinion) a darn fun story to read. We'll see what happens. You never know, I may get a first reader who hates science fiction (they publish all genres, though they do say specifically they are looking for science fiction).

In the cover letter, I mentioned my NASA background and how all of the science in the story is real -- I also mentioned that their teenaged readers could be the protagonists in the story in just a few decades. I put in some other bits that I think (hope) will help generate some interest in the reader's mind. Again, we'll just have to see how it goes. Their turn-around time is twelve weeks, so I won't hear anything until late Februrary or early March. A long time to wait, but such is the nature of our business!

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Writing Markets

Most of us who write professionally are aware of Writer's Market, the annual four-inch publication that lists practically every market for practically every kind of writing. While there are markets that aren't listed here (markets have to submit their information to the book's publisher), there are more than enough places to sell your work listed in this one volume. This past year I decided to buy the "deluxe" version, which includes a one-year subscription to This website includes all of the markets listed in the guide, but in a searchable electronic form.

Several years ago, I wrote a science fiction short story and submitted it to Analog. I got a nice letter from the editor rejecting the story, but making a point of telling me the writing was "quite good" and they wanted to hear more from me. Clueless amatuer that I was, I didn't realize that the story -- a tale with a teen protagonist and was really aimed at young adults -- just wasn't appropriate for their magazine, which caters to adult readers. Now that I know a little more about the science fiction industry, I wouldn't think of sending this particular story to a magazine like that (though I admit it was gratifying to have Stanley Schmidt call my writing "quite good"!). Not really knowing where else to send it, I put it away and have always planned to use it as one of my Clarion application stories.

I haven't played much with the electronic search features of the website, but for some reason that old story came to mind, and I wondered if there might be a home for it somewhere. I put in the search parameters, and lo and behold, no less than twenty markets came up. I noticed a lot of those paid in copies of the magazine (no thanks), so I further limited the search to markets that paid above a certain rate. I found the perfect market! The editor says they are looking for all kinds of fiction (but they mention science fiction specifically), but the protagonist must be a teenager over the age of 14. They prefer stories of 3,000 to 10,000 words (my story is 3500), and they pay 25 cents/word! For those that don't feel like doing the math, that's $875! And from the description of what they are looking for, I think my story will fit right in. I need to find a copy of the magazine first, of course, since I've never heard of it, but I think it sounds like a good match. I pulled the story out and (naturally) found some things I want to change, but they are all fairly minor. We'll see if it all pans out, but I have to say that thus far I've found to be worth every dime. There are other features to the site (submission tracking is one, though I have my own system), but just this feature alone is outstanding. It's worth your while to check it out!

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Breaking the Rules

I just read an interesting article in Writer's Digest on "breaking the rules" of publishing. The author lists ten rules that we all "know" we're supposed to follow, and then explained how successful she was by breaking those rules. Some of the "rules" are not much more than tips that help out certain writing styles, so if you break them successfully, that just means you have a different routine for writing. For example, one "rule" you may have heard is that you should know your characters so well before starting to write the book that they speak to you as you write. As I've commented before, my characters do seem to take on a life of their own, even though I know that's just my subconcious speaking to me. The writer of this article claims that never happens for her, and I've heard other people say the same thing. Nothing at all wrong with that. Of course, in the same paragraph, the writer says she just tries to imagine what her character would do in a particular situation and writes that down. That's not really that different -- in both cases you're essentially letting the character drive the story. Who cares if you "feel" what the character feels or if you just intellectually decide that's what he should do? A lot of her "rules" are actually of this variety. If a rule of this type (suggestion, really) works for you, great! If not, fine, do whatever does work.

Some of her other "rules" are a little more serious. For example, she says you should never follow an agent's guidelines. Related to this, she says you should always send them a completed manuscript, not a query. She then goes on to talk about the "friendly" rejection letter she got from one agent that she sent her entire manuscript to. She says "I never got a rejection letter saying, 'You didn't query us first, so we didn't look at your manuscript.'" Well, duh. Many agents have said they just trash any manuscript that wasn't specifically asked for. Why would they bother to take the time to write you a nice note telling you you're an idiot? Publishers and agents establish their guidelines because that is what they've found help them to work most efficiently. The writer of this article says that by skipping the query and partial manuscript phases, she's bypassed two chances for rejection. Maybe so. But maybe not -- she just may have been rejected out of hand without being reviewed. But even if there is an advantage to you, as the writer, in not following guidelines, you aren't showing respect for the editors who are working 70 hour weeks to get through all the material they have to review. They are people, and they have lives. Why would you intentionally make someone else's life more difficult, even if it is to your advantage to do so? Yes, some editors/agents will buy a piece that break their rules. In the end, they want good stories, and if something really catches their eye, they'll buy it regardless, just because the world is driven by business and not by convenience. But your manuscript had better be much better than anything else the editor has ever read. And if it's so good, won't that come through in a query letter? Editors don't reject things randomly. They need good writing to earn their living. If your writing is good enough to be published, it's good enough to be published without making the editor's job harder.

There is a certain arrogance in the type of behavior this writer advocates that really bothers me. In fact, her entire article shows that same arrogance and condescening tone: "Oh, you poor saps, you've been lied to all your life. Let me grace you with the real story." She's published a YA novel (just one), and I applaud her for that. But I think I can live without following her advice, especially considering the attitude of the source.

Monday, November 28, 2005


A couple of months ago, I posted a description of the Civil Air Patrol's new ARCHER (Airborne Real-time Cueing Hyperspectral Enhanced Reconnaissance) system that is being deployed to support homeland security, search and rescue, and disaster relief missions. For those that don't want to re-read that post, basically this is the equivalent of Star Trek's planetary scanners. You can do minerology, crop assessments, search for specific objects on the planetary surface, and lots of things that used to only be envisioned by science fiction. I commented that as science fiction writers, any time we can get real-world experience like this, we can improve the sensation of "being there" in our stories. After all, how many writers for Star Trek actually got to run Mr. Spock's sensor scans for real? I took the screening exam and applied to program, more or less on a lark.

It seems I've been given the nod.

I got a call today from the director of the program (he's in Colorado Springs, CO), asking if I'd be interested in attending the four-day intensive training program. He said that they were being very selective, so he was personally interviewing all the candidates (apparently nearly 25% of the first --and only, I believe -- class of ARCHER trainees flunked out, costing CAP $5,000 each), but that my background -- between the Navy and my work with hyperspectral imaging with the Mars program -- made me a perfect candidate. So, in two weeks, CAP is flying me to Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama for the training. I am the only person in the state of Arizona who will be trained, and there will only be twelve students in this class. Coincidentally, I had a CAP squadron meeting tonight, which -- also coincidentally -- the group commander (the group is the next level of command above the squadron level) was attending. I mentioned that I had been selected for the training, and the group commander was quite impressed (apparently he flunked the screening exam). He said that the wing commander would really like me to do this training, since if the Arizona Wing has a certified ARCHER operator, we have a chance of getting one of the new high-tech ARCHER aircraft permanently stationed here. And since I'd be the only person trained to fly it, it would essentially be my aircraft, which I think is pretty cool...

The first two days of training is ground school on the theory of hyperspectral imaging. Since I'm one of maybe three dozen people in the country who actually did this for a living, I'm not too concerned with it. On the third day, though, we are actually going out to the hanger and will uninstall and install the system in the aircraft. This is no small thing, and I believe requires us to get an FAA certification for this maintenance. We will be trained to fix the thing, not just operate it, so that's going to be way cool. The fourth day we will be in the air running the system, and will be given the final exam that we have to pass to get certified. All in all, it's going to be an intense period, but I'm actually looking forward to it (though I'm not looking forward to being away from my family for that long).

I think this will be a huge boost in real-world experiences that I can use to power my writing. I'm definitely going to have to work in a story that uses this type of system, I can already see...

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Manga Takes Over the Universe

We used to play a game called "Illuminati," an absolutely hysterical and viciously backstabbing game (it even has rules for cheating) that pokes fun at all the conspiracy theories floating about. The basic premise of the game is that there are secret societies that are controlling the world by controlling other organizations as their puppets (some of which have their own puppets, as well). You can get some very interesting results, such as discovering that the Boy Scouts secretly control the Porn Magazines who in turn control the Evil Geniuses for a Better Tomorrow (who are equipped with their Orbital Mind Control Lasers). You have to play it to appreciate it, but trust me, it's a lot of fun.

In reality, manga controls the universe.

Our friend (who is staying with us this weekend, see last night's post) and I used to follow several comic book series, so we made our traditional trek to the comic book shop as we do every time she visits. All of the comic book series I used to read have long ended, so I'm not currently reading any of them. When we walked into the store, I was amazed that fully two-thirds of the store was devoted to manga and anime. And it's not just in the shops, look at Saturday morning cartoons. Even the non-Japanese cartoons are now being drawn in a "manga-ish" style. The transformation is complete: All animation now involves characters with big eyes and small mouths.*

Now that in and of itself is not really a problem, as far as I'm concerned. What bugs me is that manga has -- in my heretical opinion -- some of the single worst artwork I've seen anywhere. I understand the conventions are different. For exmaple, it's more iconic: Lines streaming out from a character's head indicate anger or rage, motion is indicated by blurring the surroundings instead of blurring the characters, etc. That doesn't change the fact that the characters don't really look like people even when they're drawn well. What bothers me even more, though, is that in the same book there will be panels where they've obviously taken a lot of time to drawn the characters and some panels where it looks like a art school drop-out drew them. I don't understand the inconsistency, though there's probably a reason for that, too.

One way or the other, it doesn't really matter what my tastes in the artwork might be. Manga has taken over in a big, big way, so there's no point in fighting a battle that was decided long ago while I wasn't paying attention. The stories, at least, are often quite good, and as a writer that's my big interest. I will say one thing for them: I hate that traditional American comics are so short. You can't tell a story in 18 pages (or whatever), so you end up having to wait months just to see even one event resolve itself. It's really hard to remember what's going on in the story after all that time. Manga, to its credit, has much longer books, so you can tell complete tale within its pages. Maybe that's the secret of its popularity, and that's a good thing from a writer's point of view.

In the end, I waved the white flag and bought a manga comic that had an interesting premise. Viva la revolution!

*There's even a roleplaying game called BESM, which stands for -- you guessed it -- "big eyes, small mouth."

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Friends Near and Far

A very good friend of ours is staying with us over the weekend; she'll be back for a week or so over Christmas. She's been friends with my wife and I since grad school (in fact my wife was one of her housemates before moving in with me), so it's been really great to see her. She is also part of our extended network of friends who meet online to play games (mostly massively multiplayer games). What I find interesting is that while I met all of this group in person before we started playing online, some of the members of the group have never seen each other "in the flesh." And yet, they all consider themselves to be friends, and we all have the typical friendship dynamics that you would expect from a group that gets together for drinks once a week or so (falling outs, habits that annoy each other, new marriages - not to each other so far, ups and downs, etc.). I've experienced the phenomenon of building a mental image of a radio personality, only to have that image totally oblitherated upon actually seeing what the person looks like. I've often wondered if a similar reaction would occur if my friends actually met each other in person.

All of this is in my mind, of course, because it's a central theme in the short story I'm writing. It's purely coincidence that our friend has come to visit at the same time I'm writing this, but it's interesting to get her perspective. I'm not completely sure the idea is powerful enough to carry the story (see my previous post on the story for a plot synopsis), but I think it's strong enough to be worth the time for a first draft. I'm still working on the novel, as well. Oddly enough, I think this is the first time I've ever multi-tasked story writing. Normally I can't think about more than one story at a time, but I don't think this short story will interfere much. We shall see.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Story -- Complete

I finally finished Robert McKee's Story last night. It's really an excellent book, and he is obviously passionate about his theories of how story works. For the most part, I think his theories are spot on, so there is a lot to be learned by reading this book. I'm sure he is a very dynamic speaker, and I'd love to attend one of his seminars one day (although I seriously doubt I could ever afford it). Unfortunately, his writing is so -- dramatic -- that it's sometimes hard to get a good grasp on what he's trying to say. A good teacher boils things down into clear, concise pieces of information that he wants his students to learn. McKee talks a lot and gives you a lot of examples from film -- all of which are good -- but he's not as good a teacher as I would like him to be. As I said, though, there is a lot to learn from the book, and it's certainly not dull, so I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to take fiction writing seriously. On the other hand, I would also strongly recommend that you have written at least one complete novel (sold or unsold) before trying to apply his techniques. I really think you need to have the experience of plotting and carrying out a complete novel (or screenplay, obviously) before his ideas will make sense. You'll get something out of it no matter what, but reading this book is a big investment time-wise, so you'll want to make sure you're getting the most for your money.

I'll post some examples of things I've learned from the book in the next few days. Even though the book is aimed at screenwriters, there is really only one chapter that isn't all that applicable to novelist -- and even that chapter is interesting, as it reveals how the "other half" lives. Screenwriters are under a lot more restrictions than we novelists are, and some of the techniques that work for screenwriting would be a death nell for novelists. Nevertheless, having the ability to write only what the "camera" sees -- no thoughts inside anyone's head -- for example, would be a powerful exercise for any budding novelist.

Overall, the book is well worth the (hefty) price of admission.

Thursday, November 24, 2005


It's traditional (in the U.S., at least) to take Thanksgiving to reflect on all the things that we are thankful for in the past year. It's certainly been a busy year, with lots of changes coming down. My daughter has evolved from a baby to a child, and that's been amazing to watch. My son has taken an interest in his life and school and is becoming a mature young man -- no small feat for a sixteen year old. My wife has a new job, a permanent position doing exactly what she loves, working with people that she enjoys being around. And me? Well, I'm probably riding the biggest wave of all, living a dream I've had for twenty years or more. I'm writing all the time, working from home as my own boss, and am actually enjoying life for the first time in a long time.

I'd say that makes for a pretty darn good Thanksgiving, never mind the turkey and trimmings.

Here's hoping that you and yours have as much to be thankful for and that you're enjoying the beginning of the holiday season!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Today my daughter had a "Thanksgiving lunch" at her school (she's two, you'll recall), and parents were invited. She was pretty tickled to see me at her school during the middle of the day, and even moreso when I sat down at the little table with her. She didn't eat much of the meal (although she did shout her Thanksgiving mantra, "It's turkey time!"), but she has discovered that she loves "punkinpie" (one word). She generally doesn't like anything gooey, but I guess she made an exception for pie!

When we got home, she was thrilled to help her mom cook in the kitchen. "I'm makin' punkinpie with Mama!" It was too cute, she was so excited. My wife was having a ball, too, because this is the first holiday tradition that our toddler has really been able to understand. My wife got a real kick out of being able to pass on one of her family traditions.

It makes me wonder what kinds of traditions an alien civilization might have. It's obviously not a racial thing (as humans all have widely different traditions for holidays), so it's not immediately obvious how to figure out what their traditions might be. For that matter, a group of colonists living in a space station might develop holiday traditions (or other kinds of traditions) that are radically different from our own. I think you'd have to do a very good job of developing the sociology of your alien culture to be able to even guess at what their traditions might be. On the other hand, this type of color can really add to the richness of your story, so I think the effort is well spent! It can be quite a challenge, but a fun one to think through...

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

You're the Inspiration

Where do we get our ideas for stories? Sometimes, I think it comes from the most bizarre places, but other times, it's from the fairly mundane. I had to drive down to ASU to meet with my thesis committee chair this morning. At an average speed of less than 10 MPH (not much of an exaggeration), it takes an hour and half or more to get there, so I had a CD playing in the car stereo system.* One of the songs was "Will You Still Love Me?" which has lyrics that go something like, "Just say you'll love me for the rest of my life." I started thinking, what if a man met a woman, and they fell in love, but she was in some dreadful accident. The only way to save her was to essentially turn her into a cyborg. Now what of his promise to love her "for the rest of her life"?

And that led to further explorations with the idea. Internet chat rooms are so popular these days, it's not uncommon to have good friends that you've never met in person. Marriages have even resulted in not a few cases. What if the man and woman met through a chat room? They fall in love, but the woman is deathly afraid of a coming event that will turn off all power to her region for a few hours. The man can't figure out why she's so afraid, until she finally confesses that she's not a human -- she's an A.I. Now he has to deal with love, and whether one can love a machine, and also with the impending loss of that love. Even if the A.I. is rebooted, it will not be the same personality, even if all the memories are restored.

And thus was born a short story, "Will You Love Me When the Lights Go Out?" The story explores not only the facelessness of our Internet culture, but also what it means to love, and to even be human. It also deals with the conflicts of love and loss, which is the driving force behind the story. I think it will be fun to write!

*For the curious, it was "Chicago: Greatest Hits." My hearing is not good enough -- even with hearing aids -- to actually make out the words to any of these songs, so I pretty much only listen to songs that I knew well from before I lost my hearing. My brain sort of fills in the words for me, so I still enjoy it (mostly). Interestingly enough, there are some songs on this CD that I don't know. It's kind of weird to be enjoying the music and then suddenly not be able to follow any of it. Odd how memory works...

** By the way, for those that don't recognize it, the title of this post is also a great Chicago song...