Thursday, June 30, 2005

Back at Work

I am finally about over being sick, although I still don't have a lot of energy. Ah, the joys of parenthood. Your kids will get exposed to all kinds of bugs at school, then bring them home to you. I got it from my daughter, and now it looks like my wife has gotten it from me. Hopefully my son can escape it, but there's not much hope for that. Large families (from which I come) tend to have even more problems in this area. By the time the seventh member of the family has gotten the virus, it can mutate enough to re-infect the first member who got it! Sometimes I wonder just what exactly it is that makes us sick. Most doctors, when it comes down to it, treat symptoms. We may know that a particular medicine will have a particular result, but I think a lot of even modern medicine is purely an observational science. What, physically, is making us sick? What is the actual mechanism of disease. I'm not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV, some maybe more of these answers are known than think -- but I don't think so. Some of our ignorance about disease must have to do with our ignorance about how the brain functions, since ultimately the brain and the rest of the central nervous system control pretty much everything that's going on in our bodies. If we ever want to make science fiction's nanobot healers a reality, we're going to have to completely figure out how the body's disease system works.

So here's a story idea for you, no charge: Suppose we used modern medical techniques (inject a drug that should have such and such an effect into the patient and see what happens) with nanobots. What kind of wonders -- or horrors -- might we unlock as a result? Remember, nanobots aren't intelligent, they have to be programmed like any other computer -- and the limit of their programming is the extent to which the programmer understands the material.

As I menioned in the entry on the business of writing, freelance writers are self-employed and don't get paid sick days. While making a daily blog entry really isn't my goal, I'm pleased that I was able to sit down and write even when I felt terrible. I think one of the major challenges of being a freelancer would be keeping yourself motivated and on task -- there are lots of external pressures besides illness that can keep you from writing. As I indicated before, the fact that you aren't getting paid if you don't work certianly is a motivator, but there are other things a writer needs to be able to do (such as read, observe the world, research, etc.). Family and "free time" are important, too. When you work a nine-to-five job, I think it's much easier to strike that balance than when you work for yourself. I have a great deal of respect for freelancers, maybe one day I'll be worthy of that respect as well.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Writer's Block?

I've heard of "writer's block," of course, but I can't actually say that I've ever experienced it. I have to confess that I'm not really even sure it exists. As I understand it, writer's block is when you sit down at a keyboard and literally can't think of anything at all to type. I have a really hard time understanding that. If you are writing fiction, write what's happening to your characters! If you don't know what's happening, stop and daydream a bit until you do. If you're writing non-fiction, maybe you need to go out and do some research -- I will admit that it's hard to write factually about something you know nothing about.

I've heard that writer's block can happen when you are too critical of your first-draft prose. I can see that, to a certain extent, but the easy way around that is to just write -- I never try to edit as I'm writing. It's a whole lot easier to change things once you've got at least the first blush down and saved. I can see where this would have been more of a problem in the days of manual typewriters, but with modern word processors, whole sections of the text can be moved around and modified at will.

What I do find can be a problem for me is really just simple procrastination. I may need to look up some background material on the web or in the library, but I just don't feel like doing that right at the moment. Unfortunately, I can't really continue with the writing until I do, so not much gets written in that session. I don't consider this to be writer's block, though. I know what I need, and I know what I need to do to get it, I just don't feel like doing it. Those are the times when I just have to kick myself in the tail feathers and get to it, whether I want to or not. One thing the Navy instilled into me, I suppose, is the need for professionalism. I think sometimes the hardest part about being a "professional" in anything is making yourself do the things you don't really feel like doing, if it's necessary to get the job done. Being a professional writer isn't really any different!

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Setting: Building a Universe for Fun and Profit

One of the more enjoyable aspects of fiction writing, and science fiction and fantasy writing in particular, is the fact that you get to imagine a whole new world (or many worlds!) and bring them to life on the page. In order for your setting to be believable, you have to have carefully and fully thought out the detailed history of your world. Inherent in any history are conflicts, and conflict is the soul of good storytelling. It's not necessary that your characters' actions shape the world's history on a large scale (although that can happen), but your characters cannot escape being shaped by the history of the world in which they live.

Here's an example from my own writing. In the "Exodus Project" history, scientists have determined that the asteroid 1997 XF11 will hit the Earth in 2028, wiping out civilization as we know it. The asteroid is real, and for a time, scientists really did fear it would impact the planet. New observations showed that the asteroid actually was going to miss by a fairly comfortable margin. My background is based on the idea that these "new observations" are actually a government cover up to prevent chaos and panic. The government starts a massive space program to build self-supporting habitats that will at least allow representatives of humanity to survive. As it turns out, the asteroid really does miss Earth, but by that time Earthers have lost interest in space travel and the plight of the habitats, so they are basically on their own.

The conflict comes in as these habitats struggle to maintain power in the new Solar System. Some worlds in the Solar System are resource-rich, others are resource-poor. Some, like Venus, have a hellish surface and a deep gravity well that largely prevent the exploitation of what resources are there. The Venusians want what everyone else has, and are determined to get it in order to ensure their survival. Conflict at its most basic level.

In order to create a rich and believable history, however, I had to carefully map out the intervening years between 1997 and 2063 (when the stories take place). The interactions and conflicts between the Solar Nations are complex, but entirely logical -- in fact, one is left thinking that things could not have gone any other way (even though they could have, obviously). Unlike many SF writers, I didn't have to create maps of the worlds on and around which the characters live, as maps of all the known worlds in the Solar System are relatively easy to find -- especially if you have a graduate degree in astronomy! I did, howver, have to carefully work out what technology could reasonably be present 65 years into the future and what the implications of that technology might be. As I've mentioned before, I'm an engineer by training, so I actually found it fun. Most authors find that worldbuilding is their favorite part of the writing process.

The danger is that it is too fun. Some writers get so lost in creating their worlds that they never actually sit down to write stories in that world (these writers should be game designers, by the way -- this is an excellent trait in that breed). Others, however, make the mistake of letting all their work on the background take over the story itself. Quite frankly, it's almost never necessary to give an explicit history lesson on your world, no matter how proud of it you may be. This "infodump" is to be studiously avoided! Instead, let your reader discover the world naturally, through the perceptions and conflicts of your characters. Sure, your reader won't know the history of the world as well as you do, so what? Because your world's history is so logical, you've got the grist for a number of stories -- and surprises -- that you can enthrall your readers with for many tales to come!

Monday, June 27, 2005

On the Business of Writing

I'm home sick today (thanks to my two-year-old), so I've been thinking about the business of writing and freelance writing in particular. As I write this (in between naps and while the medicine has me semi-lucid), my day job is actually still paying the bills. I don't get sick very often, nor do I get to take a vacation very often, so I've got tons of sick leave and vacation days built up -- close to six weeks worth. As such, I don't feel too guilty about taking the day off. Even if I had gone to work today, I would have gotten nothing accomplished, other than infecting most of my co-workers. Not much point in that. I'm sure my co-workers would much prefer that I just stay home!

When you freelance, however, you are effectively self-employed. Yes, you get to set your own hours, take as many sick days as you need, and take a vacation pretty much whenever you want. The big difference is those vacation/sick days are no longer paid days. Every day you don't work is a day you aren't getting paid. Given that most freelancers live somewhere right around the poverty line anyway, this is no small consideration. A successful writer writes. That's all there is too it. While a certain balance between work and the rest of your life is still required, you will likely find that you will work much, much harder and longer hours for yourself than you ever would for someone else. As I mentioned yesterday, it all comes down to enlightened self-interest. In most jobs you are expected to work a set number of hours (usually 40, but not always) each week, and when you go home in the afternoon you can leave work at the workplace. There's no real impetus to work more than the required number of hours, particularly if you are salaried and don't qualify for overtime pay. On the other hand, if every dime you make comes directly from your own fevered brain, you're going to find that you'll feel pressure to grab every spare minute you can to get just a little farther along on your latest project. After all, the sooner you finish this piece, the sooner it can start earning you money and paying the bills. Enlightened self-interest.

There are other aspects to being self-employed that you should consider as well. Most people (I hope) are aware that they must actually pay taxes four times a year. Normally this is handled by your employer, and every April 15th you just have to figure out if you overpaid or underpaid the IRS. If you are self-employed, you obviously have to make those payments yourself. What most people don't realize, however, is that your taxes are much higher as a self-employed person, even if you make the same amount of money. This may not seem fair (and frankly, I don't think it is), but remember that the government gets taxes on the revenue generated by your employer as well as the on the wages you earn yourself. If you are both employer and employee, you're going to effectively get hit twice as hard. Also, remember that "FICA" tax the government takes out for Social Security? Guess what? Your employer has been paying half the total tax due. Here again, if you are self-employed, you have to pay both halves, so your FICA tax will double. While we're considering the down side, also remember that your employer usually pays a significant portion of your health insurance expenses, so if you are self-employed, expect that monthly payment to go up by a factor of 3 to 5 (a factor of 10 in my wife's case, but we get a really good deal with her job). Most employers also match any contribution you make to a retirement fund (mandatory or not), as well. You'll lose this benefit once you strike out on your own.

It's not all bad though. You do get to deduct part of your home mortgage as a business expense, since you can show that your "home office" is being used to generate an income. (An aside here, you don't have to actually make any money to do this, you just have to be trying to make money. The IRS is usually happy if you can show that turned a profit at least once every three years.) You can only deduct the percentage of your mortgage payments equal to the percentage of the total square footage actually used exclusively for writing, however. For most of us, that's a pretty small space, but every little bit helps. There are a number of other expenses you can deduct, including some travel if it can be shown that it directly relates to the generation of income (you can't take a cruise, write an article about it, and expect to deduct your cruise costs, for example). Overall, however, the tax breaks are pretty scanty. Every freelance writer should invest in either a) a good tax preparer, or b) a good tax software package. Option (b) assumes you know how to read and understand the tax law enough to use the program, however. Being something of a tax-law junkie, I've found I can get by with software fairly well. Keep in mind that your tax preparation expenses are deductible, too.

Given all the financial disincentives to striking out on your own, why would you even consider it? First, of course, there's the simply joy of writing itself, of seeing your words come to life on the page. As we used to say in the Navy, if you aren't having fun, you aren't doing it right. There's also the self-satisfaction of supporting yourself (though not, I will admit, to the standard of living you could get elsewhere). You can't be laid off if you are self-employed, and in today's world, that kind of job security is rare. I have a yardstick of my own that I use, however. You see, I understand the reason we exist in the universe. That's right, I know the Purpose of It All. It's a Big Secret, but I'll clue you in:

I firmly believe that the purpose of intelligent life is to serve as a counteragent to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Left to itself, the universe will always seek to increase the amount of entropy (disorder) present in any system. This amounts to the death of the universe, given enough time. There is no natural force that will decrease entropy on a large scale -- except for intelligent life. So, my yardstick is this: If you are doing something which decreases the total entropy of the universe, then you are doing something good and valuable. If you aren't, you aren't. Writing is one of the strongest entropy reducers I know of. When I write, I literally create something valuable out of nothing. There are very, very few professions which can make that claim. We writers may be poor, but we may just save the universe. How do you like them apples?

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Nudists in Space

If you want to write "hard' (i.e., realistic) science fiction, then it's important that you fully explore and understand the science and engineering constraints that are inherent in the level of technology you posit for your story. I have a series of stories that take place in the Solar System of 2063 (this is the "Exodus Project" setting), and I've developed the background for that setting in some depth. Most of the inhabitants of the "Solar Nations" (those that live off of Earth) generally live in closed-ecology habitats that orbit the five inner planets (other than Earth).

I'm an engineer by training, so fortunately I can go to the detailed engineering references on space flight and living in space and actually get something useful out of them. As I was researching the technology for this setting, a thought occurred to me: Clothing in space is a luxury that almost no one will be able to afford. In most spacecraft, the main thermal problem is getting rid of waste heat, since vacuum is an excellent insulator. Without an onboard cooling system for the spacecraft, the inhabitants would be cooked in short order (no pun intended). As such, wearing clothing to stay warm doesn't make much sense. Similiarly, there are no "elements" (wind, water, etc.) to be protected against in a habitat, so that's not a really good reason to wear clothes, either. We're left with two possibilities: adornment/decoration and modesty.

As any tattoo or body paint artist will tell you, the human skin makes an excellent canvas for decoration. While one could argue that clothing decorates the body in a much different way from body painting, that's more of a cultural issue than a practical one. The human need to decorate themselves can easily be met without needing clothing -- primitive societies have been doing it for millenia. So, we are left with the issue of modesty. As any modern-day nudist will tell you, modesty is not at all a natural state. Children have no problem being naked; it's their parents who instill the fear of nudity into them. Still, one could argue that, socially and culturally, the world of 2063 shouldn't differ too much from the world of today, so you might think that clothes are still going to be around in space. I might agree with this notion except for one thing: closed-loop habitats are frightfully easy to throw out of balance. Clothes require more care and resources to clean and mend than the human body does. Even today, most hotels have realized that they can save huge amounts of soap and water by simply not washing one towel in each room every day. And by the way, don't think for a moment that the hotels do this out of a concern for the environment as they claim -- they save literally millions of dollars a year with these programs.

Which, in the end, is why I don't think clothing will make it into space. Humans are pragmatic creatures. They are also creatures of "enlightened self-interest." Some noble people will in fact do things solely to save the environment (for example), but practically everyone will do that same thing if it helps them directly and personally. Not only does it cost millions (or by 2063, thousands) of dollars to boost supplies such as water into space, the very survival of a closed-loop habitat could be threatened by all that wasted water.

So, I predict that clothing will consist only of utilitarian items such as tool belts (where does a nudist keep his keys?) instead of for modesty or adornment. This has some interesting implications for the social structure of these habitats as well. For example, will they value physical fitness more, or will they be more accepting of the variety of humans shapes as they are? Following the implications of technology into sociology is one of the more fascinating reasons why I enjoy writing science fiction!

Saturday, June 25, 2005


A few days ago, I asked "Where are the Clarion 2005 blogs?" Not too long afterwards, I found one from a young woman attending Clarion West. Last night she posted links to the blogs of three other people who are attending, so I'll post all those links here:

Statements of Fact and Fiction
The Write Grrl
Random Jane

I still haven't found anyone from Clarion East who is blogging, however.

Why is Clarion so important? There are a number of reasons, but first and foremost it's a chance to spend 6 weeks in a very intensive writing environment, pushing and testing yourself every day. Getting your work critiqued by peers and more importantly critiquing other people's work (which is a major part of the Clarion method) is one of the best ways to hone your craft, but there are other, more convenient, ways to get this experience (visit some of the links to the right on the main page to get an idea of what is available). Gotham Writers' Workshop in NYC also uses the "Milton method" (as Clarion's method is technically called), and they have an online version that I can attest to being outstanding. There are several other free online critque workshops as well.

So what makes Clarion different? I think there are two major aspects that set Clarion apart from other workshops. First of all is the calibre of the instructors -- you simply won't find bigger names or more knowledgeable people as instructors. Many of the grand masters of science fiction and fantasy have taught at Clarion. Even moreso, however, as alluded to above, is the fact that for most participants this is the first time they have spent a full month and a half doing nothing but writing full time in a writing-supportive environment. Even those of us who do write for a living (even though I don't write fiction for a living -- yet) rarely get to experience that kind of environment.

Much has been said about the fact that many, many Clarion graduates have gone on to be top writers in the science ficton and fantasy fields. While I think Clarion can definitely claim the credit for honing the skills that made these writers successful, we also have to keep in mind that Clarion is a competitive workshop -- you have to display a good bit of talent in the stories you submit with your application in order to be accepted in the first place. So, Clarion is not a workshop to teach beginning writing, it's instead a place for budding professionals to take their art to the next level. I've not seen any other workshops that can make that claim.

I'm planning on applying to Clarion at some point, but I have two factors that will affect the timing. First of all, as I mentioned before, I need to wait until my daughter is just a bit older. Toddlers can change amazingly fast in six weeks, and I don't want to miss a minute of my child's growth and development. It would also be hard on her for Daddy to be gone for that long. The second issue, however, rests with my writing career itself. While I still plan to write non-fiction articles (and maybe even the book I mentioned earlier this week), I'd really like to "make it" in the world of fiction writing. That means I've got a lot of mistakes to make before I'm really up to what I would consider the level at which I'd get the maximum benefit from Clarion. I have gotten good comments from editors such as Stanley Schmidt of Analog magazine, but I think I've still got a ways to go before I'm at what I would consider a professional level with my fiction writing. I think I need a year of near-full-time fiction writing to get to the point where Clarion will do the most good. As an aside, I'm also starting on my Ph.D. dissertation in education this year, so that's going to take up an even greater chunk of my time. Given this and the fact that my daughter will still only be three, I doubt I'll be ready for next summer. Looks like Clarion 2007 will be my target, then.

The only remaining question is whether I'd apply for Clarion East or Clarion West. Clarion East is moving from Michigan to parts as yet unknown next year, so I'll wait until I find out where to decide. Plane tickets to Seattle (Clarion West) are probably quite a bit cheaper than almost anywhere on the East Coast, not to mention the fact that I could take a couple of days and fly myself to Seattle, assuming I ever get myself an aircraft. In the end, though, I think it will be the instructors that will make the final decision for me. Ultimately, the experience has to outweigh convenience. Even though it's a long, long way off, I really can't wait!

Friday, June 24, 2005

The Unlikeable Protagonist

In fiction, it's important that the reader identify strongly with the main character, as often the main character is the reader's only window into the world of the story. Ideally, the reader should be lost in the world of the story and not be aware that she is reading the story, but instead feels she is living it. I have heard it argued that the only way this can be done is if the reader places herself in the role of the main character.

That sounds logical, as far as it goes. An extension of this viewpoint, however, is that if the protagonist is someone the reader would not like to be, then the reader will jump out of the story and never let herself experience it. This, obviously, is a problem. What if, on the other hand, your character starts out as someone unlikeable, but through the events of the story changes his ways? Scrooge in A Christmas Carol is the obvious prototypical example of this.

Is Scrooge the exception, rather than the rule? I tried this approach once with a story I wrote for a workshop I particpated in. The protagonist had, before the story takes place, caused an accident that killed a large number of people. Because he was unable to forgive himself, he turns inward and decides never to interact with others on a personal level again. While he's no villain like Scrooge, he's not terribly nice to those around him. Events in the story, however, make him realize that he can't live without other people. He finally overcomes his guilt and begins to rebuild his life and relationships.

The story was very well received in the workshop, but the instructor (a past president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, so she presumably knows her stuff), said that while she loved the story as a whole, the fact that the protagonist was an unlikeable character throughout much of the story totally killed it for her. She suggested I tell the same story from the point of view of another character, who ends up being instrumental in helping the protagonist work through his problems. I haven't done that yet, but probably will in the near future, just because I'm curious if it will work.

So I'm wondering: Is there no case in which an unlikeable protagonist can work? Scrooge may in fact be a mutant exception, and frankly, I've never bought the transformation that comes over him at the end. He wants to die surrounded by friends instead of all alone, so he changes his whole life? Not bloody likely. Odds are that if he really doesn't like people (and we see no evidence whatsoever in the story that he does), then he's not really going to care what people think of him when he's dead.

Can it work? Or is this one of those hard-and-fast rules of fiction that is just so tied up in our psychology that we can't break past it?

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Killer Birds from Hell

For the past several days, a group of big black birds (they aren't crows, but they sort of look like crows on steroids) have been swooping down and attacking everyone who walks by our building. They will perch on a lamppost or tree branch, wait until you are just past them, and then swoop down and brush either the back of your neck or your back with their wings. This is disconcerting, to say the least.

Lately, however, they've been getting even more aggressive. I watched out my window as a bird swooped this poor girl three or four times, circling to get a good shot each time. One of my co-workers said one actually landed on her head for a moment, then flew off. The swooping itself is annoying, particularly because the birds are quite clever and wait until your back is turned before diving on you. When they start making physical contact, however, that becomes a health hazard -- these birds carry all kinds of mites and even ticks. We called ASU's Facilities Management, and they said, "Well, I don't reckon there's much we can do..." Translation: We don't feel like doing anything about it. They must have gotten calls from more people than just those who work at the Space Flight Facility, though, as they eventually said, "Well, we'll see what we can do about it."

Their solution?

Put up signs saying "Caution: The birds may attack you."

Now there's a constructive approach. No, I'm not making this up.

These birds are typically territorial around nesting time anyway, but we think this year some workers trimmed their trees and inadvertently killed their babies. They are now nesting again, and at least two (and I think three) families of birds are actively cooperating to defend their nests -- and are more vicious than ever.

I find it interesting how certain urges seem to be almost universal to all species on Earth, including humans -- such as the desire to protect one's young, with violence if necessary. I find it equally interesting that while those who don't have kids can intellectually relate to this urge, they don't really feel it. Once you become a parent, however, the urge kicks in at a deep, gut level whether you want it to or not.* Those few species that do abandon their young to their fate seem utterly alien to us.

What does this have to do with writing? At its core, fiction writing -- and some non-fiction as well -- is about conflict. The more the writer can tie that conflict into basic, primal urges, the more strongly the reader can relate to the story. In effect, the writer is making use of the "universal radio channel" to establish a link to the reader. Think about it. The stories that affected you most probably did not introduce a conflict you have never experienced yourself.

Science fiction and fantasy authors can put this effect to use as well: An alien who doesn't share the same primal motivators that humans do will feel much more alien than one who does. It's the "man in the rubber suit" scenario (an alien that acts in all ways human is just a human in a rubber suit). The problem to watch out for here is that humans tend to naturally reject what is perceived as alien. If your protagonist is truly alien, you are going to have find some way to let your reader identify with him without utilizing the universal channel. This is no small task and is one of the reasons why writing good science fiction is so difficult.

And the birds? Well I'm all for loving and protecting nature, and as a parent, I certainly understand their need to protect their young. On the other hand, I'm a part of nature, too, and nature is all about species establishing boundaries. When they swoop me, they are invading my territory, and like all creatures on this planet, I intend to defend it. Today I brought my trusty racquetball racquet to work, and I intend to play a rousing game of "bird ball" if they try to swoop me again.

Batter up, sucka!

*If all humans share this trait, why do some people abuse their children? My psychology courses lead me to believe that child abuse never occurs unless the abuser has somehow convinced himself that the child is not actually his offspring. He may know the child is his at an intellectual level, but at a deeper, emotional level he does not. This also could indicate why step-children are more often abused than natural-born children. This suggests that one approach to "curing" a child abuser is to find some way to make him really realize the child is his young, to reconnect him to this particular frequency of the universal channel.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The All-Seeing "I"

Several magazine articles and web sites I've read recently seem to be encouraging writers not to use first person in their fiction. I've seen various arguments:

- It's too easy (so it brands you as a rookie)
- It's too hard (it forces you to stay in one character's head, preventing you from giving information the character wouldn't know)
- It doesn't allow "psychic distance" in your writing (the reader can't step back from the character's thoughts and emotions)
- Seeing the word "I" in the prose over and over gets wearying

And so on. I'm not sure I understand why such a move is being subtly lobbied for. On the surface, it looks as though They (whoever "They" are) have decided that a sea change in writing is due. At first blush, it -is- odd that all these articles are showing up at the same time. Are editors trying to give us a message? It's possible. It's also possible that these magazines and websites each sees what the other prints, and each has noticed that the use of first person is a "hot topic" -- so everyone is writing about it (making it, of course, a "hot topic").

I have written a number of short stories in both first and third person. I think they both have their uses. In some of my lighter-hearted stories, I like to make use of the Shakespearean* device of the "aside," a comment by one of the actors that is delivered directly to the audience. The side comments delivered this way can be quite funny! Mathew Broderick in "Ferris Bueler's Day Off" uses this device to great effect. It's different from narration. When using this device, the character is actually aware of the reader's presence. Some might argue that this breaks you out of the story. If it's done properly, I disagree. Instead of being pulled out of the story, the character pulls you -into- the story. You are a friend, a confidant, standing beside the character silently, but part of the group and the experiences that are taking place. The aside gives a sort of conspiratorial feel of "being in the club" that I think carries some of the comedy. It's just not the same in third person. In many books we want to -be- the protagonist, and third person can engender that as well as first person. Using this device, however, you instead get the feeling of walking alongside the protagonist as a trusted friend. That can make the characters feel even more real.

Don't throw out the first person viewpoint just yet. Consider the viewpoint that is right for the story you want to do, but don't come to the page with a prejudice against one viewpoint or the other.

*Yes, I know Shakespeare did not originate the aside, but I would argue that it is his plays that made it famous.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Where are the Clarion 2005 blogs?

For those who don't know, Clarion Writers' Workshops (in their Clarion East and Clarion West -- and now Clarion South -- flavors) are some of the most intense and prestigious writing workshops a science fiction or fantasy writer can attend. They've been described as "literary boot camp," and have produced a number of very successful science fiction and fantasy authors. Each year five big-name authors and one big-name editor take on 18 students for six weeks of intensive training and critiquing. It's acquired something of legend status, and based on my readings of various participants' journals, I think that reputation is probably deserved. Once my daughter gets just a bit older (next year or the year after), I'm going to apply for Clarion myself.

A number of Clarion participants have kept blogs during their experience over the past several years. Hilary Moon Murphy (also a Clarion grad) maintains an excellent list of them at My question is this: Where are the Clarion 2005 journals? Is no one doing it this year?

Blogging during Clarion is somewhat controversial, I understand. After all, time spent blogging could be time spent writing a story for critique by the instructors -- a rare opportunity that's not to be missed. On the other hand, as an educator, I know that journal writing is one of the best ways to synthesize and internalize new material that you've been taught. I've had my students use the technique with science courses as well as English courses. Constructivism (a theory of learning) says that we can't really learn until we have constructed a framework of knowledge ourselves that incorporates the new material -- just listening to someone else won't do it, you have to make it personal. At some point, I'll ramble about education theory (particularly since on the drive to work I had an idea for an excellent "popular" education book that I think would really sell), but that's not really my point here.

Clarionites, what are you up to?

Monday, June 20, 2005

And So It Begins ...

As you can see, I've decided to join the blogging craze and record some of my thoughts on writing and various other subjects. I am a full-time professional writer -- I write things and people (mostly NASA) pay me to do it. Mostly what I write are educational activities that teach various aspects of science, particularly those related to the exploration of Mars (since, of course, NASA pays the bills).

Writing is, sadly, not the only thing in my job description. Also included in my job for one low price are:

- Interminable trips to strange and exotic places (Chicago, for example) to give teacher-education workshops.

- Manage personnel and logistics issues for the education/public outreach staff at the Mars Space Flight Facility here at Arizona State University (something for which I've been given the responsibility, but not the authority, to do -- which makes for an interesting day)

- Deal with a multitude of day-to-day forest fires, most of which were induced by the poor planning and inefficiency inherent in the NASA bureaucratic mindset.

- Try to not let myself get caught up in the prevailing negative atmosphere among my co-workers that inevitably results from the above-mentioned forest fires.

- "Other duties as assigned" (if you ever see this phrase in your employment contract, run -- don't walk -- as far away as you can).

In truth, this could be most people's dream job, but like every job, it has its down sides, as perhaps you have begun to guess. My general rule of thumb is that when you get the "Sunday night dreads" (dread of going to work Monday morning), it's probably time to start thinking about doing something else. In my case, I get paid really well (mostly) to write, a paying gig that most writers only dream about, so I'm willing to tolerate a certain level of the Sunday night dreads that I wouldn't otherwise put up with.

On the other hand, my wife now has a full-time college teaching job that she loves, and she makes almost as much in nine months as I make in a year, plus I draw a not-too-shabby retirement pay from the military. This means that I have a lot more options to further my writing career than most aspiring writers. I have not yet firmly decided to jump ship and strike out on my own, but when you are presented with a wide menu of choices, it's foolish to take the worst choice presented to you. We Shall See.

In the meantime, I've decided to use this time period between now and the fall to further my "writerly education," so this blog will serve as a place to record my thoughts and observations, mostly about writing, but also about anything else that strikes my fancy at the moment. After all, inspiration comes from the damndest places...

Welcome and enjoy the ride!