Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Last Day

Today is my last day at work.

I must admit that there is a certain coolness factor in telling the guy in the airline seat next to you, "Oh, I work for NASA." After today, I won't be able to make that claim. (Oddly enough, this is the second time I've quit working for NASA -- and I swore last time I'd never work for them again. Guess I didn't learn...) On the other hand, this is a microscopically small thing to give up compared to not living the life you want to live.

I haven't said much about the work environment here, because I think it's unprofessional to criticize your employer in a public forum (even though everyone expects gripes and grumbles in a blog). I will say that I had hoped my departure would cause some people here to wake up and make some changes in how people are treated, but I don't think that will happen. It was actually a bit of a wake-up call for me. I have suspected for a while that my work and talent are being taken for granted. It's not a boast to say that we have had a number of blockbuster educational products written since I started working here nearly five years ago (check out the Mars Education site for samples), and every one of them has been written by me. I've got a pretty unique background, and it's served me well in writing educational products (and I like to think I have some measure of talent for writing in general, as well). After I leave, there is no one here who can continue to write those products, nor do I know of anyone in the field who has my background. I have offered my talents to continue to develop products for the people here, but as an independent contractor. That offer was more or less refused, and my boss was heard to mention to someone that "everyone is replaceable." Perhaps. And it's certainly her right to look for someone else so that she can have an "in-house" curriculum writer. On the other hand, her reaction dramatically illustrates to me just how little she values the work I've done, even as she touts it to the NASA brass as evidence of the superiority of our program. I'll be interested to see what kind of reputation the program maintains after I leave. One of my co-workers is also leaving (her last day was Friday) specifically because of the way she was treated, so my opinion is shared by many others here. I predict there will be more departures in the relatively near future.

I've managed to accomplish a lot while I've been here. I've changed -- almost single-handedly -- the "NASA way" of doing things to something that is much more educationally sound. That's no small feat in an entrenched bureaucracy like NASA. I'm pleased with what I've done and with the reputation I've developed in the field. I am a little frustrated at the lack of basic leadership skills here, but one must consider that I was specifically trained in leadership as a naval officer, so I have to keep in mind that not everyone has had that experience. I'm also a little frustrated by the fact that our boss is so intent on promoting "the team" that she forgets that the best way to develop your team's reputation is to promote the careers of the team's members. The "team" is usually presented as "/Boss/ and her team," so there's really not much question whose career is really being promoted, though I will be the first to admit she doesn't intentionlly promote that designation. A good leader gives her people a task and then gives them the authority and ownership of that task needed to make it happen. People want to do good work when it is their own project. When the boss feels the need to maintain control of every aspect of the project, though, these trained professionals are just reduced to wage slaves. It's very hard to keep a slave motivated in today's society, I'll tell you. Basic leadship skills.

Ah well. As I've said before, if I didn't have other options, I could endure working here. I'm not miserable, I'm just frustrated. And who isn't a little frustrated with his job? What I really love, though, what I really want to spend my doing, is writing. Yes, most of my here job is writing, but it's not the same. As a freelance writer and as a fiction writer I can spend my days writing what I want to write -- what's important to me, and, hopefully, is important to my readers as well. It's a challenge, you bet. But I can't think of anything else I'd rather do. So, to paraphrase The Shawshank Redemption, it's time to either get busy living or get busy dying. I'll choose the living, thanks.

Let the adventure begin!

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Mercurian Mapping

I mentioned earlier that I was going to experiment with Campaign Cartographer 2 to see if I can generate the maps I need for my novel. I thought I'd report on my progress. First of all, without any further ado, here is the portion of Mercury where most of my story takes place, as imaged by the Mariner 10 spacecraft:

And here is my first attempt to render it Campaign Cartographer 2:

The symbol in the middle is a bit hard to see, but it's the spaceport landing pad. There are then roads that lead to the three main mines (Alpha is the center mine, Beta is above that, and Gamma -- a newly started titanium mine -- is to the south). My attempt is admittedly amateurish, but I think it does capture the most important features on the surface that might affect the story. When writing the story itself, I will probably still refer back to the original Mariner 10 image, just because I think it gives a clearer view of what the surface of the planet actually looks like in this region.

The learning curve for CC2 is very steep. This is not because of many powerful features (although it does have them), it's because this is essentially a DOS program with a graphical user interface imposed over the top of it. Orginally, CC2 used nothing but command lines and macros, whicih would have made creating maps a devilishly involved process. The current version is still very difficult to use. The authors claim that their interface is much faster and more efficient than the standard Windows interface, and that may well be true -- if you wrote the program and know where all the commands are. But it is not faster or more efficient when I have nearly 20 years of experience with the "rules" of the Windows interface. I speak fluent Adobe Illustrator, so I'm not intimidated by using "objects" instead of pixel drawings (which the authors seem to think is the source of most of the difficulties in learning CC2). So far, I haven't found much that CC2 can do that Illustrator can't, assuming I were to export CC2's symbol library to PDF format so that Illustrator can read it (for the record, the fractal polygon ability of CC2 is not in Illustrator, but you can simulate randomness in Illustrator fairly easily). The biggest problem I have with CC2 so far is that once I put something down on the map, I have a terrible time editing it. For example, I discovered that the map above is in the wrong scale (feet instead of km -- oops). I can't seem to find any way to select all the objects on this map, copy them, and paste them onto a new map. I also can't find where to edit the template at all. Finally, objects can only be selected by their edges -- but what if two objects, say a floor and its outlined walls, share an outline? I can't find any way to select one and not the other. The program has crashed on me a couple of times (which must never happen with artwork), but I think that was because I was using a large bitmap as a background. Still, Illustrator has no problem handling multiple large bitmaps.

That said, CC2 does have some specialized features that might make mapping go a bit faster. Roads can be laid down with simple clicks instead of having to position each segment in Illustrator. If you buy the City Designer Pro add-on (all the add-ons cost as much as the program itself -- $40 each), you can draw a line and have CD Pro lay down a street full of random houses. That's a huge boon -- but is it worth $40? So far Cosmographer seems to be little more than a symbol library, although it's a very good library (much better than I could do myself). There doesn't seem to be much in the way of automation as CD Pro has. I think CC2 will do what I want, but I'm really wishing that the designer had gone back and re-wrote it as a true Windows application instead of a DOS/GUI hybrid. I've put out questions to the designers' mailing list, so we'll see if I get a response. I think if I learn the program, it might in fact be more efficient that trying to do everything in Illustrator, but the time spent learning the program may far, far exceed the time it would have taken me to do it in Illustrator in the first place. Illustrator is expensive, but it's not that much more than CC2 with two or three add-ons.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Getting Back in Space

I've noticed that up until a couple of months ago, it seemed as if fewer and fewer science fiction stories that actually take place in space or on an obviously alien world were being published. It seems that editors are buying the "edgier" stories that are set on Earth, often in the not-too-distant future. I recognize the social commentary that is inherent in this type of story, but dammit, it was "space stories" that got me hooked on science fiction in the first place! I had almost stopped reading Asimov's, simply because they seemed to only be running these social-commentary stories. That, of course, doesn't bode well for a would-be fiction writer: If you don't like the stories the editor is buying, the odds of his buying something you have written are very, very small. Analog has always published stories that were closer to my tastes, but there's a huge danger in restricting yourself to just one market. While I recognize that there are a lot of smaller markets out there (some of which don't actually pay you in money, which is necessary to be a professional sale, in my opinion), there's no denying that the two Dell magazines are at the top of the heap for science fiction short stories. Fantasy and Science Fiction is also a top market as well, naturally, but because they are not strictly devoted to science fiction, I think Analog and Asimov's are more "prestigious" sales. As I've said before, I don't really care about the money, I'm motivated by the acclaim. :)

I'm pleased to note, however, that the latest two issues of Asimov's have featured a number of stories in the "space-based" sub-genre. I don't know if that's the influence of Sheila Williams taking over the magazine, or if I had just run into a glut of the other type of stories as a random fluctuation. Maybe here's a good use of Locus as a research tool: Are space-based science fiction stories being bought in the larger field today? It's definitely something worth knowing.

They say you should write the kind of story you want to read, and I agree with that 100%. If you don't love your work, your reader isn't going to love it either. But if the type of story you like to read isn't currently the type that's selling, what does a professional writer do? It's hard to write to the current market without feeling like a whore, even if you are able to somehow generate the excitement about the work needed to write well. The best and most obvious answer, naturally, is to write the blockbuster novel of the type you do like to read -- and make it so incredibly good that everyone wants to imitate you. Publishing is one of the few fields where you can single handedly swing the market that way (witness Harry Potter, after all). This is easier said than done, of course. I would like to think that if we focus on really good storytelling, then there is a market somewhere for all of our work, perhaps even in the "majors" that were mentioned above. It may be a lot harder to work past the inherent bias against your type of story, but if you can hook the editor from the beginning, you've got a good chance. It may not be the easy road to success, and I envy the writers who actually enjoy writing the kind of fiction that is currently popular (whatever kind that may be at the moment). They've definitely got a leg up on some tight competition. As I've said before, though, the challenge is at least half the interest for me, so I'm really okay with that (envious though I may be). If it were easy, it wouldn't be any fun!

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Would you buy this story?

I recently was handed a story to read that left me scratching my head. It is (supposedly) a science fiction story about an oil company executive who decides to drive the entire length of a newly-completed pipeline running across Central Asia (and therefore avoiding all the Arab countries). That's pretty much the whole story, right there in a single sentence. While the story takes place twenty years in the future, and the car driven by the protagonist floats over the road via magnetic levitation, if you were to move this story to Alaska and use a regular car, the technology could easily be several decades old. In my mind, this is not science fiction -- and Stanley Schmidt of Analog agrees, having written an essay that specifically deals with this problem.

Okay, so it's not really science fiction. Is the story any good? Well, let's look at it. The story opens with the protagonist (an American official) betraying a dissident who was under American protection in order to secure a deal with the leader of one country hosting the pipeline. It's a pretty dispicable act, but in spite of the two-page build up, the actual act is described in only a sentence or two, with no details and no real emotion. The only real effect is that we suddenly don't like the protagonist very much -- an interesting way to introduce him. What's odd is that in spite of the build up (it's the story's opering scene, after all, so we expect it to be important) this event has absoultely no effect on the story for well over half the tale. With the pipeline finally completed, the protagonist decides he's going to travel back to England to patch up his relationship with his estranged wife, but instead of flying directly, he's going to drive the length of the pipeline and fly home from the terminal. His secretary was sick, so sent her "pretty" sister in her place. Oooo-kay. Why is he travelling with a beautiful woman if he plans to patch things up with his wife? Is this the conflict? Sadly, no. The woman is in the car solely to try to kidnap him (much later in the tale) for turning over the dissident. There's no logical reason for her to be in the car in the first place, and it's never explained.

Arab rebels try unsuccessfully to nuke the pipeline (they hit the road instead), but we learn about this in an off-hand way. Eventually the protagonist just drives his car around the resulting crater (right through the post-nuke radiation) on a temporary road thoughtfully constructed by the pipeline workers. After this, nothing else happens. Literally. He arrives safely at the terminal and flies home to see his wife. And the story ends.

There's no conflict in this story at all. It's not an "idea" story showing off cool technology. The protagonist is unlikeable from beginning to end. There is no antagonist to speak of (the kidnap plot is dealt with by simply kicking out the rusted bars of a cell window and walking away). There's no commentary on any issues, social, psychological, technological, or anything else. The writing is flat, as are the characters. The author sums up most events in a couple of sentences, telling us about them rather than showing them (which is not in itself a bad thing, as I noted yesterday, but not for the entire story!). Literally nothing happens in the story -- a man drives the length of a newly-completed thousand-mile pipeline (which is talked about as though it were a massive engineering feat -- but what about the Alaskan pipeline?). The story is called, creatively enough, "Pipeline."

Would you buy this story?

Sheila Williams, editor of Asimov's, did. In fact, it appears in the September 2005 issue. The author is eighty-year-old SFWA Grand Master, Brian W. Aldis. Williams describes the story in her editorial as a "powerful work."

You have got to be kidding me.

Now, we've been told that even the pros will get bounced if they submit a bad story. So, I'm left wondering if there is something powerful in this story that I'm missing. The cynical side of me really doesn't think so -- I think they were tickled to the point of incontinence to be able to put Aldis' name on the cover of their issue. Ultimately, folks, the publishing world is about making a buck. There's not a thing wrong with that -- each one of us is hoping to do the same. I don't even think negatively of Williams for buying the story -- I'd do exactly the same thing. Does this mean that you have to be a science fiction Grand Master to get published? Not at all. But it does mean that just because a story is published doesn't necessarily mean it's good. Read Aldis' story, but read it as an example of what not to do.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Show, Don't Tell?

Every writer has heard the oft-repeated maxim, "Show, don't tell." Like so many other "rules" of writing, though, some people carry it to extremes. Recently, a backlash against the overuse of this phrase has begun among teachers of writing. James Patrick Kelly absolutely refuses to issue this advice, "Don't you believe it!" he says. His reasoning is that a short story is not a play. Readers expect to be inside at least one character's head, and we learn a lot about that character from the way he thinks about and comments on others. There's also the issue, he points out, of story length. A long scene that shows a character going over Niagra Falls in a barrel isn't necessary to show that he reckless.

In the same collection of essays, however, Stanley Schmidt, editor of Analog, makes a point of emphasizing "show, don't tell." Schmidt's article is on seeing your stories in your head, and he specifically recommends casting them as a play, then translating them back into a short story. The examples he gives in his essay are quite convincing, and, it must be remembered, it is he who will be deciding whether or not to buy your stories.

So what do we do? We are presented with diametrically opposed instructions from two equally-luminous figures in the world of publishing. I think the answer, as in many things in life, is that you must strike a balance. Adding huge numbers of scenes that only serve to reveal aspects of your character's personality lacks the economy of words necessary to tell a good tale. On the other hand, I think far more beginnners make the mistake of too much "info-dump" than make the mistake of not using description effectively where it is called for. I think this is the reason the "show, don't tell" maxim is stressed so often. The answer is that we must use both "telling" and "showing," but the art (as opposed to the mechanics) of writing is knowing how much of each to include and when to include it. Unfortunately, many members of our critique circles are no more advanced in this regard than we are, so they smugly over-apply the "show, don't tell" dictum without giving thought to the alternatives.

The simple answer is that there are no "rules" in writing. If it were easy, anyone could do it. The "rules" serve to correct the most common mistakes, but just because the mistake (such as too much "telling") is common doesn't automatically mean you've made it. On the other hand, I don't think we should let this license to "break the rules" blind us to the fact that we may in fact have may this very mistake! Thinking critically and objectively about our own work is, I believe, one of the most critical -- and difficult -- skills we can develop as writers.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who came to prominence in the 1940's. He is perhaps best known for his "Hierarchy of Needs," five basic human needs that all people strive to satisfy. According to Maslow, much of human behavior can be ascribed to the struggle to fulfill these needs. The hierarchy is, in order:

  • Self Actualization Needs (full potential)
  • Ego Needs (self respect, personal worth, autonomy)
  • Social Needs (love, friendship, comradeship)
  • Security Needs (protection from danger)
  • Physiological Needs (warmth, shelter, food)

The kicker is that until the lower-level needs are satisfied (starting with physiological needs), it is extremely difficult and sometimes impossible to satisfy the higher-level needs. I experience this all the time (in fact, I experienced just a few minutes ago). When I'm hungry, I literally have a hard time thinking about anything else. I was trying to teach our new distance education specialist how to do some of the activities I've written, but inside I was having a hard time thinking anything but "Food! Food! FOOD!!!"

It is interesting to ask what needs writing fulfills. There are two different perspectives on this. First, what needs does writing fill for the author, and second what needs does it fill for the reader? If all human behavior can be explained based upon this hierarchy, why does anyone read or write fiction? In my case, and I think this holds true for many writers, I write to fulfill the 4th level: ego needs. I'm looking for the validation that I am a talented, capable individual who has something worthwhile to say. According to Maslow's theory, then, that means that in order to write, I need to feel sheltered and fed, not in any personal danger (rarely a worry, though I will confess writing was pretty far from my mind during the events of the flying story I posted a while back). I also need to feel accepted by friends and/or family (again, according to Maslow) before I can start to write. Writing is, in general, a solitary pursuit. Even in co-authored works, much of the actual writing takes place alone. In order to write well, though, I need to have a feeling of camraderie. I think this may be one reason why Clarion is so popular: There are few other situations in which writing becomes a group-supported activity. The ability to fulfill this 3rd need through writing, is a powerful inducement. Maslow would predict that I can't write well when I'm hungry, and as I indicated, that's certianly the case.

What about readers? What needs does writing fill for them? That's a much tougher question. In an odd way, I think a good fiction story can fulfill the 3rd level, social needs. A good story draws you into the book and makes you feel as though the characters are people you know -- your friends. You look forward to seeing them in the next book. It's an interesting thing to think about.

You can also use Maslow's hierarchy to round out your characters as well. If they are hungry or in danger, they aren't likely achieve self-actualization. It's reasonable to assume that a person (fictional or not) can make small inroads into the next level if their current level hasn't been fully satisfied, but it will be difficult, a struggle at best -- and this leads to good conflict that can drive the story. Writing is fundamentally about exploring the human condition. Psychology is, in my opinion, a much under-used resource in our business. We might all benefit from a careful study of its application to writing.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

How do you top success?

I finally gave up on Ben Bova's Mercury last night. I just could not get into the story; I didn't find it engaging at all. This is a real shame, because Bova is, in fact, one of the masters of science fiction. My available reading time is so limited at this point (although that will change next week!), that a book really needs to be a page-turner to keep me into it -- and this one just isn't. The story I' m working on currently is set on Mercury, but even that external interest couldn't get me to stay with the book.

Many of Bova's other stories, even ones in this series, are page-turners. But this illustrates a problem that I've been wondering about for a while: How do you top a successful book? Holly Lisle recently commented on her website that she's running into the same problem. She feels her new novel, Talyn, is the very best thing she's ever written, period. Everything just came together magically for that book. But now she's faced with working on her next book -- a book she says she is really excited about writing -- and she's too afraid of it to be able to work. What she's afraid of is that she won't be able to match the level of writing she achieved with Talyn. To make matters worse, she says she's not really sure where the magic that created Talyn came from, so she's not sure she can do it again. Now, Holly is a pro, and I personally think she's being too tough on herself. She writes good stuff -- and this opinion is from a guy who doesn't particularly like fantasy. But it does illustrate a problem that is increasingly becoming a big deal in today's publishing world: It's not good enough to write a "break-out" novel, you have to keep writing break-out novels. I used to read the Honor Harrington stories, and I distinctly remember not being able to put them down. As the series wore on, though, he just couldn't seem to keep the pace going (and the fact that Honor lost a body part in practically every story was getting a bit ridiculous). I can't bring myself to read them anymore -- I'd rather hold on to my memories of the earlier books in the series. The same thing goes for the Midshipman's Hope series. The first was one of the best SF books I've ever read, but they went downhill from there.

I know, I know, we should all have the problem of too good a success, but it really is a problem. How do we keep the momentum going in our later stories? A career is not built on a single book, after all. Maybe if we plan for the later books while writing the first one, the situation will be much improved, but I don't think it's quite that easy. How do you keep the same freshness and magic that created your blockbuster?

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Writing Speculative Fiction

I just finished reading (re-reading, actually) Robert Heinlein's classic essay, "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction." If you haven't read this short (six pages in the edition I have) work, you owe it to yourself to do so. Many authors (including yours truly) have said pretty much everything that is contained in this essay before, but no one has said it more succinctly (and while I don't know this for a fact, I suspect Heinlein also said it first).

Heinlein makes a number of points worth repeating. First, he defines two types of science fiction stories, the character story and the gadget story. (Long-time readers of this column will remember that I tend to follow Orson Scott Card in defining two other types of stories, the milieu story and the event story.) Heinlein says he only writes character stories (which is more or less true), so he restricts his focus to that branch of the SF tree. He claims that there are only three plots in SF: boy-meets-girl (and all the variations thereof), the Little Tailor (a small guy who makes it big, or vice versa), and The Man Who Learned Better. I laughed when I read this, thinking, "Nah, no way -- there's more to it than that," but for the life of me I can't think of a counter-example. The novel that I've just started is pretty solidly in the "Little Tailor" camp, as are most of my other tales (I tend to write about the underdog). A lot of years have passed since Heinlein wrote this essay, so I'd really be interested to hear if someone has come with a new plot!

Heinlein gives five rules specifically related to writing science fiction. I happen to strongly agree with all of them, with qualifications (you can read my earlier discussion on the topic here):

  1. The conditions must be different from here-and-now.
  2. The new conditions must be essential to the story (this is, in my opinion, the key requirement for something to be considered science fiction)
  3. The problem (the plot) must be a human problem.
  4. The problem must be created by or dramatically affected by the new conditions.
  5. No established fact can be violated, and any new theory brought in to replace an established one must be fully explained and justified.

I would be careful with this last one. I think no other dictum has led to as much boring infodump in science fiction as this one. Yes, you need to completely work out all the implications of changes to known theories -- and your changes must be just as plausible as the original theories. But you do not, however, have to give your reader all of these details. Instead, find ways to work the consequences of your theory (rather than the theory itself) into your story. There's just no excuse for a physics lesson right in the middle of all the action.

This essay also contains Heinlein's famous five rules for fiction writing in general. I'll quote them here, the parentheses are my own comments:

  1. You must write. (Preach on!)
  2. You must finish what you start. (Amen!)
  3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order (ah, no -- but we'll get back to that)
  4. You must put it on the market. (You may be a writer, but you are not a professional writer until you submit your work to be published -- whether or not it is accepted.)
  5. You must keep it on the market until it is sold. (You may be a professional writer, but you are not a successful professional writer until you have made a sale.)

I disagree with #3, though I do understand where it comes from. Heinlein was a writer for his day. At that time, anything and everything remotely related to science fiction was selling and selling well. Editors established personal relationships with writers, and quite a few mediocre writers were nurtured by these editors until they became outstanding authors. When Heinlein talks about "editorial order," I think this is really what he is referring to. Avoid the friends and co-workers who have "ideas" for your story and trust the professionals to whom you are selling the work. Unfortunately, the publishing world just doesn't work that way anymore. Editors no longer have time to give you feedback on how to make your story publishable. As a result, you have to become your own editor -- and that means rewriting and rewriting again until your manuscript is in its absolute best form. Notice I didn't say "perfect form," because a manuscript will never be perfect. If you keep revising forever, you will violate #4 and will not be a professional writer. Get it as good as you can, given your current level of ability, and get it out the door. And when it comes back, send it out again, and again, and again. Eventually, it will find a home.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Suicidal Birds

I have two "comp" days left from all the overtime I've put in at work (I used most of it to spend some time with my step-daughters earlier in the summer), so I am taking today and Thursday off. I will be teaching an introduction astronomy course at the local community college tonight and the accompanying lab on Thursday, so I figured I may as well take those two days this week to make sure I've got all my ducks in a row for the first class meeting. I've been teaching astronomy for about ten years now, and I really don't need a whole day to prepare. End result: I've essentially got the day off. Gotta love that. Since I'll be leaving work next week, it's use 'em or lose 'em.

It's a fine morning here in Arizona, so I thought this might be a good time to do a sense-building exercise similar to what I wrote about in an earlier post. We had a big thunderstorm last night (it's the tail end of monsoon season here), and there's still a lot of puffy cumulus clouds in the sky. As a result, there's a gentle breeze blowing, and while it's warm, it's not really hot yet. It's what I think of as a relaxing temperature. I took a walk barefoot to the mailbox, and instead of blistering hot concrete, it was electric-blanket warm. The little rocks blown onto our driveway from the desert landscaping are large enough to stick into the bottom of my feet, but small enough not to cause any real pain. Instead, they seem to just serve as a reminder that I am barefoot, in contact with the Earth for the first time in a long time. There's something about wearing shoes that says "work," "constraint," and "hurry" to me. I wonder if that's the real intent in making you wear shoes to work?

The clouds are filtering the sunlight so that you don't need sunglasses outside -- I'd almost forgotten what the world looked like when it isn't tinted cobalt by my UV-protected lenses. The range of color out here is amazing. Relaxing tan on the ground, vibrant green from the palm trees, soaring red from the flowers. Back inside, I walked back to my bedroom and looked out the big picture window that overlooks our pool. My wife worked hard last week while I was out of town to get the pool in shape (it's normally my job). It literally sparkles. The wind blows little ripples across the surface, transporting me back to my recent trip to Cape Canaveral. The carpet becomes sand between my toes. The breeze becomes the wind blowing inland fromt he sea. The ripples in the pool become the waves lapping onto the shore. The birds in the palm trees by the pool become the seagulls crying overhead. A bird swoops down from the tree...


Holy God, the idiot bird just killed himself on my window.

He flew smack in to the window, bounced back onto the ground, and kind of shook his head as if to clear it. He then slowly started leaning to the left, and just fell over dead! I'm not making this up. I now have a dead bird underneath my windowsill.

Geez, it's a good thing I don't believe in omens...

Monday, August 22, 2005

Exit Strategy

(No, this is not an Iraq War post... )

Well, it's official. All the details of my leaving NASA/ASU have been negotiated. I have agreed to work half-time from home doing nothing but writing these curriculum projects to which we are already committed. I have five activities related to the recently-launched Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in alpha test that need to be put in beta form (quite a bit of writing yet to go on those, but it's mostly background material), plus I will produce the beta version of at least one of the Phoenix Mars lander (Mars '07) activities (we are committed to two of them, plus some distance-learning programs that our new distance-learning specialist can handle). I've committed to working half-time until the end of February, but if she hasn't found a replacement by then, I will consider continuing until April so as to finish the beta version of the other main Phoenix activity. The nice thing about this arrangement is that I've got a paying gig to ease me into the transition to freelancing, and I will also have my tuition paid for next semester (the policy is that if you leave in the middle of a semester, they will continue to pay your tuition for that semseter). There may be a limit of 9 hours for half-time employees, but even so, that leaves only 3 hours that I'd have to pay myself to finish all the requirements for my Ph.D. I can handle that.

I also agreed (volunteered, actually) not to take a Mars-related contract while I'm working half time, since I would see that as a conflict of interest. I don't think that will really be an issue, as I happen to know there aren't any major missions being proposed until late next year at the earliest. Morally, though, I feel this is still the right position to take. I've spoken with our business manager, and everything is set up and ready. I just need to go over to the benefits office today and stop our health insurance through ASU (we were planning to switch to my wife's insurance regardless). My boss did make an attempt to get me to change my mind, but I think even she knows it's too late for that. My last day in the office (i.e., full time) will be 1 September.

Ten days to freedom and adventure! I'm probably out of my mind, but I'm really excited to be able to focus on my Ph.D. and writing career. I may never get an education contract (though I will be looking), but I really want to focus on fiction and articles anyway, so I'm fine with that. Things do seem to have a way of working out, so I'm not terribly worried...

Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Sunday Night Dreads

I have a rule of thumb that has worked quite well for me when it comes to jobs and careers: When you get the "Sunday Night Dreads," it's time to think about doing something else. What that means is that when on Sunday night you are dreading going to work on Monday, it may be time to start looking for another job. My brother sent me a great quote: "Do what you love, and you'll never work another day in your life." The fact is that life is just too short to waste it on a job that you aren't enjoying and shows no promise of improving in the foreseeable future.

This doesn't mean, however, that you should just up and quit your job the first time you're unhappy at work. First of all, will it improve? Or is there some way you can make it improve (a new task, a talk with your boss/co-workers, etc.)? Work situations tend to be very static, so I do realize that many times there isn't anything you can do about a situation, unless you are Machiavellian enough to find some way to get your boss (or other misery-maker) fired. I don't recommend this approach -- if you can't win while holding the moral high ground, then you can't win at all. You also should never quit until you've got another job in-hand, accepted, and ready to start. In today's world, if you go too long without a job, you may find that people won't hire you for that very reason -- and it becomes a circle that is impossible to break out of. Life, as I've said many times, is about balance. You may be unhappy at work, but you'll be even more unhappy at home if your family is starving!

But if you have reached the level to where you have the Sunday Night Dreads, then at the very least, it's time to start looking for other options. I've had the Dreads for a while now, but until we had some other form of income coming in, there was no way I could leave. Now that my wife is working full time (she makes more than I do now), we've got enough money to live on, even if I don't manage to bring in a dime (which I hope won't be the case!). So while on the surface I've violated my own rule, really I haven't -- I do have a job, I'm just the boss as well as the employee, so we're covered, I think. If something happened to my wife (God forbid), I'd probably have to give up my current plans, but really, anyone in that situation is basically in a disaster area no matter what happened before, so I'm not going to worry too much about that (although I will forever worry just a little).

My mother-in-law today made an off-hand remark about not letting me pay for her lunch since I'm about to be "unemployed." I quickly corrected her: I'm going to be self-employed, not unemployed. The difference, especially from the point of view of my self-esteem, is important. But it also illustrates the fact that who you are in our society is to a very great extent defined by who pays you. If you aren't working specifically for someone, then you aren't employed -- and therefore aren't as valued as someone who is. It's something I think we will always have to struggle against as writers, at least until you've attained the level of Stephen King.

For the first time in a s long time, though, I'm actually looking forward to going to work tomorrow. My boss has committed to meeting with me tomorrow to decide the details of my exit. She may try to put this meeting off, in which case I will simply decide for her -- the letter is already written. Either way, I'll have a definite timetable and outlook for my future by tomorrow afternoon. If I can see her in the morning, I'll post the results at lunchtime tomorrow.

It's nice to be free of the Dreads.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Cartography Suggestions?

I have been working more on the new novel, and I've realized that I desperately need to make a map of some of the key locations on the surface of Mercury, Venus, and Mars, as well as some underground locations (mines, underground habitats, etc.). I am quite skilled with Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop (part of the job), but I'm looking for an easier way to do it. In particular, the mines will follow veins of ore in 3D, so that doesn't lend itself to mapping. I have a Bryce (not as skilled with that) and 3D Game Studio (ditto), but I don't think they will do what I want, either. I've downloaded the demo of Campaign Cartographer, but it looks like its geared more towards surface maps (logically enough), so I'm not sure how much better it will be than Illustrator for what I need. For example, I need to place actual features in the correct scale (craters, rills, etc.) on the surface maps. I'm not sure what the best way to do that will be. There's the 3D mine mapping issue mentioned previously. Inactive parts of the mines will be used for office, living, and entertainment space, so I'll need to be able to make floor plans of those. I will also need to design the interiors of some of the habitats -- which will also be 3D, not 2D spaces.

I will report on my efforts with the CC2 Pro demo as I work with it, but so far, I'm not confident enough of it to make me want to spend the money. Of course, there are some add-ons that seem like they might be helpful, but there isn't a demo for me to be sure -- and the base CC2 Pro is pretty strongly fantasy oriented. It's hard to tell from the demo if it will serve in the tasks I need. If I'm good with Illustrator, is there any real advantage in trying to learn this program?

I also need to try to find diagrams of some existing mines. Surely that kind of thing exists on the Net somewhere. There are copper mines in Arizona that are still active, but I'd hate to drive all that way into the mountains if I can avoid it. I'm open to suggestions here!

I strongly believe that having a good sense of place makes a huge difference in the depth and authenticity of our stories, particularly science fiction stories. This novel is a "hard" science fiction novel, so I need the locations to be as accurate as possible. Raw data on the planets I can get, even highly detailed surface photos (and of Mars I can even take my own!), but getting that into a more accessible form is the real challenge. There's just too much raw data available, so I need to be able to boil it down to its essentials.

Kind of a fun challenge, though!

Friday, August 19, 2005

Preparing for the Writing Life

I'm in the great metropolis of Winston-Salem, NC,* today getting ready to do what I hope will be my last NASA teacher-training workshop. I've spent much of this past week trying to get things wrapped up at work. I still don't know exactly when I'll be leaving. I had wanted to give my boss a month's notice, but by the time I was able to catch her in (she travels a lot), it was the 15th already. She asked to speak to me on Monday, though I don't know entirely about what. Having made this decision, there's nothing she can offer me that will entice me to stay. So, either the 1st or the 15th of September (I decided to leave that much up to her) will be my last official day. I did offer to work half time to finish up some of the projects we're committed to, but she hasn't made a decision on that either. While not taking me up on my offer wouldn't be terribly wise, in truth, I'd be happier if she didn't. I want to devote myself to writing. More on that after Monday.

I finished reading The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing on the plane today. It's a very good book, with essays by some prominent names in fiction (including people such as Stephen King and Tom Clancy). Well worth the read, even if some essays are more valuable than others. I did run across an article on the "writing ritual" that really seemed logical to me, so I think that's how I will approach writing this novel. The routine goes something like this: First thing in the morning, re-read the material written during the previous day. Revise, revise, revise. Once that's done, continue from that point to meet the day's quota (whatever that may be, time or pages). Don't worry too much about the writing itself, since it's just going to get revised tomorrow. The logic of this is that revision process (the easy part for me) gets you warmed up and into the story so that you can get right into writing new material. Your critical side is satisfied during the first phase, while the creative side is unfettered during the second. Makes a lot of sense. I also read a couple of very interesting essays on setting as well, but I'll save that for a future post.

I met one of my co-workers who was already here, and we went out to dinner last night. I gave her a little bit of the background for the Exodus Project stories (see this entry and this one, if you are interested) as well as a plot synopsis of the current novel. She seemed pretty excited about it (though, of course, she may have just been being polite!), and I have to admit, I became more excited about it in the telling. As I mentioned before, this is really something of a "throw-away" novel that I'm using just to practice the techniques I'm learning, but talking with my friend about it has really gotten me motivated to write it!

*Actually, I'm in Kernersville, for those that know the area.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Sense and Sensibility

Janet Finch has written an essay for The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing (an excellent book, by the way) on conveying the "other four" senses in fiction. Her main idea is that, traditionally, fiction tends to rely strictly on the visual sense, totally ignoring the other four. She makes the interesting point that in modern Western society and culture, our control of our physical environment has effectively cut us off from experiencing the world with most of our senses. Believe it or not, touch and smell are our most baseline senses. These senses have a direct, hard-wired connection to the brain. Our sense of touch is deadened because we (as she puts it) "smooth" our physical environment. We wear shoes and clothes, so we never feel the grass or rocks beneath our feet or the sun on our skin. We live and work in carefully climate-controlled environments. She also points out that even our culture discourages touch while encouraging vision: "look but don't touch," "stop touching yourself," "keep your hands to yourself."

Smell is bad, too. When was the last time you really smelled anything? We avoid any kind of strong smell, body odor, sure, but also strong-smelling foods cooking (this one in particular bothers me). When we do smell something, it's usually been covered up with some sort of perfume. There are few natural smells left that we seek out.

What about hearing? Try to describe your favorite music in words. We naturally tune out most of the sounds in our environment -- without this filter, we'd literally go crazy. I'm hearing impaired myself, but I became deaf at a late age (21), so I have a sense of what I'm missing. While I do hear sounds when I wear my hearing aids (and can even make out speech with my new digital hearing aids), they don't sound anything like what I remember. Church music, for example, sounds very much like cats screeching. Most unpleasant. Current music sounds about as bad. Interestingly, I still like to listen to the music that was popular before I became deaf. It sounds the same as the other, but my brain fills in the missing pieces so that I experience it almost as it's supposed to be. Strange the way the brain works.

Taste? We think about this one more often, since we are always looking for good-tasting foods. But again, try describing the taste of a cheeseburger in words. I'll bet you'll find that to be a serious challenge.

Finch proposes a number of exercises to build your awareness of your senses. She says that readers today live in a sense-starved world, so they hunger for it in their fiction. I haven't tried the exercises, but they look like they'd be well worth doing. For example, she suggests taking a fairly strong taste and first describing it in words. Then, she says to describe it using "synesthesia," using one sense to describe another (she points out that wine critics do this all the time -- how can a wine have a "sunny taste"?). Finally, she says to create a scene that carries the sense of that taste (but not, I gather, uses the actual taste). She proposes a similar exercise with smells, even recommending keeping small sample bottles of various scents as a "smell library." Psychologically, scent is the most powerful trigger of memory there is. If you can evoke the memory of a scent in your readers' minds, you can literally take them back to the place they associate with that scent. I distinctly remember smelling a first grade classroom when my son started school and instantly recalling being in first grade myself. Amazing experience...

Finch proposes exercises with all of the senses, and all of them are quite evocative and will have a profound effect on your own fiction writing. I plan to start working with these exercises myself at first opportunity!

Wednesday, August 17, 2005


I started reading Ben Bova's Mercury a few days ago. I'm only a few chapters into the book, but I have to say that were it not for the fact that this book was written by Ben Bova, I would probably have put it down by now. Bova is one of the best "hard" science fiction writers around, so I know it will get better, but so far, I'm struggling to maintain an interest in the story at all. Bova uses third person omniscient point of view, so he jumps in and out of all of the characters' heads throughout the story. The result of that is that I don't really feel a connection to any of the characters. None of them are particularly nice people, and so far, I'm not finding a lot of emotional depth to the characters, etiher. I'm not even totally sure who the protagonist is supposed to be (there are two candidates so far). Oddly enough, he seems to breaking all of the guidelines (I won't call them rules) we've been discussing here for some time. That would be okay if the story worked because of (or in spite of) these issues -- but so far, it doesn't. Bova seems to rely on vivid descriptions of the landscape to hold our interest (much as Kim Stanley Robinson did in his Mars trilogy), but in the case of Mercury, I'm not sure we know enough about the planet to make it seem real. There is a huge amount of exposition and very little dialogue so far. The characters seem to talk to themselves a lot (actually, it's the narrator talking about them), which starts to get a bit old after a while. I'd like to see some interaction between the characters! Let me learn about them through seeing them in action, not through the author's telling me about them (even if I'm being told what they are thinking). These are almost rookie mistakes

Bova is no rookie, however. He was editor of Analog for a long time and has published dozens of novels. This novel is part of a long-running series in which Bova is writing a story about each planet. While I've read the first couple, I haven't been keeping up with the series (which is indicative in its own right). Bova does need these stories to stand on their own, so I realize that he's got a lot of background material to present to get us up to speed -- there's already been two dream sequences in the first five chapters. I think I could have lived without the background info, though, and had it introduced to me later. Right now, the book is almost painful to read.

I feel as though I have no right to criticize one of the grand old men of science fiction, but this book reads like a first novel. I'd encourage you to grab a copy and read it critically. I'd be interested in hearing others' thoughts!

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Home Today

I've got an appointment to see the ENT doctor today, so I've taken a sick day. I've hoarded my sick days pretty carefully, since I never knew when I would need to stay home and take care of my daughter, but she's been a surprisingly resilient little girl. And when she has gotten sick, she's been kind enough to wait until the weekend so that I didn't have to miss work. One of the many advantages to being self-employed is that I can now attend to family emergencies any time they arise. That's a huge boon, and one that I haven't seen mentioned many places. A caveat, of course, is that you've got to make sure a family emergency is really an emergency. Yes, I now get unlimited sick days, which is a relief, but every day I'm not working is a day I'm not earning money, so that's a major concern. It all goes back to the discipline and maturity -- professionalism, really -- that I mentioned in a previous entry. If you want to succeed as a writer, you've got to write. But you also have to maintain a balance in your life, or your writing success will be totally irrelevant.

Today I'm also going to start planning out the two astronomy classes I'll be teaching this semester, so I'm pretty excited about that. I haven't had time to teach (odd thing for an educator to say, I know) in a long time, and I've really missed it. You develop a relationship with your students over a semester that you just can't get when you only see them in brief one or two (or three) day workshops. One nice thing about teaching college is that all my students are adults, and none of them are being forced to come to school. I tell them on the front end, "Hey, it's your dime. If you don't come to class, I assure you my feelings won't be hurt -- but you won't pass the class, either." Good teaching is about 60% theater, and as my wife aptly puts it, I'm a goofball. My students usually have a pretty good time in my class and tend to learn in spite of themselves, so it's a lot of fun for me to watch the light come on in their eyes when the begin to understand the material.

Class starts next week, so I'd best be about it!

Monday, August 15, 2005

Big News: Taking the Plunge

Well, friends, I have a bit of breaking news: Today I took the proverbial swan dive and quit my job.

I've decided that it's time to devote myself to my writing career. Yes, I'm dumping a high-prestige, $50k/year NASA job, but it's never been about the money. My wife works full-time as a college professor and I still have my Navy retirement pay, so even though by Holly Lisle's definition I'm jumping way, way too early, I think we'll be okay. I'm going to be writing fiction, of course (the new novel, as well as short stories), but I'm also going to write non-fiction articles for various science, education, and gaming magazines. I'm also going to continue doing keynote speeches (they're paying me a thousand bucks plus travel expenses for my next gig -- it's a pretty good deal), and I'm also going to open up my own educational consulting firm, writing educational curriculua, reviews of products, and program evaluations. I'm really looking forward to it. I've never cared about money much (though it's nice to have, of course); I'm really motivated by the desire for recognition of my talents. Fame, not fortune, if you will. I'm also going to finish up my Ph.D. this year, hopefully by the end of next summer. I've finished all my coursework, I've just got to do the dissertation. That's going to be a short-term priority for me, but it will help add credentials to all of the other projects I've mentioned above, including fiction writing, I think.

I've been planning this for some time (as astute readers of this blog will have no doubt figured out), but I didn't want to make any public announcements until I told my boss I had decided to leave. I had decided not to drop the bomb on her until after MRO was safely on its way to Mars, and had hoped to talk to her at the Cape, but it just didn't happen. As it was, I had to camp outside her door from 8 AM until 1:30 PM just to get in to see her. She seemed to take it rather well, though I think shock was starting to set in towards the end of our conversation. We have a boatload of projets we've already committed to, and frankly, I don't know how she would get them done without me. Even she admits she doesn't know how she'll replace me. My sense of professionalism won't let me leave things undone, so I offered to work half time for her for the next year, doing nothing but writing from home, so that we can finish these things up. She's considering it. I'm okay with it either way -- if she turns down the offer, then at least I will have tried, and the rest is up to her.

It's exciting and a bit scary, but I think I've got all the bases covered. No matter how you look at it, though, it's a huge step. Here's to the future!

UPDATE: When I got home tonight, I had a rather cryptic message from my boss asking me (in part) not to "announce my departure" just yet. Well, a bit late for that, eh? I'm curious what she has in mind, but there's simply no way she can entice me to stay, if that's it. Watch this space for more in the saga...

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Introverts and Extroverts

Normally our daughter goes into the nursery during church to, as she puts it, "play with the babies," but today she heard our church's contempory music group warming up between services and decided that she wanted to sit with us in church. This would be the first time she had ever sat with us in church, but I figured we'd give it a try.

My daughter is a hoot.

During the songs she got up and danced and tried her best to match the arm movements of the singers on stage (even trying to hold a microphone, though she wasn't quite sure what they were for). Everyone around her was giggling because she was so cute. "Children's time" came around, so I took her up front to sit with the assistant pastor and the other kids, most of whom were several years older than she was. She completely stole the show. Unlike most two year olds, there is not a shy bone in my child's body. And, being two, she will say whatever comes into her head. Also unlike most two year olds, she speaks very clearly and in complete sentences (she's scary-smart, but I think the fact that we have never baby-talked to her made a big difference in her language skills). Now add to all of this the fact that she was sitting right next to the pastor's microphone, broadcasting everything she said, and you begin to see just how funny the situation was. The more the crowd giggled at what she had to say, the more she felt she needed to talk to all of them. Everything she said was on topic, and she didn't monopolize the conversation, but her "cuteness and talent" really made the service.

As you can no doubt guess, my daughter is a total extrovert -- which will surprise no one who knows her father. My son, who is now 16, was an extrovert when he was young, but then when I became a single parent in the Navy, we had to move around a lot. This lack of stability in his life made him fearful of any new situation, which has led him to become something of an introvert. As I was watching my daughter "perform," I was struck by the difference in my two kids -- and also by the differences in characters that I have read about.

For the most part, I think people want to read about extroverts. These are the people that have the courage to go out and change the world (or are changed by it). Even if we happen to be introverts ourselves, the protagonist acts as our stand-in. Through her we are able to experience the world with a boldness we couldn't manage in real life. Some characters, particularly those in young adult novels, start out as introverts, but in almost every case, the events of the story force them to reach beyond themselves and act in ways that can only be described as extroverted. When we are writing our own stories, we would do well to keep this in mind, I think. It's okay to have a character who is an introvert at the beginning of the novel, but at some point, that character is going to have to branch out and experience the world directly if he or she is going to be satisfying. We should consider this from the very beginning as we plan out our characters' development over the course of the tale. I write well instinctually, but I'm hoping that realizations like this wil help put more of my writing under my conscious control. I think the mark of a professional is the ability to know not just what we are doing, but also to know why we are doing it!

Saturday, August 13, 2005

And a Cast of Thousands

I've mentioned several times the importance of sympathetic characters in stories. Even the antagonist must not be a simple "villain," striving to do evil for its own sake.* From your antagonist's point of view, his actions may not be moral or even pleasant, but they are an unfortunate necessity to getting what he needs. The antagonist needs to have reasons for the things he does, and the reader needs to understand those reasons. Don Maass claims that all stories are character-driven. Now, at least in science fiction, that's patently false. Tom Godwin's classic short story, "The Cold Equations" is one example of a story which is not character-driven. While we are symapthetic to both characters -- otherwise the story doesn't work -- neither character changes as a result of the story. The stories is about an idea, the immutable laws of nature that make no exceptions for any mere human. There are many other examples of non-character driven stories that are both meaningful and important.

On the other hand, people relate in a much deeper way to a story that is character-driven. I would never want to discourage the true original thinkers among us who can make non-character stories work, but for novice writers, these stories are probably the best way to get started. Maass provides a number of suggestions for building compelling characters, and they are worth repeating here. First, we have to strive to make characters larger than life in some way. You may think that readers will better relate to an average Joe like themselves, but never forget that we read fiction to explore the people we could be, not the people we are. Our characters should do the things we can't, say the things we wish we had said, and change in ways that we can't. Many writers have pointed out that characters must be multifaceted, or else they earn the dreaded "cardboard" designation. While our characters need to have flaws to be believable, readers are sympathetic to characters' strengths, not their weaknesses. We feel pity for weakness, not sympathy -- there's a big difference. When the characters' strengths and weaknesses are in conflict with one another, then we have a deep, compelling character (and, not incidentally, a source of conflict for the plot).

Maass suggests assembling a cast to show contrasts between the characters. More than simply getting a group of people together, as authors we can create the group which is guaranteed to dramatize the inherent conflicts. Maass also suggests building complex characters by combining the roles of individual characters into one. For example, if there is an ex-wife and demanding boss, why not make them the same person? Wouldn't that increase the complexity of the situation? Finally, Maass makes an interesting suggestion: Choose the narrator to be the character that is changed the most by the story. I don't think I agree with this, as there are many examples of stories in which the narrator is an observer, not the protagonist -- just consider Sherlock Holmes or The Great Gatsby. As before, however, I think the beginning novelist could do far worse than to follow Maass' advice in this regard. It's a rule of thumb, not a law of fiction, but it's a good rule of thumb, nonetheless.

In science fiction, many editors have said they are looking for idea stories. If, on the other hand, you can create a character-driven story that depends upon an idea that can only be explored through science fiction, then I think you've got a guaranteed winner on your hands.

*You know, I've never understood the old pulp stories where the villain is going to destroy the world. If you wipe out the planet, bub, where are you going to live?

Friday, August 12, 2005

Points of View

There seems to be some confusion about points of view and how they are used in the context of fiction. We've all heard many times that you shouldn't change points of view within a scene, and you should handle changes of viewpoint at any time with extreme caution. I recently read an article by Sheri Szeman that, while trying to simplify things, actually complicated the issue quite a bit, in my opinion. Szeman defines point of view by the powers granted to the narrator. These are all familiar to us: first person, third person omniscient, third person limited, and second person*. What gets confusing is that Szeman says that if you change from, for example, one first person narrator to another first person narrator then you have not changed point of view. The story is still in first person. All right, sure, but so what? You have still changed viewpoint characters, and that, I think, is the real no-no. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think even a rookie would unconsciously slip from first person to third person accidentally. If you read Szeman's article as-is, you might think this was the mistake everyone is talking about and say to yourself, "Oh, okay, no problem -- I never do that, so I don't have to worry about it." The novice writer then goes on to change viewpoint characters in the middle of a scene and gets his piece added to the rejection pile.

Does this mean that you should never change viewpoints characters? No, Don Maass says, and I agree, that multiple viewpoint characters (I'm trying to avoid the term "points of view", to avoid confusion with Szeman's definition) adds depth and richness to a novel. The main thing you have to be careful about is how you handle the transitions between viewpoint characters. The best advice I have seen is that if ou are going to change viewpoint characters at some time during your story, put in a change of viewpoint very early on, within the first few pages. That establishes the "rules" for your reader, and so long as you don't change in the middle of a scene, they will willingly follow along. The thing to be concerned about is that you want to make sure that both viewpoint characters are supporting the same story. Too many viewpoint characters and too many story unrelated story threads can cause a novel to unravel. I've read fantasy books that seemed to actually be two stories at once, since the two viewpoint characters never seemed to interact much with each other at all.

Multiple viewpoint characters can be a powerful way to add depth to your story. Like TNT, however, a little can clear a straight path, but too much can blow your novel apart.

*By the way, Szeman also points out a valid use of second person beyond the "Choose Your Own Adventure" format that is so often quoted: You can write a complete fiction story as a letter addressed to the reader. This is still little more than a gimmick, I think, but I can at least see this as a more creative possibility.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Back Home Again

I flew home this morning, even though Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter hadn't launched yesterday. My boss offerred to let me change my tickets to come home later today (the launch window was from 7:50 AM to about 10:00 AM EDT). My work for the mission was done, and after four days on the road, I was really ready to get home and see my family, so I decided to head on home as planned. As it turns out, the ship didn't launch today, either, so I definitely made the right call. My wife had emailed me and said that my daughter was crying at night because she missed me (I'm usually the one to rock her to sleep) -- a very strong motivation to get on home, as you might can imagine! Life is about balance. You need to feel productive (notice I did not say you had to have a paying job -- as a former single parent, I know stay-at-home parents have one of the toughest jobs there is). You also need time with your family. You need time to play, alone and with others. You need time to think, time to dream, and time to relax. If any one of these areas overshadow the others, then your life will suffer in ways small and large.

I think the same is even more true of the writing life. We are, after all, self-employed (even if we hold down a "real" job). No one is going to make us sit at the computer or at the writing desk. On the other hand, there is no time clock to tell us when it's time to go home, either. Being a professional writer requires a level of maturity that many people don't have (and to be fair, haven't really needed). This works both ways. Someone who goofs off all the time and never actually sits down to write will never succeed. I'm reminded of the ad exec in She's Having a Baby who talks about when he quit his job to write a book. He built (I forget exactly) nine birdhouses, watched hundreds of hours of TV, and finally went begging for his job back. Of course he didn't succeed! He never even picked up a pencil! The flip side is that you also shouldn't write to the exclusion of all else -- no matter what many very famous and successful writers may tell you. We've all heard about the tortured and driven novelist who writes incessantly, ignoring his wife, his kids, his health. I challenge you to point to even one of those authors who can honestly say they are happy. Let's assume you've got the talent and dedication to succeed as a writer. If you achieve fame, fortune, and a guest slot on Oprah, but the rest of your life is miserable, what have you gained? In my mind, "success" in the traditional sense is not the goal. Fulfillment -- which only arrives from a proper balance in all things -- is the ultimate goal to strive for. The educational psychologist Maslow would describe it as "self-actualization." Even some of my collegues in the education world have forgotten this important truism. It's not just writers.

On a different note, I met a very friendly family on the flight back to Phoenix. The mom and dad were extremely devoted to their children, and the boy (6) and girl (2) were sweet kids. The two year old is, of course, in the "terrible twos," so when she woke up fussy on the plane, she was initially in danger of a major melt-down. Fortunately. both her parents and I knew that the art of caring for a two year old lies in the art of distraction. And a goofy stranger who can make quarters and rings appear out your ears while making funny faces the whole time makes for quite a distraction. She was a riot. I was struck, though, by how little they knew about the space program (he didn't know, for example, that we had ever sent spacecraft to Mars at all -- but we've been doing it since before we went to the Moon). It certainly wasn't due to any lack on their part; I can only assume it just hasn't been something they've gotten much exposure to. The dad was certainly genuinely interested when he found out what I did, and asked very intelligent questions, so I guess space flight just wasn't something that was in their worldview -- it didn't affect them much, so they hadn't had an opportunity to hear much about it.

What was eye-opening for me, though, was how different their experiences and worldview were from mine, even though on a social level we were all completely compatible -- had we lived in the same city, we could even be good friends. It just goes to show you that as a writer you can't assume that everyone will see things in exactly the same way as you do -- in fact, you can just about guarantee they won't. I think part of what makes a successful writer is the ability to transcend your own worldview and write in such a way that appeals to wide range of readers -- a way that reaches us on a human level. I think this is where psychology can play a big role in writing, yet I never hear of psychological theory being applied to writing. I think someday soon I'm going to do an in-depth exploration of the "psychology of writing" and publish it, either here or in printed form. I think it's a subject that could definitely use more exploration and would be useful to all of us as writers!

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I'm currently at Kennedy Space Center leading a teacher-training workshop in conjuntion with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launch (which was supposed to be today, but has slipped until tomorrow). I'm NASA's primary curriculum writer for the Mars Program, so we are being given the royal treatment here. The KSC folks arranged a tour of the Canaveral Air Force Station (normally closed to the public) so that we could visit some of the historic launch sites, but also took us to the active launch sites on KSC itself.

Canaveral AFS is very impressive in its own right. We had a photo op at the launch site of Explorer 1, the first American satellite. The blockhouse for that launch pad is perhaps 50 yards from the pad itself, mainly because they couldn't carry sufficiently stable electrical current over long wires at that point in history. Amazing! We paid our respects at Launch Complex 34, the site where Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee died in the Apollo 1 fire (that pad was also used to launch the first Apollo capsule in space, Apollo 7). We also paid our respects at the silos where the debris from Challenger is buried -- a site that NASA has said will never be open to the general public. Finally, we travelled out to the Delta II launch pads (there is a weather satellite current on a Delta on the pad right now) as well as, of course, the Atlas V pad where the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is being prepared. Because the rockets are fully-fueled, we could only come about 300 yards from the two active pads, but that was still pretty impressive.

After visiting Canaveral, we continued on to Kennedy proper. There were a number of interesting sites here, but most impressive is that we were taken up the launch crawler tracks all the way to to Pad 39B, where Discovery was launched two weeks ago. The public is never allowed into this area (we had to go through a special security screening before we were allowed to pass). We were a bit less than 100 yards from the pad. The shuttle, of course, was not on the pad, but it was still absolutely incredible. The ground near the flame pits is completely scorched from the shuttle engines. We were able to look over the emergency escape slides the crew would use to evacuate the shuttle in the event of a mishap on the pad. We saw the emergency blockhouses where they would hide out in that event. But the sheer scale of the launch pad when seen that close is incredible. You don't realize just how huge that thing is. We got within about 50 feet of the mobile launch pad and its crawler -- again, the scale boggles the mind. I mentioned that I was extremely pleased by the tour to the head of the Mars Public Engagement Program, and she actually seemed a bit relieved: "Oh good, you don't impress easily." And that's really true. I've fought in a war. I've met three presidents, a governor, numerous astronauts (including Alan Shepard, first American in space), and many, many famous scientists (I had tea with Stephen Hawking, and visited with H-bomb designer John Wheeler at his summer cabin in Maine). In some ways, I'm the Forrest Gump of the physics world -- I just happen to be in the right place at the right time. But mostly, it's because I long ago realized that people are just people, and there are very, very few events that will change our world forever. I'm not cynical, I'm just, well, hard to impress. But today... Today, I was impressed.

I think this visit will do a lot for my near-future science fiction stories. As I've mentioned in previous articles, experience in real life provides the drama, insight, and tension writers need to do their job. You may not be able to swing a visit to the shuttle launch pad, but you can certainly find ways to get experiences that will awe and inspire you -- and those experiences, lying waiting in your subconscious, will surface in your writing just when you need them.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

To Learn How to Write...

... you have to write.

I've heard this many, many times, and it does make sense to me. My flight instructor told me during flight school that no one can teach you how to land the plane. Your instructor can demo the technique, and he can back you up on the controls to make sure you don't kill yourslf (or the plane). Knowing the theory behind the aerodyanamics of landing is necessary and important, but it doesn't equip you with the mechanical skills, perception, or judgement needed to make a smooth and on-centerline landing. Ultimately, you have to teach yourself how to land.

Writing works the same way. You can read all the books you want, attend every workshop in the country, and sit at the knee of every seasoned professional in the business, but in the end, they can no more teach you how to write than my flight instructor could teach me how to land. Just as with flying, knowing the theory and technique is important, even critically important. But ultimately, you have to teach yourself how to write. And the only way to do that is to write. Write good stuff, write bad stuff. It's all packed with learning. Anyone can write a passage, and sometimes it will even be something good. What distinguishes us as professional writers is that we have the background and training to know why it's good -- or why it's bad. But writing itself is so w0nderfully diverse that it's simply impossible to catalog all of the ways you can be creative -- nor would you want to. The only answer is to write something, and then, more importantly, study what you have written in light of what you have learned and figure out what works, what doesn't, and why.

I've reached that point in my own studies. Reading about some of the various techniques has got me itching to try them for myself. I had planned to wait until I could devote 100% of my time to writing; I am really looking forward to just immersing myself in it. I've been savoring the anticipation of the experience. I just can't wait, any longer, though. If I'm to go forward in my writing education, I need to start writing now. So, I'm scratching the itch, and I've started actually writing (as opposed to just plotting) a science fiction novel. I will very likely toss it in the recycle bin when it's done, and that's okay. The purpose is of this novel is to give me a vehicle to use for experimentation, to try out some of the techniques I've been reading and learning about. If it turns out good, that would be excellent, but it's not the point of the exercise.

Yesterday I wrote about 500 words, which is really nothing, just a single scene, although it's a scene I'm really pleased with. Today I wrote about 750 words in a scene that introduces the antagonist. This scene is really flat, not much tension at all, which is good, since it gives me a place to start experimenting from. I read in The Writer that a goal of 50 to 1000 words a day, but no more than 2000, was a nice novel writing pace, but that seems awfully slow to me. Maybe that assumes several re-writes on just that scene, but I don't plan to re-write anything until I've got a first draft down that I can work with. Editing and re-writing is fun and easy. It's like playing. But you have to first create the toys to play with, and I want to "collect the wholes set" before sitting down to play!

Monday, August 08, 2005

Invented Non-Fiction?

I arrived today in Cocoa Beach, FL, to do a two-day NASA teacher-training workshop in conjunction with the launch of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that will (hopefully) launch Wendesday morning about 8 AM Eastern time. As such, my blog updates won't be posted until I get back to the hotel (where I have Internet access) around 7 or 8 PM Eastern or so each night. On the off chance that there is anyone actually following my musings, I thought I'd issue a fair warning...

On the flight over I read two articles in in The Writer that really got my hackles up. Both were on the same topic: how "non-fiction" writing is increasingly becoming "fictionalized." In short, folks, they make it up. This is just wrong. Totally and completely wrong. If the book is non-fiction, the writer had better be able to support all of the major events with researched facts, and not make up events just to "keep reader interest." One of the articles was an interview with an author who uses this technique. She bristled when asked how she blended invention with fact. The author responded that she invented nothing. Nothing at all. But her prose is intended to capture the actual feeling of the people involved, not the specific events of theirs lives.


If you want to write historical fiction (even fiction based on recent history), write historical fiction. Even in non-fiction, no one expects you to get the exact dialogue correct when you didn't do the interview yourself (which is impossible if, for example, the prospective interviewee is dead). But if you make up parts of the book, for Heaven's sake, own up to it. Part of what made your prose so compelling was that we thought we were reading descriptions of real events. When we find out that you made up parts of it to make it more "dramatic," we feel cheated. Frankly, we feel lied to. Apparently, this type of "creative non-fiction" is becoming more and more common. I think these books need to be shelved in the fiction section where they belong, but at the very least, put a disclaimer on inside front cover or something! We have a devil of a time teaching our children that not everything they see on TV or on the Internet is real. Please don't triple the problem by billing these books as non-fiction without so much of a wink in the reader's direction.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Developing a Background: Part Two

Here is the second part of the "Exodus Project" timeline. Notice that I've provided a lot more detail for the second 33 years than I did for the first. This is important, as it is the events that occurred during the present generation's memory that will most affect your characters.

The Exodus Project
Background and History (Part Two)

Summer 2031: Mining operations begin on Mercury's surface. The Venus Mining Corporation arrives in Mercury orbit with cargo ships which will transport the Venusian half of the extracted raw materials. To the surprise of all, the cargo ships are escorted by three armed corvettes. Mars strongly protests the introduction of armed warships in space. The Jovian habitat chooses this moment to announce the formation of the Jovian Realm under the rule Queen Anne I. The first ship of the Royal Jovian Navy, the HMS Jove, is commissioned just six months later.

Spring 2032: Escorted by a four-ship task force, including a new destroyer-class spacecraft, the Venusian Mining Corporation begins mining operations on Ceres in the asteriod belt. No communication has been received from the Vesta habitat since spring of 2030. The Vesta colony does not break its silence even as the Venusians bring warships into "their" territory. Speculations as to the fate of the colony abound. Meanwhile, living conditions for the impoverished Mercurians continue to deteriorate.

Summer 2033: In response to obviously expanding Venusian interests, the Martian habitat announces the formation of the Federal Republic of Mars and the birth of the Republican Navy. True to the Martians' reputation, the three RN destroyers are the fastest ships in the Solar System, in addition to sporting more advanced weaponry than any other solar nation.

Fall 2035: The FRM launches an exploratory probe toward Vesta to attempt to determine the colony's fate. An engine misfire puts the probe into a tumble, preventing rendezvous, but approach images show no signs of life in orbit or on the asteroid itself.

22 October 2038: Twelve Mercurian commandos, disguised as cargo handlers, sneak aboard the VMCS Vulcan's Forge, capturing the destroyer. With the Venusian crew locked in their quarters, the Mercurians open fire on the other Venusian ship in the system, the VMCS Daedelus. The surprised light cruiser is disabled before she can fire a shot. The War of Mercurian Independence has begun.

25 October 2038: An aging Jaquil Fahir broadcasts a plea for assistance to the solar nations. The FRM publicly declares neutrality in the conflict, but popular Martian opinion is clearly with the Mercurians. The FRM arranges a "loan" of an uncrewed light cruiser and two uncrewed destroyers. Queen Anne responds that the Mercurians willingly entered into a legal and binding agreement with the Venusians and so the Realm would provide no assistance to a group of "brigands and pirates". Her advisors would spend years smoothing over this blunder of diplomacy, and the "Queen's Retort" would be a sore point in Jovian-Mercurian relations for decades to come.

Spring 2039: A fleet of converted Mercurian cargo ships led by the captured Venusian destroyer (renamed the MSS Vengence) arrives in Venus orbit. The First Battle of Venus (so named by the Mercurians even before there was a Second Battle of Venus) is counted a Mercurian victory. Even though Mercurian casualties were high, the task force succeeds in disabling the main Venusian shipyard for well over a year. The Mercurians make good use of this time with a crash program of warship construction.

21 November 2044: After six years of war, and both Venusian and Mercurian infrastructures near collapse, an armistice is signed between the two nations on the Martian moon of Phobos. The Treaty of Phobos ends the Venusian occupation of Mercury, but grants sizable reparations to the Venusian Mining Corporation, to be paid upon a set schedule over the next ten years. Both parties leave the negotiation table unsatisfied but physically unable to continue the war. The Mercurians note that this is the second time they have been forced to mortgage their prosperity for their lives, and swear "never again".

Spring 2046: Peace reigns in the Solar System for the first time in nearly a decade. The Jovian Realm, unaffected by the fighting and blessed with fabulous mineral resources in her satellites, has become the most prosperous of the solar nations. With much ceremony, the RJN launches a trade fleet toward the Inner System, the first journey sunward of this distance in the history of humanity.

Winter 2047: The FRM announces the successful testing of the first deuterium-tritium fusion drive, as an FRM scout ship becomes the first crewed vessel to visit the Saturnian system. Completely modular, the drive can be fitted on ships ranging fom the smallest scouts to the largest warships and merchants. All of the solar nations immediately apply for licensing of the new technology. After an eight-month layover, the visiting Jovian fleet is the first foreign fleet to be retrofitted with the new drive.

Summer 2048: A resource-desperate Earth looks skyward again for the first time in a generation, but no longer posseses the technology to compete with the other solar nations. A Venusian envoy is sent to Earth: in exchange for a military alliance and a market for Venusian goods, the VMC will pass its technology on to the nations of Earth. Together, they will engage in wholesale exploitation of the asteroid belt. This will provide a badly-needed personnel and economic boost to the Venusians and essentially limitless resources and the technology to exploit them to the nations of Earth. Simon Gonzales, Secretary-General of the United Nations, signs the accord on behalf Earth's heads of state. In their eagerness, the Earthers are completely unaware that the VMC intends to honor the alliance only long enough to rebuild its economic base to the point where it can achieve its ultimate objective: the defeat of the Jovian Realm and the defacto economic domination of the Solar System.

27 June 2050: Mercurian habitat commander Jaquil Fahir dies of congestive heart failure. His son Amman formally assumes command, though he has been effectively in charge since the war. He is immediately declared President by the people of Mercury.

Fall 2053: The USS New Hope, a dedicated exploration and mining vessel is launched by the United States from low Earth orbit. Accompanied by a new Venusian escort cruiser and two Venusian destroyers, the task force sets out for Pallas. After a quarter-century, native Earthers are back in space.

Summer 2055: Queen Anne of the Jovian Realm is confined to her bed indefinitely due to a mysterious illness. After much prodding, the aging monarch abdicates the throne in favor of her nephew Prince Roderick. Roderick is crowned King Roderick I by August.

14 February 2056: The Jovian Solar Network beams its first broadcast to the Inner System. While the reporting is considered reasonably fair and impartial, the Martians in particular are appalled by the decadence the Jovian culture. While far from prudes themselves, the Martians have managed to hold on to their egaltarian, frontier attitude far more than any of the other solar nations. Nevertheless, the event is marked as the first step towards bridging the vast distances, cultural as well as physical, between the solar nations.

Summer 2057: A Martian expedition discovers a slug-like lifeform on Saturn's moon, Titan. All the powers of the Solar System agree to prohibit development on Titan and restrict access to the surface to scientific missions only.

13 October 2057: King Roderick marries Janice Weston, a commoner from the Ganymede Settlement. "Queen J", is an immediate hit with the Jovian populace. In celebration of their marriage, the Royal Jovian Navy stages a fly-by of the Royal Couple by every warship of the fleet, including the newly-commissioned King Roderick-class battleship, the largest warship in the Solar System. The event is broadcast on JSN, stunning the Inner System with the sheer size of the Jovian fleet. Three months later the head of the UN arrives in Venus orbit for an extended summit with the VMC.

Spring 2059: Accompanied by her escorts, the UNSS Hornet, the first spaceborne fighter carrier, makes a "goodwill" visit to the Jovian Realm.

Summer 2060: The Mercurian Navy attackes a VMC "mining installation" on the asteroid Geographos. The MN fleet consists of two heavy cruisers and three destroyers versus an entire Venusian carrier battle group, including a battleship and two heavy cruisers; the Mercurians are victorious after a protracted 14-hour battle. It is the largest military action ever taken in the Solar System and the first since the War of Mercurian Independence. Initial hostile reaction by the other nations is quelled when the Mercurians reveal that the base was a research center for biological and chemical warfare. While the evidence is incontroversial, it is not lost upon the solar nations that there were no Venusian survivors of the attack at all. The ferocity of the Mercurian warriors earns them the fear and, perhaps, the gruding respect of the remainder of humanity.

Winter 2060: Tensions between the Jovian Realm and the Venusian Mining Corporation become strained when a VMC spy is discovered working deep within the Jovian military research organization.

Spring 2061: Martian scientists working on Titan publish a report on the Titanian lifeforms. The report contains a description of the lifeforms' habitat which intimates that Titan could be the largest treasure trove of water, minerals, and hydrocarbons in the Solar System. The VMC immediately sends its own teams to the Saturnian system to "aid in the research".

Spring 2062: VMC analysis of the Titan data indicates that development of the Saturnian system could supply the projected needs of much of the Solar System for centuries to come. A joint VMC-UN fleet is hastily assembled from Belt patrols for the journey to Saturn. The departing vessels are detected by FRM listening posts, and the Republican Navy orders its task force at Titan to protect the Titanian lifeforms and the research outpost. The Mercurian Navy, operating deep in the asteroid belt, intercepts the FRM call and moves its task force towards Saturn to intercept the Venusians, but makes it clear they have no interest in Titan itself or its inhabitants. The vagrancies of celestial mechanics, however, place the Jovian Realm with no ships capable of responding in time. King Roderick personally calls Lauren Jameson, the CEO of VMC, but she refuses to take the monarch's call. Roderick, unwilling to risk participating in what could very well lead to another intra-Solar System war, washes his hands of the matter.

22 December 2062: The Mercurian fleet arrives at Titan, but maintains its distance from the Martian fleet. Cheerful calls from the Martian flagship are met with stony silence. On an open channel, the Martian commander warns that he will defend the research outpost and the Titanians themselves at any cost. The Mercurian fleet continues to ignore them.

31 December 2062: The VMC-UN fleet is sighted on approach to Titan. They too ignore all hails from the Martians.

1 January 2063: The VMC-UN fleet accelerates to attack speed and heads towards the satellite. The Mercurians accelerate to intercept. The Martian fleet goes to general quarters, but maintains its position above the outpost. By mid-afternoon battle is joined.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Developing a Background: Part One

Developing a "future history," as Robert Heinlein called it, is particularly important to good science fiction stories. Even if most of the events of your timeline are never mentioned in the story, the characters know the history, and it affects their actions. The big thing to watch out for is that for the most part this history isn't really discussed by the characters -- after all, how often do you and your friends sit around and debate world history? Instead, the timeline should have implications for your characters, setting up logical conflicts, old enemies, new friends, business opportunities, etc. As an example, I thought I would post the background and history for my "Exodus Project" series of stories. The timeline extends from 1997 to 2063. Incidentally, there really is an asteroid 1997 XF11 and scientists did suddenly revise their prediction that it would hit Earth. The rest is pure speculation. Really. Because of its length, I'll post it in two parts.

The Exodus Project
Background and History (Part One)

Fall 1997: Asteriod 1997 XF11 is detected by SpaceWatch. Initial orbit projections predict the asteroid will impact Earth in 2028, destroying most of Earth's civilization. Primarily at American insistance, SpaceWatch soon issues "revised orbits" which indicate the asteroid will actually miss the Earth by several million km. A vast cover-up begins as the nations of Earth secretly begin plans to establish habitats around each of the inner planets and around Jupiter.

Fall 1998: To the astonishment of technology observers, the International Space Station receives full funding and becomes the first major American space project to launch essentially on schedule. No one, as yet, suspects the true reason behind NASA's sudden efficiency and the various world space agencies' sudden cooperation.

Summer 2013: World news media agencies release a report on the 15-year cover-up. Leaks within the European Space Agency are blamed, but the Exodus Project now has too much momentum to be stopped.

20 July 2019: The completed orbital habitats depart for Mercury, Venus, Mars, Vesta, and Jupiter.

June 2023: The Martian habitat suffers a partial braking thruster failure just three weeks prior to orbital insertion. Martian engineers cobble together a makeshift mass accelerator which, in concert with an equally makeshift aerobrake, manages to put the habitat in a highly elliptical but stable orbit around the planet. Martians joke that it was their garbage (ejected at 30 km/sec) which actually saved them, but they gain a lasting respect in the eyes of the rest of humanity as the best engineers in the Solar System.

12 March 2027: For reasons unknown but hotly debated, Jason David Cristos, mining specialist aboard the Mercury habitat, destroys the main Mercurian manufacturing facility. With no way to manufacture replacement parts, the habitat will eventually be doomed.

15 March 2027: Martian engineers embark upon a crash program to deliver new supplies to the Mercurians. Due to the current planetary positions, however, it is known from the outset that the supplies will arrive too late to be of any help.

21 March 2027: Jacob Wilson, president of the newly-formed Venusian Mining Corporation (Venus Habitat), offers to send relief supplies to the Mercurians - but only in exchange for 75% of all mineral wealth extracted from Mercury's surface from now until perpetuity. Faced with the choice of becoming essentially a Venusian vassal state or the slow death of his entire crew, Mercurian commander Jaquil Fahir reluctantly agrees.

Fall 2028: Asteroid 1997 XF11 misses the planet Earth by a narrow margin. The asteroid is actually seen in some hemispheres to transit the face of the Moon. Spontaneous parties erupt, which eventually lead to world-wide violence, looting, and rioting. National security forces restore order after two weeks of chaos. Clean up and restoration of services require an additional three months. The habitats' messages of congratulations are largely unseen by anyone on Earth.

Spring 2029: Life around the globe begins to return to normal. The population of Earth begins to lose interest in spaceflight and the habitats. Since the habitats were designed to be self-sufficient (albeit marginally so), there is no moral requirement felt to continue to support them.

17 January 2030: Due to funding cuts, ground controllers for the Exodus habitats sign off for the last time.

(To be continued...)