Friday, September 30, 2005

Elements of Story

I've been reading Robert McKee's book on story (called, appropriately enough, Story). This book, as I mentioned a few days ago, is supposedly a text version of his famous seminars on story and the crafting of stories. Many very well-respected writers, producers, and directors (many that even I've heard of) have taken his course, and it comes highly recommended. Even though it's aimed at screenwriting, the fundamentals of storytelling don't inherently depend upon the medium chosen, so I figure there are likely some good insights here.

Chapter one basically expounded at length on why modern filmmakers have lost the ability to tell a good story. While it was somewhat interesting from a philosophical standpoint, I really felt he was preaching to the choir -- if I didn't want to tell a good story, I probably would be reading your book there, Mr. McKee. Chapter two starts to get into the meat of story, however. In this chapter, he introduces what he calls the "elements of story," so I thought I'd comment on those elements. By the way, when I capitalize a word, I'm refering to McKee's definition of that word, not necessarily it's common meaning.

McKee starts off by defining "Story Values," universal qualities of human experience that shift from positive to negative and vice versa from one moment to the next. All stories, McKee says, turn on "Story Events," defined as a change in a single Value that is achieved through conflict. I liked this last qualification a great deal. It's not enough for a person to win the lottery, pay off the creditors, and have a happy life. While this is indeed a change in Value (poor to not poor), it didn't occur as a result of conflict. In It Could Happen to You, the protagonist does in fact win the lottery, but it is the conflicts that his luck brings into his life that make the story, not the mere fact that he won the lottery itself.

Events themselves occur in "Scenes." Scenes are defined as action through conflict in (more or less) continuous time and space that is a Story Event. The example he gives is a couple that starts out living together and in love (positive), but have ended their relationship by the end of the scene (the Value has turned from positive to negative). Scenes, however, are not the smallest unit of Story. Each Scene is made up of a number of Beats, an exchange of behavior in action/reaction. For example, the break-up scene above might consist of the following Beats: teasing each other, give-and-take of insults, threatening and daring each other to leave, pleading and ridiculing, a minor exchange of violence, and the turning point, the decision to break up. Each Beat is a recognizable and definable interaction, but it takes all six beats to cause the change in Value that defines the Scene.

Scenes build "Sequences," a series of two to five scenes that culminate with an impact greater than any given scene. The end of each Sequence is a sort of mini-climax that has resulted from the turning of Values that occurred in the Scenes that make up the Sequence. An "Act" is a series of Sequences that build up to a major reversal of Values, more powerful than the impact of any previous Scene or Sequence. The end result of an Act is major, but is not necessarily irreversible. The "Story," on the other hand is a series of Acts that builds to a "Story Climax," an absolute and irreversible change.

It's an interesting way of looking at story structure. While on the surface it may seem obvious, I'm sure all of us can think of stories with scenes in which nothing really happens. Looking at everything as being built from Story Events (definite turning of Values), however, eliminates most of those scenes. Kind of cool. I'll be interested to see if he has more insights.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Goethe Mining Complex

My Internet connection was down all morning due to a "neighborhood outage," according to Cox Cable. It wasn't a big deal since I needed to get this article out the door to the Journal of the Traveller's Aid Society. This is the article that goes with the maps I've been making of the Mercurian mine setting for my novel. I'm actually quite pleased with how it turned out. I wrote 5100 words just today, and ended up having to edit it down to 5000, since that's the limit stated in the writers' guidelines for the magazine. In truth, I probably didn't have to bother, since my 5000 words and the magazine's 5000 words won't be the same thing. Still, with an e-zone, it's usually pretty close to what Word comes up with. All in all, a very productive day. I'll probably spend all of tomorrow doing research for my Ph.D. comps, assuming I have Internet access then.

JTAS has updated their guidelines to say that they now have an eight-week turnaround time instead of a two-week time. That's seems a little more realistic to me anyway. I still haven't heard from them about my first article, but it's only been two weeks, so that's not really surprising. If they reject the article (and I don't really think they will -- it's very typical of the material they publish), I've got a couple of other markets in mind that might be interested in it with just a little modification. Certainly writing the Goethe Mining Complex article has done so much for the plotting of my novel that it was time well-spent even if I don't make a dime off of it (but of course I hope I will). I've done my first and second editing passes and just printed out a copy for the third and hopefully final pass (yeah, right), but I need to set it aside for a couple of hours so that I can get a fresh look at it. After that, I'll make what changes need to be made, email the submission to the editor (Lord Almightly, thank you for the gift of online submission), and head up north to teach my astronomy lab tonight.

Yep, all in all, a darn good day.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

A Map of the World

Yesterday I finished the maps of main Mercurian mine that is a central location in my novel. I'm pleased with how they turned out, but I'm even more pleased at the effect they will have on my writing. I now know exactly where everything is in the mine, but more importantly, I now see a number of places for conflict that I didn't think of before. For example, in one of the opening scenes, the main antagonist tells his secretary that he's "going out," so he heads out of his office and ends up going to a seedy strip bar. The scene read pretty much just like that, although I had some description of traffic in the corridors, the lighting getting darker as he approached the bar, etc. As a result of my map, however, I now know a lot more about the route he took and can describe it much more vividly.

There are three levels to the mine. Only the bottom level is still being actively mined, so it is largely unpressurized. The top two have been tapped out and converted to living and working space with the addition of pre-fab pressurized corridors and rooms. The top level is the "working" level, with the administration section, main power and life support sections, a recreation/dining section, and a commerical section for shopping. All of this level is comparatively up-scale (for a mining planet, anyway). The second level has been turned over to housing for the miners, with each family being given a tiny cubicle not much bigger than a bathroom in your house. Conditions are very poor, due to the need to house a large number of workers without a lot of pressurized space to go around. At the end of each tunnel are common areas that in many cases have been converted to bars. This is where the seedy locations will be, obviously. Out of the view of the mine administrators, but still tacitly acknowledged, the upper crust that wants to take a "walk on the wild side" will make their way down to the second level. The only way down to the second level is through the pressurized elevator that rides the main mine shaft. This means that our "suit" is going to have to rub elbows with the miners in the elevator -- and this gives me a chance to emphasize the inherent class differences and the conflicts that result (eventually, the miners are going to revolt and take over the planet). Perfect! Not only do I now see how to introduce the antagonist to the protagonist and dramatically highlight the inner conflict between them, I now can foreshadow the major external conflict that will be driving the events of the story later on. I love it!

If you haven't done so before, I highly recommend taking the time to map out the locations -- in complete detail -- that your characters will be visiting in your stories. Even for a short story, I think this is time well-spent. I think you'll be amazed at the richness you can convey in your stories without having to resort to a big infodump about your world. I'm going to write all this up as an article for the Journal of the Traveller's Aid Society today. If the editor buys it and you are a subscriber, you'll be able to see the maps in a few weeks.

*The title of this post comes from a book my wife has on her shelf. She loved the book, but I've never read it. Nevertheles, the title has always intrigued me. It just goes to show you how important a good title is to a story!

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Attack of the Killer Spam

While long-time bloggers are no doubt fully aware of this phenomenon, it's only recently become an issue for me. There's a new form of spam in town: comment spam. For those that don't know, some clever soul has written a bot that scans the blogs on and posts a comment that reads something like, "Hey, great blog, I'm definitely going to bookmark you! Why don't you come visit our (innane or useless product here) site! I know you'll love it!"

Okay, I'm really not stupid, folks.

I'm fully aware that no human being ever posted that comment, nor did the human being who set the bot in motion so much as look at my blog. The praise at the beginning is, I suppose, intended to stroke my ego to the point where I'll click on their little ad link out of gratitude that someone in the known universe is aware my blog exists. Rrrrrright. To a certain extent, makes the situation worse with the "Next Blog" button at the upper right corner of the screen. (What's that? You never noticed that button? Neither did I for a long time...) Best I can tell, "Next Blog" just picks one at random; you won't always go to the same site each time. That's all well and good; after all, who hasn't wanted to just mindlessly surf in hopes of stumbling on some gold? I think the value of this button is far outweighed by the annoyance it causes in permitting comment spam, however. If I'm gonna get spammed, I want the bloody fool to have to work for it!

I often wonder why anyone would advertise their products through spam. Most of the spam emails I get are so poorly written that they are advertisements for not purchasing the product. Others resort to trickery in the subject line to get around spam filters. Let's see, you're not honest with me in email, why should I believe you'd be honest with me as a customer? And then, of course, there is the annoyance factor. Even though I have a spam filter installed, I still have to scan through my junk mail folder to make sure I haven't missed a message from a student or a business contact. It's a lot faster than deleting the spam as it arrives, and I only have to do it once a day or so, but it's still wasted time that I shouldn't have to waste. As a result of all of these, I have a hard and fast rule never to buy anything from spammers, and that includes telephone solicitors. Even if it's a product I might actually be interested in (though I have to admit that breast enhancements are pretty low on my list), I won't buy it just because the company has shown me that they will stoop to the lowest of the low. I can only assume that because spam costs virtually nothing, if they even make one sale as a result, they figure the return on their investment is huge. That may be true, but if you want to succeed in any business, you've got to establish a reputation for quality. Just as with writing, it's word of mouth sales that make you a success. Foregoing that precious word of mouth advertising just to get one sale out of 100 million messages hardly seems to be a smart business model. has a feature that will let you turn on word verification for comments, which should defeat most spam programs for now. I've turned it on since no one really posts comments here anyway. :) Hopefully it won't deter anyone who's serious. It's ridiculous that we should have to do something like this, but I guess I shouldn't be amazed at what some people will do for money. I realize a lot of freelance writers make a sizable portion of their income writing spam and junk mail. More power to them, I guess, I certainly can't fault them for wanting to make a career as a writer (read: someone who writes words). Still, what do they say on airplanes when people ask what they do? Admitting you write spam is like admitting that you enjoy urinating in public. If I ever get to that point, just push me over -- I'm already dead, I just haven't realized it yet.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Making a Scene

I was doing another critique on OWW the other day and came across a piece that, while overall showed quite a bit of promise, also showed the author seemed to be having trouble with creating scenes. Time in the story seemed to pass with unsettling abruptness. Some of the scenes were three or four sentences long and didn't seem to complete the action that was begun in the first sentence. I suggested that many of the scenes could be combined into one, even though in many cases several hours or days had passed between each one. Yes, this would change the timeline of the story somewhat, but not significantly so, I didn't think. Of course, it's equally possible that the author was just posting outlines for the scenes he would write later, though I would have to wonder why he was interested in critiques at this point in the story's evolution if that were the case.

Each scene is like a miniature short story. It should have an introduction, a climax, and an ending. You should be able to take each scene and point to exactly its purpose in the overall story. If you can't, or if the purpose is mostly "to add character" to the piece, then you should seriously consider cutting it out. Adding richness and detail is important, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, but there are better ways to do it than to simply write a scene for it. Use that richness to make the critical scenes even more powerful. I'm a firm believer in not worrying about the length of a fiction piece. The story will take as much space as it needs. If you were trying to write a novel, but the tighter, more powerful version turns into a short story, so be it. Let the story decide!

One thing I think all of us have to continually work on, though, is transitions between scenes. We are so used to the "fade to commercial" breaks of television that we try to write scene transitions that way in our novels. While this technique can work if used sparingly, it is weaker than writing transitions that further each scene's connection into a unified whole. I just recently broke down and bought a copy of McKee's Story book, which is supposedly a distillation of his famous seminars on the topic. My only real fear is that McKee is talking to Hollywood scriptwriters, not novelists. While the prinicples of story are the same in both media, the enacting of those principles can be very different. I like the voice of my fiction writing, and several editors have said they do as well. I'm a little leery of losing that to the coldness of a script format. I think the insight into structure and plotting that I hope to gain from this book are worth the risk, though.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Will You Be Mine?

I spent what little free time I had yesterday (since I was working ... volunteering under duress, really, since I didn't get paid for it ... for ASU) developing the basics for the oldest of the three mines that are featured in my novel. I'm doing all the work in Campaign Cartographer in hopes of learning that system. I've found that the best way for me to learn a new software package is to assign myself a "project" and learn what I need to do that project. As problems inevitably come up, that's when I turn to the manuals and tutorials to figure out how to do what I need to do. I have enough experience with computers and computer programming, that I know pretty much how most software packages work, at least in a general way. This allows me to have a pretty good guess at how to do what I need before I've even sat down to do it. Not so with CC2. CC2's interface is, well, stupid. Even for a GUI overlay on a DOS command-line program (which is what it is), the whole paradigm is stupid and counter-intuitive. I've subscribed to discussion list to get extra help. Many times the answer to the questions posted there are to use some command that has to be typed in the command line at the bottom of the screen -- there was literally no way to know how to do it just by looking at the menu and toolbars. You shouldn't need "cheat codes" to use what is essentially a CAD package! The fact that I have years of experience with real graphics packages such as Adobe Illustrator and the like makes stumbling around trying to figure out this silly interface even more frustrating.

So why bother? Even though it's been tempting to just chuck CC2 and go back to Illustrator (raping and pillaging CC2's symbol catalog, of course), the fact is that CC2 has a lot of potential to really streamline your workflow for map-making. Illustrator can do everything CC2 can do and more. But it's the "and more" part that actually makes CC2 superior for the task. CC2 is customized for cartography and you can even customize the customization. For example, I finally figured out how to create a single drawing tool that will draw both the bulkheads and the floors the way I need them. Yes, I could have done this in Illustrator, but it would have taken a number of steps. Now that the tool is created, I have a specialized drawing tool that has let me draw corridors and rooms very rapidly. Editing what's been placed in CC2 is still very frustrating, but I'm learning how to cope with that as well (and it's still just "coping" at this point -- the efficiency isn't there yet). One big thing I like in CC2 that I don't know how to do in Illustrator is fractal boundaries. Natural features shouldn't have a smooth line, but drawing fractals in Illustrator is beyond tedious. CC2 will do it automatically. I'm sure there are more time-saving features that, once learned, will really help out withmaking professional-looking maps (remember, I plan to sell these with my articles -- I'd get paid extra for them), so I think the investment will eventually pay off. But man what an investment I'm having to make!

I had to buy two add-ons to really do what I wanted: Dungeon Designer Pro and Cosmographer Pro. CC2 itself is really optimized for making land maps. While it will make floor plans, it doesn't do it very efficiently. DD Pro is basically the floor plan module (it's obviously for more than just dungeons). Cosmographer adds the modern and futuristic symbols that need to go in those floor plans. It does let you make deck plans of starships and space stations, and this might actually have worked for me, but because of the fact that I'm making an underground mine, the DD tools have been the ones I've been using most. In theory you could make modern buildings just using Cosmographer. Cosmo will also let me make Traveller-style subsector and world maps, so that's a huge boon when writing for a Traveller magazine!

I also picked up Perspectives Pro on eBay for a song. PP lets you make 3D drawings of your floor plans and will supposedly convert those floor plans from 2D to quasi-3D for you. It's not really 3D, of course, since you don't have a camera that you can move around to view the scene from all angles, but the drawings I've seen published do give you a good overview of what it would be like to be inside the area you just mapped. The only problem I see is that I think all the 3D symbols used for PP are for fantasy drawings -- there doesn't seem to be much inthe way of modern symbols and so far it doesn't look lik eyou can import models drawn in true 3D packages. That will be a problem. I plan to combine PP drawings with renderings done with Poser and Bryce to illustrate my articles. "Cardboard heroes" figures are also easy to create in Poser, and they look really good, so that's a major selling point as well. In fact, I've considered creating a bunch of cardboard heroes and selling them on my website -- I think there's actually a market for good paper figures. As if I'm not already too busy...

Saturday, September 24, 2005


I'm working at ASU today doing the Mars Education Program's annual fall regional teacher training workshop. It's great to spend a Saturday in Tempe, AZ, lemme tell ya. Happy, happy, joy, joy.

At any rate, I logged on to OWW yesterday and did a few critques. As I mentioned yesterday, OWW requires that you get four "critique points" for each piece of your own that you submit. You are given four points to start with, and you normally get one point for each critique you do. When you move to the section where you can get pieces to critique, however, the system offers you one under-reviewed piece for double points. Since I don't really care which piece I critique at this point, I ended up taking two of those. I've now got eight points, so I could submit two pieces (or chapters, more likely) if I really wanted to. I figured I may as well give the "little guy" a hand, so that was my real reason for chosing those pieces, not the points.

I can't (and won't) talk about any of the specifics of the pieces I reviewed, but as I had hoped, I did pick up on some problems with both pieces that I can avoid in my own writing. In one case, the author was trying to use "vivid imagery" in his writing, but it came across as simply being overwritten and heavily laden with adjectives. I made the suggestion (and you might try this with your own writing) that, as an experiment, he re-write the piece omitting every single adjective. Some of these adjectives are necessary, to be sure, but I think he will be surprised at how many are not. If you are looking to add richness and vividness to a piece, the place for that is in dialogue or, better yet, in the situations that you place your characters in.

The great and educational thing about critiquing is that it brings to the front of your conscious mind typical mistakes that you know deep-down to avoid. One of my main goals with my writing (and I think it should be a major goal of any writer) is to have my writing not only be good, but also completely under my conscious control. This, I believe, is the mark of a professional writer. I have to say, it's been a long time since I've done any critiques at all (over two years, I think), and I find that I've missed the game of reading a new piece, figuring out what works and what doesn't, and then coming up with a way to help the author see the problems and ways he might can fix them. It's fun, and I can't think of a better way to get you in the "writing mode."

Friday, September 23, 2005

OWW SF and F

I finally joined the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction and Fantasy (a mouthful that is thankfully abbreviated to OWW SF&F -- oh wait, that's still a mouthful...). So far, I'm impressed. I got a good impression of their customer service when I realized I had mistyped my email address, so wouldn't receive the password email (Note to future web designers: Always have your users type their email address in twice when they register. An incorrect email address is a "single-point failure," to use the shuttle engineering term -- if that one thing fails, the whole system fails.). After a brief search, I found the email of the person to contact for lost passwords, but this was at 4 PM Pacific time, so I didn't really expect a reply until today. Imagine my surprise when I had a response with the new password by the time I got back from teaching at 9 PM! Very professional, and I was impressed by it.

There are a number of "how-to" articles in their "reference library," and while I haven't read too many of them yet, the titles seem to indicate they contain fairly standard info for the beginning writer. The difference, however, is that each is written by a published writer who also happens to be an OWW member. So, in theory, if you have questions about the article, you could contact the author directly (although unlike most online workshops, OWW does not have a bulletin board system that I can find). Some of the articles were written by the editorial staff at Del Rey books and that is treasure beyond price. The authors, good as their advice may be, don't have to concern themselves with whether or not they would buy your work. Not so with the editors. Getting this kind of feedback is somewhat rare, and almost worth the $49/year right there.

And speaking of famous authors, OWW's "Resident Editors" (all big names, such as Kelly Link, who just won a Hugo) review a submission each month. Now you're getting comments from an accomplished pro. Even if your piece is not selected for review, reading what they have to say about someone else's work is incredibly valuable. I sometimes don't find amateur critiques to be all that helpful, since beginning writers often can't identify what is not working in the piece. Being able to see what the pros have to say helps everyone as the beginning "critters" get to see examples of a first-class critique.

Getting to a piece to critique is simple and straightforward. You can choose which genre(s) you are interested in working with and sort the resulting list in several ways. Out of consideration for the little guy, I usually like to critique a piece that hasn't gotten a review yet -- I know I hate waiting for someone to pick up my piece. OWW's interface makes that easy. Four critique points are needed to be able to submit your own work, but you are given four just for joining the workshop, so you can submit right away if you want. I'm really joined this workshop to get my critiquing skills back in shape, not necessarily to get my own work critiqued, but I'll probably submit something eventually. I noticed a lot of novel chapters in the list. I'm not sure I'd want to start with chapter 19 of someone's novel, and I'm not even sure I can do a good critique of a single chapter. That would be interesting to attempt, though, as I've never tried it before.

At the end of the day, so far I recommend OWW. I'll be sure to post updates as I begin to really get into and work with their system.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Civilians in Space

I just read an article on about a group of students who, with the help of the ESA, have designed and built their own satellite that will be launched aboard an ESA booster. Now, this is not a "Get-Away Special," the NASA program that would let students fly a small, self-contained experiment on the shuttle for about $10,000. This is a full-up, fairly large satellite, about the size of a large washing machine. Furthermore, the satellite will launch a set of "picosatellites," tiny satellites designed by other student experimenters. The total cost to the ESA for the design, development, and launch of the satellite is about $100,000. The actual value of the satellite is quite a bit more than that, of course, since a number of companies donated materials and/or expertise to work with the students.

The key here, though, is that it was the students who did all the work. This is regular people putting an object in orbit. The next project that is planned will go all the way to the moon to take pictures. How cool is that? It's become more and more obvious that the world's space agencies are not going to get us very far off of this planet, certainly not in any routine way. If we want to make the dreams of an interplanetary civilization a reality at any point in the future, governments aren't going to get us anywhere. It's not their fault, necessarily, it's just that science and politics don't often pair up very well. Science depends upon rational decisions, and politics ... well, political motivations just aren't very rational many times.

Economics and science, on the other hand, pair up quite well. In fact, one could argue that economics have driven every great exploration and settlement adventure in history: People naturally look for a better life and hope that a new land will give that to them. If there's money to be made, you won't need government funding and special research programs. People will do it all themselves. The problem, of course, is that the energy needed to get out into space at all is huge. Energy is power. Think about the energy contained in the airliners that blew up the World Trade Centers. Huge. And that's nothing compared to what you need to get any sizable mass into orbit, much less to another world. The technology that gets Joe Average into space could be the technology that destroys a city. Governments are historically very nervous about giving private citizens access to that level of power. Car accidents are bad. Cars that accidently run into buildings are worse. Civilian spacecraft that crash into downtown are much, much worse. Now imagine a suicide bomber-space pilot who does it intentionally.

So, in the face of these dangers, should we prevent the development of civilian space flight? Not at all. We do need to develop some way to protect people on the ground. If you want to keep a spacecraft from crashing into a city from orbit, you've got to stop it from orbit. That means we need an "Orbital Patrol" that can enforce space traffic regulations near planets. Once you get outside of the planet's gravitational influence, well, it's wide open country, so go wild! The odds of you hitting someone else in space are really, really small. It's only in the near-planetary space that we will need traffic laws and cops. It's time we started working out what that force would look like and how traffic in space would operate. Science fiction authors are perfectly suited to lead the way on this. Too many books describe a ship that simply arrives in orbit from deep space, and everyone just assumes it will do what it is supposed to. As we have had graphically demonstrated to us since 2001, however, not everyone does what they're supposed to. How will space traffic control look? Writers, let's get cooking!

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

I've Still Got It

Yesterday evening a good friend of mine*, who happens to run probably the single best astrogation/3D star mapping site on the Internet, sent me email asking for help with a problem. It seems that he's working with a game designer to develop an updated version of "Rocket Flight," one of the most astoundingly accurate games of space travel and trade in the Solar System that I've ever seen. Since the game is still in beta, I can't talk much about it (in fact, I don't know much the new version). As part of the game, my friend was asked to figure out the time of flight between any two planets for any given orbit. As he put it, "I'm not a scientist, I just play one on the Internet," so he came to me for help.

Now, it's been about fifteen years since I was an orbital mechanics engineer for NASA. I worked mostly on the shuttle program, but also worked on the navigation and pointing software for some of the "Great Observatory" orbiting telescopes. But it's been a loooong time since I've sat down and tried to do a problem like this. I'm pretty pleased that it all came back to me fairly readily. At the end of the day, I had come up with a formulation of the problem that would let you input any one of the following and get out the rest: time of flight, delta-v (energy change) needed for the departure and arrival burns, the intercept point with the destination planet, or the shape of the orbit itself. Pretty darn cool, if I do say so myself. The equations that I ended up with are fairly easy to use -- certainly no problem for a spreadsheet or computer program.

I'll be able to make good use of this with my current story, since it involves hauling ore from Mercury to Mars and back. It's important that I be able to figure out the travel time for different fuel burns and ore loads, since this details are discussed by the characters. In particular, the protagonist is going to go from a mid-teen to a late teen/young adult over the course of the voyage, so I need to make sure the trip takes enough time for that to happen. This is just one example of how knowing science is important to writing science fiction. Even if you don't have the background yourself, odds are you know someone who does!

*Interestingly, he and I have never met face-to-face, yet I I've known him for years and consider him to be a great friend. And who says the Internet will make everyone anti-social?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Hard Six

I have recently had an idea for an article on writing for education. I want to target writing magazines such as The Writer, Writer's Digest, and the like. I've noticed that both of those magazines often feature articles on how to break into specific markets, so I think an article like this would be one the editors would buy. The problem is this: In order to write for education, you really need to have some sort of an education or psychology background, something only a small percentage of writers actually have.

Hence my quandry: Even though the article is definitely of the type these magazines buy, is the potential audience that can make use of it directly too limited to be worth publishing? I am interested in how, for example, romance writers do their work because I'm curious how all sides of the industry operates. I also think there are some work habits that I might could profitably pick up from these writers. In short, I'm interested in reading about areas outside of my chosen genre. The right way to approach this, of course, is to write a query letter to the editors of these magazines, and that is likely what I will do. But first I have to decide if it is worth the effort to do even that. I could easily write the article for magazines that are directed to teachers (most of whom would love to know how a professional curriculum developer operates and how they can write material for their own classes), so I'm reasonably confident I can sell the article somewhere. The only real question is where to send it first. Market research is a big part of the non-fiction writing business, so it's not something to take lightly. I've heard some editors say things like, "How dare you decide for me what's right for my magazine! Send it to me, and I'll make that decision!" All well and good, and if the editor actually had the time to read everything that he was submitted, that'd be great. But because of the huge volume of submissions they receive, the turn-around time on articles (or query letters, in this case) is pretty long. It is in the writer's best interest to choose the most likely home for an article and sumbit there first.

The fact is that the education magazines would be a pretty easy sale. If all I was interested in was the money, that would certainly be the way to go. But to a certain extent, I'm still looking for validation that I am, in fact, a professional writer (I don't think that feeling ever completely goes away for most of us). Getting published in The Writer, for example, would be a huge validation. I've got the writer's Thick Skin(R), so rejection doesn't really bother me. As such, I think it's worthwhile for me to take a chance on the writing magazines, even if it means delaying the article's publication six months or more. As they say on Battlestar: Galactica, "Sometimes you have to roll the hard six!"

Monday, September 19, 2005

Two Birds, One Computer

As I was thinking about what articles I could write for this gaming magazine, it occurred to me that a number of the background details I need to work out for the novel would make excellent adventure game settings (that is, after all, the point of most science fiction). The magazine regularly publishes articles that provide descriptions of interesting places characters can visit, as well as articles on prominent "non-player characters" that player characters can meet and interact with. Because most of these details also need to be worked out for the novel (even if this level of detail would never be included in the novel itself), this in effect gives me a way to kill two birds with one stone (or one computer, as the case may be).

I've been working with Campaign Cartographer 2 and learning how to create maps with it. So far, all I've done have been large-scale exterior land maps, but CC2 also excels at making floor plans. I even have an add-on that will convert flat 2D floor plans into 3D perspective drawings, enabling you to really see what it would look like to be inside the location. For example, I need to map out the main mine on Mercury. One of the locations there is a "gentlemen's club" that figures prominently into the early portions of the story (it is here that the antagonist first meets the protagonist and decides that he wants her for himself). I can create the floor plan and perspective drawings for this location in CC2. This will serve a number of purposes simultaneously: I can learn how to better use CC2 and begin learning these new add-ons; I can get a more detailed mental picture of the setting, thus adding to the richness of the detail I can provide in the story; and, last but not least, if I also create the characters that populate this club (also needed for the novel), I'll have an article that should sell quite easily. I can repeat this process for a number of major locations that appear in the story, eventually developing a "Mercury sourcebook" for gaming in this world.

It has occurred to me, of course, that the whole Exodus Project setting would make an excellent role-playing game. I want to be very careful about that, though. Most novels based on a role-playing game have been simply terrible. I have yet to read one with any depth at all. There have been a few role-playing games that were based on novels, but they were never anything spectacular and faded out quickly. While having a merchandise tie-in might be a good selling point when I try to get this thing published, I need to be very, very careful that I don't compromise the writing just to make it compatible with a gaming environment. Writing these articles may be a good way to maintain that balance.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

How often should you submit?

First off, I've posted pictures from the SAREX yesterday on my web site. They'll eventually be moved to my squadron's page once I get FTP access. Enjoy!

I have a bit of a dilemma at the moment. How often should one submit articles to a magazine? I submitted the gaming article I wrote just two weeks ago. The writers' guidelines say they have about a three-week turn around, although that was written some time ago. I'd be surprised if it were actually that fast. As I've mentioned before, I'd like to eventually get a column in this particular magazine. One of the things the editor would have to know is whether or not I can reliably produce a good article every two weeks. That argument would lend itself to the opinion that I should submit an article every two weeks, even if I haven't heard back from the editor about the previous article(s). The other side of that coin is that this is very close to multiple submissions (submitting several articles to a magazine at once), which is generally considered by most writers and editors to be a Not Good Thing. Basically, you're saying to the editor, "Feel free to buy one or the other!" because the editor will almost never be able to buy both. You're essentially costing yourself a sale on one of the articles. Also, there is some question as to whether someone can write good quality articles in such a rapid fire manner (I believe I can, but the perception is still there and must be overcome).

Hence my quandry. I want to show the editor that I can consistently produce good writing, but I don't want to annoy him while trying to do so. Overall, I think that the editor is going to want to buy good articles, in spite of any annoyances over lots of submissions with my name on them. I think one every other is not too bad, but then again, I'm not the one who has to read a million submissions every week. The end result is that 'll have to make sure my articles are truly a cut above the norm to get past that annoyance. If I can pull that off, I think that will be the better strategy for the long term. We shall see...

Saturday, September 17, 2005

First Search and Rescue Mission

Today I flew my first search and rescue mission for the Civil Air Patrol. It was just an exercise, so while there wasn't really anyone in danger, the operation was conducted as if there were. I flew in the Mission Scanner position, which means that it's my responsibility to actually spot the downed aircraft as well as take photos and direct ground teams to the crash site.

Let me just say, my crew rocks.

The scenario was basically that a student pilot from Flagstaff was on a cross-country flight to Deer Valley airport, just north of Phoenix (and also the site of Mission Base). She landed at Deer Valley, got her logbook endorsed, and took off for Flagstaff. She never arrived. Her mother alerted the authorities, and an Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) signal was detected by the Search and Rescue Satellite (SARSAT) somewhere in the mountains north of Phoenix. Mission Base had launched an aircraft to the area early this morning, but after nearly two hours of searching, they hadn't been able to find the downed plane. We were launched from our home base in Goodyear (west of Phoenix) about 9:45 this morning. We flew directly to the search grid and began our survey. The pilot and the observer (CAP's name for the co-pilot) could hear the ELT, but the direction finding needle wasn't giving good readings (it wasn't telling them which way to go). ELT signals are never very precise, but it should have been better than this. If we dipped the wing in a certain direction, we'd lose the ELT signal, so we knew the ELT had to be somewhere in the general direction of the wing. We were on station less than 10 minutes when I spotted the aircraft smashed into a hillside. I got the pilot and observer's attention and directed them back to where I had seen the plane (through an unrelated problem, the intercom was out in the back of the plane, so I was reduced to using hand signals). I got out the camera and got some good shots of the condition of the wreck as well as the ingress/egress path for the ground team. We headed to Mission Base at Deer Valley for debriefing and to download our photos into their computers. They were all amazed that we picked up the site so quickly. I seem have developed a reputation as "Eagle Eye." :) Once I get the photos up on the web, I'll post a link to them.

We had some lunch, got the intercom fixed, and took off for a second mission. This was a counter-terrorism photo recon mission. The scenario was basically that terrorists had taken over and were operating out of Wickenburg airport (northwest of Phoenix), so we were to approach out of the mountains and photograph the airfield for analysis. This was a pretty simple mission, since obviously we knew where the airport was! The trick was to get in, get the photos, and get out as quickly as possible (since presumably the terrorists would be taking pot shots at us). To speed up the photo-taking, I would call out when I was taking a picture, along with the frame number. The pilot would call out our current heading and altitude (necessary for making measurements from the recon photos), and the observer would log all the data. We were in and out in under three minutes. None too shabby!

I needed to get two missions in to complete my Mission Scanner qualification, so I was pleased we were able to fly two (most crews only fly one, but our squadron only had one crew available to send, so we took on another one). If there is an actual emergency (search and rescue, disaster, etc.), I'm now qualified to fly the mission. CAP doesn't allow trainees on real missions, for the very good reason that people's lives are at stake. It's a good feeling to know that I'm now at the point where I can do some good for people in trouble. CAP has logged over 10,000 man-hours in the air and on the ground with Katrina disaster relief. While Arizona isn't likely to get a hurricane, forest fires are a real issue here. And, of course, there's always the counter-drug and counter-terrorism missions, which are increasingly important for a border state such as ours.

This is just the kind of real-world experiences every writer should have if he wants to write convincing fiction! I got home exhausted at 6 PM, but I'm still feeling totally psyched from the experience. You can't ask for much more than that!

Friday, September 16, 2005

Give 'Em Away

Want to dramatically increase the sales of your books? Give 'em away for free! I'm not kidding, this is exactly the theory that the Baen Free Library is operating under. The logic sounds like something Forest Gump would come up with, doesn't it?

Well... Forest Gump was really a pretty smart guy.

Eric Flint, "First Librarian," explains the reasoning and motivations behind the formation of the Library on the first page. The library is an official arm of Baen Books, publisher of such science fiction and fantasy authors as David Drake, David Weber, Jerry Pournell, Merecedes Lackey, Larry Niven, and many others (including Holly Lisle, but more on that in a second). This is not small-press publishing, folks. Authors can volunteer to have electronic versions of their books placed in the library for as long as they want, and they can remove them at any time. The Library was created partly as a response to discussions about Harlan Ellison's famous lawsuit claiming electronic piracy of his books: If a book is free, how can it be pirated?

All well and good. Noble, even. But how is a publisher (and the author) going to make money off of such an idea? After all, for every person that reads a free edition of a book, by definition you've lost a sale. But have you? Flint points out, and I wholeheartedly agree, that the key to making it big as an author is word of mouth advertising. As I've mentioned in previous articles, even if a publisher gave you an expensive book-signing tour as part of your marketing package (generally considered the Holy Grail of marketing), these tours will generate at best perhaps 3,000 sales. That's a tiny, tiny fraction of what your book needs to sell in order to be even marginally successful. Books don't become bestsellers because of any publisher marketing plan, they become bestsellers because one person read the book and told his friend, "Hey, you've got to read this, I know you'll love it."

Word of mouth advertising. This is the true Holy Grail of advertising, it's just that it's not something the publisher (or anyone else) can do for you. If the book is good, you'll get it once the book is noticed. And therein lies the rub: How do you get your book noticed out of the tens of thousands of novels that are published every year? People tend to buy books by authors they know they like. They aren't as likely to take a chance on an unknown. Enter the Baen Free Library. You can download a nicely-formatted electronic version of a book for no cost, no risk, and no obligation. If you don't like the book, you've lost absolutely nothing. Ah, but if you do like the book, you may have just discovered a new author that you might not have tried in the bookstore. You might just want to read the next book in this author's series. Magically, the author has begun to build his readership. He's on the road to that elusive-yet-critical word of mouth advertising that can make or break a career.

It all sounds good in theory, but does it really work? In fact, it does. Flint has tracked the sales of one of his novels that he placed in the library. Instead of his print sales dropping (which is normal even if the book hadn't been offered for free), his sales actually rose. More people were buying the print version after it had been placed in the free library. And not only did this book get a sales boost, but now Flint has convinced a significant number of people that he's a writer they'll want to read -- so they are much more likely to buy his next book. Hard data is difficult to come by in writing, so it's good to see someone who actually has facts and figures to back up a theory.

Now, my own experience. Although I didn't realize it at the time, I have read a book out of the Baen Free Library. I followed a link from Holly Lisle's site to download one of her books (at the time I thought the book was actually being hosted on her site). As I've mentioned before, I don't generally read fantasy, but I was impressed with Holly's non-fiction writing style, so I thought I would give her fiction a try. I downloaded the book, and very much liked what I read. I bought the next book in the series. I'm anxiously waiting for Talyn, her latest book and what Holly feels is her best ever, to hit the shelves of the bookstore here -- and I never read hardbacks. Holly generated sales from someone who almost certainly would have never even considered reading her work -- I had never heard of her, after all. But on the basis of a "free sample" (a tactic retailers have used for decades), I tried something I wouldn't normally have, liked what I saw, and came back for more.

Forest Gump, indeed.

This makes me want to sell my books to Baen as my first-choice publisher, just so I can put a book in their library. I think this could be one of the keys to making it in an already overcrowded field. Now if we could just get the other publishers to relax about squeezing every dime out of every book, they might just end up making a lot more of those dimes.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Online Writing Workshops

The other day I mentioned one of the two ways to build control of your writing. Today I thought I'd mention the other one: online writing workshops. Most online workshops are really just electronic versions of the critique circle: Everyone makes copies of their latest piece for everyone else in the group, the group reads the piece, and then provides a critique of what worked and what didn't work in the piece. In the case of online workshops, that "critique circle" can have hundreds or even thousands of members. This is good and bad. It's good because you have a chance to get feedback from a very diverse population of writers, something that's difficult to do in an in-person workshop. It's bad because, well, no one can read and critique thousands of pieces every week. There's a reason editors no longer provide feedback when they reject a piece. Most online workshops handle this problem by having people "purchase" critiques of their work. The currency of this purchase is not money, it's critiques of others' work. The more pieces you critique, the more "credits" you earn to get your own pieces critiqued. It's a pretty good system.

Some people (rightfully) have concerns about posting their work on the Internet, even to a closed group. After all, electronic magazines are becoming more and more common, and they are buying first electronic publication rights. The generally accepted legal opinion is that posting your work to a closed, restricted group is not publication, because it is not available to anyone. The dissenters to this opinion reply, "Well, neither is an electronic magazine -- you have to subscribe first." And superficially, the process does look the same. The reason it's not a problem is that the piece you submit for critique often is quite different from the piece that is eventually sumbitted for publication. If you're so good that nothing changes from draft to final, then why are you bothering with critique circles? Still, posting your work on an open web page is probably not a good idea unless a) you have sold the piece and have permission from the publisher to post excerpts, b) you are just using the piece as a marketing tool and don't intend to sell it (but if it's a good represeentation of your work, why didn't you submit it for publication?), or c) you don't intend to sell to an electronic magazine, you plan to only sell first print rights. This last is viable, but risky. What if the editor decides he wants the piece, but only if he can place it in both the print and electronic versions of his magazine? It's just not worth the risk. Stick to the closed groups if you are going to go this route.

The question then becomes, which group should you join? There are many, many writing workshops out there. Some are good, some are not so. The first thing you need to ask yourself is, "Why am I joining this group in the first place?" Are you just looking for someone to critique your novel? Are you looking for critiques on short stories? Are only interested in critiquing other people's work? Some combination of the above? If you are really interested in learning the craft, you need to produce as many finished pieces as possible, otherwise you don't get as much practice with writing an entire story. Short stories are really more effective than novels here. Critiques of individual chapters of a novel are very difficult to do, since the reader doesn't have the whole tale in front of him. In reality, though, you will learn more from critiquing other people's work than you will from having your own work critiqued. You learn to recognize the glaring errors and areas that don't quite work and learn to avoid them in your own writing.

So where do you go? Some workshops are free, some require a small fee (usually less than $50/year). Some workshops are conducted as classes, complete with a dedicated instructor who gives you personal attention and live chats with your classmates. These can run as much as $400 for a ten-week session, but I can attest that they are an outstanding experience. Online Writing Workshops for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror actually has a pretty good list of their competitors, which of course means that they must be pretty confident in their product. I found their list to have only a slight slant, but was overall a pretty fair representation. Some of the free workshops have a pretty long waiting list to get your own pieces critiqued, but if you are only interested in critiquing others (in order to build you own skills), that's not really an issue. A couple of workshops missing from this list include The Other Worlds Writers' Workshop and SFNovelists. The former is free and is an email-only critique circle. I've been a part of this and found it useful, although you do tend to get fantasy authors trying to build credits by critiquing science fiction and vice versa, which isn't terribly helpful. SFNovelist is devoted exclusively to writers of hard science fiction novels, which of course is my interest. There is a small fee to join this group. The problem with SFnovelist is that you will read and write far fewer pieces, simply due to the length of the story involved. This is fine if you have honed your craft are looking to move on to the next level, but if you are really looking to build your skills, this may not be the best route to take.

One thing that Online Writing Workshops can offer that most can't is the chance to read critiques done by professional, big-name SF authors such as Kelly Link (who was also a Clarion instructor), although the chance of your piece getting such a critique is pretty low. I can attest that Gotham Writers' Workshop, whose teachers are similar professionals, are also outstanding. There's nothing like getting the personal attention of a pro. It certainly made a big difference in my writing, and I now have a contact in a published author who I think would write me a recommendation (assuming the piece I submitted was any good). That's well worth the $400 cost of admission.

So, which am I going to join? I will probably give Online Writing Workshops and SFNovelist both a try. The total cost will be around $100, but both have trial periods (six months in the case of SFNovelist), so I'll have plenty of time to see if they are what I need at this stage in my career. My real quandry is whether I want to spend time writing short stories for OWW or devote my actual writing time towards the novel. I'm leaning towards the latter, particularly since, as I mentioned above, I think the real learning comes from the critique and not from the writing itself. I can get that by critiquing short stories through OWW and writing only an occasional one for them myself.

I have to say, though, I'm looking forward to getting back into a community of writers again!

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Astronomical Society of the Pacific

I tried to post to this blog this morning, but was apparently down, so I couldn't get in. No worries. I drove to Tucson (about two hours south of Phoenix)* this morning to present a workshop at the national conference of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. This was my first workshop to present since starting Kepler Education. Overall, it went quite well, aside from the fact that ASU's office manager copied my double sided worksheets as single sided, but oh well. Fortunately, I had the master with me, and the participants didn't need those particular sheets for very long, so they just shared the master. The workshop was basically teaching the participants how to design an educational activity that meets national standards. I didn't get into the writing part, since that really can't be taught in two hours! Nevertheless, it was very well received. I may have another speaking engagement lined up as a result, and a dozen or so of the participants made a point to get my business card.

The only real downside was that my former boss was "co-presenting." In reality, she had nothing to do with the original proposal and really knew nothing about what I was going to do (nor, it must be said, does she know anything much about curriculum design, so she can't really be faulted for that). She was definitely not happy with the fact that I was running the show, but there wasn't much she could really contribute to the topic. She was rather rude during the presentation, though. She was sitting up front where everyone could see her, so she made a big show of taking out her laptop to work on something else while I was talking. At one point, she got up in the middle of the talk and left the room (passing right behind me), only to return about five minutes later in the same way. Now, I'm pretty sure I had these teachers so engaged that they really weren't paying attention to her, so I really doubt they noticed. And if they did, I think it was more of a reflection on her than it was on me, so I'm not really upset about it.

The lesson to be learned here, though, is that no matter how hard you try to make your departure from your day job on as good as terms as possible, you're still going to get resentments. She desperately wants me to fail, and while she's not outright sabotaging me (at least, not in front of me), she's certainly not helping matters. Fortunately, I have actually built up far more "street cred" as an education writer than she has, so I don't really need her help. That doesn't mean I want her actively working against me, though. When you finally jump out into a full-time writing career, you're going to get this kind of resistance, and not just from your former employer. I'm blessed by an extremely supportive wife, and I'm really thankful for that. Not everyone is so lucky. You might not be either, but don't let that get in the way of your dream. You only live once, after all!

*As a side note, I had planned to rent a plane and fly to Tucson. I could have made it in half the time and had a much more enjoyable trip. Unfortunately, renting a plane isn't cheap, especially with gas prices the way they are (aviation gas is running about $4.90/gallon). I decided to quit my day job, so for the time being, our household income has been cut in half. We're still doing okay, but some sacrifices have to be made. Flying is the obvious one. I'm bummed about that fact, but writing is (surprisingly, to those that know me) more important to me than flying, so it's a choice I make willingly. Who'd a thunk?

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

An Airborne ARCHER

Last night I was at my Civil Air Patrol squadron meeting and learned about a bit of science fiction that has become reality. We've all seen episodes of Star Trek and other science fiction shows in which a sensor operator runs a scan of a planet's surface and locates a lifeform or an object hidden on the surface. This is actually a very, very difficult task. The competing problems are resolution versus area scanned. If you want to have a high resolution, you generally can't scan from very far away, so you have difficulty covering a large area. The Civil Air Patrol, in conjunction with the Air Force and a number of other agencies, has begun testing a system called ARCHER, Airborne Real-time Cueing Hyperspectral Enhanced Reconnaissance. This is a hyperspectral imaging system that measures the intensities of visible and near infrared light in fifty-two different spectral bands coming from the ground. This spectral signature is compared to a library of spectral data (such as that from humans, vegetation of various types -- including drug plants, aircraft hulls, roads, etc.). The onboard computer analyzes the data and creates a real time multispectral image of the ground, detecting anomalies (such as a downed aircraft) or searching for pre-targeted spectral signatures. In effect, it works exactly like those Star Trek sensors. While CAP doesn't propose to use it for this, the near infrared portion of the spectrum can also be used to measure the mineral composition of rocks on the ground -- we can do a Star Trek plantary geology scan. The whole system is carried aboard a general aviation aircraft only slightly larger than the Cessna 172 I fly.

It's a pretty amazing system, and even more amazing to see a staple of science fiction coming to real life. They are taking applications for 160 training slots for the system, so of course I've applied. As I've mentioned in previous essays, the ability to draw experiences from life is essential to dynamic writing. Where else can I get the feeling of being a sensor operator onboard the Enterprise? I went through the on-line introductory training and took the screening test (which also involved an essay -- being a writer is handy), so we'll see if I manage to snag one of the spots. Given that I have a background in hyperspectral imaging through my work with the Mars program, I think I've got a decent shot. Time will tell...

Monday, September 12, 2005

Now, I like Rabbit...

I went to Borders yesterday to look for a new writing instruction book, but I'm finding that very few books have anything new to offer me that I haven't already read in the books I have. I'm pleased with this. I encountered the same phenomenon when I was teaching myself to program in C++ and in Java. I learned to program in these languages almost entirely from these "how-to" books, but eventually I found that the new how-to books on the subject were basically covering the same material. There was no point in buying another book. Everything else had to come from just working on the projects I had assigned to myself to learn the language.

Learning to write is, I think, much the same way. There is a core set of "instructions" that everyone needs to learn. Things like protagonist vs. antagonist, conflict, dialogue, scene changes, etc. There is also the "business end" of writing that all neophytes need to learn. Things like proper manuscript form, the relationship between editors, agents, and publishers, how to write a query letter, etc. There are also genre-specific things to learn. In the case of science fition, things like world-building, technology design, extrapolating the consequences of an idea, etc. All of this has been covered in the books I have read to date. And if you think about it, it has to be that way. Any book that proposes to teach writing had better start by teaching the basics. There is another level of books for me to explore, but all of those require that I have a finished draft of a novel to work with. My short stories just won't work for that purpose. I've started a novel and am having a lot of fun with it, but it's going to be a while before I've got a first draft ready to apply some of these new ideas to.

In the meantime, I've discovered that I have an attraction to the "inspiration books." Some are about writing and the writing life, but some are just writing techniques and wisdom condensed down to a couple of pages per topic. I'm reminded of a scene in "The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" (can you tell I have a toddler?). Pooh, thwarted in his effort to get honey from the honey bees, goes over to mooch some from Rabbit. As walks over to Rabbit's house, he comments to the viewer, "Now, I like Rabbit because he uses short, easy words like 'How about lunch?' and 'Help yourself, Pooh.'" I guess I, too, have a fondness for "short, easy words," at least in my attraction to the mini-essays inthese little books. I'm currently reading Scott Edelstein's 100 Things Every Writer Needs to Know. Now admittedly, I haven't yet found a lot of new material here, but having things boiled down to one page (or sometimes half-page) statements serves as a great reminder of the things I've read. It might not mean much to me if I hadn't already studied the 100 topics in detail elsewhere. I find, however, that reading the book is relaxing and enjoyable, but more importantly, serves to get me thinking about each concept in the context of my own writing. I'm not reading to learn the concept anymore, I'm reading to apply those concepts. It helps to cement them in my mind. I read somewhere (probably in another one of these inspiration books) that when you learn a new technique, you should practice it faithfully -- and then forget about it completely. It will then be used spontaneously and invisibly in your writing. While I don't think it's quite that simple, I do think taking time to reflect on your writing is critical to gaining control of it. We all know people who can write both really good and really bad pieces. Often they don't know how the good piece was created because they don't have conscious control of their writing. There are two excellent ways to build this control. One is through the kind of reflection I describe here, the other is through regular critiques of someone else's work.

But that's a topic for another day.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Happy Birthday!

Today is my wife's birthday, she says she's turning 29 -- again. :) Unlike most women her (real) age, though, my wife can actually pass for 29. In fact, she can pass for 21 pretty easily. She's the only woman I know who wwalks into a hair salon and says, "I need something that will make me look a little older." In spite of the fact that she's had a baby, she still looks amazing. It actually can be a problem, since she teaches college here. She had her students fill out a questionnaire at the beginning of class. One of the questions was "What would you like to get out this class?" One of her students responded, "A little knowledge, a good grade, and a date."

Sorry, pal, she's spoken for.

Busting all stereotypes, my wife is definitely the handyman around the house. I do the big jobs that require heavy lifting and such, but she's the one who has the interest in all the home improvement projects. She does an outstanding job on them, too. Yesterday she spent all day painting the kids' bathroom -- it looks totally professional. Today she and I will install a new light fixture in there, so if you don't hear from me tomorrow, you'll know I electrocuted myself. :)

Today we'll be going out for birthday ice cream (our tradition is to have ice cream -- milkshakes, in my case --instead of cake for birthdays) and to the Melting Pot with her parents tonight. Fondue may be very '70's, but it's also very, very good! Give it a try sometime.

Happy birthday, baby!

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Kepler Educational Consulting

The biggest news in my life right now is that Kepler Educational Consulting, my new education firm, is officially off the ground. I registered the domain name ( yesterday, finished and uploaded the web site this afternoon, and as of about 5:30 PM today, the email system is also up and running. Much rejoicing! My business card (available from the site as a "virtual business card") is shown above. I've been doing web design for several years now, but I'm exceptionally pleased with how this one turned out. I've got a little bit of fuzziness in the logo that I need to clean up a bit if I can, but I'm thinking that's an artifact of the transparent gif I made in Adobe Illustrator. Even as-is, it doesn't look bad at all. Check out the site, even if you don't have any interest in education!

As a moderately interesting side note, my company was almost named "Exodus Educational Consulting." As long-time readers of this blog know, "The Exodus Project" is the name of the setting for the near-future science fiction stories I've been writing, and also serves as my personal email address. A lot of my professional contacts in the education writing world know my email address, so I was thinking I'd leverage that while simultaneously paying tribute to my story setting. As it turns out, though, "Exodus Education" is a Black Muslim recruiting site. Hmm. That could cause some confusion, now couldn't it? But really, I'm happier with the current name. Kepler, for those who don't know, was the first to formulate the laws of planetary motion, so that meshes very well with the Kepler Education logo (which is taken from the original Exodus Project logo). "Kepler" still evokes the sense of the exploration of the Solar System, better than Exodus Project, in fact. And, to top it all off, the NASA mission to search for planets around other stars has been named the "Kepler Mission," so it's all good. Yesterday I got another invitation to be a guest speaker (another $1000 bucks!), so overall, I'm well and truly pleased at how things are going. I'm excited to have the site (and this part of my career) finally launched!

In totally unrelated news, my daughter wore "big girl panties" for the first time today. She was pretty impressed with herself. This may be more than you really want to know, but you have to keep in mind that I'm a founding member of "Dads Against Diapers" (D.A.D.), so this is a really big deal for me.

After all, it's not just a job, it's a doody.

Friday, September 09, 2005

So I'm a Professional ...

Yesterday was a good day. As planned, I sat down and wrote an article for a gaming magazine that came in at just over 4100 words. Not bad for a single day. I had it written by lunchtime, took a long break for lunch, and then came back and did edits until quitting time. Once I decided it was as good as it could get, I fired it off to the editor (who prefers electronic submission, which is somewhat unusual but darned convenient). If he buys the piece -- and I honestly think he will, but we'll see -- it will net me between $100 and $125, depending on how the edits for publication go. Not bad for a day's work. I read the magazine regularly, so I know the kinds of pieces they buy. This is definitely subject matter that will interest them, and a search of their archives didn't turn up any similar pieces, so I think I've got a good shot with it.

The article is non-fiction, of course. While I did crank most of those four thousand words in one day, the hard part, the time-consuming part, about writing non-fiction is the research that goes before the actual writing. I had already finished all the research for this article before I started writing yesterday, so don't be too impressed (but you can be a little impressed :) ). I have a good dozen articles in the same starting state as this one, so I can put together a solid six months or so of articles. I'm not naive enough to believe that the editor will buy one of my articles for every issue (but hey, you never know!), so this will probably last me a lot more than six months. That's good because it gives me more time to work on other markets.

So, according to my definitions based on Heinlein's rules of writing (see more on that in the earlier entry), I'm now a professional freelance writer. It remains to be seen if, according to the other definitions, I'm a successful professional freelance writer. The magazine's writers' guidelines say that they usually have a two to three week turn-around, so hopefully I'll know fairly soon. In the meantime, I'll keep cranking out the articles.

Oh, by the way, in non-writing news, I just got another offer to do a speaking engagement in Virginia (that's the second one this semester), so the educational consulting business seems to be doing well also. They're going to pay my travel and speaker fee (so I guess I need to decide what that will be) -- I can't complain!

Thursday, September 08, 2005


I spent most of yesterday gathering some of the research articles I'll need to begin answering the questions for my Ph.D. comprehensive exam. The exam consists of four questions (topics, really), and I basically have to write a five-page paper on each. I'll have to do an oral defense of each question once I'm finished. I have about a month to get everything done. Once I pass this hurdle, I need to (re)write and defend my thesis proposal and I'll finally be admitted to candidacy.

I was able to do a lot of the research on-line, thanks to the advent of full-text electronic versions of the main educational journals, but I had planned to drive down to ASU to hit the library for the rest of the articles I need today. Last night, my wife pointed out that our son has a half-day at school today and she would need me to pick him up. Enter the rapturous beauty of freelancing. "No problem," says I. "I'll write the magazine article I was planning on doing Thursdayand just go down to ASU on Friday." The flexibility to re-arrange your schedule at a moment's notice has to be one of the greatest benefits of being a freelance writer.

I'm writing an article for a gaming magazine that was once in print, but for the past two or three years has gone to exclusively on-line format. They pay 3 cents/word for up to 5000 words, which isn't terrible. I can do my own graphics and artwork (Adobe Illustrator is your friend), so I actually can get paid extra for that. The magazine comes out every two weeks, so I plan on submitting an article every two weeks. If they reject one article, I'm going to have a second article available for review the following week. My long-term plan is to become such a regular contributor that I get offered my own column, but that's just a hope at this point. I'm going to be writing articles for other magazines, too, in addition to working on fiction, of course, but I'm going to use this magazine as my experiment in regular submission. We'll see how it turns out. The magazine's writer guidelines says they don't have a very large slushpile, so this may be a good way to get some writing credits ("clips," they're called).

Have I mentioned lately that I love my job?

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Energy Density

As anyone who has stepped out of the house in the past few days knows, gas prices have jumped to unheard of levels. I distinctly remember paying 75 cents a gallon when I was in high school and just starting to pay for gas myself. I remember how everyone started getting excited (and outraged) as gas prices started creeping towards a dollar a gallon. A lot of gas pumps in rural Tennessee, where I grew up, were still the old analog kind (with numbers on rotors instead of digital displays). These older pumps literally couldn't charge a dollar a gallon -- there was no way to represent the price on the pump. A lot of gas stations had to delay going above a dollar while they upgraded their pumps. All this was during the worst of the energy crisis, when people in California were only being allowed to buy gas on alternate days. Prices were high, but energy was scarce -- supply and demand.

Gas prices are more than three times that "shocking" level now.

Yes, we lost some refineries. Yes, our supply lines have been reduced. But last year in Phoenix the main gas line broke completely -- there was almost no gas coming into the Valley at all -- and gas prices still barely reached $2/gallon. Here's the kicker, though: once the pipeline was fixed, gas prices didn't come down. Gas station owners realized that people will pay that much for gas, so why should they charge less? Yes, the price of oil has gone up, but it hadn't at that point in time. The thing that really annoys me about the current situation is that the gas we are paying $3.50/gallon for now is the exact gas we were paying $2/gallon for two weeks ago. The cost to the gas station owners is going to go up, true. But it hasn't yet. A significant portion of the increase is just due to panic (and profiteering).

And yet, I have a friend who hopes that gas prices continue to rise, perhaps doubling or tripling again. Say what? Here's his reasoning: the only way Americans are ever going to seriously commit to developing alternative fuel sources is if it is cheaper than our existing sources. Right now, alternative fuels are expensive, so his answer is to raise gas prices to where they are even more expensive. Once we have the infrastructure for these alternative fuel systems in place, the cost will come back down -- but we will no longer be dependent on foreign oil. Let's face facts: We did not invade Iraq to get control of their oil supply, in spite of what you may have heard. But one of the considerations prior to the invasion was that having a "friendly" Middle Eastern country with a huge supply of oil that also owed us a huge favor would be a major strategic gain. We wouldn't control the oil, but we would have a friend that we could be sure wouldn't deny it to us. When the president said he was protecting our interests, he wasn't just talking about terrorism (even if I disagree that Iraqi oil is in our best interest).

The question becomes, what kind of alternative fuel? It all comes down to energy density. Energy density is the amount of energy contained in a substance per unit volume. The highest possible energy density is antimatter, which releases energy when it is annihilated by normal matter. The amount of energy released is huge, as Einstein's E=mc^2 will show you. There's a reason science fiction authors like antimatter for fuel! Unfortunately, antimatter is not likely to ever be used for vehicles -- even if we could safely store it, the tiniest accident could wipe out an entire city. The risk factor is just too high. The next highest energy density comes from nuclear power. Now, in spite of what many people think, we don't use the energy released in nuclear fission directly. We use the the energy to heat water which then drives steam turbines to produce electricity, just like coal-burning plants. Unfortunately, fission reactors are a bit too bulky and complicated to try to put in the hands of your average 16 year old, so that's not likely to happen. We could use nuclear power to charge batteries for use in electric cars, however. Unfortunately, the energy density in batteries is pretty low, too. You can't drive very far or very fast on a battery. That's why electric cars have never really caught on.

The next highest energy density is probably hydrogen fuel. Here again, hydrogen is a bit too unstable to burn directly to produce power (remember the Hindenberg?). Hydrogen fuels cells are another matter entirely. A fuel cell combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity. So hydrogen fuel cell cars are still electric cars, with all the benefits that go with them (quiet, pollution-free, etc.). The only waste product from a fuel cell is water. In fact, that water can be purified for drinking, used to cool the engine, recycled to be separated back into hydrogen and oxygen, or simply dumped out the back as steam. We just said that electric cars never caught on, though, right? Why are fuel cell cars any better? It all comes back to energy density. A battery doesn't have a very high energy density, but the fuel cell doesn't need a battery -- it stores its energy in the hydrogen itself, which has a very high energy density indeed. The oxygen needed for the reaction is free -- just pull it from the air.

Just how high is the energy density of a hydrogen fuel cell? The scheme I've seen most used would dissolve the hydrogen into small "chips" a little larger than a couple of dominos. That chip would be the equivalent of a full tank of gas. In fact, you could safely carry a couple of extra chips in your jacket pocket as backup. The fuel cell would cause the hydrogen to slowly bubble out of the chip, be combined with the oxygen in the air, and release electricity on a more or less continuous basis. "Gas stations" would become places to buy more chips.

We can do this now, although we still have some efficiency issues to work out. The biggest problem is that we have no distribution or production network for the hydrogen chips. The raw material is easy to find -- we just need water. We don't have to worry about running out of water because the waste product of the fuel cell is -- water! It's really an elegant solution, the problems with it are cultural, logistical, political (oil companies have a lot of power in Washington), and economic (it's still more expensive to make the chips than to buy gas, because they are currently non-mass-produced items). Personally, I think the way around all of this is devise a home version of the hydrogen production machine. Fill it with distilled water, plug in the machine, and make your chips at home. The chips themselves can be reused. The only distribution network you need is for the distilled water.

What I've been doing here is taking a near-future technology and project its consequences on society. This is the basis of most good science fiction. Now that we know how a "hydrogen economy" would work, we can use this in our stories. For the characters in our stories, hydrogen fuel cells would be nothing special. But when we need to describe how they refuel or how long they can go without refueling, we as writers need to understand how the technology works in order to see the impact on our characters' lives.

Now if we could just these prototype hydrogen cars advanced to the next stage so we can live a bit of science fiction int he real world!

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Do you have to be a scientist?

Do you have to be a scientist to write science fiction?

No, not really, but do you need more than a passing familiarity with science. As we have discussed in previous columns, one to the major types of science fiction story (and the kind that Analog editor Stanley Schmidt says he is most likely to buy) is the idea story. An idea story explores the consequences of the classic "what if" supposition. What if, for example, the Neanderthals had become the dominant species on Earth instead of Homo sapiens? What if a girl snuck on board a spaceship that had a limited amount of fuel? In order to write either of these stories, by definition, you need to know enough science to be able to actually follow those ideas to their conclusions.

"But I'm not interested in writing idea stories," you might reply. "I want to write good ol' fashioned space opera, like Star Wars or Star Trek!" The fact is, you still need to know science, although for a different reason. Even if you are writing stories that are not realistic, hard SF stories, you still have to avoid making a "howler." A howler is a writing mistake that blatently shows you don't have any understanding of science at all. The original Star Wars movie (my favorite movie of all time, by the way) has a classic one. Han Solo, boasting of the speed of the Millenium Falcon says, "You've never heard of the Falcon? It's the ship that made the Kessel Run in under three parsecs. She's fast enough for you, old man." Um, Han old buddy, a parsec is a measure of distance, not speed. Later Star Wars authors tried (not very successfully) to come up with a way for Han's boast to make sense (for the curious, the explanation was that a faster ship could take a shorter path through the black hole-infested Kessel system), but if Lucas had taken the time to learn the meaning of the jargon he was using, he could have avoided this howler altogether. Star Trek, particularly Star Trek: Voyager was the absolute worst offender. In one episode, Voyager is trapped inside a black hole, so they use their phasers to cut their way through the event horizon.

Say what?

The event horizon of a black hole isn't anything physical, it's just the point at which the escape velocity of the hole exceeds the speed of light. Trying to cut through this is like trying to cut through the Maricopa County line. The boundary is there, but we'd laugh at anyone who tried to actually cut through it.

Readers (and viewers) of science fiction are willing to accept the impossible, especially for things like faster-than-light travel. So long as you follow your own internal set of rules for your technology, they'll happily go along with you. But the first time you make a mistake that shows you don't understand science in the Real World (tm), you will lose them completely (and, on a more pragmatic level, the editor will stop reading). The only way to ensure you won't make this kind of mistake is to understand science, at least at the novice level. Taking a community college course in astronomy (yes, I teach a community college course in astronomy) is one of the best ways. Unlike physics classes, astronomy courses are generally survey courses, covering a broad range of topics over the course of one or usually two semesters. You'll get the terminology and the basic physics you need to avoid most mistakes. You might just find out it's a pretty cool class, too!

Monday, September 05, 2005

The Gamers

We watched a hysterical movie last night called The Gamers. It was a 45-minute more-or-less amateur film produced by a bunch of college role-players. My wife and I, who are both gamers, were howling through the whole film (up until the ending, which was … odd). My in-laws were just scratching their heads wondering what was so funny. The entire movie was, I suppose, “in-jokes” writ large, but because we are such avid gamers, it really didn’t seem that way. The situations are ones we have seen over and over. In fact, we were able to assign each of the characters in the movie to people in our actual gaming group! They nailed it pretty well.

But this goes to show, I think, that humor is not universal. My in-laws, who have never even seen a role-playing game, much played one, couldn’t figure out why it was funny, nor could we really explain it to them. Here’s an actual example: “Look! Mark the Red is just standing there!” (Wife and I roll on floor with tears in ours eyes.)

It was hysterical. Really.

Okay, so you need a little background. There was a huge “epic fantasy battle” going on. All the characters were fighting for their lives. But one of the players hadn’t shown up for this gaming session. So, while the player wasn’t there, his character was, but couldn’t take part in the action, as there was no one there to control him. The bad guys would run up to Mark the Red (his character) snarling, stand there confused and waving their hands in front of his eyes, then shrug and move on to fight someone else. What’s so funny is that all of us who are gamers have had to deal with the problem of not having the entire group present for every session. Having it dramatized what that problem actually looks like in the “game world” was just too funny. Again, if you don’t have the background of being a long-time gamer, even my explanation won’t make sense.

Apparently, conventional wisdom says that if you analyze humor it ceases to be funny. Ridiculous. There’s no better way to learn to write humor than to analyze something you find funny in order to figure out why you think it’s funny. In the case of Mark the Red, it was a very visual joke, as were a lot of the jokes in the film. If these things were decribed verbally, they wouldn’t have been as funny. We have to keep in mind, though, that what some people will find funny, others won’t. A classic example is the “ultimate dirty joke,” The Aristocrats. Lots of famous comedians have taken a turn at it, at one time or another. For those who haven’t heard of it, the gist is that there is a family who tries to convince a talent agent to take on their act. The agent says, “No, I don’t do family acts, they’re too cute.” They convince the agent to watch them perform once. The comedian then ad-libs the most disgusting series of events he can possibly think of, as rapidly as possible. (Incest, murder, and other taboos are common. Actually, they’re mandatory…) At the end, the family says, “Ta da!” The agent, somewhat at a loss for words say, “Ummm, wow, that’s quite an act. What do you call it?” The family responds, “The Aristocrats!”


I’ve never thought this was funny, but lots and lots of people do. Practically every comedian since vaudeville has tried his hand at it. Even the South Park characters give it a shot. I dunno. The Stephanie Plum books my wife is reading are another example. She laughs so hard she shakes the bed at night – she’s actually woken me up. But when she reads the passage that was so funny, I often don’t get it. I’ve heard other people talk about how funny the books are – but in thinking about it, all of them have been women. Still, I think you may just need more of the context than I've been getting from the few paragraphs she's read to me.

So in addition to the classic humor elements of timing, punchline, visual, etc., there also has to be a shared cultural background. Humor is a uniquely cultural experience. In fact, humor is usually so specific that it appeals to a specific sub-culture (such as gamers, in the case of this movie). Good comedians know that they have to choose their jokes so that the humorous elements are shared by as large an audience as possible. He knows he won’t be able to hit everyone’s funny bone, so part of the art of humor is to decide how broad an audience to appeal to without making the joke watered down and weak.

I’ll leave you with a joke:

Three construction workers were sitting on a steel beam eating their lunch high above New York City. The first, an Italian, opens his lunch box and moans, “Spaghetti again! Mama mia! I’ve had spaghetti every day for thirty years! I can’t take it any more!” He stands up and makes a swan dive off the girder. Splat!

Somewhat in shock, the next man, a Mexican, opens his lunch and cries, “Ai yi yi! Tacos again! I can’t take it any more!” He, too, dives off the beam and smacks the pavement below.

The third guy, a blonde, opens his lunch and says, “A baloney sandwich again! I can’t take it any more!” He assumes the classic cannonball position and jumps off the beam to his death.

At the funeral, the wives of the three men are in tears. The Italian’s wife says, “If only I’d known he hated spaghetti so much, I wouldn’t have fixed it for him every day!”

“I know, I know,” the Mexican’s wife says. “If only I’d known, I’d have never made him tacos every day!”

The two women looked over at the blonde’s wife.

“Don’t look at me,” she said. “He makes his own lunch.”

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Mountain Breezes

We are up at the cabin my wife's parents own in Payson, AZ. A lot of people are surprised that about half of the state of Arizona is rugged mountain country. The low country (such as in Phoenix, where I live) is all desert, but the high country is lush and green. It's actually a bit chilly here to me, though probably someone from the northeast wouldn't find it so!

This is a pleasant place to write. There are a couple of rocking chairs out on the front porch that that overlook the woods across the road. I've got a pen and the bound notebook I'm using to write this novel, and that's really all I need. The computer, in this setting, would just get in the way. I do find that I have to consciously relax my grip when writing longhand -- I don't know where I learned to clutch a pen like it was going to flip out of my hand at any moment. Because we are up here isolated from most of my daily life, it's an easy place to be creative. I need a place that is "visually quiet" in order to work. It's not the noise, it's the movement that distracts (and to a certain extent stresses) me. For example, the library at ASU is auditorially very quiet, but the constant movement makes it seem noisy to me. The hazards of deafness, I guess, since finding a visually quiet space is much harder than finding an auditorially quiet place. I can't block the "noise" with headphones and music the way most people can -- and closing my eyes certainly isn't going to let me get much work done!

But this place is nice. I don't think I'd want to move up here because I do need to interact with people and the real world to keep my writing from becoming stale. But if I ever get to a point where I'm on deadline and have a book to finish, this might just be a good place to escape to!

I should note that this "cabin" is pretty much just a house that happens to be in the woods. They've got television, electricity (of course), a DVD player, several rooms, and a full kitchen. My in-laws' idea of "roughing it" means no cable TV. :) When I was younger my friends and I used to hike through the Smokey Mountains in East Tennessee. We usually brought a tent, but that was about the extent of our luxuries. In that case, though, the point of the trip was to hike, not to camp. The fact that we slept on the trail was simply a means to allow us to hike longer. I certainly don't resent the modern conveniences in this cabin!

I thnk the issue of finding a "creative space" is an important one, and one I haven't completely solved at home. I really do prefer the editing capabilities of my computer, but it so restricts where I can write. I have considered getting a digital voice recorder and trying to get the speech recognition working on my computer, but that's not really how I write. I need to see the words on the page. I need to see the interplay of white space and print. I don't really know why, but I do know that is a big part of how I craft my stories. I use the white space to convey meaning just as much as I use the print itself. I wonder if this is true of other writers? Perhaps at some point I'll join a writers' group just to be able to chat about topics like this!

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Like Father, Like Son?

My son, now 16, has always hated having two scientists for parents. When he was in fifth grade, his science teacher assigned a worksheet from a major educational publishing company (I won't say which one) that said, in part, "There is no gravity in outer space." Poppycock. There bloody well better be gravity in outer space, or the planets are going to careening off into the interstellar void. At the orbit of the space shuttle (200 km or so), gravity is something like 92% of what it is on the surface of the Earth. Even NASA screws it up by referring to freefall (the proper term) as "microgravity"*. My wife and I wrote a three-page letter to his teacher explaining exactly why astronauts appear to float (anyone wants the full explanation for this, let me know) and why there is in fact gravity in space. My son dutifully carried the letter to school and apologetically gave it to his teacher. His teachers quickly came to dread seeing an envelope in my son's hand...

As you might expect, with two scientist-parents, my son soon declared he was in no shape or form going to enter any science or science-related fields. He said he didn't know what he wanted to do with his life; all he knew for sure was that he was not going to follow in our footsteps. And really, that's not that uncommon a response. My dad is an engineer, and while it's true that I went to college and became an engineer as well, that was only because the Navy required me to major in a technical field. When I was in high school I wanted to be a music major until I decided that I also wanted to eat. Most kids, though, really have no desire to follow their parents' careers -- they want a life and identity of their own. I understand that and I don't have a problem with that.

Recently, however, my son has declared that he wants to be a professional writer. Now, he knows that I am a writer, but because most of my writing was about science and education, he's never really seen me as the kind of writer he envisions himself being. Last year he took a creative writing class at school and discovered that he absolutely loves it. And here's the kicker: The kid is good. Yes, he still has a long way to go to master the craft of writing: grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc. But even at this early age, he's got a voice. A darn good voice. The craft can be taught. But you're either born with the art or you develop through long years of trial and error. My son, it seems, was born with it.

I'm proud of my boy. Any parent is proud of their kid, but this kind of pride would be there even if he wasn't my son -- and the fact that he is my son makes it even better. What I find endlessly fascinating, though, is that he and I have both basically turned away from a science career to pursue ... the same career. In a sense we're following in each others' footsteps, rebelling in the same direction. His tastes in fiction (reading and writing) are very different from mine -- he tends towards the "modern fantasy" genre, whereas I tend towards hard science fiction -- but the craft is the same for all of us. It's almost as if we both walked into the same Masonic lodge and were surprised to find the other as an initiate. It's a neat feeling. He's got a long way to go, sure, but I think he's got the raw talent. It will be fun to watch it bloom...

*And they get smug when they correct people for using the term "weightless." Hypocrites.