Monday, October 31, 2005

Ph.D. Thesis

I had to drive down to Tempe to meet with the chair of my Ph.D. thesis committee to talk about my comprehensive exam paper and my thesis topic. Both of these steps have to be completed by the end of the semester (in about six weeks) in order for me to be admitted to candidacy next spring. I had been having a pretty rough day, but the meeting really picked me up. I had given the committee chair a few extra hard copies of my comp exam paper (it's about 25 pages). he asked if he could keep it so that he could show it to his other students, saying, "THIS is how you should be writing your comps!" I needed that! Being a writer really helps, even in writing academic papers, since I long ago learned to write clearly and persuasively. I still have to defend the paper orally, but he seemed to think that after the work I'd done on the paper itself that would just be a formality. Much rejoicing!

The other news is that we successfully narrowed down my original thesis topic to something is a bit more manageable -- and interesting, from my perspective. The question is this: Can visual memory span be improved by teaching students how to recognize and extract (disembed) the fine geological details from a picture of a landscape? Basically, we're asking whether we can improve the cognitive abilities of science students by explicitly working to improve their ability to use visual classification. We have a battery of tests to measure their visual and spatial skills and their visual memory span. After they have been practicing with the geology content, we'll see if they can use their new knowledge to actually improve their visual memory spans. This is akin to the way Sherlock Holmes could solve crimes by pulling the important details out of a crime scene and remember them later. We'd like to teach this skill to real people. It should be fun!

Sunday, October 30, 2005


I read an interesting article the other day on synesthesia, the melding of the senses so that the person affected perceives smells, sounds, touch, and/or taste as colors. Others see letters and numbers as having a specific color. One of the people with this condition described chocolate as purple and made her breath smell dark blue. Interestingly, she also reports confusion as "orange." If people with synesthesia can perceive emotions as colors, does this give us a clue as to how colors affect emotions?

This could be a major breakthrough for writers. If you want to describe a character in, for example, a state of confusion, would the scene seem more vivid and real if you colored many of her surroundings orange? Is this another Universal Channel that we writers can use to tap directly into the human psyche? The possiblities are endless -- and endlessly fascinating. Aside from the potential real-world application for writers, I can see the germs of several science fiction stories here. This is one reason why science fiction authors need to be reading the science news websites -- you never know when you'll turn up a gem like this!

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Look At Me!

I spent most of today at the Civil Air Patrol's Unit Commander Course, learning the things I'll need to know if I ever become a squadron commander (which won't happen in the near future, but will probably happen eventually). It's been pretty interesting so far, though I think tomorrow will be even moreso. It's especially been interesting putting faces to all the names of the Wing brass, so that's kind of cool.

As soon as I got home, we took my daughter to her pre-school for their "Trunk or Treat" party. This consisted of parents and teachers with (literally) trunkfuls of candy and all the cute preschoolers going from car to car saying "Trick or Treat!" My daughter was dressed in a full-body fuzzy Care Bear costume -- too cute for words! She was going up to strangers saying, "Look at me! I a Care Bear! I a purple Care Bear! I soft!" She's such a hoot! There's not a shy bone in this child's body (I wonder where she get's that from? :) ).

I sometimes wonder if writers aren't the utlimate exhibitionists. My daughter isn't afraid of anything or anybody and definitely speaks her mind. I know a lot of writers are social introverts (at least, that's the Dickensonian stereotype -- Lord knows I'm an extrovert and half). But in what other profession do you literally bare your soul and hope people will pay money to read about it? And then we do it again. And again. Even actors on stage don't have to be that extroverted -- they're playing a role, after all, it's not really them. Writers, on the other hand, have to put all of their emotion into their work. I'm not sure you'd be any more exposed if you suddenly got the urge to run naked outside (oh, wait, I think I've done that...).

Is every writer secretly saying, "Look at me!"?

Friday, October 28, 2005


Today I decided to finally take advantage of the freedom inherent in freelance writing and went out of the house to work. I grabbed my AlphaSmart, a print out of the novel that I've written so far, and my background notes on the current setting and headed to Barnes and Noble*. I picked up a cup of hot chocolate at the cafe and made myself comfortable in the large reading area. It was great! I got a huge amount of writing done, and it was great to have a change of scenery. I was able to work right up until I needed to leave to pick up my son at school -- no shut down time on the AlphaSmart, just flip the switch and turn it off.

The bad news is that when I got home, the AlphaSmart once again refused to talk to our PCs. I haven't totally given up, but I may end up having to retype everything from the AlphaSmart's tiny little screen. I hope not, but that's what it's looking like. My wife and I are taking a swing dance class on Friday evenings, so afterwards she and I talked about the situation with the AlphaSmart. I am hugely productive with this thing, but I need to be able to reliably retrieve my work. So, my wife and my two kids are going to get me an early Christmas present: a brand new AlphaSmart Neo! I'm totally psyched. Not only does this do everything my AlphaSmart Pro will do, it's got a larger screen, much more memory, USB connection (!), spell check and word count, etc. It runs Palm OS, and while it doens't have a graphics-capable screen (which is fine) I can write little text-based applets for it if I so desire. I doubt I will, simply because one of the main attractions is the focus on writing without distractions. Still, it's nice to have the capability. I'll post a full report when it arrives, probably around the middle of next week.

Here's to the writing life!

*I personally think Borders is a better bookstore, but Barnes and Noble has a better area to sit in.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Third Article Submitted

I finally figured out the appropriate blood sacrifices to make to convince the AlphaSmart to send my text file to my wife's PC (still no luck getting it to talk to my laptop, but at this point I'll take what I can get). I uploaded the article I wrote yesterday to the PC and spent most of today editing it and getting it ready to submit. The final article came in at just under 5,000 words, which is the limit for this particular magazine. It's a good article and works well as a follow on to the one they already bought. It also bridges well to the third and final article I'm planning to write on the subject, although I'm being careful to make sure that each article will stand on its own. The problem I foresee with this one is that it is not as close to the "usual" articles this magazine prints as are the first two I submitted. If they are interested in the topic, I think they'll buy it, but I'm not as confident as I was about the first two. Still, I figured it was a risk worth taking, and I know of a couple of other markets that I'm pretty sure would buy it if this one turns it down. It's a worthwhile experiment.

That was the "up" part of today. The down side of today was that as I was getting this article ready to submit, I realized that I didn't include my Social Security number and U.S. Mail address on the second article I submitted. While they have that info from the article I submitted before (the one they bought), they are pretty clear in the writers' guidelines that they need that info for each submission. Stupid, stupid thing to do. I thought I had included it at the end of the article, but apparently not, according to the backup copy I keep of all my submissions. Grrr. So, they are perfectly justified in rejecting it out of hand without even reading it -- which is too bad, since it's a really good article. I think I can resubmit it in this case, but I'll have to think about the ethics of that. The moral of the story is don't get in a hurry. I have a checklist for submissions to most of the markets I send things to, so I've now created one for this market as well. A professional doesn't take short cuts. I know that, and I'm kicking myself for violating that rule. Ah well, we don't learn from successes, only from mistakes, right?

Right. Just keep saying that. :)

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

A Productive Day

The article that JTAS bought was the first in what could easily become a series of articles. I didn't want to write any more in the series until I was sure they were interested in the first one. Since they bought it, they're obviously interested, so I sat down today with my AlphaSmart and cranked out the next article on the topic. The first draft came in at just under 6,000 words, so I'll need to cut that down in the edit phase tomorrow, as the magazine has a limit of 5,000 words. It shouldn't be a problem, as I already think I see where I can trim it fairly easily. Still, 6,000 words in a single day is pretty darn good.

I'm developing a love-hate relationship with my AlphaSmart. I love writing on it. It is the single most perfect writing tool ever developed, as far as I'm concerned. It exactly matches my writing style and habits, and obviously I'm quite productive when I'm using it. I thought I had worked out a somewhat clunky, but effective, way of getting the text from the AlphaSmart to the PC, but now, mysteriously, that technique has also stopped working (this is the second technique that I got to work just one time). I'm at a loss as to how to get the text out into Word where I can edit it. I guess I'm going to end up retyping the whole article from the AlphaSmart screen (along with another 2,000 words of the novel, as well). I'm not very happy about that, but I suppose it's no different from having written the article in my notebook in longhand to begin with. I'm very seriously considering getting an AlphaSmart Neo as an early Christmas present. Have to discuss that one with the wife and see what she thinks, since it would be a gift from her. :)

All in all, though, an extremely productive day.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

So Now I'm a Successful Professional Writer!

Big news!

The first article I wrote for the Journal of the Traveller's Aid Society, Steve Jackson Games' official magazine for the Traveller role-playing game, was bought and appeared in the issue that came out today! Woo-hoo! That's a quick $150 bucks for an article that was actually a lot of fun to write. I've got another article in to them already, and will have a third by the end of the week, and I think there's a very good chance they'll buy these as well. The reason I feel so confident is that I've been reading this magazine for a long time, so I know the kinds of things they publish -- there's no substitute for market research. If you want to sell an article, give them a new article that is in the exact same style as the ones they typically publish. While that applies to fiction as well as non-fiction (and being a gaming article, there's a little of both in this one), I think it's especially important in non-fiction articles.

A few months ago, I wrote an essay about Heinlein's definitions of a professional and a successful professional writer. Briefly, that went like this:
  • In order to call yourself a writer, you must write, and you must finish what you start.
  • In order to call yourself a professional writer, you must put it on the market.
  • In order to call yourself a successful professional writer, you must keep it on the market until it is sold.
So, given that, I'm now a successful professional freelance writer. :) Oh, I've been getting paid to write for years now, in truth. But I was working full-time and getting paid a salary, not getting paid for each piece. Being a freelancer is much more challenging, since each piece has to compete on its own. There can't be any "this one was okay, but not the best thing I've ever written." If it's not the best thing you've ever written, it won't sell -- and you won't get paid. $150 for an article is not something you could live on, but it's nothing to sneeze at, either. 3 cents/word is a professional-level rate, so that definitely counts for something. I'm pretty psyched!

Doin' the happy dance...

Monday, October 24, 2005

Diagramming Sentences

This month's issue of Writer's Digest has an article on diagramming sentences. Now, I realize that almost everyone hated doing this in school -- at least, I know essentially every one of my friends complained loudly and at great length about it. It does take some measure of time to diagram a complicated sentence, I will admit. But I have a confession to make:

I always loved it.

Now, this was long before I decided to be a writer, and I don't think the fact that I actually like diagramming sentences had anything to do with my career choices. But there is something almost magical about how a hideously complicated sentences can be presented in an orderly, precise form. Oh, sure, there are practical advantages. For example, knowing where to place commas is easy if you know what phrases are of what type. Diagramming the sentence forces you to determine this. If you have diagrammed the sentence, you have a deep understanding of the structure of that sentence, of how it does it's job. This Writer's Digest article even pointed out how the resulting diagram can reveal strong and weak points in your prose, something I've never really considered, but after reading this article I can certainly see how it would work that way.

In the end, though, diagramming every sentence in your story is impractical and not really worth the effort. For me, diagramming gives the same satisfaction as solving a good crossword puzzle. There's a magic in seeing everything fit together. The fact that it also gives me greater insight into the tools of language -- and unarguably necessary thing for a writer -- is just a bonus!

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Breaking In

Today our church held their annual "Fall Festival" (I wonder if they are aware of the pagan associations with that? Probably not...), so we kept the baby up past her naptime in order to go participate in the fun and games. It was a good time, overall. Music was provided by a pair of sisters from the church who are trying to break into the music business as singer/songwriters. They're actually quite good, but even so, the odds of their making it are very, very small. They had made a CD with some of their songs and were selling it at the festival (with part of the proceeds going back to the church). Self-promoting is not only a good idea for budding musicians, it's also one of the only ways that you'll ever get noticed by the big shots who run the record labels.

I was struck by how alike and yet unlike ths is to writing. Like music, it's a very competitve business and the odds of really making it big, aren't very good. Self-promotion -- CD's for them, readings and book signings for us -- is essential to both of us, since that's the only way to get that crucial word-of-mouth advertising. But that's about where the similarity ends. You see, the big difference between the music and publishing industries is that the publishing industry is actively looking for good, new writers. Not so with the music industry. You could be quite good and still not manage a yawn from the record producers. That's a huge distinction. That openness in publishing means that we've got a chance to make it, if only we perfect our craft. It's all in our court. In music ... well, in music you've got to count on hard work and talent, but also luck and getting noticed by the right people. Your chances of breaking out are just not that good.

I've got a lot of respect for these girls, and I wish them the best of luck. But I don't envy them the road they are going to have to travel. Even though we complain about it sometimes, it really makes me appreciate the path we as writers have to trod.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Co-opting History

I took my family to the library to look for some books for my daughter (she's very into the Berenstein Bears right now). They went to look for books, while I sat down with my AlphaSmart to do some writing. I got quite a bit done, although the scene I wrote is pretty weak, I think. Still, re-writing is easy; getting that first draft done is the hard part, so I'm not terribly worried about it.

While we were there, I poked around in the history section. I'm a big medieval history buff; I even took a couple of medieval studies courses in college twenty years ago (which is a big thing, considering I was an engineer and had exactly three electives my whole college career). One of the things I've always been interested in was the "The Order of Poor-Fellow Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon," better known as the Knights Templar. As likely most everyone knows, Dan Brown wrote a fun fiction book called The DaVinci Code that features the Knights Templar fairly prominently. I've read the book, and it's really quite a good story. What annoys me is this: Any time I go to do research on the historical Knights Templar, everyone assumes I'm interested in finding the Holy Grail, or the family of Jesus, or some other such nonsense. The Knights Templar had nothing to do with any of that. Nor are they in any way related to the Knights Templar branch of Freemasonry. They were, however, an extrememly fascinating organization that was very important in shaping the medieval world. They really don't need the trappings of a few authors' fantasies to be interesting, and while I certainly don't fault Brown and his ilk for giving this interesting group of knights an expanded role in their fantasies, it does make things a little more difficult for people interested in researching the historical Knights Templar. It's reached the point where I'm embarassed to let people see me with reference works on the subject, because they automatically assume I believe the mumbo-jumbo in DaVinci Code. It's fiction, folks! Really, really good fiction -- I enjoyed it a great deal. But I wish it'd hadn't been quite so convincing to so many people.

Which brings up an interesting moral and philosophical question: To what extent are fiction authors obligated to maintain the historical accuracy of their subjects? Are they obligated to maintain any accuracy at all? I don't have an easy answer to that. In theory, fiction can do whatever the heck it wants -- it's fiction, after all. On the other hand, Jacques de Molay was a real person. He's dead, so he's not likely to sue for slander. What is a little worrisome is that the general public seems to be a bit ... gullible, for want of a better word. They seem to forget that convincing fiction is still fiction. Are we contributing to gullibility of American population? I'd like to think not, and yet, here am I feeling embarrased about a perfectly legitimate realm of research, one I've been pursuing for two decades now. That's not a feeling I'm terribly happy about.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Return of the Uggghh

Well, it looks like I've contracted round two of this flu we've had going around. My wife got it, a bit different from what we had before, then gave it to me. As a result, I've been flat on my back all day today, mostly sound asleep the whole time. It's a real shame, I had a lot I wanted to do today. Oh well!

I've never really understood what makes us get sick. Oh, I know about the body's immune response and all that, but mechanically and physically, what makes us sick? What makes us ache like we do? What makes your temperature go up when you have a fever? For a lot of medicine, we know that "if you do this, this will happen," and that forms the basis of a good deal of our understanding. But why does it happen that way? I think we're still a long way from understanding how the body works from a mechanical standpoint. It seems to me that so much of medicine is descriptive. That's probably why there's so much to be memorized in medical school (lists of symptoms, etc.)

If, at some point in the future, we really understood how the body works, would we then be able to do anything we want with it?

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Mugging the Muse

Some of you may have noticed that my posts have been coming later in the evening than before. When I was working at NASA, I found that getting in early and posting to the blog was a good way to get my brain working and get me ready to start the day. Since I've started writing full-time, I've found that I'm ready to get busy writing the minute my butt hits the chair (or couch or whatever) -- I don't feel the need for a lot of preparatory work. As we all know, you must never, never thwart the muse, so I've just jumped in and started working on whatever project is up for the day, putting off the blog post until later. I've not even been taking much in the way of lunch breaks, maybe 15 minutes or so. Not intentionally, mind you, it's just sort of worked out that way. At some point, I'm sure my work habits will flux again and all this will change, but right now I'm pretty happy with the groove I'm in.

The title of this post is blatantly stolen from Holly Lisle's wonderful collection of essays on the writing life. If you haven't read them, get over to Holly's site right now and do so. Really. Right now. Don't worry, she's got a link to get you back here.


Writers have kind of a mysterious relationship with our creativity. We personify it with names like "silent partner" or "muse," but really, it's just us. If we could figure out how to control our creativity, life would be much, much easier on all of us, wouldn't it? Instead, we fall back on pre-scientific techniques such as making gods out things we don't understand. You can't blame us for it -- we have to do something! I think, though, that the science does exist somewhere, we just haven't found it yet. Maybe that's why psychology fascinates me so much. There is a lot about the human mind that we simply have no freaking clue about. It's the last realm of black magic, really. Yet, if we could only pierce the veil, it wouldn't seem any more magical than lightening or fire. There are those who say this would take away from the "art" of writing. Poppycock. We'd just be understanding the process of art, is all. It wouldn't take anything away from it. I think that those who feel this way like the mystique that surrounds their success at the art, and they are loathe to lose that.

I honestly don't know how my creativity works, I just know that it always has. To the point that I actually rely on getting those flashes of inspiration. When I was at NASA, there were many times when I'd be assigned a project that I had no clue how to perform. But I wasn't really worried. I'd always come through in the past, so there was no reason to expect it wouldn't work this time, too. (Disclaimer: I think I also developed an instinct for what really was impossible, too -- I did turn down projects that I didn't think could be done.) This is nothing special. Almost all writers do this every day. But what I want to know is how do we do it?

Wouldn't you like to know, too?

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Reading Day

I finally got the AlphaSmart to talk to one of the computers in my house. It's actually working off of the USB port, but only intermittently, and only on the slowest transfer speed. As a result, it's taking hours to upload the text I wrote in Kansas -- but at least it is uploading. I was not relishing the thought of having to retype all of that from the AlphaSmart's screen.

I've said many times that in order to write science fiction, you need to do two things: 1) write science fiction, and 2) read science fiction. I saw the latest issue of Asimov's sitting on my wife's desk, and I guiltily realized I've not fulfilled the second commandment in quite some time. So, while my text uploads (and hence I can argue I'm getting some writing work done), I'm reading the stories in this issue. Now, historically, I've not liked Asimov's very much. Gardner Dozois' tastes were, apparently, radically different from my own. I actually generally prefer the the stories in Analog quite a bit better, but so far I've been pleasantly surprised by this issue. Perhaps Sheila Williams and I will get along. :)

If you have not read the Decmeber 2005 issue, you should. Williams' editorial is about her experience teaching at Clarion West and Odyssey. It's short, but well worth the read if you're at all interested in either of those schools.

Back to work!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

In Kansas ... Still

[Tech Geek Note #1: I'm writing this on my AlphaSmart Pro in the airport. I'll upload it to Blogger as soon as I get home.]

[Tech Geek Note #2: I'm (finally) home, but the PS/2 cable which allowed me to upload text from the AlphaSmart before I left is no longer working. Damned if I know why. So I'm transcribing from the AlphaSmart screen. I hope I get this fixed so I can retreive my novel text... Grrrr.]

Well, "Jack Kilby Science Day" was a big success. The kids all seemed to get a lot out of my keynote address, so I that helped get them fired up for the day. I did two activity sessions, as well. The first, the Marsbound! card game I created, went over extrememly well. The kids were totally into it. The second, a competition to build both a rocket and an airplane out of a soda straw, went over fairly well. The kids seemed to have a good time -- and learned a little about the aerodynamics of a stalled wing, I think -- but it was right before lunch, and I think they were all a bit hungry. They were into it, just not as into it as the morning group. That's okay. Apparently the evaluations were very positive, so that's gratifying. Most importantly, the organizaer that hired me to speak was extremely pleased and satisfied, so that was the real kicker. I made a thousand bucks on the deal (which is actually on the low end for keynote speakers, believe it or not), so I'm certianly not complaining!

What I am complaining about it that I'm still stuck in Kansas City. Coming out here I was worried that I wouldn't make it, since I only had about 40 minutes or so between flights and had to change planes twice and airlines once. Even though I had to go through security again between flights in Kansas City coming out here, I still made it with no problems. Coming back, I was take a US Airways flight out of Great Bend to Kansas City and then catch a non-stop on America West from Kansas City back to Phoenix. I had an hour between flightss, and as it turned out, we got here 20 minutes easrly (and since I was the only passenger to fly out of Great Bend, I got great personalized service!). You'd think I'd have it made coming home, wouldn't you?

Ah, but the key words in the above are "America West." They lost our baggage a few years ago -- we never got it back, including my wife's new glasses, disk drive, and a bunch of other stuff. They never even paid for it, either, saying they only cover clothes (and only a depreciated value at that). When we asked where we were supposed to carry the other stuff, they said, "Oh, that should go in your carry-on luggage." Never mind that they overbook flights and there's no room for carry-on luggage anyway. I swore I'd never fly on America West again. My wife even made up a little song:

Oh, don't fly America West Airlines!
They'll screw you for everything you've got!
Oh, don't fly America West Airlines!
They'll take your money and leave you there to rot!

Well, I broke that vow, tempting God and fate. Never a wise move.

America West decided to cancel the flight to Phoenix, leaving me here to rot. I was pretty pissed off when I saw that the next flight to Phoenix didn't leave for three more hours, but I was even more pissed when the America West agent said, "Oh, that flight is full. Sorry." The best they could do to get me home tonight was to put me on a Southwest flight that leaves at 9:45 PM. So instead of rocking my baby to sleep right now, I'm sitting in an airport terminal fuming. What fun.

On the plus side, I've written about 5,000 words of my novel today. I have to say, this AlphaSmart [ed. note: IF I can get it to upload] has definitely been the bright spot of this trip. The ability to simply switch it on and start typing is huge. No batteries. No cables. No need to save files. No waiting two minutes to boot up and two minutes to shut own. It really is perfect for writers. And at $13 on eBay, you really can't beat it. I still want an AlphaSmart Neo for Christmas, mainly for the slightly larger screen (six lines instead of four) an for the larger memory size (128 pages instea of 64). Being able to transfer files over the USB port instea of having the AlphaSmart type into Word (or whatever) in a minor convenience, but a welcome one [ed. note: And become less of a minor convenience at the moment]. The Neo is $250, but I think for a lot of us, the AlphaSmart Pro is hard to beat.*

*Here's a quick tip when you're looking at AlphaSmart Pros. If you can find one that has the 2.1.3 or higher chip in it (most are 2.1.2), you can use the "Get Utility" to send files to the AlphaSmart as well as read them. That's worth having, but probably not worth paying a lot more for, since you'd have to buyt he Get Utility as well. Most of us are just going to use the AlphaSmart for first drafts, not for editing, anyway.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Great Bend, Kansas

I got up at 4:00 AM this morning to catch a flight to Great Bend, Kansas. I am the keynote speaker for the "Jack Kilby Science Day" being hosted here. Jack Kilby, for those who didn't know (I didn't until recently), was the inventor of the integrated circuit, which is fundamental to all modern electronics. He won the Nobel Prize for physics in 2000, so as you can see, this is not a small thing. Kilby grew up in Great Bend, so in a very real sense, most of the modern conveniences we take for granted -- including the laptop I'm writing this post on -- had their origin right here in Great Bend. I think the town is justifiably proud.

The town itself is very much your stereotypical small-town America. They have a population of about 20,000, but that's spread over a pretty broad geographical area. As I was flying in, I was struck by how few and far between the buildings are here in Kansas, due to the huge land area given to farming. The main drag through town, right outside my hotel, probably hasn't changed much in character since the 1950's. Oh, there's a Wal-Mart and a Radio Shack and a McDonald's that probably wasn't here fifty years ago, but the feel of the place hasn't really changed. I get the impression the locals like it that way, and I think I can understand why.

Time capsules like Great Bend are spread out all over the U.S., but by their very nature it's sometimes hard to know where they are. Visiting these places can give you a great perspective that you can draw on in your own writing. If, for example, you're writing a story set during the dawn of the space program, places like Great Bend can give you a good idea of what life was like in many cities then. Even so, there is a very interesting blend of eras here. For example, the Great Bend Municipal Airport doesn't have a control tower. The pilots of the commercial plane I flew in on (18 seats, and it too looked like it was built in the 1950's) announced themselves on the "common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF)" just like the pilots of the little Cessnas and Pipers that were flying out of the field. The commercial airplane was no more priviledged than the little guys. Heck, even Glendale Airport, where I learned to fly, has a tower! As we flew in, I recognized the triangle pattern of runways as the type of airport that was built just after Pearl Harbor at the start of World War II. At that time they needed to train a lot of pilots, fast, so airports were hurriedly built all over the country. There was time to do a "wind study" to figure out the prevailing wind direction, so they always built three runways in the form of a triangle -- at least one of them would be pretty close to aligned with the wind. Great Bend has turned one of its runways into a drag strip, it seems. I wonder if they are aware of the heritage of the field? I saw a B-29 bomber memorial as we left the airport, so at least someone at the field knows. There's a lot of "urban archeology" that could be done with airfields that are now under cornfields.

When I arrived at the terminal, it was a small building, again, not much changed from the 50's with one major exception: they had added a TSA baggage screening station. This is the only reason commercial carriers can fly into the airport, but it seems dramatically out of place with its surroundings. Is this what a colony world on the frontier would be like? Extremely rural with a high-tech spaceport dropped in the middle of the farmlands? It could make for an interesting setting.

There's a lot to see in the world around us that we can use as writers. While I don't really like to travel without my family, one thing I will say for the travelling is that I get exposed to a lot of new surroundings that I wouldn't otherwise have seen!

Sunday, October 16, 2005


Several of my students have been out sick, so it was just a matter of time before I got it. I woke this morning feeling a little achy, and within two or three hours, I had a 103-degree fever. Advil and a lot of rest have that down to 101, but I'm still really tired. While there's no good time to get sick, this time is particularly bad. I have to get up at 4:00 AM tomorrow to fly to Great Bend, KS, where I will be the keynote speaker at a conference on Tuesday. Hopefully this is just a 24-hour thing, and I'll be okay by then, but I don't relish the thought of traveling while I'm still recovering from the flu. I'm sure my fellow passengers won't be terribly appreciative, either, though I shouldn't be contagious by tomorrow.

Great strides in modern medicine, but we are basically powerless to prevent the flu. The flu shots were given to most people here (although they were somewhat restricted, if you'll recall), but best I can tell they didn't make a difference. My daughter got the flu just a month or so after getting the shot. Ah well. We'll probably make the rounds with it again as my family infects each other one by one. I just hope it hasn't mutated to the point where I get it again by the time it comes back to me.

It's a shame I'm so exhausted when I get the flu. I typically write down any vivid dreams I have, since I figure that's good fodder for stories. The dreams I get when I have a fever are pretty darn interesting, but sadly I'm too wasted to try to write them down. I'm just left now with a feeling that I've lost something that could have been important. No chance of recovering those dreams now. I think it's interesting how your subconscious can talk to you through dreams. It makes me wonder if that's the exception to the non-verbalness of the "silent partner" that Kate Wilhelm wrote about. I do know that you can train your dreams (I used to be really good at that until the NASA job kept me from getting enough sleep to begin with), so that certainly supports her theory. Fascinating stuff!

Saturday, October 15, 2005


This morning I decided to attend a meeting of the Civil Air Patrol glider flight here in Phoenix. They are based out of a glider port a good ways north of town, but since I live on the north side of town anyway, it wasn't too tough to get to. I have pretty much curtailed my flying for the time being since I'm nervous spending that kind of money for something that is not essential. We aren't hurting for money, but freelance writing is an inherently financially unstable undertaking, so it just doesn't make sense to spend $100-300/month on something that I don't really have to. I'm kind of bummed about that fact, but it's a trade off I'm more than willing to make to be a full-time writer.

One of the big reasons flying is so expensive is due to the cost of gas these days, of course. My natural thought, then, was "Hey! Gliders don't use fuel! Why don't I get a glider rating?" It turns out that since I'm already a private pilot, I can get a glider rating after just a dozen or so flights. Pretty easy to do. If I used a Civil Air Patrol instructor, they don't charge for their time (CAP prohibits it since we are an all-volunteer organization), and using CAP's glider only costs about $10/flight (to help pay for maintenance). Sounds like a good way to keep proficiency, eh?

Sadly, no. While the glider is cheap, the thing still has to be towed to altitude. That costs about $55/flight to tow up to 3000 feet. Since I can rent a Cessna 152 (the two-seat powered plane I learned to fly in) for about $61/hour -- and gliders don't generally stay up for an hour per flight -- it's actually cheaper to just stay current in powered aircraft. Ah well.

Still, I can think of no feeling that's closer to actually flying like a bird than piloting a sailplane. I'm told they are very, very quiet. You don't hear anything but the wind whistling across the fuselage. There is no electrical system in the airplane (since there is no motor to power it), so the instrumentation is very simple. Nothing but pure, unadultered flying. Definitely worth trying once or twice, but since I mainly want to fly for pragmatic reasons (to take my family places, fly search and rescue, etc.), it's really not going to be something I will sink the money into. It's too bad, really -- as I've said before, authors should collect experiences to inspire their writing, and I think this would be a good one. If there is a glider port near you, I think you'd find it worth your while to take a demo flight. I think I'll satisfy myself with that as well...

Friday, October 14, 2005


The AlphaSmart Pro that I bought on eBay arrived today!

Overall, it's exactly what I'm looking for. The size and weight are perfect; the screen size is acceptable. The only thing I don't like about it is that the keys are very hard to press. If you don't hit the key in the middle, the key doesn't depress and the character doesn't type. It's the friction in the pole of the key itself, I think. Even in the middle, you have to press pretty hard. Now, for someone who is used to a manual typewriter (I'm not), this is nothing. And it is completely usable the way it is right now. I may take it apart, though, and see if I can figure out some way to clean the keys. The stiffness may just be the way it was designed though (it does remind me of the old Apple keyboards, to a certain extent).

I've typed about a thousand words on it so far. When I turned it on, there was a document left in it by a student (a younger student, I think) with a story he wrote in 2002! I guess the backup battery is still good! I made a PS/2 cable from two PS/2 to USB mouse adapters and a male-to-male USB cable. I don't have a PS/2 port on my laptop, but I just had it type the document into Word on my wife's computer just a second ago -- no problems at all, and it's emulating the regular keyboard. I did order a real AlphaSmart PS/2 cable that I believe has a "Y" in it, so I can leave her regular keyboard connected and just upload to her machine if I have to. I'd like to figure out some way to get USB to work, though, so that I can upload directly into my machine. We'll see how that goes.

So far, I'm totally satisfied, though!

Thursday, October 13, 2005


I'm in the middle of the astronomy class I teach for the local community college right now. This is the lab, so they are all deeply involved with it, except for occasional questions. Overall, they're doing pretty well, but based on the assessment I've done in class, they need more work with Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion -- so I'm giving them a lab on just that.

If you want to write science fiction, you really need at least a basic understanding of astronomy. Too many times I've seen mentioned flights from one planet to another (or from the surface to a moon or space station or whatever) where the ship burns its engines to the halfway point, turns around, and then burns its engines the rest of the way to accelerate. Not just no, but heck no! Nothing moves in a straight line in outer space, in spite of what you may have heard. You are always in orbit around something, be it a planet, a star, or the galactic center. That means that you are always moving on a curved path. The more energy you burn, the closer you can get to that straight line, but it takes an infinite amount of energy to actually get a straight line. Kepler's first law says, "The planets (and everything else) move in an elliptical orbit with the Sun at one focus." You'll never be able to get that mythical straight line.

Taking an introductory astronomy class can keep you from making howlers like this one. There are a lot of misconceptions about astronomy that even educated adults carry around with them. For example, can you explain why we have seasons? I'll give you a hint, it has nothing to do with distance from the Sun (including whether one hemisphere is closer to the Sun than the other because of Earth's axial tilt). I'll leave that as an exercise for you; if you really can't figure it out, post a comment and I'll explain it.

Take a class! Astronomy, like any science, is a lot of work, but it can be a lot of fun, too! No matter what your level of science understanding is, taking a basic class will go a long way towards improving your science fiction writing.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Your Silent Partner

By the way, I’m giving Blogger for Word a try, so if this post comes out scrambled, you’ll know why…

I finished reading Storyteller, Kate Wilhelm’s book on Clarion, last night.  As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a great book, especially for people who are dreaming of actually attending Clarion one day.  The book is not just about Clarion, however.  One of the more interesting discussions was about what Kate calls her “silent partner,” or “SP.”  This is essentially your subconscious, but she regards it as a non-verbal file clerk who keeps track of all of your experiences for you.  The interesting thing is that your SP can’t communicate with you directly, nor can you communicate with it directly.  Instead, the SP offers up memories and ideas, based on your past experiences, and you have the option to accept the idea or reject it.  If you accept it, the SP will eventually offer more ideas like that one.  If you reject it by ignoring it, the SP will eventually stop offering ideas of that type.  This is the same effect as “programming” yourself into a certain habit.  For example, you may program yourself to write every day from 7 to 9 AM.  Once you have strongly reinforced that habit, you’ll start to feel uncomfortable if you miss a day.  That, says Kate, is your SP sending you messages.  If you ignore the messages, the messages will get stronger for a while, but eventually the SP will stop sending them and you’ll be out of the habit.

This applies to writing as well.  If your SP offers up ideas for trivial stories and you accept them and act upon them, it will offer up more of the same next time.  Before long, you’ll end up writing nothing but trivial stories.  If, on the other hand, you ignore those ideas, your SP will try something else.  Eventually it will hit upon the kind of ideas you are looking for.  When it does, it’s important you act upon them right away, so as to reinforce to the SP that this is the kind of thing you’re looking for.  The SP will get better and better at offering you ideas for powerful stories, until eventually you will be able to write these kinds of stories all the time.  It’s an interesting way of looking at the subconscious, and it’s all well-grounded in psychology (although I’m not sure Kate is really aware of that).  The SP is not really a separate person, but it’s a good model to work with.  This model also says that you need to read about a wide variety of topics, instead of vegging out in front of the TV.  It needs good stuff on file to offer you new combinations of good stuff, after all.

Storyteller is a fun book.  I strongly recommend picking up a copy through (pretty much the only place you’ll find it).

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Where Do You Write?

I had to go down to Tempe to meet with the Arizona State folks about an project I'm writing for them (a curriculum package to teach basic meteorology, for the curious). While I was on campus, I decided I'd stop by to see the "Virgina Piper Center for Creative Writing" that ASU recently established. The center is housed in the "Virginia Piper Writers House," which is the converted President's Cottage that was built in 1907. It's a quaint little house, stuck right in the middle of the ultra-modern architecture of the science section of campus. As I was walking by, I was thinking that it would be cool to have a house like this to write in. The house is filled with little cozy corners with bay windows. I could totally see myself curling up here (preferably with the AlphaSmart keyboard I just ordered from eBay) and getting lots of writing done.

Unfortunately, the house doesn't really seem to be for writers to congregate and write. There is a sign on the door saying it is all offices and classrooms and that tours are only given on Thursdays at 10 AM. The sign gave the impression that a lot of curious wanderers had shown up asking for impromptu tours. The only writers welcome in the house are apparently the staff and the visiting "writers-in-residence." Ah well. Still, it's on the National Register of Historic Places (Robert Frost visited there a few times, for example), so I may go down for the tour at some point. I gave up my office in the Space Flight Facility on campus, and I had briefly entertained the idea of making Piper House my "home away from home" when I had to go down to Tempe (about an hour's drive from here), but it looks like that's not meant to be. It's too bad, really.

Now that my comps exam is done, I feel like I can start going out of the house to write. With the AlphaSmart and its near-infinite battery power and no-boot, instant-on abilities, I feel like I really can write anywhere. I'm going to be scouting out some likely spots in the near future. Places like Borders and Starbucks are classic places to write, but they are much too visually noisy for me. Imagine trying to work in a crowded and banging high school cafeteria, and that will give you an idea of what it's like for me in these places. Still, I'm sure I'll find a number of places that can serve when I need to get out of the house and work. Freedom to work anywhere is one of the big draws to writing full time, after all...

Monday, October 10, 2005

It's Done Then!

Woo-hoo! After about six weeks of work, I've finally finished writing the comprehensive examination for my Ph.D. The written part of the exam consists of four questions created by my thesis committee, each requiring a three to five page paper in response. This is harder than it sounds. The problem is not getting five of material, the problem is condensing your answer to only five pages! The questions are very broad, and a big part of the test is seeing whether or not you can distill the issues down to their bare essentials. Of course, everything you say has to be supported by research as well. The final paper was 25 single-spaced pages (five pages of references), weighing in at a little more than 12,000 words. Whew!

The next phase is for me to defend my exam answers orally. That will be scheduled once my committee has had a chance to look over the written paper. After that, I have to write and orally defend my thesis topic proposal, and then I'll be officially admitted to candidacy. That just leaves the actual design of my experiment, collection of data, and writing the thesis itself. I'm still hoping to finish my Ph.D. by this time next year.

It's a shame I didn't finish just a bit earlier, though. Homeschooling, particularly in places hit by the hurricane, is becoming a big deal. I have an idea for a non-fiction book, sort of a Dr. Spock-type book, but about education for the non-educator. If I had that written and ready to go, I'd probably make a million, easy. Unfortunately, I really think I need the Ph.D. to give me the clout I need to sell the book, so oh well. I still think it will do well, but it won't be the blockbuster it might have been.

But for now, I am one happy camper, since at least this phase is done. And there was much rejoicing!

Sunday, October 09, 2005


Today has been a bit of a trying day. A small plane was bound from New Mexico to Arizona yesterday and never arrived at its destination. The family of the pilot reported him missing last night. The New Mexico Wing of the Civil Air Patrol had the lead for the search and rescue, but Arizona WIng (mine) was on standby. We did have one crew fly a route search, but the last known position had the plane well inside of New Mexico, so they weren't surprised when they didn't find anything. I've been following the mission on the Civil Air Patrol nets. Unfortunately, the worst happened. They found the plane a little while ago. The guy was flying in low clouds at about 7,000 feet -- but there were peaks in 9,000 - 10,000 foot range.

Now, this is not foolish as it may seem. Odds are the guy was a VFR pilot, which means he can't legally fly in the clouds (and probably hasn't had more than the barest minimum of emergency training on getting out of the clouds). When you find yourself trapped by developing weather, about the only thing you can do is go down below the clouds and hope you find an escape route. He probably knew he was in trouble, but was hoping he could get lucky, because at this point his options were just about completely limited. He didn't get lucky.

I was trained to fly solely by instruments when I flew for the Navy. We didn't learn visual navigation until much later in flight school, and none of us liked it -- it's too imprecise. I'm not an instrument-rated private pilot, but I think if I faced the situation this guy faced*, I would have climbed as high as my plane would go -- all the way to the minimum safe altitude for that region. Better to be lost than dead. The danger, of course, if you aren't trained to fly by instruments, is that you'll try to fly by "feel", but you often feel disoriented in the clouds, as though the plane were spinning when in fact it's not. If you correct the "spin," then you enter the spin you were trying to avoid. It's not a good situation any way around for the pilot who isn't comfortable with instrument flying.

I feel really sorry for this guy and his family. I don't know who was on-board, but I hope it was just the pilot. It's a sober reminder that flying isn't like driving a car, no matter how much we pretend that it is.

*Of course, the real answer is to never let yourself get into that situation in the first place. If the weather looks even marginal, you cancel the flight and hop a commercial plane. Or if you're already airborne and it starts looking ugly, you call up air traffic control and ask for a way around the ugliness. Once you're in it, you're pretty much already out of options.

Saturday, October 08, 2005


This is a completely spoiler-free post, so it's of necessity going to be short. :0

We just got back from seeing Serenity tonight. Wow. Just ... wow. Go see this film. Even if you've never seen the series. Even if you've never really liked science fiction, go see this film. If you've never seen the series, you'll love this movie as-is, for reasons we'll discuss. But if you have seen the series, there is a masterfully done deeper layer to the dialogue that makes the movie even better. When the series was on television, I saw the first episode, but couldn't really figure out what was going on and said, "Eh, I don't like westerns, so I'll give this one a miss." It turns out that for some bizarre reason, the studio decided to start the series with the third episode. Go figure. I later learned about the series from someone who tends to have similar tastes to mine, so we bought the DVD set.

We watched them all straight through.

The characterization in this series is the best I've seen on television. The protagonist is a hero who's an anti-hero who is really a hero. The plots and conflicts are rich and meaningful, both inner and outer. The movie, however, takes all of that and does it even better. It's a beautiful example of how you can layer meaningful conflicts through character and setting. You literally don't know how they are going to get out of the jams they are in, as things keep getting worse (in both the inner and external conflicts) and turn in ways you never expected. Outstanding. Every science fiction or fantasy writer should go see this film twice. Once to just enjoy it, because you shouldn't deprive yourself of that (and you also need to know what it feels like to be an audience for this calibre of fiction). The second time, go see it to learn.

Amazing. I was prepared for a flop -- just about every series that's been made into a movie has ranged from mundane to simply terrible. Serenity did it right.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Trivial Stories

I've been reading Storyteller, the book by Kate Wilhem about Clarion that I mentioned a few days back. I just read her chapter on "trivial" stories, stories that she and Damon Knight forbade their students from ever writing again. The list is worth repeating here, since they make up a significant fraction of stories new fiction writers create.*

  • The "Poor Me" Story: My life is so hard, nobody loves me. No one wants to read a pity story.
  • The "I'm Wonderful" Story: Same deal, no one likes to read story about how good the protagonist is.
  • The "Gotcha!" Story: A story that fools the reader -- and usually makes the reader feel foolish. No healthy person pays to be made fun of.
  • Anecdotes: A small incident told at the water cooler with no meaning outside of the incident itself.
  • The "Fantasy Lover" Story: The perfect lover of your dreams (literal or otherwise)
  • Travelogue: Here's what we did on our trip...
  • The Problem Story That Isn't a Problem: Do I eat chocolate or vanilla ice cream today?
  • Dreams or Drug Trips: If nothing is real, then the story has no purpose.
  • Fan Fiction: Even if you change the names, it's still fan fiction.
  • Intentionally Incomprehensible Stories: We don't really care how smart you are.
  • The "Please Help Me!" Stories: Make the story about the person in distress, not the person who helps

Kate is pretty harsh in her descriptions of the stories her students submitted that belong in these categories and with good reason. These may be well-written from a technical or even a literary standpoint, but they aren't publishable -- no one really cares about the story, so they sure won't pay to read it. Kate's students apparently complained that there weren't any other stories to be written, but I think we can all see that's not true. All stories have been told. I think there are very few truly new ideas out there, so the trick is to put your own unique stamp on universal themes. Some stories will always resonate with meaning for us.

And some are just trivial.

*For the curious, I'm guilty of writing the "Gotcha!" story. Oh well, I thought it was clever at the time!

Thursday, October 06, 2005


NaNoWriMo is the cryptic (but popular, for some reason) acronym for "National Novel Writing Month." The idea is that writers will be challenged to write an entire 50,000-word novel between midnight on 1 November and midnight on 30 November. If you register at the web site and successfully complete the challenge, you get a certificate and your name listed in their "Winner's Circle." The contest has been going on for a number of years now, and the organizers are careful to keep a light-hearted and zany feel to the whole proceedings. You can check their website for yourself at They've got some cute merchandise to support the program (and charities, too), as well as their book, No Plot? No Problem!, that theoretically shows you how to write a novel in 30 days.

Now, you should understand, you can't write a finished novel in 30 days. Some people have derided the book (and the program) for saying that you can. The idea, however, is not to get a finished novel; the idea is to get that first draft done in 30 days. You can then spend the next several months re-writing and polishing the story. It's a fact of novel writing that the final version often only superficially resembles the first draft. If story arcs aren't working, or characters aren't being developed properly, you've got to re-write whole chapters, not paragraphs. For most people who are not writing full time, the real problem is getting the time and drive to write every day. Having an external deadline like NaNoWriMo can be a great kick in the pants. Nothing like a little pressure -- like having your name published in front of millions of Internet readers -- to get you motivated! And really, if you think about it, writing 2500 words a day (assuming you don't want to work on weekends) isn't impossible. Remember, you're just looking for a first draft, not a finished product. I've found that the hardest thing about writing is just getting the first draft down on paper. Once that framework is in place, the editing and re-writing is pretty easy. (It should be noted, however, that some people experience just the opposite.) Having a contest like this can get you through that all-important first draft stage. I also think that if you tell your family you're going to take on this "ironman challenge," you're much more likely to get the support from them that you need for this one month. That's not something to be sneezed at, and might just get you out of mowing the lawn for a month!

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

It's Finally Sinking In

It's been almost exactly a month since I quit my job to take up writing full-time. I've actually been more busy since leaving NASA than I was when I was working there (and I was tremendously busy then). On the other hand, I've found that I am much less stressed out than I was before, even though I'm finding that I have to work harder and longer. The difference, I think, is that it is me that's driving me forward and not a boss. Also, the drive is, for the most part, from projects that I want to do, not those that have been forced on me by an often-clueless NASA bureaucracy. I'm also trying to do a wide range of projects, which significantly increases the amount of work, but keeps the interest level high. Not only am I writing articles for magazines and working on my novel, I'm also finishing up my Ph.D., teaching two astronomy classes a week, and working half time for NASA finishing up the projects we had committed to before I left (this is the only part of my life that is still being pushed on me). While I can't say as I actually enjoy the curriculum writing I'm doing for NASA, the two projects I have left to do (and I'm almost finished with one of them) are fairly interesting as these things go. The half-time paycheck is nice, but is mostly going to paying off our home equity loan, so I'm not really seeing much of the benefit there. The work will stop at the end of February, thank goodness, although I have enough vacation built up to keep me getting paid at half-time rates until the beginning of next summer. That's the payback for working for five years without getting to take a vacation, I guess. I'll be glad when it's over, though.

This semester I'm writing my comprehensive examination for my Ph.D. and also need to re-write my thesis proposal, so that's taken on a bit of a priority. If I finish both these tasks this semester, then ASU will pay for the 12 hours of dissertation credit that I need next semester, so there's about $3600 at stake in finishing this. Once this is done, I'll have a couple of semesters of reserach and I should be able to defend. So, these part-time projects will be slowly winding down, which allows me to slowly phase doing nothing but writing. I plan on teaching forever, but I may start teaching some education classes (including one on storytelling!) as well as astronomy.

It's finally sinking in that I don't have to go back to work, though. Today was the first day that my life working here at home seemed normal and natural. About the only thing that could make me happier would be if we were living on the beach in Florida, but I think I can deal with that. :)

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Great Laptop Debate, Revisited

Many moons ago, I posted an entry comparing the advantages and disadvantages of laptops versus writing in longhand in a notebook. At that time, I decided that writing longhand was narrowly the better way to go, mainly because the laptop doesn't really allow you to write anywhere due to its limited battery life, heat generation (so it's can't really be used in your lap), weight, and the fact that it could get stolen at any time. After subscribing to the OWW SFF list, however, I was clued into a third option: the AlphaSmart Neo portable word processor. I remember when the first electric typewriters would store text and let you edit it on a little two-line LCD display (this was before the ago of personal computers). Once you got the text the way you wanted it, you just hit "print" and the typewriter would type out your paper. Pretty cool for a low-tech world, but it was still big and heavy, paper was difficult to align, you couldn't really do any formatting, etc.

The Neo reminds me of these old electric typewriters, but they've carried the idea into the digital age. Neo runs Palm OS, so it is very stable and has good editing capabilities. There's even a spell-checker installed. All you need to do is to sync up to your PC through the USB cable and you've got a plain text file ready for final formatting. Neo's memory can easily handle a 50k-word novel, even though it only has 512k of memory. It runs on regular AA batteries, but the batteries will last for over 700 hours of use. That means I can go over six months without changing the batteries! It can store only eight files, but since I'm rarely working on more articles than that, it's not such a big deal. Because it uses Palm OS, it is instant-on and left in the same state as when it was turned off, just like any PDA. That's a huge boon, since my laptop takes a minute or more to power up and the same to power down. That makes working in short flashes (such as when you are out around town) very difficult. Because of the lower power and lack of a big screen, the machine doesn't run hot at all. My only real complaint with it is that I'm not sure its six lines of text is enough to keep up with where I am in the story, although Neo users say it's plenty for first drafts, just not really good for editing. Since we are comparing Neo to writing longhand, that's not really an issue -- by definition you can't get much more than a first draft when writing longhand.

Neo has a big sister called Dana. It has more memory, a brighter screen (with 13 lines instead of 6), and is basically a fully-featured PDA. It has a larger screen than most PDAs, and it will use all of the regular Palm OS programs. There is also a wireless version that will let you surf the Internet or transfer files wirelessly. Unlike Neo, which is strictly plain text, Dana stores its files as Rich Text, which can show any font or formatting and can be read directly by MS Word. It also has a backlight, something Neo lacks. The big disadvantage is that you only get about 20 hours of use out of the batteries, so it has to be plugged in periodically. 20 hours isn't bad at all, of course, but I do like the appeal of essentially never having to charge the Neo. The big thing the Neo has going for it, though, is its simplicity. There are no Palm OS games. No web surfing. No distractions from the writing, and that's a very good thing. It does only one thing, and does it well. Someone said that Henry David Thoreau would have use the Neo for his writing, since it was simplicity itself, something he stressed as necessary for daily living. Truth be told, I don't want all the extra bells and whistles Dana has. I have a great laptop that does all of that. The Neo would let me write anywhere in the house (right now I'm still tethered to the power outlet, even though I have wireless Internet) or out around town. No email interuptions either. It's sort of like taking the digital phone off of the hook, and that can be a powerful thing for writers like us.

Most of my work needs to be converted to plain text before it can be e-submitted, which is sometimes a pain. If Notepad had a spell-checker, I'd probably just use that and save myself the hassle. When the file is ready for print submission, I just load it into MS Word, set formatting to double space and font to Courier (if it's not already), and I'm good to go. Neo runs $250 new, so if I can ever find one on eBay, I should be able to pick up a used one for $100-150. This will be on my Christmas list. :) In the meantime, eBay has a number of AlhpaSmart Pro keyboards for as little as $10, so that may be a good way to go for the short term. The AS Pro is just a keyboard with a memory. You can edit files just like with the Neo, although there is no spell checker. When the file is ready to be transferred, you just connect it to the PC keyboard connector, open up Word or Notepad, and hit "Send." Just like those old electric typewriters, it then "types" your document into the PC application, just as if you had typed it directly. It can even be used as your everyday keyboard. It only stores 64 pages of text, which is nowhere close to what I would need, but for ten bucks, it just might do me until Christmas. It certainly seems to have all of the advantages of writing longhand, but is easier on my writing hand and also much easier to edit on the PC later (since I don't have to re-type it). Heck, since I've got Blogger for Word, I can even write these entries on it, send the text into Word, and upload it from there!

Ain't technology grand?

Monday, October 03, 2005

Open with a bang?

We've all been told that you've got start your piece in the middle of the action in order to hook your reader and get him or her interested in your story. Kate Wilhem has a somewhat different perspective on this philopsophy. She points out that if the most powerful scene in your story (and she's referring to short stories here) is the opening scene, then the only place the story can go from there is downward. She contends that doesn't make for an interesting story. Instead, she recommends that you answer the first two "W" questions of good journalism (Who? and Where?) in the opening scene. Introduce your characters to the reader and get the reader grounded in time and space. Often Damon and Kate would make margin notes on Clarion student pieces that read "Who is this?" and "Why should I care?" or, in Damon's case, the much colder, "So what?" I have certainly heard editors who recommend establishing the rules and the setting very early in the story, so this gels with what they are saying.

On the other hand, the fact remains that you do need to get your reader's attention right from the very start. The craft then becomes to not just find a whiz-bang opening, but instead to find a strong opening that also introduces your reader to the world. Short stories, Kate says (and I agree), are the most demanding and unforgiving form of fiction. A novel gives you plenty of room to develop your characters and setting and tell a good story. In a short story, everything has to be honed to razor sharpness, with absolute precision. There's no room for even a single wasted paragraph, and that makes writing good prose much more difficult. Other than the length, according to Kate, the novel is the easiest form of fiction to write.

I think that's probably true. So, you've got two aproaches you can consider as you learn to write: You can write lots of short stories, which allows you to hone your craft much more quickly through making a lot more mistakes with a fast turn-around, as well as practice writing under the most stringent conditions possible, or you can write a novel, which is probably easier for a novice to do, but not for a novice to do well. The other consideration, of course, is that there is much more money and fame (better to see your name on a bookshelf than in the pages of a magazine) to be made in writing novels than in writing short stories, so even if you go the short story route, if you want to write novels, you'll have to decide when to end your "apprenticeship" in short story. Since you'll never stop learning, that can mean putting off a novel for a long time. It's a tough call. Plenty of successful novelists have never written a short story. But most also mastered their craft through years of writing failed novels. A few are natural talents, but they are the exception and not the rule. You might get where you want to be faster by writing short stories for a while, but there's certainly an argument for writing what you enjoy! For myself, I think I can still do both. Writing short stories can be a good break from writing in the longer form, and it's good to be able to get coherent feedback from critique groups on completed work, rather than works in progress.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Clarion Wanna-Be's Rejoice!

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I hope to attend Clarion within the next two years. Having read the blogs of participants in both Clarion East and Clarion West, I've concluded that I don't really care which one I attend -- it's all about who the teachers will be. I'm still considering next summer, but my daughter will just be three, and it will be really hard on her for Daddy to be gone for six weeks (and Daddy will miss her too!). When she turns four I don't think it will be such a big deal. We'll see how that goes when the time comes. I may put in an application this year just to see if I can get accepted (which is probably akin to cruising a car dealership "just to look" and driving out with a new car).

Until that time though, here is a book every Clarion wanna-be (like me) needs to go out and get right now: Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers' Workshop, by Kate Wilhelm. Kate and her late husband Damon Knight taught at Clarion for just about every year it has existed. The book is half memoir and half writing instruction book and both are blended together extremely well. If you want to get a good feel for what it's like to attend Clarion, you have to pick up this book. I had to get it special order from The publisher was someone I'd never heard of, so there's a good chance your local Borders isn't going to carry it. It's been well worth the wait so far! I'll post my comments of the book once I've finished it, but so far I'm entralled.

By the way, an update to my post of yesterday: It turns out there are a couple of pages of text in the Agile Rabbit maps book. There is a thumbnail of each map, a date, and about a 4 or 5 word description. The descriptions are singluarly unhelpful, but they do provide some clues for those that want to embark on the treasure hunt. It would be very interesting to find some of the places mentioned (Babylon is one) in the modern world...

Saturday, October 01, 2005


Yep, I admit it: I'm a cartophile. I love maps, particularly antique or ancient maps. That is one of the reasons for my interest in Campaign Cartographer, of course, but what I really like are actual ancient maps. And not just maps of the world, either. Historical maps of medieval cities, the Crusades, or even older works all fascinate me. I'd decorate my walls with them, but unfortunately each map can cost as much as $2500.

A person on the Campaign Cartographer mailing list clued me into a gold mine, however. "Agile Rabbit" is an imprint of Pepin Press out of Amsterdam. They have published a book called, The Agile Rabbit Book of Historical and Curious Maps. And they certainly are curious. Some of them seem to be reporductions of hand-drawn maps that have to be 2000 years old. There are maps of cities, maps of other planets (including one by Galileo, if I recognize it correctly), politcal-cartoon maps (one country gobbling up another, for example), you name it. The book has a very wide variety of very interesting maps.

Unfortunately, the maps are all that the book has. There is no explanation of the maps whatsoever. You have no idea what the map is trying to depict or even what general era it might be from. It's a text-free book. The back cover says that it's intended to be inspiration for graphic artists, but I think it would have been more inspiring if you knew the history of the maps. On the other hand, I feel like it's something of a treasure hunt. It will be fun to reserach the more interesting maps and find out their history.

In the meantime, the book also includes a CD-ROM that has all the maps in both high and low resolution format. I may see about printing some of these on parchment paper for framing. Not as good as the real thing, but they will still look great!