Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Writing Markets

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Breaking the Rules

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

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

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

Monday, November 28, 2005


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

It seems I've been given the nod.

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

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

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

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Manga Takes Over the Universe

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

In reality, manga controls the universe.

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Friends Near and Far

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

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

Friday, November 25, 2005

Story -- Complete

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

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

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

Thursday, November 24, 2005


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

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

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


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

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

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

You're the Inspiration

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 21, 2005

Story Length

A recurring quesstion among new (and not-so-new) writers is "How long should my story be?" The standard answer is "As long as it needs to be!" I once heard (from Mark Twain, I think, but I'm not certain) that a speech should be like a woman's skirt: long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to be interesting. The same could be said of a story.

That's all well and good, of course, but it doesn't really answer the question. Yes, to a certain extent, the story you have to tell will dictate it's length. You may be aiming for a short story, but if your tale really needs multiple plotlines in order to be told properly, then what you're really writing is a novel, you just haven't realized it yet. The "official" word counts (as measured for the Hugo awards) for the various forms are:

  • Short-short (or flash or sudden fiction): less than 1500 words
  • Short story: 1500-7500 words
  • Novelette: 7500-17,500 words
  • Novella: 17,500-40,000 words
  • Novel: 40,000 words and up

This is why National Novel Writing Month participants are expected to write 50,000 words in one month: this is the minimum length for a novel. In reality, though, a publisher will almost never buy a novel this short. Between 40,000 and 80,000 words is a "no man's land" in which there are very few markets (I'm sure there must be some, but I can't think of one off-hand). If your story falls in this range, then it may be unmarketable (even it would otherwise be publishable). In general, editors say they want novels of 80,000 to 120,000 words, though a first novelist would be wise to stay around 100,000 words or less, since 120,000 words is something of a gamble for the publisher -- a gamble they probably aren't willing to take on an unknown author. Young adult (YA) novels tend to run a bit shorter, usually around 60,000 to 80,000 words, but again, tending towards the upper end of that.

I think more people have trouble keeping within the word count limit than they do reaching a word count limit, though. That's because all of us write great scenes that don't really advance the plot, but hurt too much to cut out ("If they don't read this scene, the readers aren't going to fully appreciate what happens later!"). I can sympathize, since I do the same thing. If we're writing for ourselves, that's one thing, but if we want to sell a piece, then we have to be pretty ruthless. I read somewhere that those cut scenes can often be expanded into a great short story after the novel becomes a best seller. Works for me!

For myself, I'm shooting for the 100,000 word mark. No, I'm not going to artificially try to hit a predetermined word count, but I will add just enough depth to story to put it into that ballpark. While it's true that the story sets the length, you control how deep a story you set out to tell, so in the end, you do have some measure of creative control. I think the big thing is to just write. While I know editing is incredibly painful for some, I still think it's a lot easier to cut than it is to create. So, write your tale and don't worry (too much) about the form. In your editing phase, though, it's time to look at all the story elements and decide just how long it really needs to be.

Sunday, November 20, 2005


Today we took our two year old to the Devonshire Renaissance Faire. For a small little two-day Faire, it was really good. They had a huge owl (at least two and a half feet tall) that had been rescued, and they were letting children (and adults) pet him. He was very calm and still -- in fact, most everyone thought he was a stuffed doll until he turned his head and blinked at them. Our daughter was entralled. She went up to the lady running the booth and asked if she could pet the owl all by herself. She's not terribly shy, but you could see she wanted to pet that owl very badly. The Faire also had jugglers and knights conducting swordfights and lots of movement and color. What really thrilled her, though, was that she was asked to meet the queen.

We were walking past the queen's pavillion, and apparently she saw how cute our daughter is (not uncommon -- I'm not just being a proud dad when I say everyone is strangly attracted to how cute she is). The queen sent one of her nobles over to ask her to come sit with her. Our daughter did very good. She walked into the roped off area of the pavillion all by herself. Bowed at the end of the carpet, then walked up to the queen and sat in her lap. She talked to the queen for a while, and was given a "magic bracelet" to take home. Our daughter got down from the queen's lap, bowed again, and came back to us. It was so cute! She was totally impressed to meet a "real" queen.

But what is it with humans and royalty -- or nobility in general? I should say on the front end that I'm not immune either, but I would like to understand the feeling. Why are we so entralled with people who were born into noble families? They didn't do anything to deserve it. They aren't "better" people -- in fact, due to in-breeding, they're often a little worse than us "commoners." Is it nothing more than five millenia of conditioning? Or is it that this is the one thing that no matter how much we achieve in life, we can never have? I honestly don't know. You would think we would resent the nobility (and of course that happens too -- the French Revolution is a case in point), but in general we look upon them as an extremely positive thing, even when, in today's world, they have no real bearing on anything. I might could have understood it when the nobility literally wielded the power of life and death over you, but that's far from the case anymore. Again, I'm not immune to the feeling either, but that doesn't mean I have the tiniest inkling of why we feel that way.

Nobility is not often used in science fiction, although it's extremely common in fantasy. The science fiction role-playing game Traveller had nobles playing an important part, as do the nobles in the Honor Harrington series, but those are about the only examples I can think of. While there is a monarchy in the world of the stories I write (only one out of six Solar Nations), the monarchy doesn't play a big role. I think the Babylon 5 universe provides an example in their "Rangers" that taps into the same feeling without explicitly having knights and kings and queens. The Rangers are roughly the equivalent of knights errant, and are respected as such, but they have a wholly science fiction feel to them -- they aren't just transplanted fantasy elements. I'm thinking that I should come up with something like that to tap into this strangely human trait of respecting the nobility, no matter who they really are. There could be some interesting conflict there for science fiction that, unlike fantasy, hasn't been done to death a thousand times before. Definitely worth exploring...

Saturday, November 19, 2005

More Big News

I got a bit of good news today. This afternoon I got an email from the editor of the magazine who bought my first article. As you may recall, I neglected to include all the information their writers' guidlines require on the second article I sent to them, so I had pretty much given up hope on that one. Today the editor asked me to send him the illustrations that accompanied that second article -- rock and roll! The guidelines specified that you should not send any illustrations with the initial submission; they will ask for them if they are interested. So, while he has not committed to buying the article, he is certainly interested enough to want to see more. If he buys it, that makes me two for two on articles submitted.

This is the kind of roller coaster ride writers thrive on, I think. I was pretty down about this article since I didn't think it would get a chance -- even though it's a good article. But just an editor saying, "I'm interested in this, send me more" is enough to send me sailing along! I don't envy them their jobs. You'll note that his messge was sent on a Saturday. I have a very good friend who has worked as an editor (you know who you are!), and she has my total respect. I think it would be interesting to do for a couple of months, but I think it would eventually make me crazy in the long run.

I'm sailing for now, though!

Friday, November 18, 2005

Part-time Jobs

I've only actually applied and interviewed for one job in my life (and while they had already decided on someone else for the position, after my interview they decided to hire me instead -- I confess to feeling a little guilty about that). Every other job I've had has just sort of fallen my way as I was either in the right place at the right time, or someone had heard about me and actively came looking for me.

It seems it's happened again.

As long-time readers of this blog know, I teach two astronomy night classes at one of the community colleges here in Phoenix. One of their other astronomy instructors has accepted a job somewhere else, so the department asked me if I'd be willing to take over her class (there are only four weeks of class left). The lecture class meets Friday mornings and the lab meets early Friday afternoons, so my newly-flexible schedule makes it pretty easy for me to teach it. So now next semester they want me to teach that slot again, which is fine with me. They also found out that my undergraduate degree is in engineering physics, and I worked in orbital mechanics at NASA, so they've asked to teach a mechanics class (a branch of physics) on Monday and Wednesday nights next semester.

Once again, I seem to have fallen into a job (though not a full-time job, thank goodness) without really trying.

This leads me to the fundamental dichotomy between writing and eating. If you want to be a professional freelance writer (as opposed to the salaried writing I was doing at NASA), the odds of you being able to feed yourself, at least for the first five or ten years, are pretty small. That's why everyone cautions you not to quit your day job until you have a lot of royalties coming in. My family doesn't really need the money, although it's nice, of course. I mostly agreed to take the classes simply because I love teaching, and I've missed it over the past few years. The nice thing about this particular job is that it only ties up one working day a week (I don't usually write much in the evenings anyway -- that's not when I most creative). There's still papers to be graded, but again, I do that in the evening when it doesn't interfere with my writing time. Overall, this is a pretty good fit for someone just starting a writing career.

I can't help feeling a little guilty, though, as if I've betrayed the mission by doing something other than writing one day a week. Objectively, I know that the benefits (emotional as well as financial) far outweigh the drawbacks, so I'm sure I'll come to terms with that. There's just something about saying, "Yeah, I don't do anything but write all day" that's good for the soul. :) On the other hand, I really do love teaching, especially physics (and most especially mechanics -- there's a reason I love orbital mechanics so much). I guess the real litmus test is this: Suppose I wrote the next Harry Potter and it nets me a bazillion bucks. Would I still teach these classes? I can honestly say that I would, so in that sense, I think it's all good.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Sleep Study: The Aftermath

Well, last night basically sucked.

I showed up at the sleep clinic, and they immediately had me get undressed (completely) so that they could start hooking wires and stuff to me. I tell you, I looked like some weird science experiment gone bad. Most of the wires were on my head, but there were also electrodes on my face, behind my ears, down my legs, you name it. They also put bands around my chest and stomach and jammed a sensor up my nose to measure breathing. Once I was completely wired, I had to gingerly get in the bed without pulling anything out. I had to sleep on my back without rolling over -- not the way I sleep best. They also had an infrared camera watching me (so I guess I just made my first nudie video...). It took them about 30 or 40 minutes to get everything calibrated, then they turned the lights out, so that was it for writing time. Oh well.

I managed to get to sleep finally, but I was not sleeping very deeply. Then sometime in the middle of the night (there are intentionally no clocks in the room -- apparently some people have sleep problems because they obsess with looking at the clock), the tech came in, turned on the light, and said they were going to connect me to the breathing mask since I had stopped breathing in my sleep several times. In theory, if I do in fact have sleep apnea, I'd have to sleep with this mask on for the rest of my life.

I think I'll just die early.

The mask only covers your nose, and it has a sensor that supposedly detects when you exhale. If you exhale through your mouth, however, the sensor doesn't pick it up and keeps blowing air down your throat. Instantly, you feel like you can't breathe. Talking is basically impossible. The mask also has to fit very snugly, and if there are any leaks, the sensor doesn't work. I had a little bit of congestion last night, so sometimes I wasn't breathing hard enough through my nose -- and once again, the air was being forced down my throat keeping me from breathing. Again, you can't roll over because you'll break the seal on the mask. It took me forever to fall asleep with the mask, and when I woke up once in the night, I had trouble falling asleep again.

And then there were the various other indignities. If you have to go to the bathroom during the night, you have to call the tech to come disconnect you and make sure the coast is clear in the hallway since you're buck naked. You then have to wander down the hallway naked with a bunch of wires in hand while you attend the call of nature. Over all a lousy, lousy night. What makes it worse is that if I do indeed have sleep apnea, I'm grounded -- I can't fly. We'll have to see how that goes...

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Sleep Study

Well, tonight should be an interesting experience. I've apparently had sleep apnea for some time now. For those that don't know, sleep apnea is when you mysteriously stop breathing for as much as 10 to 15 seconds while you're asleep. You never actually wake up, but it keep you from going into a deep sleep. The result is that you wake up feeling like you've not had much sleep at all. I had surgery on my nose to straighten it out back in March (I've broken my nose several times), and while things are much better, it's still not where it should be. So, the ENT doctor wants to do a sleep study to see what's going on.

Apparently they are going to hook me up to a bunch of wires and sensors while I sleep at their clinic tonight. I'm not at all sure how I'm going to be able to sleep connected to a bunch of machines, but we'll see how that goes. I have to go over there about 9 PM tonight, but they don't want me to actually go to sleep until my usual bedtime (around 11:30 or so). That means I'll have two hours or more of uninterrupted writing time tonight, so I'm not looking at this as an all-bad thing!

I've always been fascinated with sleep. Everything sleeps, but why? Why does your body shut down after 36 hours or so? Dreams and why they occur are interesting, but what I find fascinating is why we need to sleep at all. I saw an episode of the Twilight Zone in which a group of Vietnam vets (this was the new version obviously) had a gland removed from their brain during the war. The result was that they no longer felt the need for sleep. The idea was that if they didn't sleep, they'd be more agressive. What I found interesting was the idea of how much more time you have available in your life if you don't need ot sleep. One of the men commented that it was like living a double lifetime. I think it would quite cool to experience this first hand, but of course, since we don't know why we need to sleep in the first place, we have no idea what the side effects would be. There is a lot of raw material for some good science fiction short stories there, though!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Those Stubborn Protagonists

I am continuing to struggle with my protagonist who, it seems, simply doesn't want to be the person I've laid her out to be. I have her cast at the beginning of the story as a fairly self-conscious teenager who, by the end of the tale, has grown into a self-confident leader. The problem is that she simply doesn't want to be self-conscious! That girl has a smart mouth on her, and she's not afraid to use it, particularly when she is with the antagonist (whom she can't stand but will eventually fall in love with -- just before she blows him up).

Now, normally, I don't have a problem with this. As I've said before, half the joy of writing is letting your characters grow and tell their own tales. The writer is as entertained as the reader! But in this case, I think the story loses some of its power if we don't see this maturity develop in the protagonist. Actually, I think the story loses a significant amount of power, and that's why I'm worried about it. I've written out the controlling idea, as McKee recommends, and based on that, it shouldn't really matter if she is already self-confident or not, but my gut still tells me that this is an important facet, even if it isn't the main facet.

So, the question is do I force her into her early role and let events cause her to mature, or do I let her be herself from the beginning? I've always trusted my characters to develop as they are "meant" to, so I'm leaning towards the latter, but I still can't shake the feeling that I'm losing something as a result. I'm not going to go back and change what I've written just yet, so maybe I'll be able to compare approaches. I do like her as a person better now than as she was originally -- she's a lot funnier. We'll just have to see how it all turns out.

Monday, November 14, 2005


I'm doing the happy dance , since the check from my first magazine sale arrived today. It still strikes me as a little odd that I've had zero communication with the editor. The first time I realized they had bought the article was when it was published. I've never heard anything afterwords, either, though the check did arrive in a timely manner. I don't know if they are having trouble getting through to me via email (at least one person was), but I've since sent them an alternate email address and a fax number. If they were really trying to contact me, I figure they would have enclosed a note with the check, but nothing there, either. I guess that's just how this magazine runs things -- they are pretty busy, after all. It doesn't do my comfort zone any good, but I guess my only real reaction is to shrug and say "Whatever -- so long as I get paid!"

Which brings me to the topic of this post: Do we write for the money? We all know that even successful writers (with lottery-odds exceptions) don't make much money. In fact, most writers will never make enough to even live on. I think most of us would say that we aren't writing for the money, we're writing because we "have something to say" or some such. But is that really true? Can any of us honestly say, "I don't care if I never make a dime on anything I've written"? I think that very, very few of us can. So are we just kidding ourselves? If we're in this to make money, we are so in the wrong field. But I think it's fair to say that deep down, getting paid is a fundamental motivation for just about all of us.

I think I have an answer to the dichotomy, though. It's not really the money per se that we are interested in. But in writing, money is how we keep score. Whether a story is "good" or not is purely subjective. Just because one person didn't like it doesn't mean that it's a bad story -- in fact, it could be the best piece ever written. But when an editor pays for the story, then we can all agree on the points received in the game (equal to the number of greenbacks received, naturally). Thus, we can rate how good a writer we are by how many of those points we've received for our work. It's all about the game -- and even more importantly, it's all about validation.

So now you can honestly answer, "No, I'm not doing this for the money," because you aren't -- you're doing it for the points that money represents! Change it from money to Pulizers and you get the same effect, after all!

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Learning the Craft

I was chatting with one of the members of my thesis committee before my exam the other day, and she mentioned that she has a teenaged niece who is very much into writing. She and her friends apparently get together and just sit around writing. She says virtually 100% of their work is deriviative, but at this stage in the game, I really don't see a problem with that. Interestingly, my son and a group of his friends have been working on a "story" for quite some time now. I think they were originally going to do a movie script, but I haven't heard anything about that project in a while, so maybe it went by the wayside. One way or another, they had a great time being social and plotting out their tale, and I think that's great. I think that the desire to do this kind of writing from an early age is one mark of someone who has what it takes to be a writer later on in life. And if the stuff they write is completely unoriginal, what of it? The way to learn to write is to write.

And that's what I see as the real advantage in both of these teens' lives. You've got to write about a million words before you really get a handle on the mechanics of the craft of writing. They've got the talent, sure, but they don't know how to use it yet. There's no better way to learn than by simply writing. Even if they are writing what will likely be throw-away stuff, they are learning how to plot, how to develop a character, grammar, and all the other tools that we writers need in our toolbox -- and they are learning them ten years earlier than most writers do. That's good no matter how you look at it.

I see real talent in some of the things my son has written (and that's reading it as a critic, not as his dad). As I've said before, he still needs to learn the craft, but he's got a huge start on the art portion of writing. I wrote a bunch of things when I was his age, but then I got sidetracked into music and let it slide. He's already out-produced me as a teen. It's really tough to make it as a writer, so I'm trying to gently convince him that he's going to need a day job to pay the bills -- but there's no reason in the world why he can't become a professional writer if that's what he wants to be!

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Lost, Take Two

Okay, so we sat down to watch another episode of Lost, and I think I now understand why last night's episode didn't make any sense: What we saw was part one of the pilot! So, yeah, nothing happened by the end of last night's episode -- it was only half over!

We watched the second half of the pilot and the next episode ("Tabula Rasa," which translates roughly as "clean slate" -- appropriate given the content of the episode). It's still definitely not what McKee would call "archplot," a story that moves through time with the character's actions (and reactions) driving the conflict. Instead, so far we are seeing the conflict internally in the characters develop. Even when two characters are in conflict, they are still really battling against their natures. For example, Sayid and Sawyer get in a fist-fight over Sawyer's accusing Sayid of being a terrorist. Sayid isn't really fighting Sawyer, his struggle is internal over being a military officer -- but an officer on the losing side of a war.

McKee calls this "miniplot," a plot which reduces the story down to its bare essentials. Because this type of setting is so limited in the tools it has available to show change in the protagonist(s), it often is also "multiplot," and that certainly seems to be the case here. So, I think I understand what Lost is trying to do a little better now. I'm still not totally buying into it yet, but I am somewhat intrigued by the conflicts they've set up, I'm just not sure how they can keep the story going without resolving them -- and I'm not sure how the story can keep going if they don't. Still, it's an experiment I've never seen done on television before, so I applaud it. I'm not a big fan of miniplot, but I'm open minded enough to see if it hooks me. My wife loves it, even just the first half of the pilot dragged her in, so maybe my tastes are just a little too mundane. :)

If nothing else, looking at it as an exercise in story analysis will be well worth the price of admission!

Friday, November 11, 2005


Many people have told me how much they enjoy the television series "Lost." I've never seen it, and I've been told that it's not a series you can jump into late and expect to figure out what was going on. So, my wife and I rented the first DVD of the first series and watched the first episode tonight.

What exactly are we supposed to be getting out of this show?

Now, in all fairness, my wife loved the episode. But there was no story whatsoever! None! There were a lot of questions set up and a lot of blood and gore, and of course all of us are just a little bit afraid of being in an airline crash, so they play on that fear very well. But the epsiode itself tells no story whatsoever. Maybe that's why you can't come in late -- one story in this series takes much more than an episode to tell. If that's true though, I found the pacing to be rather slow. Yeah, there was a lot of flash and bang and things that go bump in the night, but I was really pretty bored. I dunno, we're going to watch the rest of this DVD, so hopefully I'll get hooked in the next couple of episodes. It's a hugely popular show, so they must be doing something right. I'll be interested to find out what that is...

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Comp Exam

Today I had the oral defense of my Ph.D. comprehensive exam answers. The committee sat down at the table, they looked at me, I looked at them, and I said, "Okay, what questions do you have for me?" The looked at each other and finally one member said, "Well, honestly, we don't have any questions. Your writing was very clear, the organization was very convincing, and we were able to follow all of it. There's really nothing else to ask you." They looked at each other again, and the committee chair said, "Well, congratulations, you passed."

Let me just say, it's good to be a writer.

Our ability to write, to convey meaning in print, doesn't just apply to fiction. Because I've taken the time to develop the skills of a writer, I was able to write a 25-page paper that was clear as well as convincing. So much so, that the committee literally ran out of things to ask me! It was the easiest oral exam I've ever taken!

I firmly believe that writing -- all writing -- is nothing more than persuasion. Your job is to convince your reader of your Controlling Idea. Just preaching it to them isn't convincing -- and that's why sermons make poor fiction. My comp exam was not fiction, but I was still tasked with conveying my Controlling Idea (which is this case was related to science education) through my arguments. Instead of dialog, I used carefully arranged research, but the effect is the same. One of the committee members commented that most grad students hate to write. I think that's true, but I think it's because they've never learned the craft.

Don't ever let anyone denigrate your writing ability -- it's a Ph.D-level skill!

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Caught in the Act

I don't normally do a lot of outlining when I write my stories. Part of the magic of writing for me is to watch my characters grow and change and take on lives of their own. Yes, I realize this is nothing more than my subconscious finding a way to express itself, but because -- by definition -- I'm not consciously aware of the process, it still seems like magic as my own creations tell me a story. It's a big attraction for me.

On the other hand, I realize that I might could write stories that were more truly powerful if I took more care to plan out the actions of the characters, particularly in terms of what McKee calls the Controlling Idea, Inciting Incident, and act design in general. Now, in all fairness, I do think about these things in the revision stage of writing (though I've never used those names), but logic suggests to me that more power will be contained in the story if I design it that way form the start. I'm not convinced, and I certainly don't want to lose what makes writing fun, but I'm open minded enough to give it a try. So, I spent a good bit of time today in explicit act design. Before I start to write, I usually have a pretty good idea of how the story is going to go in general terms, so constraining what turned out to be four acts wasn't all that hard. What was important was making certain the Controlling Idea was the guiding theme in each act climax. McKee's law of conflict says that conflict, as an expression of the Controlling Idea, is the only thing that moves a story forward, and each conflict must be more powerful than the one that came before it. It's also important that primary value expressed in the Controlling Idea change state from one act to the next. McKee argues that if things are good and then get better (or bad and get worse) from one act to the next, then the second act will be less powerful because there will be less contrast between it and the previous act.

I find it a little constraining, but maybe that's a good thing. This novel is really just intended to be an experiment in which I can try out some of these techniques. It will be interesting to see how this all turns out!

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Bionic Woman

My mother is in the hospital right now recovering from surgery to have her knee replaced with an artificial joint. This is the second one that she's had replaced (so I think it's safe to say she's done), and the technology has improved tremendously just in the last couple of years. Her recovery from the first surgery was long and excruciatingly painful, involving many months of physical therapy just to get to a quasi-normal range of strength and mobility (and the last time I saw her, she was actually not getting around as well as she was before the surgery). Not so this time. She'll be leaving the hospital early (probably tomorrow) and has apaprently made huge strides in her physical therapy with the new system. It's pretty amazing, actually.

What's amazing to me, however, is that we are quietly and unremarkably approaching the age of the cyborg. I'm always amazed to see how science fiction becomes reality -- and often without anyone even really noticing the change. My mother literally has bionic knees, and while she certainly isn't going to be leaping over thirty-foot walls anytime soon, the relative increase in power over what she was able to manage before the surgery is actually comparable to Steve Austin and Jamie Summers' best. Knees aren't the only thing being replaced. Cochlear implants as essentially bionic ears. They are brain implants that stimulate the auditory nerve to produce electrical signals in such a way that the brain perceives them as sounds -- computer implants in the truest sense. Can Neuromancer be far away? We are also learning to stimulate the optic nerve directly in a similar manner. Does anyone remember G'kar's electronic eye in Babylon 5? Pacemakers and artificial hearts have been reality for decades.

The question we have to answer is this: How much of your body has to be replaced before you can be considered a cyborg? This is not just idle speculation, science fiction writers; the future is already here!

Monday, November 07, 2005

The Gap

No, I'm not talking about the clothing store... :)

Yesterday I mentioned what McKee calls the "Gap," but I didn't really go into much detail about it. McKee says that all human beings are basically lazy (I strongly agree with this statement -- that's why I'm such a good engineer :) ). By this he means that a person will take the action that will allow him to achieve his goal with least possible amount of effort. If the protagonist of your story has a goal, he will choose the most conservative path that he feels will be a positive step towards achieving that goal. The moment he makes this choice, however, the external world (in a good story) steps in and things do not react in the way he anticipated, blocking him from his goal. The forces blocking him are, of course, embedded in the antagonist and his cohorts. Instead of achieving his goal, a gap has opened up between him and the goal.

This opening of the gap is crucial to the progress of the story. When the gap opens, the protagonist realizes that his normal way of doing things isn't going to work -- he must take extrordinary action if he is to achieve his goal. Of course, this action leads to even larger gaps, and this is how we can build tension through conflict throughout the story. It's a good way at looking at conflict. If the "gap" that opens up isn't really a gap at all -- if the protagonist can easily overcome it, or if his actions lead to the results he expected, then you don't really have a story. Also, good, deep storytelling comes into play when the gap is accompanied by a flood of realization. The events that occur as a result of the character's actions are unexpected, but are totally consistent with the meaning in the story. In fact, the opening of the gap will often force us to re-evaluate everything we have seen as a result. This requires a keen mastery of the craft of storytelling, but it's something we all can aspire to!

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Scene Analysis

I've been continuing to work with McKee's Story and there are quite a few great points in here. I sometimes think that while is certainly a great writer and a great theorist of writing, he's not a terribly good teacher. I've run into this many times before. In science, in particular, there are many excellent scientists who might can tell you how they do what they do -- but they can't tell it in such a way that you can actually learn it. McKee is not quite that bad, and as he's gotten to the more practical info, I find I'm not having to work so hard to understand what he's trying to say. Still, as a teacher myself, I find myself wishing he was a bit more of one.

One of the more clear techniques he provides is for scene analysis. It is a five-step procedure that goes something like this:

  • Define the conflict. Remember, if there is no conflict in the scene, then it probably serves no useful purpose in the story.
  • Note the opening value. This could be anything from justice to love to faith. it will either be in a positive or a negative state.
  • Break the scene into "beats." A beat is one exchange between the characters. You should be able to describe not just the outward events, but the subtext, the meaning behind what is being said. Usually this can be described in a single word (pleading, ignoring, etc.)
  • Note the closing value and compare with the opening value. Did the value change from positive to negative or vice versa? If not, nothing has happened in this scene, and it probably needs to be cut (or if it is exposition, find some way to include it in a real scene).
  • Examine the beats and find the tunring point. This is the moment when the character does something with some expectation, but the result is not at all what he predicted (what McKee calls the "Gap"). This resulting tension is what drives the scene.

It's a good way at looking things. While you may think it's a lot of work to go through every scene in your story this way, I think you'd be amazed at how transparent it makes your story structure!

Saturday, November 05, 2005


No, this isn't a post about The Matrix... :)

I've been playing around with the AlphaSmart Neo, and I'm totally pleased with it. The keyboard is great, requiring much less "finger action" than the AlphaSmart Pro did (though I have to admit, I tend to have a soft touch on the keyboard -- I would never have survived with a manual typewriter). I've got 12,000 words or so of my novel transferred into the machine and got it to transfer it to my notebook (which never worked with the AlphaSmart Pro) on the first try. Much rejoicing! While lots of people have complained about the greenish-black color, I actually don't mind it. I had plans to use vinyl dye to paint the top half blue and the bottom half black, but I like the green enough that I don't think it's worth the effort. I may still do it at some point, though.

I love the six-line screen and the proportional font. The contrast is much better than on the Pro -- my poor eyes are already thanking me. The thing I like most about it though is the word count feature. It not only tells you the number of words, it tells you the number of characters, paragraphs, and pages in the document. You can also "link" files (such as outline) and flash between the linked and main files just by hitting ctrl-L. It's exactly what I was hoping for: a customized and optimized writing machine. It's even lighter than the Pro and much more comfortable to type on. Ergonometrics have become a big thing for me, so the ability to write comfortably anywhere is a major factor.

In other news, I commissioned a silver ring with the original seal of the Knights Templar from a craftsman in Spain. It finally arrived today! The seal is a bit bigger than I would have liked, mostly because I have such a skinny finger (US size 7), but it still looks good. It's got quite a bit of "heft" to it, too, which is something I like in a ring. The seal looks like this:

I'm pleased overall!

Friday, November 04, 2005


Last night on the way to Chicago (en route to Phoenix and home) I was reading Robert McKee’s book when I suddenly had an epiphany about the novel I’ve been writing.  It was the strangest thing, because my realization really had nothing to do with what I was reading.  I think my subconscious had been struggling for a long time with this and just suddenly worked it out.  

Without going into to much detail of the plot (I’ll practice writing plot synopses later), up to this point I had created a sympathetic antagonist (yes, you read that right – it’s an experiment, as I’m trying to stretch my writing abilities a bit here).  His actions are quite ruthless, but through his conversations with the other characters, we discover that his motivations aren’t actually ruthless – he’s not that terrible a person (at least from his point of view, but the character is very persuasive).  He sees the protagonist and wants to possess her.  She initially “sells her soul to the Devil (the antagonist),” but eventually leads a rebellion against the antagonist, freeing her people (long story, but I don’t really want to do a plot synopsis here).  She basically holds him responsible for the deaths of her mother and friend and sees him as the ultimate source of the suffering her people have endured – and to a large extent, she’s right.

The epiphany is this: She doesn’t just sell her soul – she really falls in love with him.  And he with her.  So now we’ve cranked the conflict up several notches.  The whole novel is exploring the idea of trying to carve a better life for yourself versus creating a better life for your society at large.  This is both an externally- and internally-manifested conflict, but there was something missing.  Now she has to face that conflict in its ultimate form.  She will head up an attack fleet that will start the war of independence that will free her people.  In order to accomplish that – something she’s not totally sure she believes is her responsibility anyway (hence the conflict) – she will have to destroy the enemy’s manufacturing capability – and the antagonist will be killed with it.  I’ve been crafting the story so that you really will see both sides of the issue.  You’re going to have a hard time deciding which side is right – exactly the same conflict the protagonist feels. In the end, you won’t be sure which choice she will make until the moment she makes.  It builds to what McKee defines as an ironic ending, something I had no intention of doing at first, but now seems to be the only way this story could possibly be told.  Similar stories have been told, but then again, I firmly believe every story has been told in some way.  I think the approach to this through two strong characters will make it unique right up until the end.  After all, conflict has to hurt.  This is going to hurt the protagonist pretty badly.

I didn’t bring the AlphaSmart on this past trip, so I’ve been holding off writing more on the story.  I just couldn’t bring myself to add more that would have to be retyped.  I am totally itching to get to the keyboard!  My new Neo arrived just after I left for the airport on Wednesday, so I’ll give a full report on that tomorrow!

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Controlling Idea

I'm in Hampton, VA, today giving a talk on Mars and doing a teacher-training workshop. I'll be headed home this afternoon. I had to take four different airplanes and two different airlines to get here, but miraculously, I got here without any problems at all. Of course, that means that I'm doomed when I go home, particularly since I have to go through Chicago. Ah well, I'll get home eventually. The hotel has high-speed Internet access, so I'm able to get email, upload to the blog, etc. Internet access is getting more nad more common in hotels now. I've gotten to where if they don't offer Internet access, I'll stay somewhere else. Ah, the modern life we lead...

I was reading Robert McKee's Story on the plane out here. His writing style is a bit ... opaque ... but he does have some very profound ideas about story structure. One of the topics that particularly struck me was the concept of a "controlling idea." The controlling idea is what drives your story forward. It's always a short sentence that contains a value change (positive to negative or vice versa) and a cause for that change. For example, the controlling idea of Dirty Harry is "Justice will prevail (negative to positive value change) because the protagonist is even more violent and ruthless than the criminals (cause)." Every scene should be interpreted in terms of either the controlling idea or its opposite, the counter-idea. By showing the audience how the counter-idea could win the day, you reinforce the drama of the idea succeeding. Of course, in a downbeat story, it's the other way around, and in an ironic story both idea and counter-idea win in the end. It's an interesting way of looking at it. I found I really had to think about it, and using this as a yardstick immediately pointed out some scenes I had in mind that don't really support either the idea or the counter-idea. Unless they become part of a sub-plot (which has it's own controlling idea), then under McKee's structure, they should be cut. I can see where you can a much stronger story by going through the process of explicitly writing out the controlling idea for the story. Can you write the controlling idea for your latest story?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


I have a habit of recording particularly vivid dreams in my writing notebook. While most dreams really aren't coherent enough to be a story in their own right, you never know when some of the elements in those dreams might provide a germ that can grow into a finished story. Last night I had rather disturbing dream, a nightmare, I suppose, though it wasn't the irrational terror that accompanies most nightmares -- I certainly didn't wake up screaming.

But the dream involved terror, nonetheless. Like many dreams, the plot didn't totally make sense, but the important part was that my son and daughter were lost in a national park similar to the Grand Canyon (in the dream it was a huge dam with Grand Canyon-like walking paths built along either side. My family and I had gotten lost as well and somehowwe became separated. My daughter is 2, and though my son is actually 16, in the dream he was about 5, so now you have two small children lost and wandering around this national park (that includes a thousand-foot drop just off the path). As search and rescue teams were deployed, I began to feel the terror that only a parent, I think, can feel. As a writer, though, emotions like this (especially in the "safe" environment of a dream) are better than gold. We need to pay close attention to what we are feeling so that we can later convey that to our readers. I woke up shortly after the kids were recovered (safe and sound), but I lay there for a bit trying to hold on to the feeling of terror. It went something like this:

The feeling starts as an electric-ice tingle just below your solar plexus. It's uncomfortable. It's as though it were the source of the adrenelin that you can already feel beginning to spread through your veins. The feeling begins to spread, straight up your breastbone. Just below the top of the breastbone, you begin to feel that icy sensation in your lungs. You breathe out with force, but breathe in only shallowly. Your heartrate begins to increase. Faster, harder. You can feel your heart pounding under the breastbone, directly under that icy feeling, amplifying it. The icy feeling gets stronger, spreading acrossyour collarbone, making your heart pound even harder. You try to tell yourself to stay calm. You aren't panicked -- but you are in deep terror now. (What will happen to my kids? Are they suffering? Are they hurt? Are they scared? Where are my kids?!) You ache to hold them, you try to keep control, but you can feel it slipping. You're breathing much faster now, starting to hyperventilate. You're getting light-headed, and that just adds to the feeling of terror. The electric-ice feeling has spread through your arms, your whole torso. You can't think -- you're scared. Someone please help!

You wouldn't want to include this description in your story, as that would be pretty pointless. But if you can capture the details of the senstation of strong emotion, you can use elements from it to bring your characters' emotion alive, to make it real for the reader. By the way, the feeling of joyous, sobbing relief when I pulled both toddlers into my arms was just as strong and just as powerful.

But I think I'll treasure that one myself for a while.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Saga Is Complete

As most of you probably know, Star Wars: Episode III was released on DVD today. With this release, we know have all six Star Wars films on DVD, so my son is planning a Star Wars marathon with some of his friends -- they are going to watch all six movies back-to-back, and maybe watch the Clone Wars animated series as well, although the jury is still out on that one. I'm probably going to join them. :)

Star Wars, the original movie, now called Star Wars: A New Hope, was a very important film for both science fiction fans and the general public as well. Think about what special effects were like before this film came out. In most cases they were cheesy plastic models hanging from strings that you could sometimes see in the shot. When we walked into Star Wars, however, for the first time everything seemed real. Yeah, we can do even better with today's CGI effects, but watch the original film again. Even today it's pretty darn good, and when it came out it changed the way we see and make movies. The story is good and there is a lot a budding science fiction writer can learn from the elements of the saga (even though what we thought was Luke Skywalker's story has turned out to be Anakin Skywalker's story). But it is the wonder of being transported to "a galaxy far, far away" that made the original movie special for us. In the case of Star Wats it was really the special effects, cleverly integrated into the story, that brought about that feeling. Nevertheless, this feeling is exactly what we should be trying to evoke as writers. And we've got the best special effects company ever created: our readers' imaginations!