Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Clarion East in San Diego

In case you hadn't heard the news, the original Clarion SF Writers' Workshop will be leaving its long-time home in Michigan and moving to -- San Diego? You can read the official announcement here: As you might predict, previous graduates of Clarion are bemoaning the move, saying that while it will still be Clarion, it won't be the same Clarion they all attended. They say they won't feel the automatic bond they do with current Clarionites, much as they don't (according to some posters) feel a bond with the Clarion West graduates. Basically, I get the impression that they see this as the death of the "original Clarion" and the birth of "Clarion California".

And they may be right. But I don't think so -- or more specifically, I don't really think it matters one way or the other. The value of Clarion (East, West, or South) is in the experience, the teachers, and the contacts you make. I get the impression that Clarion West graduates felt somewhat like second-class citizens with the Clarion East grads (who, I believe, never refer to themselves as anything other than just "Clarion graduates"). I think in the past decade or so, though, Clarion West has come into its own and proven that it is just as good as -- CW grads predictably argue its better than -- Clarion East. I think the wider recognition of the very term "Clarion East" illustrates that. One could even argue that Clarion West is somewhat better organized (Clarion East has had no end of uncertainty in its financing), but I really think that's more because of the support, or lack thereof, given by the hosting institutions. I would claim that both sets of administrators are top-notch. Given that, then, moving someplace where they can get better institutional support is, in my opinion, exactly what Clarion East needs.

So where would I go? Well, up until this announcement, there was no question I would go to Clarion West. First and foremost, all of the instructors and students that I have met attended CW. That doesn't mean it's better, but it's true that graduates of the two workshops don't really intermingle much. Given that the education is the same, why not go to the one my friends have attended? It's not a comment on the quality of either workshop at all. Furthermore, it's a shorter and slightly cheaper plane ride to Seattle than to Michigan, so that would make it easier to visit family and have them visit me during the six weeks.

But San Diego? My, my, that is tempting. I've never actually been to SD, but my wife has family and friends there. It has a number of things going for it: 1) It's only a six-hour drive, so I could actually drive myself there, 2) Plane tickets are about half the cost of plane tickets to Seattle, 3) IT'S WARM AND SUNNY (this is no small thing for someone with seasonal affective disorder -- Seattle is very close to Hell for someone with SAD), 4) There's a great beach, 5) Did I mention it was warm and sunny? The instructors for next summer are, in my mind, about equivalent. Both are heavy on the fantasy side, with only one real SF writer (Nancy Kress at West, Cory Doctorow at East). I love Nancy to death and would dearly like to study under her, but since I really want to go to Clarion to stretch my horizons as a writer, having all the fantasy and horror writers as instructors is actually a good thing for me -- maybe better than having SF authors in the long run.

So where to apply? In the end, I think San Diego will probably win out. The reason is that no matter when I attend Clarion, it's going to be a huge sacrifice emotionally for my family. I'll have two small children at home who are going to seriously miss their Daddy (my college-age son is less likely to care...). I have a faithful and loving wife who is going to be forced to be the sole caregiver for a month and half, all while teaching astronomy every night. That's not going to be easy. Going to Clarion: SD would allow me to come home one weekend and fly them all out to SD another. Also, my ten year anniversary is coming up and we had plans to go to Disneyland. L.A. is still a pretty good ways from SD, but it's not impossible for me to meet them there (as much as I would rather introduce them to my classmates).

And there's one other factor: I actually like being a trailblazer. Next year will be the first class at the new site. It's a chance to start some new traditions and hold a place of honor in Clarion history. That's not to be taken lightly.

You may have noticed a fairly significant change in this post from my previous posts of just a few weeks ago. My wife and I have talked about it, and she feels (and I agree) that next summer is simply the one-and-only perfect time (professionally) for me to go to Clarion, particularly in light of my goals. So, we're going to go for it. I'm actually going to apply to Clarion in the spring. I'll definitely apply to both workshops, but if accepted to SD, I'll (with some regret because of my friends) definitely go there. I think my writing is up to Clarion level, so I feel like I have a decent shot of getting accepted (though it's not easy -- Clarion East got 76 applications for a bit over 20 slots last year). I've signed up for the Virtual Clarion Workshop and I think that will be valuable training. I'm also going to see if Marta Randall (past president of SFWA and a simply outstanding teacher) is still teaching SF at Gotham Writers' Workshop. If so, I'm going to take her advanced class in October. Hopefully the prep time will give me a good shot. Even if I don't get in, it will certainly help me make giant strides towards my goals. There's no substitute for good training. That's why I'm going to Clarion in the first place, in spite of the sacrifice.

But they really have to figure out what they're going to call the workshop now...

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Effortful Study

It's been a productive day today. I wrote a new draft of my flash fiction story on my Neo while waiting for DMV to tell me that I don't have the paperwork they want (grrr...), did a bit of research for my Ph.D., and wrote a new scene for one of the short stories I'm working on. Not bad at all. The title of this entry comes from the Ph.D. research, actually. I was reading an article in Scientific American* about expertise and how experts remember things. It quotes some research that I already had in my thesis proposal, but one passage I found particularly relevant in light of the previous entry.

Anders Ericsson argues that experience per se is not what matters for achieving expert status, but "effortful study." Erricsson defines effortful study as continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's ability. This explains why many people (myself included) show an early large improvement in ability, but this improvement rate rapidly tapers off as soon as the learner achieves an average level of proficiency. This applies to music, driving, golf, almost anything. In fact, Ericsson makes the example that someone can play ten thousand hours of golf and never achieve expert status because they aren't playing against anyone other than amateurs like themselves. Experts-in-training, Ericsson contends, are continually looking at their efforts and trying to figure out how they can improve.

I've read many bios of science fiction grandmasters who say they taught themselves how to write by critically examining the works of others. The "Clarion Method" of workshopping fits well within Ericsson's theory as well -- in fact, it's an almost classic example, and certainly explains why students can progress so rapidly in just six weeks at Clarion. it also provides a bit of theoretical justification for my strive to get a Hugo in two years. A concerted effort to work towards that challenge -- well beyond my abilities right now -- is exactly what's needed to improve.

It's also seriously making me wish I could go to Clarion next summer as planned. I had everything arranged so that next summer would be the perfect time, both logisitically and professionally. I think by next summer I will be exactly at the place in my professional development where Clarion will do me the most good. My daughter would also be old enough that she can live without Daddy for six weeks without too much hardship. With the new baby due in two months, though, that's going to be just the wrong time to be away. I would never forgive myself if I missed her first steps. Ah well. Life is what happens while we're making other plans, eh?

*A side note, all science fiction authors should read Scientific American -- there's a wealth of story ideas there, accessible even to the non-scientist.

Thursday, August 31, 2006


In looking back over this blog, I see that It's now been months since I last made an entry. That seems about proper, since for six months I was posting every day. I'm still not planning to post every day -- I have far, far too many things on my plate right now, most of them, fortunately, writing-related. Recording observations and things I've learned in a blog is good, but the temptation to write an essay every day is quite strong -- and essays are not the kind of writing I want to do just now. So, instead of a daily commentary on writing, I'm just going to use this blog to record any insights I've had that I don't want to lose. Many of these will simply go into the pocket journal I carry around with me everywhere, but when I happen to be near a computer, I'll see if I can't preserve them here instead.

As the title of this entry indicates, I just got back from the World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention, popularly known as Worldcon. Now, I'm not really much of the convention type. I attended a few comic book conventions in college (and was bored out of my mind) and have been to a number of gaming conventions (where the point is to play and run games, not to attend panels). This was my first real exposure to "fandom," however. I found it interesting that while the con is basically a chance for fans of science fiction to get together and have fun, there is a parallel, almost secret track for writers of science fiction going on at the same time. Very few of the fans I met were interested in the writing panels or in meeting "famous writers." Most of fandom was centered on the movies and television shows, and rightfully so. There were some fans of written fiction, of course, quite a respectable number, in fact. But for the most part, the writing panels were attended by neo-professional writers and those that would like to be. What impressed me was how well the two groups got along, like a pair of favored cousins. There was a mutual respect that was evident, even if there was a rather strong separation of interest. It was a really interesting dynamic.

Worldcon was an absolute blast, though, mostly because the friend who convinced me to come is friends with a couple who have been on both sides of the house (fan and writer) for over ten years now. Everyone knows them. I had no idea that the real con takes place in the parties, not in the panels (although the panels were interesting and incredibly valuable). As far as I know, this couple attended none of the actual panels. Why should they? Most of the panelists were coming up to them to have lunch and hang out. A case in point: I joined the writer of the couple for breakfast with Connie Willis, master of ceremonies for the Hugo Awards and winner of multiple Hugos herself. She's a delightful and encouraging person. The main thing that I took away from Worldcon, though, was a burning desire to write. To immerse myself in this world, to finally be able to "fellowship with my peers," as the saying goes.

I also came out with a resolve to win a Hugo two years from now, or at least a Campbell award (for best new science fiction writer). I met the current Campbell recipient (before he knew he had won) and a couple of past recipients. Their stories are a lot like mine. They are much further along in their craft than I am, as much as two or three years further along. I also realized something I probably already knew, but hadn't let come to a conscious level: Every writer goes through a long (usually three or more year) struggle in which they have no idea if they are any good or not. Nor do they have any idea if they have potential to be good. It is in this latter bit that I find my motivation. Right now, I suck. While it's a notch above amateur, from a professional perspective, my writing sucks (if you'd like to see just how badly I suck, join the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror -- I'm starting to post some pieces there, though nothing I've yet been serious about). On the other hand, I have received two personal rejection letters, one hand-written from the editor of a magazine on par with the New Yorker and one from Stanley Schimdt of Analog (who said my writing was "quite good at times"), and have been told by a past president of Science Fiction Writers of America (she was my instructor in a writing course I took) that I've got a lot of talent. So while I do, in fact, suck, at least I know I've got the potential to be better. Whether or not I realize that potential entirely depends on whether or not I'm willing to sit in my chair every day until my writing finally comes into its own. You see, no one can teach you to write, not really. In the end, you have to teach yourself, and that only comes by, well, writing. I just finished a great book on the writing life by Heather Sellers called Page After Page. Read the book, but the best advice in the entire book is simply this:

Give yourself permission to suck.

That's it. You're in training, why should you expect to do anything else but suck? I do believe that anyone who writes -- and reads -- every single day for three years will write something good at the end of that time, assuming you have the slightest bit of talent (and most everyone does to some degree). I set a two-year goal for myself for three reasons: 1) I won't be going to Worldcon in Japan next year, but I will go to the 2008 Worldcon in Denver, 2) I am convinced that I have a modicum of (as yet undeveloped) talent and I think I can write something good in less time than the average person, and 3) I firmly believe that in order to succeed you have to shoot high, not with the mindset of "Oh, I'll aim high, but I know I probably won't get quite that close" but instead with the bullheaded drive to achieve that goal. Realistically, some of the best writers who have ever lived have not won a Hugo. What makes me think I can get that well known in that short period of time? Ah, the challenge! I love a challenge. Nothing spurs me on better!

So here I am, finally back in training. I spent all summer teaching, all spring working on my Ph.D. thesis proposal. I'll have a baby coming on October 30th. But I've got a priority. I'll be teaching more than full-time after the baby comes, since I'll be teaching my wife's classes in addition to my own. But by that time, I'll be in the habit once again of "running a mile" every day in my writing. Once you get in training, it's a hell of a lot easier to just keep going. I'm counting on that. After all, babies have a habit of not sleeping, so I'll have plenty of time to think about writing!

Monday, May 15, 2006

It's Done Then!

As you can see, I've been much too busy to post here lately. When I was finally completely free of NASA at the end of February, I realized that it was going to be very difficult to get my Ph.D. dissertation proposal finished by the end of the semester (especially since I've been teaching four college classes this semester as well). I decided, reluctantly, to put all of my other writing projects on hold and focus on the proposal.

I submitted the first draft to my committee chair today!

The proposal is exactly 30 pages, including eight pages of references. This is the third version of this that I've put together so far. Dealing with my committee is like going on a fishing trip. I'd give them a draft, and they'd say, "No, this is not quite what we want." Without, of course, saying it is they do want. This current version is my absolute best work. It's deeply researched, extremely focused, and I've tried to anticipate (and deal with) every possible objection they could come up with. In short, it ain't gonna get no better than this, Hoss. While I'm certainly open to specific suggestions or requests, the fishing expedition is hereby over. If they do to me what they've done the past two times, I'm done. I don't need the Ph.D. for anything. I'm a writer -- a Ph.D. is hardly a job requirement. Is it nice to have? Sure, but there is still a cost-benefit analysis that has to be made. I've made mine. I won't be doing a fourth major rewrite. Honestly, I have gone over and over this proposal. There's nothing, nothing wrong with it. If they don't accept this one, then there's not much hope of ever getting one done. I don't think that will happen, but then again, it shouldn't have happened with earlier incarnations either.

Time will tell...

Friday, April 14, 2006

WriteWay Pro

I have been using WriteWay Pro for a few weeks now. Let me just say, this program rocks. I was a bit skeptical that it would be useful, but it really does make the process of writing a long novel much easier. You can have "notecards" that are readily accessible while you are writing text. You can also do full character sketches (including pictures of your character), and have all that info handy when you need it (no more searching for the character's alma mater that you made up on page 9 -- just record it as you write). The printing functions are outstanding. Just by selecting a couple of radio buttons you can choose how much of the story to print (scene, chapter, act, or the entire book), and it will automatically format in draft or manuscript form (for submission) as you choose. In the Pro version (which I have) you can also print galleys, which puts two facing pages on a single landscape page (it looks roughly like a paperback book opened up). The main feature that I find useful, though, is having the outline of scene titles continuously on the left side of the screen. This allows me to really focus on writing a single, independent scene, yet helps me keep in mind its place in the larger whole. A small thing, maybe, but it turns out to be a major boon to have this all in one place. All the formatting options you would expect are there, but my only complaint is that there doesn't seem to be keyboard shortcuts for underline, bold, etc. Also, the spell checker does not run continuously as Word does; you have to run it from the menu. Still, those are pretty minor complaints compared to everything else. The Pro version also allows you to keep up with "research folders," which can include everything from web pages (which will be displayed in the folder) to pictures to text. This is turning out to be pretty useful as well. I've always kept my notes in text files in a folder for each WIP, but it is nice to call something up without having to leave the WriteWay editor. It's probably not worth the $30 difference in price, but it is a major convenience.

I'm even using WriteWay to write my dissertation for my PhD. It's turning out to be a great way to organize my thoughts and being able to rearrange whole section by just dragging and dropping is a godsend!

Friday, March 24, 2006


I've been thinking about the novel I've been working on, and I think I've finally put my finger on what's been bothering me about the tone of the book. In looking back, all of the memorable characters I've created have been funny. More precisely, they've had a very dry sense of humor, and that's come through in the writing. I'm not saying that I write slapstick or even comedy -- I don't -- but all of the characters that I've truly liked have been able to look at the world and find something ironic or humorous to say about it. In my current story, I've tried to take a very serious approach to the tale. That comes about originally because one of the main sub-themes in the book was going to be that the protagonist (a teenager) would basically have to prostitute herself to make her escape from the world she's on. That's a serious subject, and really isn't something to be kidding around with. So, I've been trying to emphasize the tragic nature of the protagonist, one way to increase the dramatic tension in the story.

There's nothing wrong with this, and it can work quite well -- but it's not me. Yes, I can write okay stories in this mode, but they aren't what I consider to be my best work. I think the reason I haven't been as pleased with the plot so far is that I've cast the character with the wrong personality. Yes, she's a reluctant revolutionary. Yes, she is a natural leader whether she wants to admit or not. Yes, she's had a hard life. But she can still maintain a sense of humor about it! Some of the best scenes I've written so far have had that humor come through -- but it was inappropriate for the character I'd been developing. I found myself having to write scenes where she says (essentially), "I can't believe I actually said that!" Ya think she's trying to tell me something? : )

So that's definitely going into the next re-write. As most of you know, I've never tried to write a novel before, only short stories. One thing you gotta say for short stories: It's a heck of a lot easier to make major changes like this!

Monday, March 20, 2006

A Double Woo-hoo

Since my computer was in the shop last week, I didn't think to check to see if the latest issue of the Journal of the Traveler's Aid Society (a gaming magazine I read that has gone to an online format) was out. I checked tonight, and sure enough it was -- and not only they, I found not one, but two articles of mine in this issue! And not only did they buy the text to both articles, they bought the artwork I drew for one of the articles as well! This will be a fat paycheck... That means that so far I've sold everything I've submitted to this magazine. It helps greatly that I'm a long-time reader of the magazine (I have, I believe, every issue since it was started in 1977). Because I've been reading the magazine for so long, I know exactly the kinds of things they buy. It definitely pays off to do market research before writing the article instead of the other way around.

I can think of a few times when an author has had two articles in the same issue of this magazine, but it doesn't happen very often. I recognize that it has more to do with fitting articles to the available space than anything else, but still, it certainly looks good for me! Time to update the sales page of my author website, I guess. I'm pretty psyched!

Friday, March 17, 2006

Back Online

I finally got my computer back form the repair place today. It took them five days to replace the keyboard and network card (a five minute operation) and reinstall the system software (a one-hour operation). I took it to them on Monday, the first day of our spring break, and got it back on Friday -- the last day of spring break. So much for getting caught up with my projects over the break! Oh well, at least the wireless card works now, which is a major boon. I've restored all of my data to this machine from my wife's computer, so now it's just a matter of reinstalling my software. Hopefully things should go a little more smoothly now. Nevertheless, it's not as bad as it could be. I just picked up the 16" x 20" print of last year's art nude photo from the photographer (8 months late, grumble). She said her whole drive crashed, so she had to take it to a data recovery place. They recovered all 35,000 of her photos, but the file names were nothing but numbers. She now has to sort and rename all 35,000 photos. Ouch...

All these computer troubles make me appreciate my Neo even more. It's always ready, doesn't crash, and does nothing but what I need it to do. It really is the perfect writing machine. I highly recommend it!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Happy Birthday, Sunshine!

Today my daughter turned three. We've been playing this up as a big day for several weeks now -- she's a "big girl" now! When she woke up this morning, she was thrilled beyond imagining that it was her birthday. And not, as with most kids (and adults), because she was going to be getting presents. She doesn't remember her second birthday, so really didn't have much of an expectation there. In this case, it was all about status. As a three year old, she's no longer a baby. The first thing she said when she woke up was, "I need to throw away my paci's!" After all, big girls don't use pacifiers. And sure enough, she tossed them one by one into the trash can.

She's been a delight all day long. At one point, she just burst out with, "I'm so happy!" What a hoot! Sure, she loved the cake and presents when they finally came, but having a milestone special day was what made it for her. Everyone has commented on how adorable she was today. We brought cupcakes to her school to share with her friends. She took a cupcake and presented it to each of her friends, giving each one a kiss on the cheek as she did so. What a sweetie! She is just too cute for words.

Happy birthday, sunshine. I'm glad you came along our way. I love you!

Monday, March 13, 2006

I'm Back (more or less)

Things are starting to settle down a bit (though that's about to change, see below), so I'm going to try to start posting quasi-regularly again. I've decided that I'm not going to try to post every day, though, but I think once or twice a week is pretty reasonable. I want to keep this blog focused on writing, to the greatest extent possible, and sometimes there's just not much more to say other than, "Yep, wrote some today." I know some writers post their daily word counts, but I've always found that rather dull. I am planning on trying out the Write Way Pro software, so I'll post a review of that later on.

The big news, however, is that we found out my wife is pregnant! The baby is due around Halloween. We're cautiously excited. We don't have a terribly good track record with this, as we've lost two out of three babies, so anything could happen. She goes to the OB for the first time on the 27th, so we really won't know much more until then. It's a huge change for our family, but we're well and truly pleased. Here's hoping!

In other news, as of 1 March, I'm officially a free agent and no longer employed by NASA or Arizona State University. That's a huge relief to have that particular monkey off of my back. Sadly, my boss at ASU and I have some pretty serious disagreements as to the level of the last activity I wrote for her. She seems convinced that most teachers are incompetent (she doesn't put it quite that way, of course, she calls them "beta teachers", as opposed to the good "alpha teachers") and so couldn't handle anything other than a mindless cookbook-style activity. I like to give teachers a lot more credit than that -- my experience has been that with only a very few exceptions, most teachers are highly-trained, highly-motivated professionals. You have to be to want to teach in today's educational climate. Ultimately, since she is the customer and I'm the consultant, she can do what she wants with the activity, but one would think that as a consultant, she's paying me for my expertise (something she lacks, though she is loathe to admit that). We'll see how they make the final product turn out, but if they change it too much from my original, I may ask that my name be taken off of it. We'll see.

And the last bit of news, my computer apparently got a virus (I assume -- neither Norton nor McAfee ever detected anything) that made the machine no longer recognize .exe, .bat, or .com files. Pretty hard to troubleshoot in that case! I was able to access the hard drive over the network, and backed most things up, but I realized this morning I did not get my archived writing folder. That hurts pretty bad. I have hard copies of everything (NEVER rely solely on electronic backups), but that still means a lot of retyping if I ever need that material. One of the pieces I lost is an article I've sent off to a magazine that includes three maps -- each of which took me several days to make. I have the hard copies of those as well, but if the editor decides he wants changes to the maps, I've got a lot of fast work ahead of me. If he does, I'll have to decide whether to ask him to send me electronic copies back. While I realize these happen -- and so does he, I'm sure -- it does seem very unprofessional to me. I'll have to check my old CD-ROM backups to see if I have these, but I doubt I do. My older stuff should be there, though. My current work in progress is safely on my Neo (including my research notes), so I didn't lose anything there, thank goodness. I hate machines. :)

Saturday, February 18, 2006

A Sort of "Woo-Hoo"

Yeah, I know I said I wasn't going to post for a while, but I thought this was worth sharing. I heard back from Cicada magazine the other day about the story I sent to them. I saw that they had returned the story, so I knew they hadn't accepted it, so I didn't really look through the packet to read the rejection slip. Rejections don't bother me, that's a big part of the writing game. If you can't handle rejections, then you're in the wrong field. So today I was cleaning up the counter and decided to file the rejection letter. I pulled it out of the envelope and realized that the editor had written me a fairly long (half-page) hand-written note praising the writing but saying it was a bit too long and had a bit too much technological language for their magazine. That's about as good as it gets, folks (short of buying the story, of course), so that's call for celebration. Cicada is a top-of-the-line market. They pay about $850 for stories. I sent it out figuring I may as well shoot for the top (see my December 1 blog entry), so I was psyched to get such a positive response. The editor made it clear the writing was great, but the story wasn't quite right for their magazine. More importantly -- and as I understand it, this almost never happens -- she gave me advice on what they are looking for in a story. If she didn't think my writing had potential, she wouldn't have bothered. Much rejoicing!

So, I've got two professional editors (here and Stanley Schmidt at Analog) who have written me personal notes saying my writing was good, even if the story wasn't quite right for their magazine. I can't begin to tell you how encouraging that is. Maybe there's hope for a career in this!

Friday, February 17, 2006

Still Alive

As you've no doubt noticed, I haven't posted to this blog in a week. I'm coming to the end of my work at NASA (I finish at the end of the month), so I'm scrambling to get all the last-minute stuff done. I'm also embroiled in a strong disagreement with the director of the program about the educational content of the activity I've been writing (essentially, she wants less educational content, if you can believe that -- she feels that teachers are basically lazy and no one but the "alpha" teachers will pick up a lesson that has anything more than blindly -- and mindlessly -- following a cookbook recipe. An attitude that offends me in the extreme...). Ultimately, she is the customer and I'm the consultant, so I'll give her what she wants, but I'm very seriously considering having my name removed from association with the product. One would think that I was hired for my (widely recognized, if I do say so myself) expertise. If she chooses to ignore that expertise, why bother having me write it in the first place?

At any rate, in a few weeks I can wash my hands of the whole deal, as disappointing as that is to me. I'm not naïve enough to believe that just because I'm no longer getting paid, I won't be still finishing this up. I probably won't be posting again (unless I get a spare minute) until mid-March or so. When I started this blog, I had planned to see where we were at the six-month mark and decide then whether or not to continue posting on a regular basis. Six months has passed (can you believe it?), but I'll wait until March to decide if there is enough value to keep going. We'll see how it goes.

See you in March!

*Incidentally, this is my first post using The Journal from a different computer than my own. I installed it to my USB drive (the program has a specific installation option for that), and it seems to be working fine! Gotta love that...

Friday, February 10, 2006

Protecting the Innocent (and the Not-So)

One of the recurring questions almost all writers have is "How much of my writing can be based on real people?" You see, even if we don't explicitly base a character on a person we know, our friends and family are constantly reading our work and looking for themselves or people they know in it. If they decide a character is based on them, and that character does reprehensible or simply embarrassing things, then you are setting yourself up for major row. It doesn't matter if you really were thinking of the real person or not when you created the character. As I've written before, it is our life experiences that provide the raw material for our stories, but that raw material is very rarely used verbatim. It's just the straw that we spin into gold, and "any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental." But our friends and family don't generally buy that line.

So, should write to protect your loved ones from controversy? Or to put it another way, would you want your mother to read the steamy and perverse S&M-laden sex scene you just wrote for your protagonist? It doesn't matter if you have never (and would never) participate in such an activity, if it needs to happen with your character, then it needs to happen. But plan on raising a few eyebrows if write a sex scene in which the protagonist has an affair with his sister-in-law. Your brother may start watching you extra closely...

So, again, should you shy away from this type of thing? The answer is an unequivocal "no." The minute you tie your hands (no pun intended), you have effectively hamstrung your ability to write moving, meaningful stories. You may end up being the "bad child" as a result of your writing, but if you write to be the "good child" then you've doomed your career before it starts. Sometimes it's best to have a talk with the family about what fiction is and what the creative process is like before the book is written and not try to explain it after the fact. Beyond that, write what has to be written. Only you can be true to your Muse, after all.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Do You Call Yourself a Writer?

Twice this week I've had a casual conversation with a near-stranger. As is often the case, one of the standard small talk lines is "What do you do for a living?" So here's my question to you: Do you call yourself a writer? I've been writing for a long time, but the vast majority of the things I've had published wouldn't be known by Joe Average-On-The-Street. I do, however, write freelance now (or near full time, as I'm still working on my Ph.D. as well). It used to be I could say, "I work for NASA," and that would start up all kinds of interesting conversations, but in about three weeks, I won't be able to say that any more. Many people still consider someone who stays at home and writes all day to be basically a bum who couldn't get a real job. Even some well-intentioned folks betray that subconscious bias sometimes. For example, Betsy Lerner (The Forest for the Trees) reports a story she heard a writer who was seeing a therapist (a subject worth an entry all its own, I guess). The therapist only wanted to schedule the writer for morning appointments, since she saved her after-5:00 appointments for "people who work." The assumption is that since you work at home, you aren't really employed and so can make any appointment during the day -- never mind that your "peak writing hours" may be at midday or even from 9 to 5, the same as people with "outside" jobs.

There's no reason why non-writers should understand that writing is a job and that it takes just as much effort and work as any other job. We writers are guilty sometimes of wanting to make it seem like "magic" so we can enhance our mystique, as well. But when you are in casual conversation with a non-writer, you don't really want to take the time to explain all about the writing process and how much work it really is -- and you would be considered a bore if you did. On the other hand, if you call yourself a writer, but they haven't read anything you've written (or seen it published), then their suspicions are obviously confirmed -- you can't be much of a writer if you aren't getting published in the "major" magazines. Never mind that there are many, many very successful professional writers who neither have published in the "majors" nor are they seeking to. My education writing is in a very esoteric market, yet I'm highly respected within that market --but Joe Average has never heard of any of it, so that really doesn't matter, does it?

I'm proud to be a writer, and I generally introduce myself as such, particularly since I no longer have another "label" to use in small talk. But I still haven't found a really good, quick way to convey that in the positive sense that it is, and I'll admit to feeling just a tiny bit uncomfortable calling myself a writer to strangers. If I publish a book they can find in Borders, then I think I'd feel better about. But let's face it, that's just silly. You're a writer because of what you do, not because of what and where you publish. And yet...

How do you deal with small talk situations?

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Demon

I'm continuing to read The Forest for the Trees, and while it isn't breathtakingly illuminating, it is at somewhat thought-provoking. I just finished the chapter on how writing and alcoholism seem to often go hand in hand. It starts out innocently enough, a drink to loosen up and inspire before sitting down to write. But in almost every case, as you might expect, eventually the drinking kept them from writing instead of making it possible. As Shakespeare said about sex and alcohol, "It builds you up, but then it ... lets you down."
Apparently, the last generation of writers considered being hard-drinking to be a character trait essential to maintain the "image of the artist." Let me just say that I'm glad this at least has changed (or at least is changing very quickly). We're starting to see that no matter how much the alcohol may help to begin with, it the end it always is the main source that ended a career (an sometimes a life).

Now, I do drink. I like alcohol, and I don't have any moral compunction not to drink (Jesus drank wine, don't forget). The problem here is not the alcohol itself, it's relying on anything to "get your Muse going." Your Muse should come from you and your love of writing and your desire to communicate, be it a good story or an illuminating piece of non-fiction. I don't care if it's alcohol or pink pajamas, anytime you rely on something other than yourself and your life for inspiration, you're asking for trouble. At best you're hamstringing your talent; at worst, you could be destroying it altogether.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

And in this corner...

The other day I heard about a possible challenger to the Sony Reader for the eBook platform that may finally make eBooks worthwhile. It's called the "iLiad" and it's made by a Norwegian company called iRex. The technology, best I can tell is very similar to the Sony Reader's, though it is very slightly thicker and just a bit heavier. Unlike the Sony version, it has wireless LAN and a stylus for interacting on the screen. You can find details at

Both the Sony Reader and the iLiad will debut about the same time (Sony says "Spring 2006," the iLiad says April 2006). Sony has announced their reader will cost about $350, but I haven't seen any pricing estimates on the iLiad. The possibility exists that they will price it slightly less in order to compete with Sony's huge marketing share (while they are essentially an unknown), but since they reader seems to do a bit more, maybe not. I have not seen a good screen shot that tells me anything about the quality of the screens, nor has the iLiad given any battery life estimates that I've seen (the Sony will last some 7500 hours before needing to be recharged -- more than enough). The touch screen may end up being a disadvantage for the iLiad. Remember, the idea is to replace the paperback book. The touch screen means having interact with it like a Palm Pilot; it also means that the screen will be more fragile than the Sony design. The idea for iLiad is that you can read a full newspaper on screen and click on a column of text to have it magnified and "floating" above the page. It's a good paradigm, but I'm not sure it's really worth the extra trouble and bother. You can read the news in a single-story format just as easily, I think, and since I don't really read newspapers anyway, that's not a big draw.

What does worry me a bit is that Sony will do something dumb to preserve "intellectual property rights" on the content as they have done with Mp3 files. I don't take kindly to someone installing spyware on my machine. Not only that, Sony could make the same mistake Apple did with the Mac. The PC was open architecture, so took over the world. If you want to introduce a new technology, you've got to have lots of avenues for content purchases, not just the Sony Connect Store. I'm not at all sure Sony has made that connection, although supposedly the Sony Reader will also read PDFs (after they have been converted). A PDF would have to be carefully formatted to be the size of a paperback instead of a letter-sized sheet, as most are now. Easily done, but not all publishers will think to do it. We'll see, but no matter how you look at it, having a competitor for Sony is a good thing. My only hope is that they don't go the Beta-VHS route and use mutually exclusive formats...

Monday, February 06, 2006

Happy Birthday, Buddy!

Today is my son's 17th birthday. It's a big milestone for me as a parent, even if (so far) he doesn't act as if it is one for him. You see, a 16 year old is still a rookie teenager, just barely out of pre-adolescence, learning to drive, learning the real way of the world. 17, in my mind, is an apprentice adult. At this age, he should have the maturity to make smart decisions without the input of his parents, and -- hopefully -- be more concerned about his future than his present. In short, he's getting ready to take his place as an independent in society.

Now, I don't really think there is anything magical about the number 17. Some kids have this maturity much earlier, some don't really develop it until much later. But one year from today, for better or worse, he will be an adult in the eyes of the law. At that point, if he wants to tell his dear old dad to go stuff himself, there's not a thing I can do to stop him. He's got one more year of training, and he will never have another birthday as a child. That's a sobering thought. Turning 18 is something of a celebration, but I think there is a lot of anxiety and pressure in turning 17, just because that legal change is coming -- and coming fast. It hasn't been all that long since he was just learning to drive, yet in just that same amount of time, he's going to be 100% responsible for his own actions. This is as stressful for the parents as it is for the teens, of course. This is it, our last year to try impart our values, or better yet, the ability for our child to develop his own values after reasonable thought. We've just got a year to finish giving him the life lessons he needs to survive, and, like every parent, we're worried that we haven't taught him everything he needs to succeed and won't have time to do so in the next twelve months.

But we've got it luckier than most parents. My son is a good kid. I'm extremely, extremely proud of him, practically every day. I try to make him aware of that, but I'm sure I don't always succeed. Happy birthday, buddy. It's a big step!

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Debt-Free (almost)

Today was something of a major milestone for me (and my family): As of today we have paid off all of our loans, debts, etc., with the exception of the house and one of our two cars. And there was much rejoicing! I had a bunch of student loans from grad school to pay off (interestingly, I didn't need any loans as an undergrad), plus car payments and VISA and such, but we managed to consolidate most of that into the home equity line of credit once I decided to leave NASA (had to lower those monthly payments). We've been doing really well paying down the line of credit and today we were able to make a massive payment to pay it all off! That's a huge relief, since I will stop working for NASA part time at the end of the month, so our income is going to be cut even further. I'm teaching four classes and selling an average of an article a month (which still isn't big bucks, but it helps), plus we have my military retirement pay and my wife's full-time teaching job (and benefits), so we're doing okay. It's still tight, but without the added debt load, we'll make it.

One thing every full-time writer is going to struggle with is how to pay the bills. Let's face it, even when writing pays, it doesn't pay well and it doesn't pay often. None of us (at least none of us who stop and really think about it) gets into writing to strike it rich. My family cut its income by 40% when I quit my NASA job, so certainly money isn't my major motivating factor. I simply decided that no amount of money could make up for wasting my life not doing what I really was meant to be doing.

I can't think of a better reason to take up writing.

Saturday, February 04, 2006


This morning my Civil Air Patrol squadron had it's "subordinate unit inspection (SUI)," in which a team from the Wing's Inspector General's Office comes to the squadron and begins tearing through our records (or, more precisely, ordering us to tear through our records while they watch). The intent is to ensure that we are following all of the Air Force's regulations -- and believe me, there are a huge, huge number of them. We've been preparing for about three weeks, but we just had a change of command and most of us were appointed to the jobs we would have to "defend" to the IG folks at that time. That's not a lot of time to read and understand 500-600 pages of regulations! And, as reported earlier, I'm a sucker and agreed to take on two jobs to help out the squadron.

Overall, we did well. Our administration officer was pretty screwed up, sorting all of his big pile of records on the table 15 minutes before the inspection started (and in full view of all the inspectors). Needless to say, that didn't make us look very good from the start. My first review was with my communications officer hat on, but since we don't yet really have a communications program, that mostly consisted of telling the inspector what I would do once we get assigned a radio. This inspector was a friend of mine too, as it turned out, so that went pretty smoothly. For the professional development officer review, however, I drew the assistant IG for the entire Wing. He was ... thorough. We went page by page through records that I had reconstructed from web searches (in theory, these records should have been maintained over the years, but weren't). He compared them to a list he had and had me explain the discrepancies (there were a few). I showed him the organization system I had come up with, along with the training library (in hard copy and on a USB stick) I had put together. Most of this was done from scratch over the past week -- I literally had nothing to go on. After keeping me on the hot plate (with the burner on "high") for half an hour, he finally finished up some notes and said, "Lieutenant, you've certainly got your act together." He said as much to the squadron commander, too, which was gratifying, since I don't thing the commander realized just how much work had to go into to getting all this stuff ready.

So overall, it was a good event, and I definitely appreciated the "attaboy." We don't get enough of those as adults, I don't think. I'm still not sure I like being part of the Air Force, though. Okay, I am CERTAIN I don't want to be part of the Air Force, what I'm not sure about is whether the hassle is worth the benefits of CAP. Something for me to think about. I'm not sure CAP is really doing much for me, in spite of the fact that I'm pouring a lot of effort into it. We'll just have to see. No more inspections for two years, though! Whew!

Friday, February 03, 2006

Depth of Feeling

[Fourth try to get Friday's post up...]

One of our main tasks as writers is plump the darkest depths of the human psyche. Even if that level of psychology and emotion isn't the main thrust of the story, one could argue that the most meaningful stories -- at some level -- are driven by the psychological pain of the protagonist. The greater the pain, the greater the desire, the greater the conflict. Your character may really want something, but if the situation is not causing him serious emotional distress, then he doesn't want it bad enough to make a really good story. Suppose he doesn't attain his goal. Will he survive (mentally or physically) the failure? If the answer is yes, then he doesn't want it bad enough.

But I wonder, is it necessary for the writer to have felt that level of psychological pain to be able to carry it off on the page? I'm not sure. We all hear about the tortured souls who write Pulitzer Prize literature. After all, you aren't an artist if you aren't suffering, right?* There may be some truth about that. "Write what you know" has become a trite truism, but it's a truism precisely because it is true. If that's the case then, do writers need to experience depression and other forms of psychological pain in order to write about it convincingly?

And if so, is it worth it? Life is about balance, after all. Obviously, I tend to believe that you can be happy and still write good stories. If not, what's the point? Remember, if you aren't having fun, you aren't doing it right...

*Old critiquing line: If the writer dumps too much of the background he has meticulously researched on the reader at one time, this is referred to as "I Suffered For My Art. Now It's Your Turn." :)

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Media Tie-Ins

[The posts for Thursday and Friday keep vanishing from the blog. I'm not really sure why... Fortunately, I've been writing my posts in "The Journal" software, so I have back-ups.]

I was reading an interesting discussion on the Other Worlds Workshop mailing list about a guy who just had his first professional sale, but wasn't sure whether to celebrate it or not. My initial reaction was, "Say what???" but apparently it was a Star Trek short story that was bought for an anthology. He had heard that some editors (and writers) consider those who write media tie-ins to be hacks, so he wasn't sure it was something he should celebrate, much less something to mention to an editor in a cover letter.
In my mind, that's just silly.

Writing is writing. It doesn't matter what you write, it doesn't matter what form you write it, what matters is whether you're writing is any good. A good Star Trek novel requires just as much skill with the written word as does a story set in your own world. Somebody thought his story was good enough to pay money for. Go back to Heinlein's definitions: If someone buys your story, you are by definition a successful professional writer. You've proven that you write something saleable.

It may be that there are editors that turn up their nose at a media tie-in credit, but I'm willing to bet there aren't many. I think most of this attitude comes not from editors but from other writers. That's jealousy, plain and simple. The publishing industry is tough right now, maybe tougher than it's ever been. We should celebrate the successes of our peers, not denigrate them. The more good stories that are written, the more the general public will attracted to reading over other forms of entertainment. And that, my friends, helps us all.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Flying Solo

Tonight my son drove himself to work, alone, for the first time.

I cannot begin to convey how terrifying a moment this is for a parent. He got his license a few months after he turned 16 (he had to bring his grades up, which he did), but then because he is having to pay for his own insurance, he went almost a year without driving (he just had no interest in getting a job or in driving, either, really). In retrospect, I worry about the lost practice. The specifics of our insurance meant that he was covered as long as he was a student driver, but as soon as he got his license, he was no longer covered. While I suppose we could have paid for his insurance while he was (theoretically) looking for a job, I think it's important that he begin to understand how to make his own way in the world, particularly since college is coming soon.

So, once he got a job and was able to pay for gas and insurance, we started a "refresher course" for him, essentially repeating the things we taught him when he was learning to drive in the first place. It's only been a couple of weeks and while his mechanical skills are starting to come back together (with a few exceptions -- more cause for terror), his judgment is still a bit lacking. He hasn't quite caught on to the fact that maintaining situational awareness seems effortless for mom and dad only because we've been driving every day for 20 years! Do something multiple times a day, every day, for 20 years and it doesn't matter what it is, you'll make it seem easy! And in truth, it's not lack of mechanical skills that causes accidents, it's failure in judgment. There's a reason our insurance doubled when he was brought on to the policy. The insurance companies know the score.

But we have to give him his wings, and it's time to suck it up and do it. He's at the point where he's not going to learn much more from me. I can only hope that he has learned enough to have a close call instead of an accident. Think back to when you were learning to drive. One or the other is pretty much inevitable. And you begin to understand the terror.

Of course, the fact that he ran off the edge of the driveway pulling out didn't do anything to inspire confidence...

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Made in China

Tonight in a fit of green-ness (and a tech junkie's curiosity), I bought one of those LED flashlights that you recharge by shaking. Now, I understand how the technology works -- just pass a magnet through coiled wires and you'll generate electricity -- though I don't believe the flashlight will last forever, as it's advertisement claims. It's still got to store the energy generated by shaking the flashlight, either in a rechargeable battery (it claims that one of its advantages is that it doesn't lose its storage capacity over time like a rechargeable) or perhaps in a capacitor. I only paid five bucks for the thing, so I'm sorely tempted to satisfy my curiosity on this last question and take the thing apart. That might annoy the wife, though...

What I find tragic about this flashlight is that the people who made it didn't bother to get someone who speaks English to write the instructions on the box. Check this out:

1. Only shake it forward and back while use. So as to make it generating to light up.
2. Its switch system is based on advanced magnetic induction technologies. So it's long in service life and reliable in performance."

But wait, it gets better:

1. A torch is used for emergency lighting purpose. However, the traditional battery-supplied torch may cause you a big trouble because the batteries become ineffective and produce pollution if the torch is left idle for a long time. The chargeable torch also has the problem of power leakage; or it will help you remember to charge only at the time you need. This innovative torch is the breakthrough in solution to waste and inconvenience.
2. Being self-supplying, it will serve you long and well."

A sticker on the box reports that it was "made in China," which judging form the ad copy isn't a big surprise. But come on folks, how hard is it to get someone who speaks English to write a quick instruction list for the box? "Shake it up and it lights up" isn't really all that hard. I don't really have a problem with imported goods (although I do understand how trade deficits are killing us), but hey, I'm sure there are a lot of freelance writers who would be happy to write you some decent ad copy at a very reasonable rate!

It's been a long time since I've seen a commercial product with language that bad. I think they would have been better served by just leaving it in the original Chinese. No, I wouldn't be able to read it, but do we really need instructions for a shake-up flashlight? They really didn't inspire a lot of confidence in their "advanced technologies" with that copy...

Monday, January 30, 2006

The Ambivalent Writer

The Forest For the Trees has some specific advice for the different "types" of writers that the author has encountered during her years as an editor (and now as an agent). The first type she deals with is the "ambivalent writer." I think the title is a bit misleading. The ambivalent writer is not the writer who can't decide whether or not he should write at all. Instead, he is the writer with far too many ideas and never completes (or sometimes even starts) any of them. My son soundly falls into this category. He has a number of really outstanding starts to a story, but to my knowledge, he's never actually completed an entire tale. I haven't finished reading the entire chapter, so it's probably premature to pass on any advice at this point, but one solid piece of advice is to choose one form (novel, memoir, non-fiction, etc.) and stick to it. While there are some famous exceptions (James Joyce is mentioned), there are very, very few writers who excel in more than one form. It's reasonable to argue that even if you have the talent to master more than one form, you probably shouldn't try to master them all at the same time. Choose one, stick with it, and truly master it, then if you really feel the drive to expand your horizons, go for the second form.

I'll be interested to see what advice she gives for finishing what you begin, though. I think my son could profit for that...

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Journal

I've been evaluating "The Journal" for Windows (, and so far I've been very impressed with it. Sufficiently impressed with it, in fact, that I went ahead and bought it before the 45-day trial is up. Just the ability to type up blog entries off-line (and have them spellchecked -- I can see all you readers breathing a sigh of relief) is worth the price of admission right there. I was also able to (relatively) easily copy the entire contents of this blog into the program's database so that I have it for reference off-line as well. I did figure out how to set up multiple journals, so I have my "personal" journal along with the one that contains my blog entries. Uploading the day's blog entry doesn't upload the personal entry, so that's a goodly thing.

In addition, though, the program also has a "loose-leaf notebook" that is perfect for storing the ideas that I come up with and log in the little notebook I carry around with me. Because I can organize them under headings, I've got a much easier time of finding things later. Overall, it's an excellent tool for writers, whether or not you decide to use the blog tools. The fact that it has strong encryption (and you can get even stronger security for an extra $10) is a big plus, too. While I don't really think there's anything so interesting in my personal journal that I would really care if it came out, still, a personal journal should be, well, personal. If you don't have that guarantee of privacy, you might not be as open with yourself as you would otherwise. And writers, of all people, need to be able to plum their very depths, as this is where the true emotion in print comes from.

My only complaint is that there isn't an automated way to give your blog posts a title. I'm trying using a Blogger API trick, but I'm afraid it won't work unless I upload the entry as plain text (losing all my italics and such). I'll continue to experiment. This has been a much-requested feature, and the author has acknowledged it's utility, so I think there's hope it will be included in a future release.

Saturday, January 28, 2006


I hate spam.

Don't we all? Yeah, yeah I know, but the reason I hate spam is not the reason you may think. Up until recently (more on that in a sec) my spam filter has done a pretty good job of filing into a special folder the literally hundreds of spam messages a day that I get through email. At least once a day, I quickly scan through the folder, "unjunk" anything that isn't spam, and delete the entire contents of the folder in a couple of keystrokes. It's somewhat annoying that I should have to do this, but the process really isn't that bad. At the very least, it's much easier when I had no filter and check each message individually or risk deleting an important message by mistake.

The reason that spam just grates on my nerves to the point of insanity is that virtually every message insults me in some way. Yeah, I'm inundated with the "enlarge your manhood" message (more humorously, so is my wife), but what really offends me is that these people must think I'm a complete and total idiot. Do they really believe I would trust my mortgage to a company who can't even spell "refinance"? Do they really think I'm dumb enough to send my bank account info so that I can launder money for someone in Africa (or South America or Iraq or ...)? Or that I would buy medicine from someone who isn't educated enough to put together a complete sentence in English? Come on folks! In truth, I vastly prefer spam to telemarketers. After all, they haven't yet come up with a way I can simply delete the person on the other end of the phone line (yet -- though there is a very cool science fiction short story on just that subject). But to see the number of transparent scams and illiterate advertisements just saddens me. I like to believe that no one is dumb enough to respond to these things, but if that were really the case, companies wouldn't use them. Which means, of course, that there really are people dumb enough to respond to these things. Sigh. And I think what grates all the more is that as I understand it, a lot of these are written by people in our profession: freelance writers.

Lord, if ever I fall to that level, please just push me over and call me home. I'm already dead anyway.

At any rate, the number of spam messages getting through my filter is on the rise. And it's getting hard to find the non-spam messages that get accidentally filtered (messages for my students get routed there a lot). So, real soon now I'm going to have to change my email address again. That is a huge pain in the afterburners, and I deeply resent the spammers who are forcing me to do it. I guarded my current email pretty carefully, and for a long time no one but my friends knew of it -- so no spam. Somehow the word has gotten out, so it's time to start again. Ah well...

Friday, January 27, 2006


My wife and I both have been substituting for another astronomy professor all week, so between us we've been teaching a double load. It's been exhausting, but the extra money will be appreciated. As a result, I haven't gotten much farther than the introduction to The Forest For the Trees at this point. One thing I found interesting, though, is that the author says that one of the main reasons she wrote the book is to provide advice to aspiring writers who are sabotaging their own careers. Now, while she does address how they might do that through their dealings with publishers and agents, what she's really talking about is how these authors sabotage themselves through neurotic writing habits that actually get in the way of writing. I think that's a worthwhile topic, since it's not something you really think about, and it's certainly not something I've seen anyone else write a book about. I'll be interested to see how she handles the topic. Do a significant number of writers have writing habits that kill their ability to write? Somehow I guess that possibility has never occurred to me, though (for that reason), I certainly might be susceptible. I'll be curious to see just exactly what habits she's seen as an editor...

Thursday, January 26, 2006


We are nearing the end of the first full week of classes that I've been teaching this semester. It looks like I've got a really good group in all four of my classes. The physics class I'm teaching is the first class I've taught for science/technical majors -- people for whom this is the first step towards their career goals (as opposed to the students who just need a science credit to graduate). Having a motivated student makes all the difference in the world. Some of the students in my astronomy classes have had the attitude, "I don't want to be here, so it's up to you to make me learn something. You're the teacher, after all." Unfortunately, short of brainwashing and torture, there's not much way to force anyone to do anything. I do my very best to make the course interesting, to show them why this is something they should want to learn, but ultimately, if the student isn't willing to put in the effort, then there is absolutely no way they are going to learn a thing. My physics students are all there because they're interested in the subject. As a result, even though they have roughly the same ability as my astronomy students, they will ultimately learn a lot more.

This speaks to one of the fallacies of the current system of "teacher accountability." The laws that hold teachers accountable for their students' learning are flawed from the outset. There's no way these teachers can force a child to learn. Either they have the support structure in their home and community that makes them want to learn or they don't. I see these schools with signs patting themselves on the back saying, "We are 'highly performing'" (the new top-level school rating), but all that really means is that the parents who make up their community value education and have instilled that into their kids. It really has very little to do with the school or with the teachers. Some parents blame the schools for "not making my kid learn" but seem to forget that the onus is really on the parent, not the school. Until we make that fundamental shift in thinking, no system of accountability has a chance of working. The current system is going to do nothing more than make the teacher shortage worse. Who would willingly volunteer to be abused like that?

Since I teach college, I'm not directly affected by these things, though. I find that when I'm teaching and the kids are responding (and I have a rather off the wall sense of humor in class), it's fun. I feel good about myself. I come home jazzed about how class went. I'm not sure I'd want to ever do it full time, but as a part time job, I have to say that it rocks. What more can you ask for?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Editors and Editing

I have begun (again, I was sidetracked by reading Talyn) reading The Forest For the Trees, a book written by an editor at Simon and Schuster with advice for writers. Interestingly, it's not a book about learning to write, as the author makes clear from the beginning. The book is more about how a good editor can motivate a writer to write as well as about the editorial process itself. So far, it's been fairly interesting, but I'll provide specific insights later on.

What I've found especially interesting is that apparently the woman who wrote the book has had much success as an editor at a major publishing house, but has not found success (nor has she really attempted to find success) as a writer. You would think that in order to recognize good writing -- or make good writing better -- you'd have to be a very skilled writer yourself. Yet, off hand, I can't really think of any big-name editor who is also a big-name writer. When you think about it, writing and editing are really two separate skills. Writing requires a great deal of creativity -- you are creating something from nothing, after all. Editing, on the other hand, requires the ability to see all the different ways in which a given piece could be presented, and choose the way that will make the piece the strongest it can be. The editor does not do anything original at any point in the process. She does, however, have to "see the forest for the trees." Editing is the art of seeing a multitude of paths simultaneously, something most writers never have to do. The author of this book discovered early in her career that she had the talent for making the writing of others better, so that's where she directed her career. Nothing more, but certainly nothing less.

Editors, then, are not magical demigods who are looking for people who can write as well as they can. I think in the back of my mind I've always thought of editors as "master writers," the next step up once you have proven that you have mastered the craft of writing. That's really a misconception. Editors have an entirely different skill set from writers, and recognizing that fact will go a long a way in improving your relationship with that breed!

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Journaling Software

I'm trying out something new with this entry, a piece of journaling software for Windows called (appropriately enough) "The Journal." It's not free ($39.95), and it doesn't do much more than the freeware program "Advanced Diary" (which is itself not much more than Wordpad tied to a calendar program), but it does have a few features that make it attractive to a writer. First and foremost, of course, is the ability to publish entries to an online blog. I've had problems with Blogger running extremely slowly in my web browser lately, and the problem has been getting worse the more entries I've added to the blog. I don't really understand this, as there are blogs out there with far more entries than mine. I'm more inclined to point a finger at our cable company. More and more people in our neighborhood have signed up for Cox Cable, so there are more and more people sharing the same cable feed. For a while, we couldn't stay connected more than a few minutes at a time. The network would always come back up on its own, but for several seconds (to hours) it would simply drop out. While it's a bit better now, I think there may still be enough delays to be causing Blogger to have fits. I have been using Blogger for Word, sometimes writing the entry on my Alphasmart Neo and uploading later, but it's just not as well organized as I would like. The whole purpose of a journal (or a blog) is to organize your thoughts, so this is a rather serious drawback. If this software works out, I will be able to write entries offline and have the software upload them while I'm doing other things. It supposedly will also let you have entries that are not uploaded, which would be handy since not all of my thoughts are really worth reading by strangers. I think it only allows one entry per day, though, so -- because I generally post every day -- that doesn't help a whole lot. I'll have to check it out.

The demo version of this program is good for 45 days, so I'll make a decision after that. Advanced Diary, as I said, is free, so that is certainly a contender. It would just require me to cut and paste into a browser, though, which is a royal pain. We'll see if this works out better.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Talyn Complete

I finished reading Holly Lisle's Talyn a few minutes ago. It really is a great story, so my hat's off to Holly. Once it got going (and once I gave up trying to pronounce the foreign words "correctly") the story kept me involved and interested in the characters and the plot. Unlike a lot of fantasy stories, the goal was not to go on some long trek to recover the Sacred Amulet of Whatnot, it was more of an exploration of what happens when three cultures collide. I thought the final victory was just a little too straight-forward (I won't say easy -- the characters had a devil of a time getting to that point), but overall I didn't mind much. It just seemed like the book wound itself up a bit too quickly in the end. There wasn't anything wrong with the pace of the ending, it was just such a different pace from the rest of the book that it was a bit jarring. I did appreciate the irony of the heroes coming up with weapons to fight the villain, only to end up supplying the villain with those weapons for his own use. Very clever, and a very entertaining tale. I highly recommend it, even if you don't particularly care for fantasy. You won't be disappointed!

Sunday, January 22, 2006


My son had his debut performance today. He has been practicing a duet with our church's choir director for a couple of months now, and this morning was his first time to sing -- more or less by himself -- in front of an audience. He did a really good job! It was outstanding, the crowd was cheering, something that doesn't happen often in a church. He was very nervous, but came through it with flying colors.

Even more than a demonstration of my son's talent, though, it was a conquering of his fears. He gets stage fright in the extreme. Even as a small child, he never liked new situations or even anything even marginally outside of his comfort zone. That he was able to do this was a huge step for him. Everyone has phobias. Surprisingly enough, I have rather acute acrophobia. Yep, a pilot who's afraid of heights, go figure. In truth, heights themselves don't bother me, it's the insecure feeling that you might fall. If I'm in enclosed in an airplane, I have no problems at all. Standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon on an incredibly windy day (and there are a lot of those up there), was a different story entirely. I did it solely because I refuse to let my phobias get the better of me. As a character in a story I read once said, "There's no such thing as an irrational fear." Just because a fear may be illogical doesn't mean that you don't feel it just as strongly. The only real definition of courage that has any meaning is the ability to do something in spite of your fear. The soldier who knows no fear and charges bravely into battle isn't really showing courage. It doesn't frighten him, so it took no real effort for him to be able to do it. The guy who is scared witless and charges into battle anyway -- that's real courage!

The lesson here is that your protagonist doesn't have to be fearless. In fact, if he is truly fearless, then he can't be truly courageous. Give your characters bone-shaking fears and then put them in situations that forces them to confront those fears. Let them show their real courage!

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Hardware and Software

Today my two-year-old daughter started wearing "big girl panties" for the first time in our continuing -- and largely unsuccessful -- efforts to potty train her. Physically, she's fully capable of being potty trained. This stubborn child can hold it for hours and will refuse to use the potty. The instant you put a diaper on her, she cuts loose. The hardware is in place and ready, but the software just isn't there yet.

Interestingly, the same thing happens with the developing human brain, and it's been fascinating to watch it happen with our daughter. Almost no one can remember anything before the age of two or three, and yet our memory systems are fully functional during that time. We easily remember things from twenty or more years ago, so why can't we remember being an infant or even a toddler? This was brought home to me when my daughter noticed a picture of her and her mother on the wall. This was one of the art nudes we did last year, and it's a picture of her breastfeeding with her mom. You could see she was puzzled by it, so I explained that she used to drink milk from her mother's breast. She gave me the most incredulous look I've ever seen on the face of a two year old. She was like, "No way, stop kidding, Dad." Even though it's been less than a year since she stopped breastfeeding, she has no memory of it whatsoever. It's like it didn't happen.

As it turns out, the memories are likely still there, but since she stopped breastfeeding, she's learned language. Her brain has changed to support the new paradigm, and it now literally can't access those memories that are stored in the old format. It's like trying to run an old Amiga program on a new Windows computer. The software is still there, but the hardware has changed to the point that it can no longer run it. It's amazing to see it happen in real time. What if we could build an "emulator" for those earlier memories? This would allow you to run your old stored memories and literally experience what it is like to be an infant. I can see a lot of potential for science fiction stories here. I might just write that one myself...

Friday, January 20, 2006

Classes Begin

Today ended the first week of college classes that I teach this semester. I'm teaching two physics and two astronomy classes this time, so it's going to keep me pretty busy. I think I've got a good group this semester. They were all awake and involved and seemed genuinely interested in what we were doing. The problem with astronomy is that a lot of people take it thinking that it's an easy way to get the science credit they need to graduate. Astronomy is actually one of the more difficult classes you can take -- it's all applied physics, after all. This means that I tend to get a lot of students who would really rather skate than put in any effort. I'm a tough teacher, but by the end of my class most of them say they've never had a better one -- and never worked harder in a class. I count that a victory.

But today they were all laughing at my jokes, which is always a good sign. I got lots of nods of comprehension and the understanding checks that I did in class all seemed to show they were getting what I was saying. I don't need them to know anything about astronomy, or even science in general. What I do need is for them to be willing to put in the effort. Like writing, the only way to learn astronomy is to do astronomy. Learning is an active process. I hope people maybe learn something from my observations here, but you won't really learn it until you get out and try it for yourself. I know that's certainly been my experience on this journey!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The World Wide Web

What did we do for research before the Web came along? While it's (very) true that a non-trivial percentage of the information on the Web is complete bunk, even it's detractors can't deny the usefulness of being able to search for the information you need right from your desktop. My Civil Air Patrol squadron has a big inspection coming up in a couple of weeks and like an idiot, I volunteered to take over a position in the squadron that's been vacant for years. I needed to re-create a full set of training records on each member of the squadron. Normally that would mean calling CAP Headquarters on the phone, having someone track the relevant records down for me, mail them to me, and then I would frantically try to get everything typed up= and organized the day before the inspection.

Ah, but the CAP has joined the 21st Century and most of the personnel records are available on-line, if you have the proper authorizations -- and because of my new appointment, I do. The records aren't complete, and some entries don't make sense (such as the guy who qualified as a Misison Pilot -- the highest qualification -- before he qualified as a Pilot, the lowest qualification), but probably 70% of everything I need is there. I was able to cut and paste the info form the Web into a Word version of the training record (also downloaded form the national site). I'll email it out to each member of the squadron tomorrow and let them fill in what few blanks remain. If push comes to shove, though, what I have will match national's records, so we should pass that part of the inspection even with what I have now.

I distinctly remember teaching a course to a bunch of teachers that included use of the Internet -- FTP, Gopher, telnet, etc. There was this new thing called "Mosaic" (the term World Wide Web hadn't been invented yet), but it wasn't much more than a front end for FTP. There were very, very few sites. I told the group then that I wasn't impressed with it, and that I couldn't see it replacing the search tools like Gopher that we'd been using for years.

Called that one a bit wrong, didn't I? :)

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

First Draft

Today I finished the first complete draft of the educational curriculum I've been working on for the Phoenix mission to Mars that will launch in 2007. This draft came in at 21 pages, but it will probably go up a little once the graphic artist adds the illustrations and such. Still, it's a good-sized curriculum. It's designed to teach students the properties of soil that studied by both Earth-bound and Martian soil scientists, as well as what those properties mean for the possiblity of Mars regolith (the technical term for Mars dirt) to support life -- Martian or Earth-born.

I sent the draft off to the rest of the education department to start the process of getting comments. It will take several weeks of revisions before we get to a final product, but still, there's something about having that first draft complete and in your hand. In all the time I've been writing, that feeling hasn't really changed. It's very special, and it's actually one of the things I look forward to as I get closer to finishing the first draft. I can't wait to get there with the novel I'm working on!

It's these little milestones that keep us writing, I think. Cherish them!

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

eBook Reader

A while back I was bemoaning the fact that none of the eBook readers currently on the market are really viable options. They are too large, too heavy, too hard to read, too hard to hold, and just in general don't give the same experience as reading a book.

That may change very soon.

Sony will soon be introducing an eBook reader called (appropriately enough) the Sony Reader. You can find the details at What's impressive about this reader is the technology in the screen. There is literally no flicker because the screen is only written to once for each page. Black and white "beads" in the screen change state and require no current to keep them in that state. The result is that it literally prints a page for you on the screen. I read one report of a guy who picked up an early model and asked the demo technician when a working model would be out. The tech said, "That is a working model." The screen was apparently so paper-like, the guy thought that it was a mock-up.

The size is about right (6.9” by 4.9” by .5”), and I can't imagine it gets very hot since the screen is not actively redrawing. It only weighs about 9 ounces, which is very close to paperback weight as well. It can hold 80 books internally, but has a memory card slot that will hold more. Best of all, Sony has gotten rid of their elaborate copy protection scheme. The reader will view eBooks, HTML, PDF, and a few other formats as well. This may be it folks. I would very much like to carry my library around with me. This reader may actually make that possible...

Monday, January 16, 2006


Since our daughter was a newborn, we have had a photo taken of her and my wife for my birthday. Now, these aren't portrait-type photos. What we wanted was artwork, the kind of art you might see in a gallery, we just wanted it to feature our family. It doesn't even have to show their faces, but we wanted to chronicle the growth of our family in art. We found a photographer who normally does landscape photography, but she agreed to do a photo shoot of us. She suggested that we do the pictures nude, so we figured, "why not?" Nudity has never been an issue around our house, so it wasn't a big deal. The photographer is really good. The picture we got from the first session were simply outstanding. Some of the best artwork I've ever seen; it's hard to believe it's us in the pictures.

This past year, however, she just didn't seem to get the magic shot. She works in large-format film and does effects in Photoshop, but she still needs the raw material to start with. Our daughter was good, but she wasn't quite as cooperative as when she was only a year old, so we had a harder time of it. I'm not really happy with what we were sent to look over, though I realize there is only so much she can do.

Sometimes writing is like that. Like all artists, we need the raw material to start with. If the raw material is good, we can use our art to turn it into something outstanding. That ability is what separates the craftsmen from the mere technicians. Virtually anyone can write a passable story. The concepts aren't all that difficult to master. But there is an intangible talent -- an art -- that can turn that same passable story into something inspires us, frightens us, uplifts us, or just makes us see the world in a slightly different way. This is what it means to be a writer. Sometimes our brains give us the raw material we need to start our craft. Sometimes they don't. This is why I think some stories work, while others just ... don't. Part of our maturity as writers comes from knowing when we've got something we can work with and when something just needs to be recycled for later. It's not something that can be taught, and it's something that changes as our skill changes. The master can work with more difficult clay than the apprentice, after all. Sometimes it's hard, though, to see what is worth shaping and what isn't. I think this is one of the most critical and difficult skills for an aspiring professional writer to develop, and yet I can't recall seeing it mentioned in any of the books I've read on the subject. But I can't really say that I blame them.

How do you teach that which is unteachable, after all?

Sunday, January 15, 2006


As most readers of this blog know, I'm a pilot. Flying, however, is rather expensive right now, mostly because of rising gas and insurance costs. A new Cessna 172 will cost $140,000 -- about as much as our house cost (obviously, I don't live in California). While having our own plane would make it much easier for me for me to stay current (if you can stay in practice, don't fly at all) and would also make it easier to visit our friends in Los Angeles -- an easy two-hour flight away. Trips to Las Vegas for the day or night become a possiblity. Basically, having a plane is just like having a car, but it greatly expands the range of places you can visit as a day trip. But the thought of making essentially a second house payment -- not to mention the maintenance costs, tie-down fees, etc. -- is not something that is even close to being in the realm of the possible for someone who has just quit their job to become a full-time writer. If I had stayed at NASA we could have afforded a plane easily. That was something I thought about and was a conscious choice I made when I quit.

King Schools, however, offers another way. King, along with Sporty's Pilot Shop, is one of the best producers of flying curriculum around. They use a combination of video and computer software along with flights with your local instructor to take you all the way through the training. It's a good system. Every two years they get a new plane to use for filming their instructional videos. The old one is then raffled off. Everytime you buy something from King Schools, you get one entry into the contest. The published odds of winning are about 200,000 to 1, which is better than lottery odds, but not much better.

Ah, but every contest is required to have a "no purchase necessary" option. For King, all you have to do is send a postcard with your name, address, and e-mail. You're limited to one entry, per person, per day. So, my wife and I have each sent a postcard every day for the last year and a bit more (we missed maybe 10 days in that time). To work in round figures, that means that we sent a total of about 700 postcards! I did buy quite a few things from King Schools, but since you only get one entry per day, those didn't help us. If you assume no one else had this idea (which is unlikely, but who knows), then the odds of winning have improved to about 285 to 1. Still door prize odds, but way better than lottery odds. The investment was just a 23-cent stamp and a penny's worth of paper and ink per card, or about $170 over a year or so. Since the aircraft they are giving away is worth $140,000, that represents a 82,300% return on the investment -- if we win. The drawing is today, which is why it's on my mind. We won't know who won for a couple of weeks regardless, though.

The key here is to compare the potential return on the investment with the odds of getting that return. If you spent $100 on lottery tickets, your potential return (assuming you win $10 million), is a million percent. Your odds of winning, however, are only about 1 in 2 million (at best). Even though the return is huge, the odds of obtaining that return dwarf it -- it's not worth the money. Buying only a single lottery ticket increases your potential return by a factor of a hundred, but the odds similarly get worse by a factor of a hundred -- you can't win. This, in a nutshell is why I don't play the lottery.

What does this have to do with science fiction? Just this: The amount of money we spend on the space program is miniscule compared to essentially anything else in the budget. You could give all of the space program's budget to social services, and they wouldn't evne know the money was there. You can't solve the world's problems by gutting the space program. There are no guarantees that the space program will produce new technologies that will pay dividends in the long run -- but the odds aren't bad. What you (and our lawmakers) need to ask yourself is this: Does the potential return on the investment exceed the odds of getting that investment. The space program currently gets about 0.75% of the federal budget. With technologies form the space program we have medical imaging, the laptop computer I'm writing this on, weather satellites, safer aircraft, and a host of other things. It's not just Tang and Velcro. It really bugs me when people say, "What has the space program ever done for me?" -- as they are chatting on their PCS cell phone.

It's a small investment with a huge potential return -- and good odds of getting that return. Show me a missile system or a bomber program that can say the same thing.

Saturday, January 14, 2006


I started Talyn last night, and so far I'm enjoying the book. It hasn't totally drawn me in quite yet, but I think that's mostly because I'm as yet unfamiliar with the world of the story, so I'm still trying to figure out how everything ticks. I'm not that far into it, so it's understandable. It does, however, highlight one of the biggest problems faced by those who want to tell a science fiction or fantasy story. With mainstream fiction, the only real question the reader asks when picking up the book is, "Why should I care?" The reader wants to know why this character and this set of conflicts is important. The wise author will answer those particular questions right away. On the other hand, the first question a science fiction or fantasy reader will ask is, "Where am I?" Particularly in fantasy, while there are rules (or, at least, there had better be...), the reader knows that he can't take any rules for granted until they are laid out in the story.

So, while you've probably heard that your opening has to grab the reader's attention, in genre fiction it has to do much, much more. The challenge of writing a good opening for a genre novel is the challenge of getting your reader oriented and at least headed off in the right direction without driving him to close the book in frustration or boredom. It's no easy task.

So far, Holly Lisle has done an okay job with it. I think that her use of an invented language -- particularly when she includes a pronunciation guide in the beginning of the book -- is a big mistake. I've posted earlier about made-up languages, so I won't repeat that here. In this case, however, I think the pronunciation guide works against her. Instead of just pronouncing the words the way they seem to be spelled and moving on with the story, I find myself constantly breaking out of the narrative to figure out how a particular word is "supposed" to be pronounced. Unless there is a key plot reason why a mispronunciation might drive events, why risk dragging your reader out of the story? Inventing languages is fun and cool, but we're writers not linguists. If it doesn't drive the tale, it shouldn't be there. That said, Holly's writing itself is excellent as always, so there's no danger of my dropping the book. I like the protagonist already, and I'm curious to learn more about her. That's always a good sign!

Friday, January 13, 2006


I finally managed to get a copy of Holly Lisle's Talyn. This book is devilishly hard to get! I imagine that's very good news for Holly. I'm very anxious to read it. As those who have been following this blog will recall, Holly feels this is her best work yet, and manages to get both well-developed characters and a well-developed plot in the same story (some of her earlier books excelled in one or the other, but not both, in my opinion). I don't know anything about the story, really, other than the fact that it is fantasy. That's okay with me, though. I don't generally get into fantasy, so I don't want to bias my reading of it. Not that I have anything against fantasy, it's just too many of them rely on the plot device of the Foolish Villain who puts all his power into a single artifact (which he then loses), or the Quest for the Item of Something or Another that must be found to save the world as we know it. About the only original fantasy storyline I've seen is Anne McCaffery's Dragonriders of Pern series. But I've got high hopes for this book. I've got a lot of respect for Holly as a writer, so I don't really think she'll let me down. On the other hand, as I commented to my son the other day, the one disadvantage of being a writer is that you can no longer read books just to read them -- you're always trying to figure out how they pulled off a particular effect! :)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Sci-Fi Channel

For those that didn't know, Battlestar: Galactica started it's third season this week. This is a great show, and not just because it shares elements from one of my favorite shows as a teenager. In fact, other than the superficial elements (names, the overall situation), the show really bears very little resemblance to the original series. That's okay though -- the show stands on it's own merits. And it really is one of the best pure science ficition shows I've seen on TV in a long time.

Which means, of course, that Sci-Fi Channel will probably kill it. Farscape was also a great show, and one could argue that it put Sci-Fi Channel on the map. Since getting bought out, though, the new owners of the channel seem to be systematically eliminating all traces of science fiction from the lineup and replacing it with (for the most part) horror shows. I don't know if that is an inherent bias of the owners or what, but until BG started up, I had pretty much boycotted the channel. Like Farscape, Battlestar: Galactica has been phenomenally popular, much more popular than the pundits predicted. Maybe, just maybe, this will be a signal to Sci-Fi Channel that Americans are ready for more science fiction on television. One can only hope.

It's gotta be better than the crap that reality shows have become, but don't get me started on that...

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Experts Teaching Novices

As part of the research I'm doing for my Ph.D. dissertation, I'm reading some research on training methods intended to bring about long-term retention of skills and transfer of those skills into new contexts. It turns out that some of the training techniques that give you high marks during the training will cause you to forget your training more quickly later. The converse is also true: When techniques that have been shown to improve long-term retention are used during training, the trainees actually perform more poorly while the training is taking place. The research also shows that intensive programs are much more likely to lead to loss of skill than programs that spread the same training over a longer period of time (but you knew that, didn't you?).

There were some other interesting findings, but one of the things that struck me was the section on expert modeling of a skill. The idea is that the expert shows the novice how to perform the task (be it repairing a computer or finding the roots of an equation), and the novice is supposed to learn from this demonstration. The problem is that almost by definition, most experts have internalized the task to the point that they aren't consciously aware of all of their thought processes while they are performing it. As such, they can't convey all the procedures needed to do the task to the novice. This is the root of the observation that many college instructors are very good at what they do, but they can't teach it worth a darn.

Teaching is an art, quite apart from knowledge of the content area. In order to teach, you have to not only understand your own thought processes, you have to create a mental model of your own thought that can be transferred to the student. You also have to keep a model of your estimation of the student's understanding in your head as well. Finally, you have to come up with an efficient way of modifying (or helping the student to modify) the student's mental model until it matches your own. No easy task! I'm amazed they let college professors even try it without explicit training in education...

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Hard-Workin' Teen

Tonight was my son's first night to work at Wendy's, so -- naturally -- my wife and daughter and I decided to go have dinner there so we could harass him. I have to tell you, this turned out to be one of those turning points in a parent's life that sort of sneaks up on you and surprises the heck of you. It was his first day on the job, and had a pretty stern trainer. She wasn't taking any nonsense, and my son was scrambling -- really scrambling -- to learn, understand, and perform under pressure for I believe the first time in his life.

And he was working hard to do it.

You spend 16 or 17 years hoping you can teach your kids the attitudes and life skills they will need to succeed. But deep down, every parent is terrified that the child hasn't learned it. You never know how they'll do until they do it for real -- and by that time, it's too late to change much. Seeing him working hard and really trying to do well was like passing the midterm exam for parenting. I am inordinately proud of my boy, let me tell you. I was grinning from the time we walked in until now. If I do half as well with our daughter, she'll be in pretty good shape.

If our kids are warped, at least theyre warped in our own image!