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...