Monday, November 29, 2010

Ending Another NaNoWriMo

Image: Nano Bag o' Skulls
First things first, this image needs a good caption. Write what should be the title or caption to this picture and put it in the comments. I'm sure I'm not the only one coming to the end of NaNoWriMo with some mixed feelings.

The real story behind the bag starts with the fact that our Halloween decorations were put away rather haphazardly this year. When I went to find certain winter holiday decorations, I had to move a pile of skulls out of the way. The NaNo bag was convenient. Then I looked over and realized I had a NaNo bag full of skulls and had to take a picture.

Why mixed feelings about NaNo? It isn't NaNo in particular, but this month has made it clear just how much my writing routine has changed in the last year. This is a good thing, by the way, but still, it a dose of reality to be ingested and assimilated. Two years ago I was writing as I pleased (or not), and left bits and pieces of work in various stages all over various hard drives. Millions of words of writing, actually, and while I had the idea that 'I'll get some of it published someday' I didn't have a plan for that.

Now I do have something of a plan, and it includes 'administrative' work as well as the fun 'writing with abandon' work. I have to be more focused and efficient, planning out projects in advance, choosing what old writing needs edited and what new writing needs to be done before I can move forward. My time includes looking up markets for short stories, targeting them, submitting them, and then iterating the process as necessary. It includes taking bits and pieces of novels - all the outlines, sketched out scenes, character profiles - and crafting them into actual books. There is also staying informed with general goings on in the speculative genres, writing in my blogs ... you know it all, I'm sure.

This year's NaNoWriMo made the changes in my approach much more clear to me. Last year I wrote over 75K just on the one novel, and poked around with various other projects without too much direction. I updated my word count daily and spent a lot of time on the forums. This year I'll clear the post at just over 50K, and didn't spend as much time as I would have liked on the site. I had to split my time more efficiently. I wrote with 'some abandon' which was fun, but more controlled than last year.

Still, I met new people, finished one project and started another, and had the experience capped by being interviewed by writer and fellow blogger Maureen O'Donnell for the Columbia Patch. So my feelings are mixed, sad to see NaNo go before I could really lose myself in it, but also glad to see it go, since I do need to keep my writing schedule balanced to meet all of my goals. In any case, as of this moment, I'm planning to get involved again next year.

Image credit: Bag o' Skulls by me.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Intimate Vastness and the Paradox of Space

Art: "Space" by Maliciaroseniore on deviantArt
When I write, I hope to portray two sides of a particular coin. This coin seems to be a paradox. On one side, I want my readers to find the environments in my stories to be awe-inspiring, almost untouchable in their perfection, and utterly fantastical (either in a good way or a horrific one). After all, one of the reasons we are no doubt attracted to speculative genres is that we enjoy the incredible settings. And yet, on the other side of this coin, I want my readers to really identify with that fantastical place. I want them to find emotional resonance and intimacy there. Otherwise, the reader is too distant from the story to care what happens. Creating both images for the reader seems paradoxical, and yet we know when we experience it done effectively.

I see the first ideal expressed in the art "Space" above.  The viewing portal is massive, and shows an utterly stunning view of space, a vista of unknown worlds. The people in the picture are tiny, and the only expression visible is that one is pointing to the amazing spectacle before them.  We do not know what they are feeling, but in us the image engenders a feeling of awe.  Even the ethereal color palette makes one think more of spiritual worlds than real ones. Here, there is so much space in space. We are left appreciating how vast and unreachable it is - beyond mortal minds to understand. I get a bit of that old sci-fi feeling, and think 'wow'.
Photo: Astronaut on ISS Viewing Earth
I have recently spotted a photograph which expresses the second side of the coin. This photograph is making the rounds in geek internet circles, of which I am a member (proud or otherwise) and it depicts an astronaut on the International Space Station. She is contemplating the view of Earth from the ISS cupola. While this image has some similarity in elements to the art above, we feel different when we look at it. The emphasis has shifted from space as 'vast' to space as 'small'. Indeed, in many ways there isn't much space in space after all, since it will be a long time before we can create luxuriously open accommodations on an orbital station. This image feels close, intimate, and touchable.

So in these pieces of art I see two themes I want to accomplish in my writing, and in ways these themes seem antithetical to one another. Vastness versus intimacy. Real versus unreal. Known versus unknowable. And perhaps even clean perfection versus gritty every day life. At least as writers, we have the opportunity to present many chapters to a story, and in each we can offer a different perspective. Taken as a whole in a novel they can offer the reader the chance to eat their cake and have it, too.

Comparing these images underscores a few basic ideas of writing (as well as art). One way to emphasize the untouchable nature of an environment is to turn the focus away from the characters and towards the horizon. If you instead are interested in representing an aspect of your setting that is knowable, then include things that are already known to the reader. I note that the second image above has Earth in the view, while the first image has a foreign vista. We already know that providing information from our senses when we write is a good way to ground the reader, and make our setting more real to them. Art has the advantage of giving us instant information from vision. The color palette in "Space" reminds me of bright clouds and heaven, while the photograph's colors are more varied, if dim in places. Each serves the purpose of emphasizing a different side to this interesting coin.

I could go on, obviously, but I think you probably get my point. What are your thoughts? How do you approach the challenge of giving both perspectives to your reader?

Image Credits:

Image One: "Space" by Maliciaroseniore on deviantArt.

My comments:  Well, you sort of know them because you read the post, but I find this to be a classic image of the 'wow' side of science fiction. The kind of art that makes you feel you've seen into hidden realms, visited unknown shores.

Image Two:  Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson reflects on the view from the ISS's Cupola. Credit: Doug Wheelock/NASA from Universe Today

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Asteroids Up Close - Scientist Interview with Andrew Rivkin

Images: Scientists with returned sample, and illustration of sample collection.
The Japanese space agency (JAXA) has had great success with the return of a probe that visited asteroid Itokawa. This is the first time humans have returned a sample from an asteroid directly to the Earth. We have plenty of pieces of asteroids down here, of course - most meteorites are from asteroids. But we don't know which asteroid each meteorite came from. With the success of the Hyabusa mission, Japanese scientists are now holding small bits of rock from an asteroid, and they know exactly which asteroid they came from.

The idea of returning samples to Earth is a classic one in science fiction, as well as horror. I wanted to get a little more acquainted with the subject, and this mission specifically.  To that end, I thought I'd see if I could get an email interview from fellow planetary scientist, blogger, and asteroid expert Andrew Rivkin. Dr. Rivkin generously sent some well considered responses to my questions, and I'm happy to have the opportunity to present them here.

1. Please introduce yourself and tell us why one might consider you an asteroid expert.

I'm currently Senior Staff at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics
Laboratory in Maryland working as a planetary astronomer. I've been interested in astronomy and the planets since I was a kid (I vividly remember Viking landing on Mars and the Voyager flybys) and interested in asteroids since I was an undergraduate at MIT. I did my dissertation work on infrared observations of asteroids and have been working in that field since, branching out to include concept studies of missions to asteroids and membership in a NASA committee to consider impact hazards.

2. What is your favorite Sci-Fi movie/book/event and why? Did popular science fiction have any influence on your choice of career?

Very difficult! I confess I never was much of a sci-fi reader growing
up, mostly sticking to Jules Verne and the Hitchhiker's Trilogy. Star Wars was absolutely huge for me, though, and I enjoyed the TV shows in its wake (the original Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers). I think I was already hooked on science by then, though. What may have had a big role, though not technically science fiction, were the speculative parts of Cosmos where Carl Sagan took us in the "starship of the imagination".

3. Give us the lowdown on the recent Hayabusa mission by JAXA, and what they discovered.

Hayabusa was a Japanese technology demonstration mission, it spent
time at the asteroid Itokawa taking images and other measurements before taking a sample of the surface and returning it to Earth for study--the first sample return for an object other than the Moon. The mission was exceedingly ambitious, particularly given its low price tag, and several times it looked like it would fail. However, some sample was successfully returned to Earth, and it was just announced that it's consistent with LL chondrite, a relatively common meteorite.

4. What makes this discovery particularly interesting or noteworthy?

There has been a longstanding issue in asteroid and meteorite science
with respect to how well we can determine compositions remotely and how much our analysis can be fooled. Exposure to micrometeorites and the space environment alters the lunar surface in ways we're only now beginning to understand, so this was potentially a test of how well we can apply what we know to bodies other than the Moon. Ten years ago I was a member of a team that gathered telescopic data for Itokawa and interpreted it as likely similar to LL chondrites, so we're happy to see we got it right!

5. Does this new information make it more likely that people will have greater faith in remote sensing techniques?

I sure hope so! :)

This is a great step in that process and critical for the asteroid
community. It's also interesting to note that there are other recent steps that emerged from the Mars program-- the Opportunity rover was targeted to land in an area based on orbital remote sensing, and Opportunity's measurements on the surface confirmed the remote sensing. Also, the identification of iron meteorite falls on Mars first came via the rover's remote sensing instruments, which were then confirmed by further analysis.

6. Thinking from a Sci-Fi perspective, what are the extremes to which this sort of mission or technique can be pushed. For example, can we become so certain of our remote sensing that we never have to visit anyplace anymore?

Interesting question. In some ways, this already has occurred. For
instance, since we can't go everywhere with a rover due to constraints of time (among other things), the rover operators already pick and choose which specific rocks and soils they want to do detailed sampling of by remote sensing-- something that looks uninteresting to the spectrometers (or perhaps "like everything else") is less likely to be visited. This was even true for the Apollo astronauts-- they were much more likely to sample unusual-looking material, trying to avoid sampling the same stuff over and over again by making judgments using their own remote sensing instruments: their eyes!

For the asteroids, we're still making our first forays into spacecraft
missions. But even here there are plenty of people who think we don't need to visit any more of one particular type of asteroid called the S class-- this is Itokawa's group as well as the group that a lot of other spacecraft targets belong to (Eros, Ida, Gaspra).

7. Is there any Sci-Fi that has an effect on your current thinking or attitudes as a scientist?

It is interesting to see the lines between science and science fiction
in some of the proposals and studies we see for coming years. The increasing computing power and capabilities of robotic spacecraft makes it possible to imagine a space program very different from the one we grew up imagining-- one where astronauts sit thousands of miles (or more?) away from the place they're exploring, using virtual reality and telerobotics to take advantage of those things that humans are best at while still maintaining safety (and indeed enabling stunts that might be ill-advised or impossible with an actual on-site astronaut). Something like a cross between Avatar and the Matrix, but without a pretense of "inhabiting" the remote explorer of the former, and without the evil computer part of the latter. :)

8. Anything else you'd like to add?

Carl Sagan called the 70s and 80s the golden age of space exploration,
where we encountered our solar system for the first time. With all due respect, I might suggest that that golden age continues today-- the discoveries made and data returned from Mars and the Saturn system every day are staggering but have become commonplace. We're finding other planetary systems and characterizing them. We've found worlds at the edge of our own solar system, and before too long we'll have our first look at Pluto. We're putting an orbiter around Mercury this coming year. As an asteroid scientist I must point out the great variety of missions we're enjoying, and I'm anticipating our first close look at Vesta next year and Ceres a few years following. And we're doing it as a species-- India, China, Japan, and Europe have all sent missions to the Moon or beyond (in some cases way beyond) in the past few years, and Russia is slated to send its first post-USSR mission within a few years. And this says nothing about human exploration, which is also an ongoing and international effort. It is a great time to be doing planetary science.

Many thanks to Dr. Rivkin for the interview!


Image Credit:  JAXA,

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Prompt the Muse #25 - Speculative Writing Prompt

Art: Cup Detail from Artemisia
Your characters need to transport a deadly poison. How do they protect themselves while they do this?  Do they need to use a special technology? Hazmat suits? Spells? Or perhaps some of your characters are naturally impervious to the poison? Write your ideas for how to transport this dangerous concoction in 200 words.

Image credit:  Wikimedia Commons, Detail of Artemisia, Public Domain

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Blogging Awards and Many Thanks

Image: Fantasy & Sci-Fi Award
It has been several months since two excellent bloggers were kind enough to recognize me with awards. These are the first awards I've been given, and I really do feel honored. Each comes with the stipulation that you pass them on to other bloggers. I wanted to take that aspect of the awards seriously, and examine many other writer's blogs before presenting the awards. And since I've been so busy this summer and fall, I didn't have the opportunity.

I have finally had the chance to peruse many fine writing blogs (and fine blogs of all kinds, actually) these past months, and feel prepared to accept these awards and to pass them on to others.

The first award is the "Fantasy and Sci-Fi Blogger Award" which was given to me by Ted Cross at Ted Cross Blog. Thanks, Ted, for the award, which is all the more special since it is given to me by such an interesting and talented blogger.

Here are the steps required to accept the Fantasy and Sci-Fi Blogger Award:

1.  Thank the giver and link back to them. Done.

2.  Pass on the award to some unspecified number of science fiction/fantasy bloggers. I've chosen five, although if I find a blog in the future that I just must honor, I reserve the right to award one or two late.

3.  Inform them of their award. I'll be posting comments on their respective blogs.

A Mission Impossible for the Dark Fantasy Writer
Farsight Blogger
Lessons From My Reading
Rocket Girls
The Sharp Angle

The second award is "The Versatile Blogger Award" given to me by Kelly Dexter at the very well written Nerdville Rhapsody. Thank you very much, Kelly, for reading my blog and thinking it worthy.

Here are the steps required to accept the Versatile Blogger Award:

1.  Thank the giver and link back to them. Done.

2.  List seven things about myself. (1) My favorite place on earth is Zion National Park, Utah. (2) I've written and published a textbook about the inner planets. (3) The first science fiction book I remember reading was Asimov's I, Robot. (4) The solar system body I like the most is the Moon. (5) I practice zazen. (6) I am a Leo. (7) My current wine kick is anything red from the Central Coast, CA, or I'll go for a Spanish rioja.

3.  Pass the award on to 15 other bloggers.  This is the tough part, since I wanted to mention a variety of bloggers, both in writing and other areas.  And I wanted to include newer as well as more established bloggers.  There are so many good bloggers out there ... but these are the ones I'm highlighting with this award.  As with the above, I'm putting ten down right now, and reserving the right to award another five bloggers as I discover new blogs.

Just Jen
Left and Write Brained
Musings of a Penniless Writer
The Screaming Guppy
The Missing Word
Impudent Hachlings
Misa Buckley
Polenth's Quill

4.  Let the bloggers know about their award. I'll be visiting their blogs and commenting to let them know.

Many thanks, everyone, for reading One Writer's Mind and leaving your comments here.


Prompt the Muse #24 - Speculative Writing Prompt

Image: Interior of Fig
Your characters find a previously unknown fruit (or at least one unknown to them). One of your characters decides to give it a try, and finds out it has a very strange effect on those who eat it. What is this effect? Something energizing, sinister, empowering, or mystical? Write a description of this effect in 200 words. (I just had to use a picture of a fresh fig for this prompt. I've always thought they looked like monkey brains ... or something.)

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Fig, Public Domain

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Prompt the Muse #23 - Speculative Writing Prompt

Image: Tyrannosaurus Rex Statue
The main characters of your story have encountered evidence suggesting that some kind of major life form existed right where they are in the past. This is going to cause a stir in their society. Why? Does it give your characters more options, solve a problem for them, or create more challenges and obstacles? Write your idea in 200 words.

Image: From Creative Commons on Flikr, InfoMofo, CC 2.0

Monday, November 1, 2010

NaNoWriMo - Hit the Ground Typing

Image: NaNoWriMo Badge
 Once again I've chosen to take part in National Novel Writing Month by joining the 'Office of Letters and Light' in their particular novel writing challenge. This challenge is so widely followed that it has become synonymous with the month, itself. Their NaNoWriMo challenge is to write a fifty thousand word draft of a fiction novel in thirty days. I participated last year and found the experience both enjoyable and focusing.  You might wonder why a serious writer would get involved ... but I have a few reasons a writer might find this exercise worth the time.

1.  Get It Down On Paper. For those who have internal editors that keep them from just getting the words out of their heads and down onto paper, NaNoWriMo can be a great exercise in turning off this editor and forcing yourself to "just write." A draft is a draft, after all, and you can't edit what you don't have on paper.  (My problems are not with creation of text, so the word goal is not prohibitive for me. My issues are definitely in the editing stage.)

2.  Reinforce the Writing Schedule. For some, the 1700 words a day or so that are necessary to reach 50K means a shift in routine. The goal helps some people to really carve out the time needed to write every day. This can lead to a better writing commitment throughout the year.

3.  Support Literacy Education. The non-profit organization in question, 'The Office of Letters and Light' runs a Young Writers' Program for children 13 and under. They fund it through book drives and such, but they also rely on donations and product sales associated with NaNoWriMo.

4.  Meet Your Community.  The writing community on the Forums is reasonably lively. Although many of the writers are young, there are specific places for those of us with a few (or more) decades under our belts to congregate. In addition to the on-line community, there is your local community. Kick-off parties and write-ins attract people to meet in specified locations to socialize and get some writing finished. It gets a person out of the house, or your usual writing venue, and into someplace new. And I enjoy the opportunity to simply meet other people in my area, regardless of if they intend to continue in the future with writing or not.

5.  Push Through The Problems. In a typical writing day, I'll work on several projects. If one is giving me trouble, I'll put my efforts into another that isn't so troublesome. But this has the drawback of never really forcing me to work through a problem. I tend to wait until it solves itself, and it usually does, but it can take a very long time. NaNoWriMo is a venue in which you must force yourself through the sticky spots. You must keep writing. I have found this to be a good exercise for forcing my brain to work on, through, or around plot issues, even when it does not want to. Again, this writing is to produce a draft. Plot holes are for December (theoretically).

6.  Fun. This is the best reason of all. Participation in NaNoWriMo is exciting and fun. Writing, something I do every day, has become like breathing - I'm glad I do it, but I don't make a holiday of the fact that it is there. NaNoWriMo makes writing into a celebration. It helps me remember many of the reasons why I enjoy writing in the first place.

So good luck to the novelists, whether involved with NaNo or otherwise. Hopefully this November will see some prodigious, if not well edited, writing.

Image Credit: NaNoWriMo 2010

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Ghoulish Inspiration for Halloween

The damsel in this piece of art has clearly found her inspiration - old Yorick - still hanging about to witness the mischief the living can conceive. Apparently, after having been unearthed by a gravedigger in Hamlet, the skull has been passed around until the modern age. He's now found a lady whose "gorge" does not rise at the sight of him, unlike how he once disgusted Hamlet.

Nor is he "abhorred" in our imagination, obviously. It has always intrigued me how this symbol has endured through the ages. Of course, Shakespeare did not invent this concept - the idea of comparing life (the once jolly jester) to death (his skull). Yet it seems to me that it is Hamlet that is responsible for making the image so compelling.

By the time Hamlet was written, about 1600, skulls were already a common sight in portraits. In addition, there was a theme in art that persisted through the 17th century known as "memento mori" or "remember you will die." Not only did the text itself often appear, but symbols such as skulls were used to underscore the message. So there was (and is) no dearth of symbols suggesting we contemplate our fate. Yet now if we encounter a person with a skull in writing or art, we immediately think of Hamlet and Yorick. It seems to be the instance around which our imaginations have crystalized the idea of "memento mori."

However, when I climb into this particular piece of art, I am not overwhelmed by the macabre at all. There are too many elements here suggesting there is more going on than meets the eye. This is a world of two moons, and where the people have elf-pointed ears. The protagonist is lightly smiling. Perhaps a skull brings to mind more of a remembrance of those who have passed, like the Day of the Dead, rather than a solemn consideration of our own mortality. And we can take it as far as we like, being fiction writers. Perhaps that is a human skull, and she is something else entirely. Is she an immortal creature? Perhaps she is laughing at us. Or maybe she can hear Yorick's voice loud and clear.

Naturally, Yorick has inspired more than a pondering of our fates, he has also become an inspiration for dark comedy. Regardless of how grim the message might be, there is something farcical in a person who carries a skull around like a friend. As I contemplate another Halloween, and finish off a draft of a spooky short story, I look over at the plastic skull decorations on the side table ... and grin.

Image Credit:

Art: Yorick's Date Tonight by GRB76 on

My Comments: I really enjoy gothic art with a twist of humor, especially when it is executed so flawlessly, and with this sense of dark playfulness. The detail in this piece is amazing - showing exactly how Yorick continues to inspire art into the modern era. Thematically, there is also the juxtaposition of youth and beauty against decay and death.

Artist's Comments "Or maybe, "Can I keep it? Because you no longer need it..."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Prompt the Muse #22 - Speculative Writing Prompt

Image: Statue of Sphinx
Your main character has encountered a creature blocking the path forward.  This might be literal, as in the mythical sphinx, or more figurative.  Is this creature an alien?  Animal?  Monster?  It asks your character a question that he or she must answer correctly to continue moving forward.  What is the question?  The answer?  Write these out in 150 words.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Sfinx, Public Domain

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Speculative Fiction's Fascination with Green Beings

I have always found our collective fascination with "little green men" to be, well, fascinating. Not so much the "little" part, but the "green" part. The meme of green aliens permeates science fiction, but also appears in other forms in folk tales and ancient mythology. Why are we so enthralled with this idea?

For the purposes of this post, I define "alien" very broadly, because I believe the basis for this fixation goes deep into time and into the human psyche. Humans have always had a feeling of strange "aliens" in their midst. The idea of aliens being intelligent life forms from another planet is rather new. Humans have envisioned other sorts of aliens, like fairies, spirits, gods, and monsters. Sagan discussed this concept in his book The Demon Haunted World. I hardly have space here to consider the huge idea of why we invent strange aliens in the first place, but I do want to briefly ponder why they are so often so specifically green.

Most cultures throughout history have noted the obvious, common color of green in nature. So it is not surprising that many cultures have placed the same meaning and symbolism on green, including birth, growth, sustenance, the cycles of nature, and then rebirth in the afterlife. These processes were full of mystery to the ancients (and to us, still) and so green became not only the color of the natural, but also the supernatural. For example, worship of the Egyptian god Osiris is recorded as early as around 2400 BCE. Osiris, the god of nature, rebirth and the afterlife, was often depicted with green skin.

This is a particularly strong symbol in Anglo, Saxon, and Celtic cultures. The forest fairies were green, and certainly the Green Man mythology centers around this symbolism. Originally, this green color was considered good - wild - but good. The pagan religious that grew up around it believed the green forest denizens were protectors and guides of the natural world. There is a theory that suggests it was Christianity's arrival in the Celtic world that changed green from a more positive, natural symbol into one that was just as often malevolent and demon related.  The early Church took a negative view of the color since honoring and worshiping the green folk and their ilk was decidedly against its ideology. So eventually in the Isles, green colored creatures also became something dangerous and evil, such as twisted wild fairies, pernicious monsters like goblins, and green-skinned witches. These ideas were in place by 1400 CE, as indicated by tales such as "Gawain and the Green Knight" where ancient tales and symbols meld with Christian ones.

As the known replaced the unknown, places like forests became less mysterious. But we humans simply moved our "aliens" to the next strange frontier such as distant islands, deep jungles, and the bottom of the ocean. The birth of modern science made it seem as if humans might eventually be able to replicate all the processes of nature - and one result was the quickening of the genre of science fiction with Shelly's Frankenstein in 1818. Frankenstein defies nature and creates life from death, piecing together his monster in a way that echoes how Isis pieced together the body of Osiris.

Into this new genre stepped authors like Verne and Wells, who had visions of travels to distant lands, and even distant planets. By 1880, Schaparelli had already named the major features he observed on Mars as "continents" and "seas".  That same year Greg published Across the Zodiac, where a traveler finds small humanoids populating that planet. With the 1899 Green Boy of Hurrah, and Burroughs' 1906 A Princess of Mars, amongst other stories, the small alien humanoids in the public imagination were nearly universally green.

As science fiction continued to explore its love for green aliens, high fantasy was born with Tolkien between The Hobbit in the mid 1930's and The Lord of the Rings in the mid 1950's. It was out of the mix of the symbolism of the Isles that Tolkien drew the heart of his Middle Earth, especially his creatures, including goblins, orcs, elves, ents and entwives, and dwarves. The elves, associated with the green forests, were mystical, ethereal, powerful, immortal, and generally good. But the green skinned orcs (apparently once elves) were twisted, violent, malignant, and evil. This is a striking parallel to the clash between pagan and church ideas in the old Celtic lands.

From that point, it isn't so hard to see how the trope or meme continued to expand. Today our speculative genres are filled with green creatures. Whether science fiction, fantasy or horror, there are little green men from Mars, green orcs, and green creatures from the black lagoon. We remain fascinated with the greenies. I, personally, trace it all back to that first green connection with the mysterious. We paint green those creatures who we, as authors, want to have a mystical, supernatural, or hyper-scientific power over nature, over life, and over death.

This is hardly a scientific study, merely my own thoughts presenting one possible reason why we fixate so strongly, and even adore, our green aliens. I have a species of green aliens in my sci-fi universe, too. And overused meme or not, they are there to stay. What are your thoughts?


Image Credit: Best 2 Out of 3 by rmj7 on

My comments: This art depicts characters from the newly released book Prossia by Raphyel M. Jordan. I envy the ability to actually draw the characters in one's writing, let alone create visual art.

The artist says: "Aly and Catty come from a race of people that are very combat-oriented and like to spar in their spare time. Here we catch the two after Round #2...ya think Catty's probably up for a Round 3?"

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Prompt the Muse #21 - Speculative Writing Prompt

Image: Mask of Zhao Yun
Masks have appeared in all kinds of speculative literature with an array of functions. They have been used in celebrations, religious rituals, to hide identity, as a form of art and dance, in political circles, and to provide protection for the face. Your character has a sudden need to use a mask. Why? What problem does it solve? Write your idea in 200 words.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Mask of Zhao Yun, Public Domain

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Finding Inspiration in Cards and Quizzes

Art: Empress by Tsabo6
The internet is filled with a plethora of quizzes that ostensibly will tell you all about yourself. They can tell you what Star Wars character you are, what kind of moviegoer, and even your religious denomination. Or perhaps what kind of ice cream you are - not what you prefer - what you are. (I am chocolate chip. Boring.) Do a search on almost any topic ("What kind of ___ am I" quiz), and you will find several possible quizzes of varying quality. I don't want to link to any directly, since many of these sites have ads, and I don't want to appear to endorse them.

I really enjoy quizzes overall, not just because they help me procrastinate writing, but because they can give me some insight into my characters. After I take the quiz as myself, I channel my characters and take the same quiz as each of them in turn. It is actually an interesting way to see if I am taking the easy route of making all of my people into either me or the anti-me. And the canonical wisdom tells us that either of those extremes can lead to less interesting character development and more predictable character interaction. I am trying to create unique individuals who get into interesting situations.

One quiz subject I enjoy is the "What Tarot Card Are You" subject. I consistently test as "The High Priestess," the card of science, wisdom, knowledge, and education. Not a big shock for a scientist and writer, I suppose. My main character comes out as "The Sun," supposedly the card of happiness, contentment, and joy. Ironic considering how angsty he is, but perhaps this is the emphasis of what he wishes he had. His best friend is "The Heirophant" who brings "the divine to earth," a kind of "guardian angel." An excellent description, and an image that makes my mind wander to a few new ideas for him. The MC's lover tests out as, well "Love/The Lovers." Hmmm.

And if taking the quizzes isn't enough inspiration for new directions for your characters, then go ahead and actually get tarot readings for them. Again, a little playing around with your favorite search engine will lead to sites that have computers generate instant tarot card spreads. I certainly do not suggest calling "real" people or paying for anything like this, it is just for entertainment and ideas. But this was very enjoyable for me, as my main character had a computer reading done about his love life, and learned he needed to set it aside and concentrate on family celebrations and outings instead. An excellent idea.

For additional card fun, check out the "science tarot" on facebook. This link was sent to me by a friend and I had a good time browsing the art. I noted that the Queen of Wands card, the Storyteller, is Carl Sagan. Something of a paragon for those of us who long to tell the stories of science (real and otherwise) in a way that captivates, informs, and enlightens.

But approach these quizzes advisedly. One of my characters tested out as "Jar Jar Binks" in a Star Wars Character quiz.  I haven't felt the same about him since.


Image Credit: Empress is used with the very generous permission of Tsabo6 on deviantArt.

My comments: Tsabo6 creates some incredible art filled with mystery, beauty, and darkness. Empress is one of several concept art tarot pieces in the theme of "high fantasy with a hint of oriental mood." I was enthralled immediately by this piece, which has such balance and beauty. Certainly if this were a real tarot deck, I'd be in line to get one. Art like this is so inspiring, and keeps the mind open to new possibilities and options.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Rosetta Spacecraft Visit of Asteroid Lutetia

Image: Asteroid Lutetia
From a science fiction perspective, asteroids have always been a source of great inspiration. They are the places where strange artifacts are found, the locations of wayward space outposts, and are the villains in big-rock-collides-with-Earth scenarios. From a planetary science perspective, we've learned a great deal about asteroids in the last 15 years, but as is often the case, the research has generated even more new questions to investigate than we had before.

This summer the Rosetta spacecraft had its close flyby of the asteroid Lutetia. Scientists have now had a chance to review the data from that flyby in some detail, and the first reports are being given at the conference I am attending.

More than anything else, the talks are pointing out how very different asteroids are, both from what we were expecting 15 years ago, and from one another. Lutetia is the biggest asteroid humans have gotten close to (so far) and it shows evidence for a very complex history. The surface features include: folds, fractures, troughs, peaks, craters, pit chains, young and old regions, grooves, deep regolith, boulders, landslides, steep slopes, and much more. It might seem like just another potato-shaped asteroid to some, but I continue to find the variations in asteroids to be really intriguing. And given the President's interest in sending humans to an asteroid sometime soon, these variations pose any number of challenges for mission planning.

For example, Lutetia has slopes of loose material steeper than 50 degrees. This is odd, since loose material on any world generally will not form a slope greater than about 30 degrees (called the angle of repose). This very steep slope might be a result of a strangely shaped gravity profile for the asteroid. Or perhaps the material is being weakly held together by electrostatic forces. In this arena, science and science fiction are in the same position, asking how can we get people there safely, and wondering what they will find when they get there. 

I am particularly interested in imagining the differences in trying to 'walk' on such a body, where the gravity is pulling strangely, where the slopes might be either rock or dust, and massive boulders are perched on peaks all around. On smaller asteroids, this effect would be even more pronounced. It might be more like 'floating' around, or as one colleague said, visiting something more akin to a dangerous underwater coral reef while wearing complex scuba gear.


Image Credit: Rosetta image of asteroid Lutetia, European Space Agency

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Science Conferences: Ideas from the Cutting Edge

Art: Conception of Future Lunar Visitors
Hopefully this will be a post-heavy couple of weeks. For one thing, I'd like to do a bit of catch up on topics I started examining here the blog, but did not fully explore (like writing retreats.) But more importantly I'd like to blog about the planetary science conference I am currently attending. I'm a day behind already, given travel schedules and whatnot, so it is time to get my fingers moving on the keyboard.

This meeting is one of the most important yearly conferences for the subject of planetary science and is attended by over a thousand people, including scientists, press, educators, writers, students, exhibitors, and much more. Since I fall into a number of these categories, such as scientist, educator, and writer, this conference is a great place to be. My main goal (after actually showing up for the science talk that has my name on it) is to plumb the meeting for ideas for science fiction writing. I've never approached this conference quite this way before, and I'm looking forward to the inevitable challenges. Particularly the challenge of thinking both as a scientist and as a fiction writer at the same time - which will hopefully make for an interesting post or two.

By the way, if you follow Twitter, you can check out Emily Lakdawalla's (Planetary Society) tweets of the conference here.


Image Credit: NASA

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Prompt the Muse #20 - Wednesday Speculative Writing Prompt

Image: NASA - Galaxy collision
Two species in separate galaxies learn that their galaxies are colliding and combining.  One sees this as an opportunity - new star birth will take place, revitalizing the galaxies.  The other sees this as a tragedy - the event will release a great deal of harmful radiation, and destroy many existing systems.  Take the point of view of an ambassador of one of these civilizations, and in 200 words try to explain to the other civilization why yours feels the way it does about this cosmic event.

Image Credit:  NASA Hubble Space Telescope

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

SFPA Poetry Contest - Winners Posted and Lessons Learned

Art: Vermeer - The Astronomer
As I noted in a previous post, I have been involved with a poetry contest with the Science Fiction Poetry Association.  The winners of that contest (SFPA New Poets Contest - The Art of Poetry) were posted tonight over on their forum.  (You have to be logged into the forum there to see the contest topic.) And I am happy both with the outcome and with the process in general.

This was the first time I helped to run a contest of this nature, and I learned a great deal.  My 'lessons learned' included a few ideas for how I might run similar contests in the future, and how to improve my own submissions to contests.

As for submitting to contests, I am surprised that there are people who still do not read the submission guidelines and follow the directions.  Contests get too many entries for the coordinators to try track down author information, or to decide how to deal with submissions that are over word/line count, etc., without seeming draconian.  No one wants to eliminate a submission because the author did not follow a simple guideline, but why should authors who did follow the rules not be given higher consideration?  There are no easy answers, and so basically, just follow the rules, no matter how strange they may seem.  I have always paid a lot of attention to the guidelines when I have submitted my writing for consideration, but this is still a lesson I'm going to take to heart with my own work.

Running the contest on a forum was a great way to make submitting easier on everyone.  Authors did not have to worry if their email was received, since they could see their submission on the site exactly as the judges did.  Judges did not have to have their email boxes inundated with mail, and have the associated worry about something getting missed.  It also meant there was a central location to ask and answer questions, and to post the winners.  My only regret is that we did not get more submissions - we had just over fifty.  I'll admit I was hoping for about a hundred.  So I need to learn how to do a better job of getting the word out, keeping interest up, and otherwise making the contest look like it is worth an author's time to submit.

And at the last, I was surprised to be surprised at how much time it took out of my life to do this relatively simple thing.  It isn't exactly hard to run a contest, there are simply a lot of steps.  I came up with the idea, proposed it to the society, helped come up with a theme and strategy, then read all the submissions, and handed my list of finalists to the officers for their final choices.  I also notified the winners and am collecting the information to get awards sent on to them.  I knew it would be time consuming, and yet was still surprised, especially with how long it took to read and rank fifty poems.  It was a very good thing we had a theme - five specific pieces of art - to center the writing.  This made the reading much easier, since everything was relatively focused.  Still, it was both fun and frustrating to try to judge such diverse works of writing.

And I've said this before, but perhaps I can get back to concentrating on some writing of my own, now.  Although this contest was a very fun way to procrastinate, and I imagine if given the opportunity, I'd volunteer as a judge for the very next writing contest that comes around.


Image Credit:

Prompt the Muse #19 - Speculative Writing Prompt

Image: NASA - Oil Slick
We imagine that most sentient life will have an impact, large or small, on the planets upon which they reside. Imagine a species has caused an ecological disaster. Take 200 words and outline the situation. What is the nature of the disaster? Does the species care or even notice? Why? What solution or remedy do they use to correct the damage, if any?

Image Credit: NASA Aqua Satellite Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) image of Gulf Coast oil slick.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Create Your Own Writing Retreat - Finding a First Priority

Image: 'Man Writing' by
After two months of dealing with distractions, I am trying to get myself back into my writing routine. Perhaps you've had this problem, too, where other issues seem much more pressing than your allotted writing time, and you allow yourself to be drawn off to deal with them. I've gotten out of my writing habit the last few weeks, distracted by stuff that looks like writing, but really isn't: dealing with the SFPA poetry contest, going through old files of ancient stories, keeping my weekly prompts here on my blog, and other 'administrative' tasks. It is all important to me, and related to writing, but actual writing time has fallen way, way down.

To recharge myself, I decided to 'send' myself on a writing retreat. (And no, I'm not in some amazing natural setting, putting pen to paper during a sunset, gazing out at the water ... but you work with what you have.) My spouse had to attend a conference, and I chose to go along and use the time out of my usual environment to concentrate on getting back into more of a writing habit. (And hopefully finally finish that novel that has been crying for attention since April.)

Part of my agenda is to write at least a short post every day this week here on One Writer's Mind. As you know, my usual strategy is to post one or two long posts, and then a writing prompt. (Or post nothing but writing prompts for weeks, apparently ...)

Going about planning a writing retreat turned out to be an interesting process. My first issue, and the one I chose to blog about today, was that of choosing my main goal. What did I hope to accomplish by the end of the week? I have five days where I can devote several hours to writing, editing, re-reading, crafting, background research, or anything I need to do. An amazing luxury. So how do I get the most out of it?

I decided I should define a first priority, the way to say "if you accomplish this you can claim 100% mission success." My need to reestablish more of a routine was pretty clear. So while I figured that I needed to set several specific writing goals, the first and foremost was simply to say I would write for two solid hours each day. No editing in that time, no re-reading, no research. Two hours of writing. I often end up getting diverted with all those other important tasks, and simply do not get the words down on the 'page' each day that I need to get down.

Have you sent yourself on a retreat? Did you make a primary goal? How did you decide what you wanted to accomplish more than anything else?

Thanks for reading - now back to making the day's writing goal.


Image Credit: 'Man Writing' by via Creative Commons and Flikr

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Prompt the Muse #18 - Wednesday Speculative Writing Prompt

Image: Textile Art
Symbols are very important to all aspects of human society. Your characters live on another planet, or deep in the past, or in an alternate universe.  Their existence is different from ours.  They must choose five symbols from their everyday lives to use in an important work of art.  What symbols do they choose, and why?  Write your ideas in 150 words.

Image Credit:  Bright textile from Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Prompt the Muse #17 - Wednesday Speculative Writing Prompt

Art: Planet collision
You need to write a paragraph where two characters have a great impact on one another.  They have never met, and do not meet in the paragraph, either.  What happens that allows these two characters to have such an effect on one another?  Write the paragraph in 150 words, either as an outline of your ideas, or as you would put it in a story.

Image Credit:  Impact from NASA JPL - Caltech on Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Prompt the Muse #16 - Wednesday Speculative Writing Prompt

Art: Mirror with Candle
Consider the means whereby writers create a mood in a scene.  For this prompt you need to create a sinister mood in 200 words.  Steer clear of any obvious words such as: evil, malicious, horrifying, dangerous, dark, scary, etc.  Try to create the mood by describing the setting as creatively as possible.

Image Credit:  Skull Mirror from Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Prompt the Muse #15 - Wednesday Speculative Writing Prompt

Image:  Blue Fractal
Humans use many different tools to determine their position and direction, such as a compass and satellite systems. Your characters have been stranded on a planet where there is no advanced technology, and no metal. What means do they use to determine their position and direction? Feel free to consider what early humans might have done, or call on magic or supernatural means. Write your ideas in 200 words.

Image Credit:  Kompas from Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Prompt the Muse #14 - Wednesday Speculative Writing Prompt

Image:  Many Galaxies Colliding
Your characters take a journey from one galaxy to another. They do not use a mechanical or technological means (i.e. no star ships, warp gates, etc.) They do not use magic. How do they travel? What is the journey like? Write your idea in 200 words.

Image Credit:  NASA

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Giant Jupiter Provides a Constant Spectacle

Art: Gas Giant Mining Drone by Betelgeuze01
I see I have managed nothing but writing prompts for the past few weeks. Haven't been producing the word counts I like to see, and I have several short stories languishing here on my computer that should be out on the street. I've been concentrating on other issues, like the poetry contest at the SFPA I posted about. So I imagine this somewhat sorry state of writing affairs will continue until mid July, when that wraps up. But that's one of the reasons I started this blog, as a fun way to keep myself motivated to write. And the heavens have cooperated with a little planetary display that has gotten me off of my duff for a real post.

I am generally partial to planets with solid surfaces, and then am biased to rocky planets as opposed to icy ones. Still, Jupiter has diverted my attention, as well as the attention of many others. Recent events have underlined just how cool a gas giant planet can be. Atmospheres always emphasize the human fascination with things that constantly change, and yet stay the same. Seasons, for example. We love to watch the seasons change, but mostly because we know that winter will always give way to spring. Constant change, but within a known pattern.

Jupiter has a number of cyclical patterns that change its atmosphere - some of which are pretty dramatic, (as noted on Emily Lakdawala's great blog over at the Planetary Society, AstroBob, Bad Astronomy, and others) About a month ago, amateurs noted that the wide, nearly ever-present dark band around the southern equatorial region of the planet was ... gone. Yep, just gone. (Note pix - also note that the Great Red Spot is still there, just on the other side of the planet.) For those unfamiliar with the cyclical changes on Jupiter, this was a pretty big shock, and a striking change to the look of the planet. But such a dramatic change isn't unexpected; the southern equatorial band disappears every three to fifteen years, and then comes back again. The return is actually a pretty dramatic event, too, so it is worth keeping your eyes and ears open for Jupiter news.

Of course, when I see things like this, I imagine what the good, solid, scientific reasons might be, and then what the fun, bizarre, speculative reasons might be. For example, maybe the atmosphere of a gas giant could be altered by a planet-wide gas mining operation (as seen in the art, above). A gas giant like Jupiter might give the impression of possessing an infinite quantity of resources, but like the Earth, any planetary resource will eventually run out. Or be handled in such a way as to eventually destroy the environment that supported the resource. An interesting idea - contemplating how such mining might be approached. In Star Wars, Lando Calrissian was the administrator of the Cloud City Tibanna Gas Mines. We weren't given all the details about exactly how or why that operation was carried out, but it definitely sounded cool. (Although apparently "tibanna" is some kind of "rare form of matter naturally found in the state of a gas." Definitely not enough detail ...)

I was planning to end my post there, but then Jupiter experienced another interesting event. The image shows a bright flash in the southern hemisphere (image is south to the top). This was probably caused by an impact event, smaller but basically the same as the Shoemaker-Levy 9 impact events of about fifteen years ago. Jupiter possesses the high gravity demanded by its high mass. Such a gravitational well and big target means impacts into Jupiter's atmosphere are constant. They are into the Earth's atmosphere as well, but bigger stuff hits Jupiter more often than Earth (fortunately for us).  This same astronomer found the impact scar of another event in 2009.  That scar was different from the cometary impacts of SL9, indicating an asteroid impact.  We are not yet sure what impacted Jupiter this time.

Amateur scopes and image processing equipment have now reached near-professional levels. Because of this, even smaller events that happen on the planets are rarely missed. This gives us a new appreciation for how dynamic and changing our solar system really can be. And, of course, it gives us plenty of new ideas for speculative writing about the topic.


First Image Credit - Gas Giant Mining Drone by Betelgeuze01

My comment - This naturally caught my eye as I was thinking about the atmospheres of giant planets. I am rather irritated by the non-explanation of "Tibanna" in Star Wars, since I always prefer more detail. But what gas would a civilization really mine? We have plenty of hydrogen, already.  However, if I do think of a good reason to mine the atmosphere of a gas giant, it will certainly appear to my eye as something like this great piece of art. The blimp-like mining robots seem both unique as well as functional for their appointed task.

Second and Third Image Credits - Anthony Wesley, Australia.  Known 'amateur' astronomer.  Making observations that once upon a time even the professionals could not make.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Prompt the Muse #13 - Wednesday Speculative Writing Prompt

Image:  Watery Planetscape
A group of characters must swim from one island to another, avoiding a dangerous hazard in the water. What is this hazard, and how do they try to avoid it? Do they succeed? Write your idea in 150 words.

Image Credit:  EonWorks

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Prompt the Muse #12 - Wednesday Speculative Writing Prompt

Art: Eos with Wings
We have named many astronomical bodies in our system after the characters of different mythologies. Develop a naming scheme for planets in another star system, based on the culture of the sentient beings who live there. Perhaps they use the names of artists, colors, or elements. What are the names of three planets in their system?

Image Credit:  Eos from Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Prompt the Muse #11 - Wednesday Speculative Writing Prompt

Art: Cemetery Arch
Your main character has stumbled into a haunted graveyard. To escape, this person must perform a ritual under a great stone arch, using five items found in the graveyard. What are the items, and what does your character do with them? Describe the ritual in 200 words, including what happens to those who haunt the graveyard, if you like.

Image Credit:  Cemetery Arch from Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Prompt the Muse #10 - Wednesday Speculative Writing Prompt

Art: Exploding Planet
Something has gone terribly wrong inside the core of a planet, causing it to explode. Imagine the reason for this explosion. Perhaps it was caused by the action of sentient beings, a natural process in the core, the birth of a powerful life form, or a malicious curse. Write your idea in 150 words.

Image Credit:  Exploding Planet from Wikimedia Commons

Monday, May 17, 2010

SFPA New Poets Contest: The Art of Poetry

Art: Medea
I am excited to announce that our poetry contest for new poets has gone live.  I've been working with the Science Fiction Poetry Association, as a member, to create an art-inspired poetry contest.  We are hoping to raise awareness about the society among new poets, as well as continue to see new people invest themselves in this genre.  I've put the entirety of the guidelines below in this post, for completeness, but here is the short version.

The contest is offering small cash prizes (10$ or less) as well as SFPA membership or books of speculative poetry to the three top poems submitted.  Poets who have three or fewer paid poetry publications are eligible.  The contest is being run on the SFPA Forum, and you must register to even SEE the contest topic which is SPFA New Poets Contest: The Art of Poetry.  It is also password protected.  This is to protect the poets and their poems, and to keep down any possible spam.

As I said, the poetry must be related to art.  The SFPA has chosen five works of art, and linked to them under the topic on the forum.  (I've also posted them below, and show one of them Medea, here.)  The poem(s) submitted must be inspired, however loosely, by one of these five works of art.  Some are classics, like Vermeer's The Astronomer, and The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry.  But there is also modern space art from Don Davis.  The SFPA is a speculative poetry society, so poetry themes must follow science-fiction, horror, fantasy, straight science, or have some speculative aspect.

I would greatly appreciate it if you would spread the word.  Our deadline is June 30, 2010, so there is plenty of time to view the art, write a poem or two, and get them in!


Image Credit: De Morgan Medea, Public Domain Image from Wikimedia Commons

Forum rules
Contest Guidelines – SFPA New Poets Contest: The Art of Poetry

The Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA) is holding a poetry contest with art as its inspiration! The contest is offering cash prizes and there are no fees to enter. New poets are invited to contribute. Non-members as well as members are eligible. Please read the complete rules below for theme, submission specifics, etc. Then write 'em up and send 'em in! 

First prize: $10, a one year SFPA membership, and publication on SFPA's web site
Second prize: $8, a copy of Cinema Spec: Tales of Hollywood and Fantasy, and publication on SFPA's web site
Third prize: $7, a copy of Dwarf Stars 2009, and publication on SFPA's web site 

We plan to archive the winning poems indefinitely, but authors may request removal from the web site after six months. SFPA reserves the right to grant all, some, or none of the prizes, at its discretion.

The contest is open to new poets, SFPA members and nonmembers alike, with the following exclusions. Poets must have three or fewer paid poetry publication credits. No members of the contest committee, no current SFPA officers or web site staff, and no family members of the judges may enter the contest. 

Write a speculative poem of 20 lines or less inspired by one of these works of art: ... onomer.JPG ... _Medea.jpg ... stry_7.jpg ... nset_2.jpg

All forms welcome--haiku, cinquains, tanka, sonnets, free verse, etc., but poems must contain one or more of the following elements: science fiction, fantasy, horror, surrealism or straight science. Post previously unpublished poems only. No reprints. Poems should be appropriate for a general audience. We reserve the right to remove from contest consideration and from the forums any poems that might be considered above a "PG" rating.

Submissions must be made at the SFPA Forum (
index.php). Registration at the forum will be required to post poems. Poets shall submit poems as posts under the heading SFPA New Poets Contest: The Art of Poetry. This topic will be password-protected. The password will be listed on the forum, right under the contest topic heading. One must register to even SEE the contest topic. One poem per post, with a maximum of three poems per person. Include your name, title of poem, and then text of poem. Winners will be contacted for their addresses via email after the contest closes.

The deadline for submissions is 11:59 EDT on June 30, 2010. SFPA reserves the right to extend the contest deadline, if necessary. Winners will be announced on the SFPA Forum. Questions? The first topic under the contest heading is the place to post questions. If you cannot access this topic after registering, post your question in the “Website and Forum” area. The SFPA shall not be held liable if submissions cannot be made due to website problems or connection difficulties, etc.