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