Sunday, March 28, 2010

Considering Duality in Science, Myth, and Speculative Fiction

The idea of 'duality' in its many forms has been on my mind lately, and I wanted to share a few thoughts about that here on One Writer's Mind.

But first I'd like to follow up on an idea from my last post. I've been having a little success arranging partnerships with up-and-coming speculative artists (although some might consider that pejorative, since a few of these artists have clearly arrived.) Because of this, I will be able to feature much more art on the blog, and it will be a win-win situation for everyone involved.  We, the writers, will now get to see some work that has thus far not gotten the exposure (I think) it deserves.  And the artists get a little more 'air' time.  I hope you find the art posted on One Writer's Mind to be as inspiring for your imagination and writing as I find it to be for mine.

Back to considering duality - humans are obsessed with it, obviously. Black and white. Yin and Yang. Up and Down. Pro and Con. There are many creation stories that involve the separation of light and dark, order and chaos, or heaven and earth. We seem to have a deep desire to grapple with this concept; the two sides that never meet. And if they do meet, we imagine the result to be catastrophic.

An obvious example from science fiction is 'The Force' with its light and dark sides. And yet much of what Lucas envisioned was built on ancient ideas of an epic hero, an epic struggle. The ultimate expression of duality through the triumph of good over evil. It is one of the oldest stories in The Book.  So how is it that this theme can still compel us? How is it that writers can revisit this theme over and over, and readers do not grow tired of it? How does that relate to the fact that we have built it into our myths from the beginning, and where did it all start?

As a scientist, I can't help but think about matter and antimatter when considering 'duality'. Matter is what we are familiar with in our daily lives. Our protons have a positive charge and our electrons a negative charge. Our universe is composed almost entirely of matter, with only a very little antimatter. There are electrons out there with a positive charge, but they are impossibly rare, and exist for only a sliver of a second. And yet there is no particular reason why our universe had to be made of matter. Antimatter is expected to physically behave exactly like matter. But when our universe formed, there was just a tiny bit more matter than antimatter, and that small asymmetry (the baryon asymmetry) was all it took. Eventually matter 'won out' and our galaxies and such formed from it entirely.

But that does not mean that there is no antimatter in our observable universe. Antimatter is created naturally in high energy events, such as inside a particle accelerator, or around an energetic source like the center of the galaxy. Not much of it is created, and as soon as it is, it runs into nearby regular matter and they both vanish. When matter and antimatter meet, they annihilate one another leaving a flash of gamma ray energy behind. This to me seems like the quintessential meeting of light and dark, with a catastrophic ending. And it is a natural phenomenon occurring throughout the universe, all the time.

And yet, the very existence of two sides can sometimes imply an in between place. A coin has two sides, but without either of them you do not have a coin. I am reminded of what I consider to be one of the first modern science-fiction/fantasy explorations of the duality of human nature - The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The end is indeed a catastrophic disruption, but along the way, the reader must abide with the tension of good and evil existing simultaneously.  

I'll venture to say we all know in our hearts that the world is not black and white. We might desire an obvious hero and an obvious villain. Knowing who the bad guys are always makes the path we must take much more clear. But more often then not, the path is grey. Black and white end up being the ends of a continuum, and life is lived in the spaces in between. Most of fiction (and perhaps non-fiction) is really the struggle to find the proper course when the path is not so clear after all.

I'm curious about your thoughts, especially about how writers can and do approach the subject of duality with new perspectives that continue to engage readers.


Image Credit and Information:  "Convergence" used with permission from the artist julian399 via Deviant Art.

My comments:  The detail in this work, as with all of Julian's work, is awesome.  You have to go to the site and see it in the full resolution version to appreciate it fully.  I don't provide that resolution here, and won't for most art I post, to avoid the possibility that someone will take it without permission.

Artist comments: "two artificial entities of pure machinery, Order and Chaos at a death lock trying to converge into one entity... at the distance, celestial inhabitants of the universe watch in awe as they both try to annihilate each other; while other sentient beings racing into the heart of the storm attempt to prevent their gods from obliterating themselves and the very fabric of space and time..."

Friday, March 26, 2010

Art Feature - Ring Colonies Envisioned by Artist Don Davis

I am hoping to do more art features, and to include more art here on the site.  To that end I went looking for art and artists I could display here.  But of course, there are copyrights to abide by, and given that my blog is only just starting out, I didn't want to start knocking on the doors of big name, well-established artists just yet.

Still, I wanted to do a post on art as inspiration, and so dug around until I did indeed find some space art with open permissions ... thus this post.

I have always adored space art; from my first introduction to that work in old science fiction stories and books, through the era of Cosmos and 'serious' space art, and now to the computer generated spacescapes of perfection.  I love it all.

But I do have something of a soft spot for the art that kindled my imagination, and thereby contributed to my choosing to become a planetary scientist (and eventually getting my PhD in that field).  This same art continues to inspire me to create works of fiction today.  That art, as I called it above, was the 'serious' space art characterized by the Cosmos book and series.  Art of that era and in that sub-genre attempted to create accurate visualizations of astronomical phenomena using the best data and observations available.  Without computers, space art was oil, canvas, and airbrush.  Artist Don Davis was a major contributor to that effort.
Don Davis is one of the most influential space artists of the age.  You can visit his webpage for a look at his bio, projects, and some of his work.  There is no point in trying to list it all here, he has worked on everything; maps, books, cover art, television, missions, and more.  And interestingly, while doing this, the US government paid for Don to do some of that art.  Again, when computers were not an option, the best way to get an idea of what a space station might look like was to give the details to a talented artist and let him or her paint it.  Because of that, some of Don's art actually belongs to the general public, and he has posted the best resolution photos he has of that art.  Some of which now appears right here in this blog post!  Our tax dollars at work ...

Here I am going to focus on the art he created to depict a range of 'ringworlds'.  These were ideas for possible human colonies.  In these pieces, Don hoped to emphasize the difficulties with creating and maintaining a closed ecosystem.
The first, the beautiful orange and red piece above is listed on Don's site as one of his first colony pieces.  What is depicted is not so much a ring world, but cylindrical habitats orbiting at the L5 Lagrange point.  Don has envisioned that clouds would form over the terrain.  The orange color is due to the 'setting' of the sun, as the habitats fall into the Earth's shadow.

The second image is the inside of what became known as the 'Stanford Torus', filled with plenty of planned green space, as well as housing and commercial space.  Looking at this, I can't help wondering how people will get around.  I hope there is a monorail built all the way around the structure.  Hopefully one on both sides, actually.  The third image is an external view of the Stanford Torus in the assembly phase.  There is incredible detail both in the inner contents of the torus, as well as hints to how it would be constructed.

All these images raise practical questions about colony feasibility, and about the philosophy of having humans move into space in general.  But I'm looking at these works of art as a fiction writer, and so I don't have to figure out how to justify the budget in real life.  Instead, I can enjoy the voyage of the mind, imagining how it would feel to be there, to see it built, and then to live there.  I wonder what aspects of our culture would change the most dramatically, and which would become entrenched even further.

There is so much to be gained from bringing art and writing together.  Since I write poetry, I perhaps feel this more intimately than some.  In any case, I have invested time searching out new artists on the internet who publish their work on art sites, hoping to get some feedback and recognition.  Perhaps I will be able to showcase some of the work of these artists of tomorrow in a whole host of genres: science, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and the just plain weird.  This should give all of us plenty of new ideas to write about!


Image Credit:  Artist Don Davis public domain works

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Prompt The Muse #2 - Thursday Speculative Writing Prompt

Image: Strange Surface
What do you see when you look at this image? A sample of a strange new mineral? A snowy planetary landscape pictured from above? A close up of an alien skin disease? Imagine what it might be, and what this image was used for after it was taken. Write your ideas in 150 words.

Image Credit:  Eonworks

Prompt The Muse #1 - Thursday Speculative Writing Prompt

In spite of saying I didn't intend to put up writing prompts as individual posts, I've now seen plenty of sites that indicate that prompts are more useful if they show up as posts than if they only appear on one's blog front page.  My intention is therefore to put out one prompt a week in its own post.  So there will be two today, this one (last week's prompt) and a new prompt.  I chose Thursday because it seemed to be a more neglected day for writing prompts.  There are lots of Friday, Saturday and Sunday prompts, as well as the middle of the week Wednesday prompts.  Let me know what you think of the prompts and the schedule.


Prompt the Muse #1

During a solar eclipse, we humans imagined the sun was being eaten by a dragon, amongst other things. Imagine a world that experiences similar 'solar' eclipses. What do the inhabitants think is responsible?

Image Credit:  NASA

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Phobos from Mars Express - Visiting a Science Fiction Favorite

Phobos, the innermost of Mars' small, rocky satellites, has long been a source of inspiration for science fiction writers.  Given that the last two weeks have seen amazing new images from this rocky satellite, I thought I'd write a post highlighting some of this moon's past history in literature, as well as current speculation on its origin.

The European Space Agency's Mars Express mission was launched in June of 2003.  It entered Martian orbit in December of 2003, and since has been chugging away sending back data.  Mars Express has recently entered a new observing campaign, and for the last few weeks has concentrated on acquiring high resolution photos, radar, gravity, and other data of Phobos (also see the Planetary Society's blog posts about Phobos, and the official Mars Express blog now posting about Phobos Flyby 2010). 

I have an interest in rocky surfaces, and have been fascinated by the overlapping features revealed in the new images.  Phobos' surface is characterized by a variety of features including: craters, rays, regolith, grooves, boulders, crater chains, albedo differences, and much more.  For those who find Moon-like surfaces boring, I suggest they take a look at these images and try to put together the puzzle of history they represent.

Phobos and Mars share something of a similarity in how they grabbed the attention of the public.  In each case, there was a suggestion by early observers that these bodies showed evidence of the work of another intelligent civilization.  For Mars, it was the suggestion by Percival Lowell that Mars' surface was crossed with 'person'-made canals (confused from Giovanni Schiaparelli's channels, and subsequently shown to be an optical illusion).  The follow up was a furor of Mars stories with aliens in residence.  In the case of Phobos, it was Russian astronomer Samuilovich Shklovsky in 1958 who concluded the body was a hollow alien construct.  A little more than ten years later, his interpretation collapsed when accurate measurements of the satellite's orbit were made.

As with Mars, the subsequent discounting of the need for Martians to explain the observations of Phobos did nothing to change the mindset that made its way into the popular literature.  This is something that can be seen readily by looking at the science fiction stories about Phobos.  Lists abound on the internet, so I won't reprint a list here, but there are some strong themes present.  I find it striking that Phobos is often portrayed as entirely alien made, or the hiding place of an alien artifact as in the stories Phobos the Robot Planet and Century Rain.

But those energetic Earthlings are quite likely to be the first civilization to make use of Phobos.  The satellite features in NASA's new "Flexible Path" strategy for human space flight.

The truth of Phobos' origins and fate are by no means uninteresting, even without the need for Martians.  Its fate is probably going to include being torn apart by Mars' gravity before it falls into the planet.  Phobos' orbit is slowly evolving.  It is growing closer and closer to Mars, and one way or another will eventually crash into the planet's surface.  The other moon of Mars, Deimos, is doing quite the opposite.  Its orbit is slowly evolving so that Deimos is receding from Mars (like our own Moon is receding from Earth).

Reflectance spectra obtained by Viking in the 1980's suggested that Phobos had a composition similar to asteroids in the middle region of the asteroid belt.  Given this and their asteroid-like shapes, it has long been speculated that these moons are captured asteroids.  But new data about their possible compositions, as well as a new understanding of planetary dynamics, makes this theory more problematic.  Dynamicists say it is highly unlikely that two asteroids could be captured and then end up in these orbits.  Recent reflectance spectra of both Phobos and Deimos look more like comet nuclei or the Trojan asteroids of Jupiter.

So new theories for the origin of Phobos continue to be generated.  Perhaps it is not captured at all, but is instead the ejecta from a massive impact on Mars.  Are Phobos and Deimos old remnants of ancient Martian crust that have been subjected to 'space weathering'?  If so, why would they look like comet nuclei?  Or perhaps there were once many satellites of Mars, and these are the only two left.  At this point, there is no definitive answer.

Which once again means that science fiction authors can step in and generate their own possible origin stories.  One of which may turn out to have been right on, some day. 


Image Credit:  ESA/Mars Express

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Pros and Cons of Multitasking Writing Projects

I always work on more than one writing project at a time.  I may spend months working on one novel, then turn to another novel and work on that for a month, then turn to a short story for a week, and then head back to the first novel.  Some days I'll work on three different projects before lunch, although that's rare.  This multitasking approach has some pros and cons, as you imagine.  But after doing some looking around on the web in various forums and such, I see that most people do have multiple projects going at once.

Some of the Cons of Multitasking are ...
  • You can lose track of where you are in a story.  This means having to take very good notes, reference those notes, and do a lot of re-reading of your material to get back into the groove of where you are.  I naturally do a lot of re-reading of my work, so this approach works.  However, I do lose time reading my writing when I probably should be making more writing, instead.
  • You have another way to ignore or procrastinate a nagging writing issue.  After all, if you have a new and exciting short story humming away, you don't have to force yourself to work through the ending of that complex novel.  Well, not right now, anyway.  Having another project to go to makes that kind of procrastination more likely.
  • Making multiple, specific project deadlines can be trickier.  If you have one project going, then that is what you work on, and the deadlines surrounding it are what you work towards.  With multiple projects, you have to track multiple deadlines, and can find yourself against the wall finishing a piece that you put on the back burner for too long.
Some of the Pros of Multitasking are ...
  • When you get stuck, there is always something else to work on.  Sometimes it isn't a matter of procrastination, it really is more like being stuck or blocked completely.  Instead of getting frustrated, you can move to another project and keep the words flowing.  That kind of break might be all that is necessary to get the first project unstuck and flowing again.
  • You can write when motivation and mood are high, so writing is more fun.  For me, anyway, I always move to the project that is calling my name at that moment.  If a great scene or passage of dialogue comes to me, I don't fight the urge to write it, even if it is in a project I know is not a high priority.  Some people feel they do their best work when they are the most excited about it.  (Note that others feel they do their best work when they are low, struggling with each word, and therefore being very thorough.)
  • You can get more work into circulation at one time.  If you can handle several projects at once, you can be working towards multiple contests, special issues, and general submissions simultaneously.  In today's publishing world, this is almost a necessity, since the time between when you start to write a book and when you see it in print is often years. 
My inspiration for this post came from the fact that I've started a new novel.  I noted a call for a specific kind of submission, and realized I had an idea percolating that would be a good match.  And I was probably looking for a reason to continue to put off writing the ending to my speculative fantasy novel (note procrastination problem, above).  Taking on another project right now is probably not wise for another reason - that I intend to try writing a poem a day in April.  Poetry uses a different part of my brain than story writing, and so I experience a sort of jarring effect when I move from one to the other.  This can either be a source of inspiration, or of frustration, and I can't predict which one it will be ahead of time.  These projects are on top of two short stories in the editing phase, and my mental backlog of science fiction novels, only one of which is completely written.

And of course there is the blog ...


Image Credit: / CC BY 2.0

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Original Writing and Our Copyright Issues

My last post, as you can see, was a rather in-your-face copyright regulations page.  I now have someplace to refer individuals who are interested in my copyright, and a place to make it clear to potential content thieves what will happen to them if they ignore it.  I wish, so very much, that this sort of thing were not necessary.  Copyright issues were something I never wanted to think about.  When I was younger, I had the naive idea that people generally wanted to do the right thing, and wouldn't take my work without proper credit.  Of course, when I was in college there was no internet, either, so theft was neither so easy as cut-and-paste, nor quite so easy to catch.

When I became a scientist, I realized that my ideas and my written word in papers were my deliverable products to the world.  I had to protect both my intellectual property and my written property.  I became intimately aware that my career was bound up in how people related me to interesting ideas, and to my previous publishing record.  If I did come up with an idea or write a paper, I had to make certain I was given proper credit as the source.  The scientific community is of course aware that this is true for all of us, and so there are a number of formal and informal ways we try to protect ourselves and our colleagues from theft of their ideas, written or otherwise.  In astronomy, the system works pretty well.  We are a relatively small community, and so it is hard to get away with any kind of substantial theft or plagerism without someone finding out.  One major theft or a few small ones will ruin a scientist's reputation in our field for good.

Now that I am contemplating fiction writing, and more to the point, fiction publishing, I am seeing this from a new angle.  In spite of my lack of desire to delve into the nitty-gritty of legal matters, I knew I had to educate myself.  And so I did.  Thus a few changes here at One Writer's Mind.  I thought I'd post about those changes, and where I got the ideas to make them.  Giving all credit where credit is due, of course, in the links.

There are a million sites talking about copyright, and blogging, and such, but here are the ones that I ended up finding the most useful.  The one that is the most comprehensive and easy to understand I found at The Lost Art of Blogging.  This LAOB post details some ideas about what you can do to make sure readers know your work is copyrighted, how to search for infringement, and then what to do when (not if) you eventually find a thief.  One of their suggestions was the creation of the copyright regulations page/post that I just put up.  They lead me over to Dosh Dosh, and I modeled my own copyright page after theirs.

LAOB also suggested protecting the RSS feed for posts with a copyright line at the bottom.  It took me a little while to figure out where this capability can be found on Blogger (there are lots of posts about a Wordpress downloadable tool) but I finally spotted what I needed on Plagiarism Today.  In the end it was simple, in the settings area for RSS feeds, there is a box to put content to appear at the end of each post.  I placed my copyright and a link to Copyscape, to show I had at least a minimal amount of savvy about tracking down infringers.

I also placed a Copyscape button and a copyright notice at the top of my main blog page.  I hate the way it looks, but it has two important functions.  First of all, there are those who don't realize you don't need a formal copyright to claim copyright on your work.  We own the copyright from the moment we write an original work.  It belongs to us.  Some people might ignorantly lift work they think is open simply because they do not see the symbol.  The other reason is that there are people who know they are stealing, but will look for easier targets than someone who is doing regular checks for theft, and who knows their rights.

So the subject of copyright is mostly covered, for now.  Of course, as soon as I have something stolen I'll be sure to share the 'joy' of legal action with you all ...


Image Credit: / CC BY-SA 2.0

One Writer's Mind (OWM) Copyright Regulations

It's too bad I have to say this first part ... but for those who need it spelled out ...

Using other people's articles, blog posts, photos, and artwork without following copyright regulations is STEALING.

Just because it is out on the internet does not mean it is 'up for grabs.'  Your reputation as a respectable member of the internet community hinges on your being proactive about fair use of materials.  (For example, all images on 'One Writer's Mind' are: my own photography or artwork, publicly available images from sites like NASA, pieces I have asked specific permission to use, or work distributed under a creative commons license.  If it is not my own image I have posted a credit link as dictated by the fair use license in question.)   You must follow proper procedure for any content you put on your own blog or website.  If it isn't your original work, you MUST follow copyright regulations or face legal action.

Okay, now for the actual information ...

Many thanks to The Lost Art of Blogging and Dosh Dosh, who suggest the creation and posting of copyright pages like this one here, and provided the model.

All content appearing on "One Writer's Mind" (referred to here also as "OWM") including main page, all posts, and special features such as 'Prompt the Muse' is copyrighted per the Copyright ActAll rights are reserved by the author.  Material and content on OWM is NOT released under a Creative Commons license at this time.  You must observe all copyright regulations and terms of fair use if you intend to distribute or use any material from OWM.  Infringement of copyright will incur appropriate legal action.

Copyright Regulations for Material on OWM

The following regulations and restrictions apply to the sharing, distribution, or transmission of any material or content from OWM:
  1. Content Limit - You cannot, under any circumstances, reprint or republish an entire blog post, review or article from OWM.  This is true even if attribution to OWM is made.  The content limit for usage in quotes or excerpts is 150 words or less.  Ensure when using excerpts that proper attribution is made with a link to the specific article or post from OWM, not just to the OWM main page.
  2. Proper Attribution -When using quotes or excerpts, proper attribution must be made by including an obvious, prominently displayed link to the specific post or article from OWM.  Do not point to the OWM main page unless that is the specific source of the content (such as in posted features.)
  3. No Commercial Usage - You cannot use material or content from OWM for any commercial purposes.  You cannot make money from use of any quotes or excerpts from OWM.  You cannot repackage material from OWM to be sold, given away, distributed free, offered as prizes or used as a promotion for any kind of commercial offering or product.
  4. Special Exceptions - Special exceptions or exemptions from these regulations may be granted by the author.  (In fact, the author is likely to grant any reasonable request, and will likely link to your site in a blog post or such) .  To obtain a special exception, you must contact the author of OWM directly by posting a query comment on the most recent blog post in which you leave an appropriate email address.  See comments on this post for examples of query letters.  If the author does not contact you, or if your comment query is deleted, you are not granted an exception from these regulations.  Unless you hear from the author directly, all regulations remain in force, and will be legally enforced.

Results of Copyright Infringement or What Happens When You Steal

With the growing number of internet copyright infringements, providers have responded by creating a large number of useful tools and processes for bloggers to defend their original content.  Do not assume a blogger will not find your illegally posted work, it is actually quite easy to do, and many bloggers including myself access specific services to do exactly this.  If you steal, you will be caught.  This is what happens to people who infringe copyright, and is the process that will be followed if copyright regulations for OWM are not observed:
  1. Your website will be reported as spam to all major search engines.  Search engine providers are very wary of having their usability compromised by spam, so they are aggressive in removing spammers.  You will be blacklisted from those engines, which will result in the destruction of your search ranking.
  2. All major social network sites will be contacted to report your copyright infringement.  Social network providers must maintain a high standing in order to attract new users, so they are very proactive in assisting with blacklisting infringers.  This will result in irreparable damage to your social network reputation.
  3. Your advertising networks will be contacted to inform them of your copyright infringement.  Advertisers are not interesting in working with thieves, and they will ban you.  You will lose all income from those advertisers.
  4. Your website hosting provider will be contacted and your theft will be reported.  As with search engines, web hosts cannot risk having known content thieves as customers, and they will suspend all of your website accounts.
  5. The Domain Name Registrar for your domain will be contacted to report your copyright violation.  Your registrar will suspend your domain name, possibly permanently.
Do not approach web content with the idea that you can copy it now and if found out, you can just remove it from your site.  Once you have stolen content, you are liable for the infringement even after the content has been removed!   The internet keeps cashed records of time, date, and content of posted material well into the past, so evidence of the infringement is easy to generate even after the content has been taken off of your site.

Image Credit: / CC BY-SA 2.0

Protected by Copyscape DMCA Takedown Notice Violation Search

Writing Prompts - When the Muse Needs Help

"P" is for "prompt" ...

Sometimes you need a prompt because you feel stuck in a writing rut.  At other times, you might use a prompt to see a situation from a new angle.  And then there are the times when you are looking for a cure for a totally blank mind (with me this state is usually the result of a complete lack of sleep).  A good prompt can help give you new ideas and a new perspective.  It cannot, unfortunately, give you a good night's sleep.  But that does seem to be asking a lot.

I always enjoy playing with a good writing prompt, even if I am not feeling particularly blank or stuck.  I simply find prompts to be entertaining, and occasionally a solid idea for a story or poem will result from playing around with one.  In light of this, I decided I would add a writing prompt feature to my blog page that I am going to call "Prompt the Muse".  At this point, I'm not planning to put each prompt in its own blog post, but instead I'll be putting the prompts on the home page of the blog itself.  I've started one blog post, my last one, to use as a prompt archive.  I will update that post with each new prompt.  My reason for not blogging each prompt separately is that for the time being I'd rather blog less frequently and make the posts more substantial, rather than have a lot of very short posts.

The internet is gorged with pages offering writing prompts of one form or another.  Sadly, a large number of these pages are themselves gorged with ads.  I find ads very distracting, and will avoid pages that have too many ads, or have them placed obtrusively.  However, there are a few places I've checked out for prompts and found something inspiring.  I thought I'd share one or two of those here.

Having just said I don't like ads, I'm still going to mention HubPages: 101 Writing Prompts.  Yes, too many ads for my taste, but I liked the list.  The only issue with a long list of prompts is that it can be overwhelming, rather than liberating.  A list like this is nice to have for reference, but usually when I look for prompts I'd rather encounter them one at a time.  I find I am more likely to think harder and move out of my comfort zone if I 'must' work to a given prompt, rather than have the complete freedom to pick one that I find appealing.  So I generally gravitate to places I can find daily or weekly prompts such as Sunday Scribblings and What's Your Story.

Better yet are daily/weekly prompts that suggest a time or word limit.  Not that you can't simply choose to limit any prompt you encounter with time or length, but again, I like the structure of having the task defined for me.  I enjoy the challenge of working up against a limit; again, it inspires me to move out of my comfort zone and the limit on the task makes it feel more manageable.  A couple of prompt providers of this nature include The One-Minute Writer (pretty obvious what the limit is there) and the Writer's Digest Writer's Prompts which are nominally 750 words or less.

Do you have a source for writing prompts?  I'd be very interested to hear your favorites and see if they become mine, too.  I'm particularly interested in prompts that cater to fiction writers, especially in my chosen genres of SF/F/H/Spec.  Happy writing.


Image Credit: 

Prompt the Muse - Archive of Writing Prompts

This post contains an archive of the writing prompts that have appeared on One Writer's Mind (OWM).  Prompts appear on the main page of OWM on an episodic basis - changing every day, week, or month as my muse directs.  I hope these ideas help you keep your own personal muse busy working.  Pax.

Prompt the Muse #1 - March 20, 2010

During a solar eclipse, we humans imagined the sun was being eaten by a dragon, amongst other things. Imagine a world that experiences similar 'solar' eclipses. What do the inhabitants think is responsible?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

NaPoWriMo: A Poem a Day in April

After much internal back and forth, I decided to join in on this year's NaPoWriMo, or National Poetry Writing Month in April.  My poetry writing goes in wild ebbs and flows anyway, so if I'm in the groove, a poem a day will work out just fine.  If I'm not in the groove, well, I'll end up with two or three rather mangled pieces of work that resemble confused shopping lists for the hardware store.

There's a poem idea in there somewhere ...

Anyway, NaPoWriMo seems to be rather less structured than the kindred NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month which happens in November.  During NaNoWriMo, there is a nice, neat, online portal to join and track one's novel writing.  For NaPoWriMo, there seem to be many different outlets and places for daily inspiration, so a writer needs to choose which they will follow for the month.  Or not, since nothing says you have to follow anyone's prompts to be involved.

After even more internal back and forth, I chose to go with Poetic Asides over at Writer's Digest.  This is a site/blog I follow on a semi-regular basis, anyway, and I like the idea of writing towards the goal of possible publication on the site (the format for this year can be found under the 2010 April Poem a Day Challenge).

I believe my own personal challenge is how (or if) I will be able to stay within my genre and still follow the prompts.  I'm willing to call all of science fiction, fantasy, and horror as in bounds for this exercise, but I'd much rather find a strong theme for all the poems, and try to stick with that.  This is probably because I've been educated to think of collections of poems as possible chapbooks.  Having a chapbook to point to (after editing, of course) would be a wonderful outcome for all the work of pushing through the month.  But in reality, I'll be very happy if the month produces one really good, solid poem.

So why write poetry?  That is probably the fodder for another post entirely, but the short version for me is that I wrote poetry before I wrote fiction.  Poetry has always intrigued me, and the power of a single word in the hands of a skilled poet is an amazing thing to behold.  It uses a different part of the brain than my fiction writing, but hones the kind of attention to detail and appreciation for words as art that makes text interesting for anyone.  I am a member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, and have had a poem or two published there in the past.  But I've let the form languish recently as I've been concentrating on writing my novels.  I think some poem writing could blow some much needed fresh air into my current fiction projects.

And who knows, maybe a great poem will demand to be written in the process.


Image Credit: 

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Alien Visions of Tim Burton

This weekend I had the great joy and fun of seeing the Tim Burton exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  As I have mentioned, I work only occasionally in the horror genre (although I admit to a cliched interest in vampires and a minor streak of goth).  But Tim Burton's work does not appeal to me only from a horror point of view.  It appeals to me because it feels so very alien.  The work is strange, otherworldly, unexpected, and bizarre; a great inspiration for some science fiction and fantasy.  I find it fascinating how his vision quickly taps into very hard-wired fears, but in new and surprising ways.  Most of all, I love how his art brings up such feelings of pathos, how it can be so poignant, so humorous, while also being creepy, unsettling, and sometimes disgusting.

The exhibition itself contains concept work, sketchbooks, video, sculpture, movie props and much more.  It presents a chronicle of Burton's work from his early days through to his more well known movie projects.  While I found the black and white work to be evocative in its simplicity, I found his use of color to be when I was the most impacted emotionally.  It is really too bad that the MOMA has jammed all of this in a space about a third of what it really needs.  It was terribly crowded when I was there, as well.  Still my hat is off to them for having the exhibit at all.

Highlights for me included a huge sort of 'mobile' for hanging above a baby's crib.  This might have been the same carousel-like structure that emerges from Beetlejuice's head in that movie, but I'm not certain.  Anyway, the art is about five feet high or so, with circling 'animals', and lit up with black light.  Playing in the background is a disturbing lullaby/carnival tune.  I could have watched it for an hour, it was so wonderfully weird.  I was also pleased to see the 'real life' characters from those of his films I enjoyed most; like Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride herself.  The detail of these pieces is amazing, down to the swirling patterns on the train of the Bride's wedding dress, evocative of brocade, and nearly vanished with the ravages of decay.

I stared at the scarecrow from Sleepy Hollow for a long time, wondering what made it so impossibly perfect.  Was it the lilt of the ragged pumpkin mouth, smiling, yet so very toothy and evil?  Or was it the fabric that draped the wooden frame, perfectly shredded and alternating from a glossy and smooth black lame to a ragged, rugged brown canvas?  I want that in my yard this Halloween, but there is no hope of duplicating it.  Another highlight, not so deeply pondered, was the heads of two characters from Mars Attacks, stuck together in a case, much as they were in the movie when they popped off.

I managed not to spend all my time just staring, and took efforts to see the themes and commonality in the work that both give it its power, and that might help inspire me in my own writing.  I'll give you a concrete example of a relation between a theme and a possible use in sci-fi.  One of the themes I have noticed in Burton's work with some creatures is a 'mouths inside mouths' theme.  This reminded me of the alien from Alien, which has a set of inner jaws that deploy from inside an outer mouth (an oddity the scientist in me would have to try hard to justify from an evolutionary perspective).  I noted other ideas and themes that had my mind spinning with concepts for a new creature or two of my own.

Burton's work often revolves around the misunderstood creature, who in spite of personal oddities (say, like being dead, having blades for fingers, having their organs on the outside) is still a person of hopes and dreams, and deserving of our compassion.  In Burton's world, exterior body is not an indication of the nature of the interior soul.  Our usual paradigm of the gross, decaying, and disfigured as symbols of evil is shot to pieces.  I'll go so far as to say that in looking at these creatures we are looking at ourselves, and learning to perceive our own 'personhood', our own value, through the layers of mutation, whatever we may imagine they symbolize.


Image credit:

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Go Make a Cup of Tea: The Art of Taking a Break from Writing

It is hard to stop writing when you are focused on a project.  Given the way my mind works, I am almost always very focused.  Once I get started, I don't want to stop.  I don't want to eat, get the mail, and I certainly don't want to sleep.  I've had terrible insomnia since I was a kid; I have never wanted to stop doing.  When things are clicking, when the words are flowing and you are in the zone, anything that takes you away feels like intrusion, punishment, torture, or all three.

All of this usually translates into an inability to leave work at work, so to speak.  Given I write from home, this makes it even harder.  It's a mixed blessing, working at home.  I can sit down any time I like and write, following the lead of my muse and inspiration.  But it also means it can be a challenge to set boundaries about your writing schedule and then keep them.  If getting a cup of tea is a challenge, what about that weekend trip out of town?  That week long cruise vacation?  If it means leaving the laptop behind, I'd probably rather not go at all.  What if I get a great idea on the road?  I'll end up having to write it long hand, and after all this time on the computer I can barely read my own handwriting anymore.  And I just can't write fast enough that way.  No, too frustrating.

And yet we all know perfectly well what burnout feels like.  Even when things are flowing beautifully, burnout is always a possibility.  Too much energy, excitement, and too many ideas.  It starts to become tangled, murky.  Exhausting.  Then drab and lifeless.  And then you think, "I need a break."

I've learned that I do have to take breaks from writing.  Real breaks, where I willfully turn my attention to something else, even if only for ten minutes.  During the day, I do have to get up and move around, even if the ideas are boiling madly in my head.  I'm always afraid I'll lose them, but that actually happens very rarely.  Instead, a break usually helps to put a little distance between me and my own thoughts, and they tend to come out a little smoother.  And as desperately as I love my pet sci-fi universe, I have to leave it now and then, and let it grow and percolate on its own.  Leave it for a day, a weekend, or a couple of weeks.  And every few years, I need to leave it for months at a time.  When I come back to it, I find my characters have done interesting things, that new conflicts and resolutions have been spun between differing civilizations, that new technologies have been developed, and much more.  My universe seems to need some time to itself to do its thing, just like I do.

So taking a break it is an art to me.  Almost like meditation can be an art; the willful turning aside from something either pleasant or painful.  I turn aside from the intense place, and mentally redirect myself somewhere else.  The art is seeing this act of redirection as positive, not an intrusion at all.  Instead to focus on how the redirection is actually another aspect of fuel and growth for the writing.  To see the beauty of the entire process of writing, which includes the stumbling around, the burnout days, and even the breaks. 


Image credit:

Monday, March 8, 2010

Update: Back in the Saddle, Writing

So, it has been almost three months since my last post.  Sad indeed.  This blog has been (and remains) an excellent motivation for me to keep to my writing schedule; a place to post updates, wax poetic about astronomy and science, and as a portal for investigating other's writing, blogs, and articles.  But I had to put my blogs on hold for some holiday issues, family issues, and then health issues.  It is good to be getting back into a regular writing life, and I'm looking forward to finally posting some of the ideas that came to me during my blog hiatus.

I was looking for an inspiring image of a person on a horse riding out to adventure, in keeping with my 'back in the saddle' theme.  Instead, I found something better.  Almost exactly ten years ago (March 22, 2000) the spacecraft NEAR-Shoemaker took this image of the asteroid Eros.  The major feature visible in the image is the 'saddle region'.  On Earth, a 'saddle' is a geologic term for the depression between two mountains or hills.  On Eros, it isn't clear what process was responsible for forming the saddle.  There is an impact crater (5.5 kilometers in diameter) on the other side of the asteroid.  This saddle might have formed by spallation from that event.  Spallation occurs when a shock wave travels through a body and reaches the other side.  As the wave interacts with the free boundary of the surface, material can be forced to break apart and be thrown outwards.  Whatever the origin of the saddle, this prominent feature was chosen as the last resting place for the spacecraft itself.  Almost exactly nine years ago, (February 12, 2001) NEAR was brought to a 4 mph landing right in the saddle.  A position that took it out of contact with Earth forever.

Fortunately my posting regularity doesn't reflect the entirety of my writing regularity.  I did manage to continue to work on my current 'fantasy' or 'out of genre' allegory novel, which is probably within 15K words of first draft.  It's been a good break from the trilogy I'm writing in my standard sci-fi universe.  The trilogy that just won't finish itself.  It makes one wonder, sometimes, if the writing is better modeled by an adventurous ride across the desert, or just going round and round, seeing the same things over and over again.

Image credits:  NASA, Public Domain