Monday, August 6, 2012

Speculative Writing Prompt - Land Disaster

Image: Europa's Surface
Your characters encounter a land that has suffered a major disaster.  They look for clues in the land itself to see what happened.  What clues do they find?  Was the disaster natural, or caused by some artificial means?  Write your characters observations and conclusions in 200 words.

Image:  Broken ice on Jupiter's satellite, Europa.  NASA, Galileo Spacecraft.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Guest Post and Blog Swap with Author Lynn Mann

Mr. Smith's Errand
by Lynn Mann
And now for something completely different ...

I've long been wanting to have more guest posts and interviews here on the blog. So I'm happy I have the honor today of presenting a "Guest Post" of Maryland author Lynn Mann. She and I agreed to answer the same six questions about ourselves, and then post the responses on each others' blogs. You can find the pair to this post with my responses on her blog at

To try to present something other than the same old interview, we agreed to each provide three fun-and-different questions for the other writer (for a total of six). Here are Lynn Mann's responses to the questions. Her bio follows, with more details on her publishing and awards.

1. Which of the seven wonders of the ancient world would you have wanted to see at its most glorious?

"I want to see the pyramids, clad in their coats of shining white limestone, topped by pure gold at their apex. I want to see the sun rising over the desert, its rays striking the gold, turning it into a blinding beacon daily demonstrating the king’s power and wealth. I want to see the grand processions, taking a recently deceased courtier or noble to his final rest in a mastaba near his king’s pyramid, with all the chanting and wailing (professional mourners were de rigueur). I want to see the grave goods piled high, the ceremonious sealing of the tomb and, as soon as night fell, the tomb robbers (usually the same people who built and decorated the tombs) coming out to pillage them."

2. You can have any superpower / magical ability / force - what is it and why?

"I want to power of silence. I want to be able to flip an internal switch and make all the chattering idiots be quiet. I want to make all the negative voices in my head to shut up long enough for me to do whatever it was they said I couldn’t. I’d also like to make that annoying woodpecker in the woods behind my house stop tapping."

3. Do you have houseplants? Are they in good condition?

"When people hear that I grow orchids they think it’s something special, a talent that only extremely green-thumbed people have. I’m living proof that this theory doesn’t hold up. I grow phalaenopsis - those orchids with the long arching stem full of gloriously colored flowers you often see at various big box hardware stores and grocery stores. If you truly want to learn to grow orchids, please find a professional grower to buy from. The ones in grocery stores, or any other place that doesn’t specialize in orchids, are typically culls that the pros refused to buy. The plants will bloom for a few weeks and then, because you don’t really know how to take care of them, they will die, convincing you that orchids are hard to grow. They really aren’t but just as you wouldn’t go to a plumber to set a broken bone, you shouldn’t buy orchids from people whose expertise is selling hinges and lawn mowers. Phals make excellent houseplants and start blooming right around Thanksgiving, when my outside garden is dying. Phals will bloom for 6 months or more, and they each have their own cycle. At any given moment 4 or 5 will be looming at once, which fills my bedroom with glorious, jewel-like colors and gets me through the winter doldrums. A few years ago I installed a rain barrel on my back deck. The orchids have thrived since I started using rain water and not the chlorinated stuff out of the tap. I have found that a regimen of benign neglect seems to work best with them."

4. Which performer would you like to meet backstage and what would you say to sound cool even though you're totally star-struck?

"I would love to meet Paul Simon, although I can’t think of a single non-geeky thing to say to him. What question hasn’t he already been asked? I always wonder whether performers stop enjoying hearing how much you love their music, that their music has meant so much to you, etc., etc. I think just seeing the show from backstage, to see the inner-workings, would be magic. I guess the short answer is there isn’t anything I could say to Paul Simon that wouldn’t make me sound like star-struck to my bones."

5. Three world heritage sites you want to visit before you die.

"I’m having too much trouble with this question. The Great Barrier Reef, Petra and Angor Wat are the 3 that leap to mind. I visited the World Heritage website and was overwhelmed with the number of sites listed and how endangered most of them are. I’m going to cheat and add one more: Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord in Norway. Guess it’s time to get out the calendar and start planning 2013’s trips..."

6. If you see a clothing tag sticking out of a friend's shirt, what do you do? What if it's someone you only know casually, not a real friend?

"I hate having the tags sticking out of my shirts and always appreciate being told when they are. I assume most women (and some men) are like me and will always tell a friend (of either gender) or even reach over and fix it for them. Someone I know but am not friends with I’ll still tell and a total stranger depends... I guess it mainly depends on the vibe I get from them. I love that so many manufacturers are now printing the tag rather than sewing it on."

Bio: Lynn Mann resides in Columbia, MD with two rescue cats and a supportive husband. Her writing reflects her eclectic reading, unusual education and far-flung travels. Several of Lynn’s stories have been published on-line and in small magazines, and her short story collection, Mr. Smith’s Errand on is available on Amazon (Mr. Smiths Errand). Her awards include 1st Prize in the 2011 Maryland Writers Assoc. New Novel Contest (Do You Do Murders) and 3rd Prize in the Windmill Women’s Writers annual Short Story Contest. Lynn’s story “Taking Care of Business” will be published by Rhino Press in Uncommon Assassins, due out in Sept. 2012. Along with her full time job she writes, raises orchids and sails on the Chesapeake Bay whenever possible. For further information or to contact her please visit

Hope you enjoyed the blog swap! We'd love it if you visited both blogs and left us some comments to ponder - say, how would you answer these questions, anyway?

Pax, all

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Quick Guide to Watching the Mars Landing of MSL Curiosity Rover August 5th

Artist's conception of Curiosity roving Mars.
I realized this week that the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity Rover was coming up fast, and that I hadn't planned out how I would be watching!  Unacceptable.  So I put together some facts, websites, twitter addresses and such to use to follow the events as they unfolded.  I realized the blog was a good place to put the info, and that others might want a quick guide, too.  So here it is.

Of course, I'm always excited about any spacecraft from anywhere pretty much doing anything.  This mission does have some special significance, however.  I've done plenty of crater research on Mars in the past, and have lots of friends colleagues currently involved in the mission, so it all feels very personal.  I'm wishing the best for my colleagues who have spent years of their lives working on this, as well as those who will spend years analyzing the data afterwards.

Okay, on to the mission.

What's Happening, Anyway?

NASA, in partnership with several space agencies from other countries, is about to land the most most sophisticated rover ever built.  The rover is named Curiosity.  Previous rovers were like slowly moving robotic geologists.  This rover is a full laboratory with a suite of instruments designed to act more like a geochemist.  It will be landing on Mars at Gale crater in a rather spectacular fashion (more on that later.)  Afterwards, it will spend at least two years on the surface roving about and collecting data.

What's All the Excitement About?

The landing is happening very soon!  And it is going to be an interesting process.  If you have not yet seen the animated "7 Minutes of Terror" simulation video, you'll want to watch it.  Go ahead.  I'll wait here.

Seven minutes from atmosphere to surface.
Now you see why some people are pretty excited, and nervous, about this landing.  Mars has proved to be a tough place to visit in the past, but we are starting to get very good at it.  Statistics being what they are, one can accurately say that only about 40 percent of the missions to Mars have succeeded, and only a third of the surface landings.  This is some evidence that landing spacecraft is very difficult.  However, one can also say that of the last five NASA missions to go to Mars, all have succeeded.  Of the last three rovers NASA has sent to Mars, all have succeeded.  We've learned a lot, and in spite of the drama, MSL Curiosity's odds look very good. 

What Should I Do To Get Ready?

First off, you might want to follow a few twitter feeds to be kept up-to-date.  I'm following:

MSL Curiosity @MSL_101
Curiosity Rover @MarsCuriosity
At the Planetary Society I'm following Emily Lakdawalla @elakdawalla and @exploreplanets

If you are a Facebook person, look for

There are a million possible websites to check out, and since this is a quick guide, I'll keep it simple.  The best touchstone as far as I'm concerned is Follow Your Curiosity.  Their front page lists landing times by timezone and additional places to follow/watch.  You can cruise around the site here and learn more about the mission, the instruments, the experiments and all that fun stuff.

If you still have time on your hands, you can watch the video "A Grand Entrance" twice - once with a voice over by Wil Wheaton, and then again by William Shatner, and decide who does it best.

When is the Landing, and How Do I Watch?

Time at landing for JPL is 10:31pm PDT Aug 5th.  If you are in another part of the world, it will be at a different time - either the night of the 5th or the morning of the 6th.  UTC is 05:31 August 6th.  I'm on the east coast, where the landing time will be 1:31 am the morning of the 6th.  Check the Follow Your Curiosity site for more times.

I'm planning to watch from the comfort of home, on my computer - no doubt while tweeting constantly with my friends and colleagues from @grierja.  I'll be on Ustream at - This link will have NASA TV commentary.  The link at /nasajpl2 will be a "clean feed."

You can also check your own TV/cable/satellite situation and see if you get NASA TV on your actual TV.  I never watch TV at all, so I can't really give any advice on that.

If you prefer to be in a group, go ahead and throw a landing party, or attend one that's already been set up.  Check NASA's list of events, or their interactive map.

The party, either at your home or another location, will start well before landing time.  So tune in early!  NASA TV will start broadcasting the lead up to landing two hours before actual landing time (at 8:30pm Pacific and 11:30pm Eastern.)  

What Will I See?

First of all, Mars is 14 light minutes away - the distance it takes light to travel in that amount of time.  This means that there is a time delay of 14 minutes between what is happening on Mars and when we actually get the data about it.  It kinda creeps me out.  By the time we detect the spacecraft hitting the atmosphere, it will already have landed.

So you will not see a "live feed" from Mars of the spacecraft dramatically going through all of its stages and then landing.  To do that, we would need to have sent another spacecraft to follow it like a cameraman.  NASA will be tracking the landing using instruments on the spacecraft that measure acceleration, heat, etc.

So instead, we get true "Reality TV."  We'll be seeing a lot of shots of the control room, with engineers and scientists bent over computers and examining screens on the walls.  We'll probably get some shots of people watching excitedly from other locations.  NASA will probably show video simulations of what they think is happening right now to the spacecraft, showing the heat shield fall away, the parachute deploy, and that sort of thing.  They will tell us what the instruments are telling them.  It will all vacillate between intense and exciting punctuated with minutes of 'it doesn't seem like anything is happening.'  You know, real life :)

Then NASA will announce the landing, and we will all cheer wherever we are!  Then we will get to go to bed.  The NASA folks won't.  They will be on shifts day and night for months and months, having adjusted their schedules to "Sols" - Martian days, not Earth days.

I hope you'll join me, and lots of other space nuts and generally interested citizens!  Feel free to comment here on your plans, what sites you plan to check out, or if you have a question or two.  I'll try to get an answer up promptly :)

Pax, All.

Image Credits:  All images are from, thanks to NASA and JPL, and our tax dollars at work.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

52 Stories - A Story Every Week - Update

Stories coming to life on the screen, yep.
As noted previously, I decided to take this year and write a story a week (starting May 1).  Last week was my quarter-of-the-way-there mark.  It's time for a progress report to keep me organized and honest.   (Follow along with Twitter hashtag #52Stories.)


Some weeks have seen the production of multiple stories, while others (especially when I was on vacation) saw no stories.  All in all, I'm one story behind.  I'm pretty happy with this progress, since while I've been writing the short stories I've also been writing and submitting poetry and continuing with edits on two novels.  Not to mention the blogs and ... well, you know how it is.
Here are the stories by working title, genre, and word count.
  1. Priorities, Science Fiction - Robot, 99
  2. A Natural Disaster, Fantasy - Urban, 697
  3. +Hidden Things, Science Fiction - Dystopian, 850
  4. ++Nanostories, Various, ~100 (Stories for Twitter zines, 140 characters each)
  5. New Year's Resolution, Horror - Zombie, 4925
  6. Walking on Eggshells, Horror - Paranormal, 6136
  7. Hobby, Horror - Serial Killer, 100
  8. How My Dog Almost Ended Poverty, Science Fiction - Humor, 7003
  9. ++For Sale, Horror - Humor, 243
  10. What God Says, Science Fiction - Urban, 995
  11. Dark Gold Spinner, Horror - Fairy Tale, 4360
  12. Learning to Taste, Horror - Werewolf, 6496 
  13. ooops.
Observations and Issues

Total word count is 32,000 words, which is an average of 2667 for each of the twelve weeks.  I was thinking it would be closer to 3500 but there are a lot of flash pieces in there.

Good Stuff

Three of the stories above have (+) marks next to them.  "Hidden Things" has one + mark.  It made it to the very last round of screening for a professional journal.  I've yet to sell one of my stories or poems at a professional rate, and so this is a benchmark for me.  The journal sent the piece back with lots of great comments, and a lot of encouragement.  So I'm going to let it sit a while, go through another round of edits, and see if a different pro journal wants to pick it up.

The story "For Sale" and one of my nanostories "Blind Date" were selected for publication.  Another nanostory "The Skeleton" won a small online Twitter contest.  (I also had three poems published this quarter, and another scheduled.)  

Plans and Issues for Next Quarter

So during this next quarter I'll need to write 14 stories, and I'm going to see if I can write a little less flash.  I'd like to see more stories in the 3K to 5K range.  But there are going to be a couple of other challenges for the second quarter, which for me runs from July 30th to October 28th.

I had already decided to dedicate the month of September to finishing the next round of edits on one of my novels.  I don't know if I'll have time to write anything else at all in September.  I also have a week in October where I'll be at a professional science conference, and I suspect writing time will be hard to come by.  That means I lose five of my thirteen weeks.  If I am going to stay on track, I will need to produce two to three stories every single week in August.  I do have a week set aside for a writing retreat, but it might not be enough.  We'll have to see.

I am also continuing towards my goal of having a horror chapbook of poems ready to submit for contests and publishing sometime next year.  That process includes writing, editing and submitting individual poems to journals up front.  I had a few poems picked up so far this year, so I'm hopeful.

Well, I have my work cut out for me.  How about you?  What does the next quarter have in store?

Pax, All

Image Credit Computer,