Friday, November 18, 2016

NaNoWriMo - Hitting the Top Early

My eighth year of NaNo!
I posted about how I got a late start with NaNoWriMo again this year, but that I figured I could still pull it out because I usually get a few hot writing streaks during the month.  Well, I can't believe it, but I hit 50K words on November 16.  And that is considering that I only wrote for 12 of those 16 days.  This comes out to (what for me) is a blistering 4430 average words per day, on those days I was writing.  I'm pretty astonished.  This is the fastest I've ever reached the 50K NaNo goal.

So if you are a NaNo-newbie, maybe you are wondering how I did it ... and if you can, too.  First of all, I'm sure that you can do it!  What I'm not so sure about is if what works for me will work for anybody else.  But on the off chance that it might ... here are a few thoughts on how I'm cranking away this year.

1) Writing in all the spare moments.  I usually like to write when I can sit down and really focus, but that's not always an option.  I find this year I've been doing a lot of writing in 100 to 200 word bits and pieces.  A few lines of dialog here, or a brief description of a scene there.  I keep my computer open and ready to go, and whenever I have to wait around, I write - waiting for laundry means words, waiting for an email from a colleague means words, waiting four minutes for my tea to steep means words.  It is really adding up.

Wow - 50K on day sixteen.
I wonder if this graph is just going to flatten out
now, or if I'll keep on writing at this pace.

2) Having so much fun with the book.  This year, I picked back up on a piece of writing from the past that I really enjoyed.  It needed a lot of work, but I liked the way the first part of it came out, and wanted to finish it.  This is a book I'd want to read, myself.  It has vampires, zombies, battles, true love, and, well, it's not Princess Bride but you can't have everything.  So I say, when it comes to NaNo, don't settle for an idea you feel ho-hum about.  Pick something that you are really emotionally invested in.  That emotion will carry you through the dry times, and keep you going. 

3) Defining the characters.  When I do get times to focus and just write for a while, the words have been flowing out of my fingers fast.  Part of this is because I did a pretty good job of defining the characters in the first chapters.  Now all I have to do is put them in situations and write down what they say and do.  It is a total adventure for me.  Even though I know the ending of the book already, I'm not exactly sure how the characters will get there, or even exactly who will be alive at the end.  So it's all pretty exciting.  The characters are leading it all, and taking me along for the ride.  And they talk a lot (and spend time running from zombies, and fighting with a vampire war-lord, and on and on ...) - that's a lot of words.

4) Recognizing that writing is good for me.  I've been very distracted by the world these past weeks.  For some people, the reaction is to freeze up and not be able to write anything.  For me, I noticed that I felt better after writing, even if it was a very tough writing session.  So I pushed myself to write even (especially) when the world was pressing in.  My last post was to keep on writing, and I feel it is keenly important, now more than ever, that we do indeed keep on writing.  Give it a read for some encouragement.

Image Credits:  Particpant badge from the NaNoWriMo site, and a screen grab of my own data, also from the NaNo site, on my page.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Keep On Writing!

Sharpen up those quills
and get writing!
It can be hard to write when the world is pulling you in so many directions.  Many people feel their writing just isn't important in the larger scheme of things.  Especially for people who write fiction, their writing may seem so trivial to them, so much like it has no authentic connection to the outside.  And writing can be such a solitary endeavor, anyway, it can be difficult to see how it contributes to making a better world in the long run. 

"Write like it matters and it will." - Libba Bray
"If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write." - Martin Luther
"If a nation loses its storytellers, it loses its childhood." - Peter Handke

I've been struggling with some of these thoughts myself.  After all, most of my writing will probably never get published, and will never garner a big audience if it does.  And really, what good is my beloved sci-fi novel in the face of all the ills of the world?  What good are my little horror poems, flung out into the cosmos like darts at a dragon?  Even that essay I wrote about grad school, the one that I thought was oh, so crafty and writerly, what has it changed? 

"Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises." - Anne Lamott
 "Don't judge it.  Just write it.  Don't judge it.  It's not for you to judge it." - Philip Roth
"Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self."
- Cyril Connolly

Well, it's changed me, for one.  Like now, when the world seems so very chaotic, I write and I find a place of focus and determination.  When I was my most depressed, I started my sci-fi series that means so much to me.  It may never get published, but it is a lifeline for me even (especially) now.  And even in the context of genre, I find myself writing about what matters to me - the nature of relationships, sacrifice, love, abuse, war, understanding, and more.  Not trivial issues by any means, as it turns out.

"I write for the same reason I breathe." - Isaac Asimov
"I admire anyone who has the guts to write anything at all." -  EB White
"Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now." - Earnest Hemingway

I want to encourage everyone to write, in whatever way works for them.  Get out those empty journals sitting on the shelf and start filling them up with quotes or whatever moves you.  Blog about your progress on your memoir, and then go write some more of that memoir.  Jot your poems down while commuting or drinking the morning's caffeinated beverage.  Scribble song lyrics in the margins of your class notes.  Fill your lunch breaks with introspective essays.  And if you are like me, huddle up with your computer in bed and pound out that fiction novel that you are just, oh, so close to finishing.  It may change more than you think.  There is no way to know - but certainly if we write nothing, then nothing will be the change we get.

Image Credit:  Sharpening Quill Pen.  Wikimedia Commons.  CC 4.0

Friday, November 4, 2016

NaNoWriMo 2016 - Getting Started

Pen, Paper, and Computer
The tools of the proverbial trade.
November!  Which for me of course means NaNoWriMo.  If you don't know about NaNoWriMo - that stands for National Novel Writing Month.  Many fanciful people like myself take November and ADD 50K of writing to their normal workload, along with feeding ourselves, and doing laundry, dealing with the day job, doing whatever other writing we said we do, etc. 

And a large subset of those writers so inclined and dedicated head over to the site.  At that site they can track their progress, interact on the forum, and keep in touch with other writers in their local area.  I love the word tracking tool - nothing like giving a nice data display to a scientist.  It's also the place to find out about 'write-ins' that happen nearby, which gives you a chance to meet other local writers and have some company while pounding out some words.

I think one of the reasons I enjoy NaNo so much is that I'm a terrible perfectionist.  I'm often stymied by trying to make everything I produce just so.  It was and is NaNo that gives me permission to just write those fiction words without the constant pounding of my inner editor.  In fact, I now have lots and lots of words drafted into novels that do indeed desperately need an editor ... but that's a different challenge!

Right now it's NaNo time!  That means just put pen to proverbial paper and get writing!   

I've had a slow start, as usual.  This year I'm only two days late, but this is a month packed with other commitments, not to mention, as always, Thanksgiving.  Getting words in over the T-giving holiday is always the major challenge of the month.  Still I recall I started one NaNo nine days late, and spent the entire month playing catch up.  So I'm not too far behind, and am very optimistic about my progress thus far.  Almost 1.8K of words a day will do nicely, if I can keep up the pace.  I have a tendency to write nothing for a few days, then pound out a few 3K and 5K days in a row.  But you don't want to count on the time to do that.  Better to keep that steady pace up to ensure reaching the goal.

How about you?  Do you have a book idea that is just burning to be written?  Did you take the plunge this year for NaNo?  Might be time to give it a try!

Image Credit:  Image - Writing Tools Creative Commons CC 2.0

Monday, October 24, 2016

A Haunting Time at HallowRead!

Reading poetry at the vineyard
on a windy autumn day.
I spent my weekend at the writerly and readerly genre book convention "HallowRead" - it was simply a great time, and I thought I'd share some of the highlights.

I wanted to attend the con first and foremost because I wanted to meet other genre writers in the local area.  Even though I've been in Maryland for more than ten years, I still haven't met many other writers.  I was hoping I'd come away with a few new contacts for writerly advice and friendship.  I also was hoping to learn and have fun!

My tarot spread - apparently I'm gathering
my resources for a change my friends already
know is coming.  Hmm.
I flew back into the area after attending a conference for work on the west coast - my red eye flight didn't let me attend the first two workshops on Friday, but I did make it to the next three, held at the Decoy Museum in Havre de Grace - a lovely location right on the water.  The first workshop I attended was Vonnie Winslow Crist talking about writing short fiction - pitfalls to avoid and guidelines to follow.  Then C.J. Ellisson shared her organizational techniques for working on multiple writing projects at the same time.  This included scheduling not just the writing itself, but things like research time, promotion milestones, and release dates.  We ended the workshops with Chris Stewart talking to us about grants and marketplaces.  This was particularly useful to me, as I was not really aware of all the opportunities for art and writing grants in the general Maryland area.

We got to wrap up Friday with a ghost tour.  I'd never been on one before, and I enjoyed crunching through the leaves on dark streets, hearing about hauntings.  But the best was the final stop.  We spent an hour in an antique shop having our tarot read, and listening for ghosts on the upper floor.  Very atmospheric and not just a little bit creepy!

The Fanged, Furry, and Fabulous Panel!
Glad to be a part.
Saturday was filled with panels and book signings.  From 9am to almost 3pm we had panels on a plethora of subjects from how to write ghost stories, to the nature of magic in fiction, to creatures and monsters.  If you are a fan of paranormal romance you would have loved it - many of the writers on hand were active in that genre and were giving away teasers and even whole books!  I was very happy to be on the Fanged, Furry, and Fabulous panel representing horror poetry.  I was one of the few poets present, and was really pleased to have the chance to provide that perspective.  In the afternoon, the authors with books headed to the new Havre de Grace library to sign and sell.  I stopped by and spent my book budget, coming away with some new reads.

The last of the group hanging out at
the vineyard on Sunday.
Sunday was such a pleasure, as we wrapped up the event at the Mont Felix Winery for "Read Between the Vines."  Those writers in attendance, including myself, all had the chance to read a bit of their work while tasting wines from the winery.  It was fun and relaxing, and I particularly enjoyed the warm mulled pumpkin wine they were bringing around!  I was so surprised and pleased at the reception my poetry received!  People really seemed to enjoy it, and it has solidified my resolve to get a chapbook out as soon as I can.

It was a fine weekend, and I encourage any lovers of fantasy, horror, or sci-fi to come out next year and join in the fun!  Many thanks to Rachel Rawlings, who organized the event!

Image Credits:  My pix of the panel, and the tarot, Rachel's pix of me reading and the group.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Blog Hopping for NaNoWriMo 2016

The NaNo starting blocks,
soon to be filled with racing writers!
Aaaaand the prep for NaNoWriMo 2016 has begun!  People are gearing up for this year's crazy sprint of 50K words written on their novel all in the month of November, and once again I aim to be among them.

I've been asked why a "serious writer would bother with something as amateur" as NaNoWriMo.  (I really have been asked this).  But that's not how I think of it at all.  I think of it as a time to share the excitement and joy of being a writer.  A chance to link with others who simply want to put words to page.  An opportunity to immerse with others in the creative process.  In other words, I find it fun.

And hey don't miss this, they are giving away a chance to write your NaNo novel next year in a castle!  CLICK here to enter!  Sounds amazing.

Anyway, what this post is really about is blog hopping.  I'm not exactly sure what that is, but someone has started a blog hop page, and I'm hoping this will give me the chance to meet other writers, especially local ones, who just enjoy writing and the whole NaNo experience.

So here's my info:

Name:  J.A. Grier - BUT I started my NaNo account with my old pen name, Bryce Ellicott.  So that's the name you have to look for there.  Now I can't change it, but I'm hoping they add that functionality someday.

NaNo Book Title:  "The Trentsville Terror."  It's my vampire/zombie/gay-romance novel.  The first part of which, "The Duke of Cantersburg," I wrote a couple of NaNos ago.  The book needs, oh, probably another 60 to 70K of words to finish up, and NaNo is the time to tackle it.

One Sentence Summary of Book:  Dude meets vampire, falls in love, and the two of them try to save the world from zombies.

NaNo Goals:  Well, 50K words is always my goal.  I usually do a bit more than that, and it would be great to actually push through and finish this book if I can.  Of course first I have to figure out the ending ...

Fun Facts About Me:  Most of this is already in my profile information - I'm a scientist, educator, writer, poet, paper artist, beaded jewery maker, cat-lover, and wine drinker.  I've written stuff from textbooks and scientific papers to essays and poems.  I just love writing, but particularly love anything in the 'speculative' fiction type genres - sci-fi, horror, fantasy, mythic, and general weird stuff.  I'm the kind of person for whom the first draft is not the problem.  Now getting things published, that takes more time.  But I've had success with a few dozen poems, a couple of stories, one of those textbooks and a load of papers and abstracts.  Now if I could get those novels out there ...

Social Media Presence:  Right here at and on Twitter at @grierja  I'm also on DeviantArt at, where I sometimes post free poems and stories.

Link to starting post(s):  

Image Credit:  Public Domain

Friday, October 7, 2016

A "Hell" of a Good Time - Hellish Horror Movies

Some bad, bad demon-types.
It's October!  The time of the year I can be unabashedly obsessed with gothic creepiness.  Now, this does not mean I am not obsessed with horror the other eleven months of year.  It just means that October is when I feel I can be overt about it and not look too crazed.

My creepy celebrations for this year have included going back and watching some horror, suspense, and thriller flicks.  I wanted a theme, and well, "Hell" seemed as good as any.  So my trio of terror included "Hellraiser," "From Hell," and "Hellboy."

Note - Spoilers galore.  If you haven't seen these yet, go watch some Netflix or something then come on back.

"Hellraiser," which I'm going to call HR in this post, is really the only straight horror flick of the three.  It is a classic of the 1980's horror scene, and expresses the pros and cons of that era.  The movie suffers from being old, with special effects that are not too realistic anymore, and come over as campy.  As far as standard horror goes, I'm not too much a fan of 'jump scares.'  I find them tedious.  So I was glad that there are few enough in this movie, which often shows you pretty much exactly what is going on.

Puzzle Box.  Do Not Use.
In spite of its failings, there is some good tension, and some creative villain-demon-thingies, like the iconic "Pinhead" character.  In fact, the villains (Cenobites) are really the best part of HR.  While this movie does not make it perfectly clear what these torturers are, "demon" is pretty close, given that they seem to admit to residing in Hell.  Apparently, they are called by use of a puzzle box by a human who is seeking the extremes of physical sensation (and who apparently does not care if that extreme is of pleasure or pain.)  The character of Frank in HR says this - that he wanted to experience the extreme.  And he clearly got more than he bargained for since he was very interested in escaping.

Other thoughts.  Ugh.  I hate movies with sexism, and that's a lot of movies.  Watching strange men come on to the female lead was just nauseating.  Gross and foul.  Watching the movers in one scene harass a young woman was infuriating.  It is so expected no one in the film even comments on it.  Blarg.  And the way the lead female was attracted to the blatantly abusive and manipulative Frank?   Oh ewwww.  Greasy.

I think it would have made a much better cerebral-thriller movie than horror.  The gore does not seem to serve the purpose of supporting the interesting conceit (puzzle box) and more interesting demons.  So overall, HR is okay for some popcorn fun on a rainy night, but not re-watchable.

Looks more impressive
than it is ...
"From Hell." (or FH ...) Now why does this movie rub me the wrong way?  I just don' t know, but it does.  As a re-telling of the Jack-the-Ripper story, it should have bean great.  So many talented actors and actresses.  The scenes are wonderfully dark, with a foggy, dreary London that is only beaten out by something like Burton's Sweeney Todd.  The secret-society-of-British-gentlemen angle is also an interesting plot driver.  

But a few things really stuck in my craw about FH.  Now to start, I want to say I know a great deal about absinthe and how it was used, and then prohibited.  How absinthe is portrayed in this movie is really ridiculous.  And setting it on fire?  No.  No, no, no.  People did not do that.  Hollywood invented that, and it might have been this very movie that is to blame for this misconception.  And Depp, who I normally like, just fell flat in this movie.  Did not feel like a real person, more like a sort of puppet.  He ends up OD-ing and I didn't care.  The fate of Heather Graham's character?  Also did not care.  And the gory scenes are not scary.  Just gore for gore's sake.

The movie does not work.  It needed to go either all out horror, or dial back and be more suspense/thriller.  It straddles the line and ends up not really working as either.  I simply didn't enjoy it.  So overall, I'd only watch this film if I really, desperately needed to see a horror movie with Depp and couldn't stream Sleepy Hollow.  Which means, nah.  I'll pass.

The good guy from Hell.
"Hellboy" i.e. HB.  I knew nothing of this film before watching.  Just needed another "Hell" movie to round out my trio.  It turns out to be the best of the three, but it's not a horror movie any more than 'Aliens' was horror.  ('Alien,' singular, now that was horror, and the best of the genre as far as I'm concerned.)  HB is a comic superhero vs. the monsters type of movie, with a lot of suspenseful moments, dark themes, and simply bizarre characters.  So if you like superheros and monsters, you will like this movie.

I like the conceit of a demon from hell having a choice to be good or evil.  This one seems to be working for the good guys because it was raised with compassion to be a 'real boy.'  I get the impression the actual named Hellboy from the comics is supposed to be more angsty and troubled.  This one is a bit brooding, but still comes over as a generally positive straight talker who just wants to get the job done.  A gritty guy, but not despairing at all.  I was bummed that some of the more interesting characters got waxed by the middle of the movie, and one was too injured to make it to the finale.  And they could have done so much more with the overall story line of Hellboy and his mysterious past and even more mysterious purpose in life.  It just does not come together well.

Still it was fun to watch, and the monsters were done well with pretty good special effects.  I'd watch this one again, even without the popcorn.   

Image Credits:  Cenobites, Fair use,  Puzzle box Public Domain.  From Hell Theatrical Release Poster  Hellboy Theatrical Release poster

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Poem Up in Dragonfly Arts Magazine 2016

Dragonfly Arts Mag 2016
Dragonfly 2016 is out and I'm very happy to have my poem "What We Choose to Keep" appearing in this year's issue.  I had three poems in their inaugural 2014 issue, and then wasn't able to submit for 2015.  So I'm glad to be back on track with supporting this fantastic publication for 2016.  Dragonfly Arts Magazine is a publication of the HopeWorks center of Howard County in Maryland.  The magazine has poetry, stories, and artwork that reflect on "life, love, trauma, and hope."  It is a snazzy little mag with a high-gloss cover and some riveting color artwork and compelling writing.

As you know from reading the blog here, I'm a strong proponent of writers being paid for their writing.  I don't generally submit work to publications that do not compensate writers with at least some token payment.  But for Dragonfly, and a few other publications, I make an exception.  It's not for the exposure - it is to support the mission of the publication.  Submitting to Dragonfly is something that I do both for myself and for them - as a survivor myself, crafting suitable poetry for this market is a exploration in healing.  I'm honored to have my work in this magazine, and hope that it helps in some small way to promote the healing that HopeWorks tries to nurture.

Image Credit:  Dragonfly Art's Mag. Visit HopeWorks.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Panels at Cons - Other Possibilities

Some panels are great!  I like to think this one was
a really good one - then again, that's me right there.
As with any writer, my time (and money) to go to writing events and conventions is limited.  After all, I figure if I'm doing something related to writing, it pretty much ought to be either writing or submitting.  That's unless I can convince myself the event or convention will really teach me something new, give me great networking opportunities, and/or be a tremendous amount of fun.  So I pick conventions - for writing and for genre fandom - with a very critical eye.

One of the key things I look for is the mix of different types of sessions and activities in the schedule.  I do not want to spend all day in panels, either as a panel participant or in the audience.  I've done plenty of both, and have developed strong feelings about it.  Now, a really well run panel is a fine thing - I've been on/witnessed such panels and enjoyed them greatly - but even so, I don't want to do that all day.  (Note the picture of me on an science education panel with some amazing colleagues, helping undergraduates make decisions about graduate school and more.  Just want to show I'm not anti-panel ...)  Anyway, I prefer a schedule where a good panel is one of many formats in which I will encounter people and content.  I prefer it strongly enough that I find I do not attend cons where panels are the bulk of the schedule.  This applies to writing conventions as well as fan and sci-fi/genre related cons.

So here is my plea to conference schedulers - since I'd love to have more competition for my convention time and dollars - mix it up as much as possible!  By that I mean find lots of different ways to engage conference goers with people and content, and use panels sparingly in just those situations where nothing else will do. 

Here's a bit of what gives me the most return on my investment of time and money.  I mentioned earlier some of the points - I like to:  meet other fans/writers, make key contacts with publishers/editors, have a chance to promote my blog/work, learn new aspects of the genre biz, and be entertained.  Here are a few session formats to add to the mix ...
  1. "Speed Dating" events.  This is a chance either for writers to meet writers, or writers to meet editors/publishers.  You can only have three-five minutes to talk about yourself, give a card, and move on.  Do this on the first day of the con so people have some friendly faces to recognize for the rest of the meeting.
  2. Exhibit Tours/Demos.  Have people sign up for *small group* tours of the exhibit area, where a knowledgeable person takes them from one table to another, meeting publishers and editors, and giving them a chance to make contacts and learn about some of the journals and publications in the field.  Also gives editors/publishers a chance to demo their latest, promote subscriptions, and find new contributors in a semi-structured atmosphere.  Again, do this early in the con so that people can get together at another time and continue conversations.
  3. Classic Oral Presentation.  This is another format that was once overdone, but now has been replaced by panels.  Have one person give a presentation with compelling visuals, and then take questions.  Works well for content heavy material, like a science presentation at a sci-fi con.  I've both done these and attended them and they work well if the speaker is properly prepared (and goes easy on the Powerpoint and gives out free swag …)
  4. Classic Workshop/Class.  Work with a presenter or small group of experts and workshop a bit of writing, or learn about an aspect of the craft.  This can take any of the formats a classic workshop might take.  It's important that it puts the attendee in a 'hands on' mode, and is best if they take something away that they can continue to build on later.
  5. Table Round Robin.  Take five tables and put five experts on the topic at hand at each table.  Have small discussions at the tables about the topic, moderated by the expert, then the expert at the table reports out to the whole room about what was discussed.  The moderator of the event as a whole takes the five reports and summarizes discussion.  Experts are each given a chance to provide one comment at the end.  This can also be organized as a 'Birds of a Feather.'  This is like a Table Round Robin but more informal.  Have a larger umbrella topic and subtopics.  Let people choose the subtopic they like and have an informal discussion.
  6. "Book Club" events.  This works if attendees are willing to do reading of pre-circulated material before the event.  A particular book, poem, movie or whatever is read/watched before the event by all participants.  People gather for an informal (or more structured) discussion of the work.
  7. "Open Mic" events.  Give conference goers a chance to engage with one another over their writing (or whatever they are there for, music, fandom, etc.)  Don't just have one … there is never enough time.  Including drinks 'n snacks is a great draw, too.
  8. Poster Presentations.  Would love to see this at a con, where attendees get to present posters on the topic of the 'session.'  This might be something to try small at first - fifteen people create posters on a subject before the con, bring them along, put them up on boards provided by the con, and then there is an open session to review them, with the authors standing by for questions.  These are standard in my industry, and are usually accompanied by drinks to break the ice …
  9. Tweet-Ups, Blog-Ups, etc.  Create opportunities for those people on social media to get together, follow one another, and exchange tips of the trade.
In all cases these events need to be crafted so that people have equal time and access to experts, and that experts have equal time with different people.  They need to have moderators ready to deal with any issues and problems, and ready to be responsive if changes need to be made on the fly.

A last thought …

In all honesty I'm not a fan of keynote/plenary talks and speeches.  I have a lot of social anxiety about being 'trapped' at such an event.  I always need to feel I can easily slip away if I have a panic attack or such (dealing with my mental illnesses as I do).  I tend to skip these, find one or two others who are also not fans of keynotes, and go to lunch/dinner someplace else.

What's your take on panels?  What else could be included in the schedule of cons to keep it lively and value-packed for you?  What are your favorite conference formats?

Friday, August 19, 2016

Monthly Meeting and a little Sci-Fi

This evening was the monthly meeting of the Maryland Writer's Association Howard County Chapter, of which I am a member.  We had hopes to hear something along the lines of "Everything You Need to Know About Writing Science Fiction" but alas, our speaker never arrived.  While we waited, our President had us play a writing game or two, which was fun.  But when we finally resigned ourselves to the fact that we 'speakerless' we took the matter of our continuing entertainment and enlightenment into our own hands.

We held a free form discussion about Science Fiction and related speculative fiction genres like Fantasy and Horror.  Of the dozen-ish people that were present, five were sci-fi writers, including myself.  It was interesting to hear other writer's takes on the definition of Science Fiction, as well as how they became interested in the genre, and why they write in it now.  A lot of us were influenced by popular movies and TV, as well as some of the 'classic' writers, as one might expect.  Also not surprisingly, most of us had been writing in these genres since we were pretty young.

Also nice was the random chance that found me seated next to someone I had met a few years ago, who has since written and published her memoir.  So I have yet another book on my to-read list, and this one not fiction for a change.  The addition of great home baked treats like blueberry-lemon doughnuts and cookies assuaged our sadness over our missing speaker!

One topic that was brought up as we closed out the meeting was the topic of critique groups.  I still don't have a critique group, and would really like to be in one.  With my crazy travel schedule, though, I've been avoiding trying to get involved in a time commitment I can't meet.  But yet I keep considering it - there has to be some form of group, perhaps an online group, that would work for me.

Last thought - did you catch that great full moon tonight?  It has me thinking of fall and Halloween already, two of my favorite things ... oh, and that chapbook of childhood horror poetry that is coming along oh, so slowly ...

Image Credit - Logo for the MWA Howard County Chapter.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Moon Forever Stamp - Encouraging Observations of our Awesome Moon

Photographer:  Beth Swanson
Designer:  Greg Breeding
Art Director:  William Gicker
The Moon Stamp is here, with a release date of February 22, from Washington, DC!  Being a lunar scientist who also loves stamps, this is a really fun event for me, and one that helps remind us all how easy it can be to just look up and see our cosmic companion in orbit.  The Moon has been gazing down at us since almost the very beginning of Earth's history.  But it has only been geologically very recently that something intelligent has been gazing back, pondering, writing poems, and eventually, exploring.

The USPS site says: "Taken as the full moon rises, the image captures the brilliant surface of earth’s only natural satellite.  Issued at the $1.20 price, this Global Forever stamp can be used to mail a one-ounce letter to any country to which First-Class Mail International service is available."

I agree with Kelly Beatty at Sky and telescope, who says in this article that "The golden orb is pretty, though the USPS might have have provided a "teachable moment" by using a cycle of lunar phases in its 10-stamp sheet, rather than merely showing the same image over and over."

Gorgeous sheet of stamps, but would phases have been a better way to engage the public?
Not surprisingly, the USPS chose to unveil it's stamp on the date of full moon itself, February 22 18:20 UTC.

Get ready, InOMN is October 8, 2016!
That the Moon changes with time is obvious if one looks at the Moon even casually a few times over the course of a month.  Still, what causes the phases of the moon is a source of confusion for people, since it isn't as simple as something like clouds or the Earth's shadow.  Instead, the phases are caused by the geometry between the Sun, Moon, and Earth.  You can investigate phases further through the NASA Starchild site, and even make some Oreo cookie phases from an activity at NASA's SpacePlace.

Having spent this time learning about the Moon's phases has probably made you want to take another, closer look.  While anytime is a great time to go look at the Moon (weather and phase permitting), there is one night a year that is particularly special.  That is International Observe the Moon Night, or InOMN.  InOMN is a yearly celebration where people the world over all gaze at the Moon together; the site has listings of events, activities, and ways to get involved.

Moon Mappers - You are the scientist!
And now that you've spent all this time learning about Moon phases, observing the Moon, and gushing over the Moon stamp, you want to do some real research.  I know exactly how you feel.  One great way to get involved is with Moon Mappers, a part of CosmoQuest Virtual Research Facilty.  If you want to engage in great citizen science that actually gets published in peer reviewed science journals, then head on over there. Click on the "Moon Mappers" button, and start mapping the Moon!  Don't miss all the other great projects, either, that will have you taking data all over the solar system (and beyond ...)

Image Credits:  Stamps!  The United States Postal Service, InOMN Logo, InOMN resources site, Moon Mappers,  Visit them all and learn more!

Friday, February 19, 2016

Research for Fiction Writing - The Pheasant

A pheasant before all that
hunting and prepping business.
I am always amused by where I end up when doing research for my fiction writing.  You know how it goes - you want to write a few sentences about some topic or other, and the next thing you know you've spent five hours on the internet learning all about it so those sentences are at least somewhat informed.

Before writing the scene I just finished, I had no interest in learning about how to hunt and then prep a pheasant for consumption.  And then one of my characters in this scene decided to hunt and prep a pheasant for consumption.  Again, you know how it goes ...

I really knew nothing about it at all.  I imagined I'd just have my character saunter off, shoot a pheasant (bow and arrow, we are talking fantasy here) then roast and eat said pheasant.  Then I got to thinking ... what about all those old-timey movies and paintings showing pheasants and rabbits and such hanging from the ceiling?  What's the deal there?  And what about the game Skyrim?  Can't walk thirty paces without running into rabbits and pheasants hanging from metal contraptions or even fallen on the floor.

Pheasant and rabbit hung
from ceiling - as one does.
My character was out camping, so he really didn't have the time to hang a pheasant from the back of his horse for a day or a month or whatever.  And then I'd assume when he finally ate it, it would probably taste a lot like the back of his horse.  Maybe this pheasant idea would not work out after all.  But characters, as you know, can be persistent.

So off to the wonderful world of the internet.  I'm a bit squeamish, so this was not easy research.  I did find out that yes, one basically saunters off and just shoots a pheasant.  Takes time, know-how, skill, and the rest that you'd expect, but no magic there (which is funny, again since I am writing a bit of fantasy at the moment).  Ok.  Only have to watch for shots that tear the gut open and might contaminate the meat.  Lovely.  So my character happens to be an excellent shot ... And of course with a shotgun there is actual bits of metal in your bird to avoid, but again, I'm in a bow-and-arrow situation.

So, we assume bird-in-hand, literally.  Now what?  Well, as it turns out, that whole hanging thing is really just for birds that are other than very young ones.  The young ones are tender enough without hanging.  BUT of course, most birds in the wild are not very young just statistically speaking.  Most are middle aged, and some are rather old.  So hanging a pheasant was sort of required to ensure it was tender.

Let me be more specific.  Hanging a pheasant.  Some sites recommended three to seven days.  Of just hanging at cool, not cold, temperatures.  Not hot at all, because that would be gross, but not actually wintertime sort of stuff, either.  So you just go ahead and hang the pheasant from it's head, not upside down.  And let it ... sit ... there.   For days.   Or more.  Some sites suggest that in ye olden dayes, people would allow the pheasant to hang until it was so ... rotted ... it dropped.  And then you knew the meat would be tender.  Seriously.

I think I'll chalk this up to my naivete.  Chalk up the fact that this had never occurred to me.  All the press and advertising around food is about how it should be fresh.  So very fresh.  Well, apparently you do not want old pheasant meat to be fresh.  Apparently you can eat it rather ... not so fresh.

Whatever.  I had what I needed for my character.  In the end, yes, he just sauntered out and shot a pheasant.  Because, aha!  It just so happened to be a young pheasant.  No need for it to hang from the back of the horse until it fell apart.  Yea!

Still.  There is the preparation to consider.  And so I read more about plucking pheasants when they are cold and hot and wet and dry and warm and whatever to really keep me satisfied for some time.  I'll not put the specifics down.  But I know a heck of a lot about plucking pheasants now. (Yes there is a naughty little song about this, let's not go there.)

And as with most of this fiction-style research, it isn't really going to be terribly useful now that the scene is written.

Image Credits:  Pheasant.  Used under Creative Commons 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons, author Lukasz Lukasik.  Hanging Hare and Pheasant, 1798, Swiss National Library, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Considering that First Draft of that NaNo Novel

I was over at Ana Mardoll's "Ramblings" blog and spotted this post, with a pie chart describing the first draft of a novel.  The pie chart is from Finding Wonderland, and it shows a humorous breakdown of what a first draft of a novel might look like.  Ana Mardoll uses the plot to illustrate the importance of rewriting that first draft.

It was inspiring.  I am definitely in the write-rewrite-iterate camp of writers.  Edits and rewrites are what make musings turn into masterpieces (more or less).  Anyway, I took out my draft of my NaNoWriMo novel and paged through, looking for what *my* first drafts seem to include.  Being a scientist with data in hand, I had to plot it up of course, with many thanks to the inspiring influences:

My version of a plot inspired by Finding Wonderland and Ana Mardoll - It shows the general contents of the first
draft of my NaNoWriMo novel.  It is surprising how my first drafts all seem to look pretty much like this.

The first half of chapter one turns out to be all completely unnecessary conversations between characters talking about their lives and stuff.  I thought it made good sense when writing, and now I see I can just jump right in to the action and really not lose anything at all.

Also fun to note is that I have far too many homages to various pop culture icons and works, such as the Hitchhiker's Guide, MST3K, Star Wars, and even the Simpsons.  I really want to keep them, which is something of an indication of their need to go.

And wow, there are a lot of holes here.  Especially the times I say "We'll have that discussion with so-and-so soon" and either the discussion never happens, or so-and-so does not actually exist in the book.  Or both.  I also see that I get through my initial draft writing by just jumping past anything that stumps me.  Say like important connecting scenes.  Or the names of anything at all.

Of course keep in mind this is a NaNo draft, which means one is trying to write like crazy to get those 50K words by the end of the month and still have time to cook and eat a Thanksgiving turkey.  So leaving gaps behind is a very functional strategy - for a draft.

And the sex scenes, well, most of them are actually plot critical.  So I guess I'll just have to make sure I send them to a publisher that likes that kind of thing.

In the end, I'd say about 50% of what is here is workable, and the other half just needs to get thrown out.  My challenge is figuring out which half is which ...

Image Credit:  My pie chart of my novel data.  Inspired by Finding Wonderland via Ana Mardoll.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Writing Another Textbook - Everyday Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs

A few science books in the collection ... and now I
can add one of my own among them!  Happy!
I wrote my textbook "Inner Planets" during a very difficult time.  It was a struggle to write a single word, let alone the 80 thousand necessary to finish the book.  Without my courageous co-author, it would not have come together.  Still, I'm very proud of the outcome.  We worked hard, and the textbook is a great undergraduate introduction to the inner planets.  The chapters on different processes are especially well done, with my favorite being the one on radiometric dating, a subject near and dear to my heart.  The introduction is actually very useful as well, with a glimpse at major ideas in science and how scientists approach their subject.  My co-author did an outstanding job with the history of the various missions to the planets.

It was gut wrenching to get that book out, but times have changed, and my health is much more stable.  I'm also in at a point where my science and education contracts are not carrying me for 100% of my time.  With all that in mind, when a friend hooked me up with a publisher last year, a publisher looking for a graduate text in planetary sciences, I jumped on the opportunity.  I convinced my previous co-author that this was an opportunity not to be missed, and we put together a winning book proposal and signed a contract.

So January has been filled with writing and research.  Tough going in places.  Fortunately I know lots of experts in various fields, and am interviewing them as often as possible.  My co-author and I want to create a really useful and gracefully written book.  As I said, it's still been tough.  Writer's block isn't just a fiction writer's problem, it's just a problem in general ...

Going through exercises like NaNoWriMo means I can put my head down and just produce text, no internal editing (or not much internal editing), giving me something to work with.  It's a very good skill to have acquired.  I have created a good outline to work from, but the reason why the book will be useful is that there really isn't anything quite like it out there.  So I'm doing a lot of trailblazing in terms of content.

And every month from now until October requires me to turn in a draft chapter.  About 7K words each (on average) plus figures and images for each one.  Trivial in terms of word count, but a challenge in terms of highly targeted, effective, and informative word count.  It's going to be a wild ride, but I am committed and focused on creating something any instructor of planetary sciences will want to use, and any graduate student of any related science will want to own and read.  It will also be useful as a resource for scientists who want to either brush up on some things, or get a head start in an area that's out of their discipline of choice.

AND of course ... I'm still trying to jam in a bit of fiction writing.  It's been about ten months, I think, since I've submitted any of my work, anywhere.  Much too long.  I've plenty to get out there, but submission takes a solid, dedicated effort, and I want to be sure I'm sending my material to the places that it really fits.  Again, that takes research.  But research is something I'm supposed to be good at :) 

Image Credit:  My pic of my books