So, You Tell Me

>> Monday, June 28, 2010

I appreciate the encouragement on the last installment. Here's a sample of the stuff in question, that was excised from an earlier draft. What do you think? Too technical?

Bridge recording of the Converted Transport Ship (CTS) Goliath, commencing 3125:255:14:91.23 as relayed via beacon 492 before transmission was interrupted.

CAPCOM: Captain! There are reports coming through that three Mil spaceships have come within Command's sensor range

CAPTAIN: They headed for us or the planet surface?

CAPCOM: Neither, Captain. Word is, they're bearing down on the Lunar base!

NAV: No!

CAPTAIN: Steady, Nav. The whole planet has children there. Damn it! They weren't supposed to attack the base. They've never attacked the Lunar base before. What does Command want us to do?

CAPCOM: Command says to abort the lunar landing, try to stay out of range of the new ships.

CAPTAIN: Have they called up defenders? Strikers?

CAPCOM: They didn't say, but I can hear talk on another band, Captain. There's a hell of a battle raging on the other side of the planet.

CAPTAIN: And at Rega or we wouldn't have had to lift like that. We can't go back to Rega base, we can't land on Luna while they're being attacked. How long does Command think we can stay out here? How long before the Mil take us out?

CAPCOM: Command says to wait for further orders.

CAPTAIN: They're hoping Luna's automatic defenses will hold. That the kids will be alright. Science, are there any ships defending Luna at all?

SCIENCE: None on sensor, Captain. (pause) Captain, there is the new shield on Luna. Many think it can repulse even a full Mil onslaught.

CAPTAIN: Hell of a way to test it. Science, can you spot the Mil ships yet?

SCIENCE: Aye, three large landers using energy shields, stronger readings than usual. Perhaps they've beefed them up since they haven't proven useful against our laser cannons.

NAV: Or they're trying to negate the Lunar shield. Are they going in together?


SCIENCE: Together, very close. I-you're right! The Mil shields appear to be coupled.

CAPTAIN: Are all the passengers secured, Cargo? This may get bumpy.

CARGO: We didn't have enough jumpseats for them all. All available seats that could be converted have been, even the extra bunks in sickbay. The last few refugees...

CAPTAIN: Don't call them that!

CARGO: (pause) Three evacuees are having to manage.

CAPTAIN: Manage what?

CARGO: (pause) They're holding on to straps in hold B3.

CAPTAIN: Straps? This isn't the monorail, Officer. You should have known better.

CARGO: They didn't seem to mind.

CAPTAIN: When have teenagers ever acknowledged mortality? Call down to whoever's on duty there and make sure everyone's secured. I don't care how, even if they have to be strapped to the wall.

CARGO: Aye, Captain. [Command has noted ½ demerit for Cargo Officer Tinder]

PILOT: Screen three, Captain. The Mil are directly in our path and approaching the Lunar shield.

CAPTAIN: Son of a bitch. Science Officer, what about weapons? Anything we've got strapped on going to make a dent in those Mil bastards?

SCIENCE: (pause) Historically, laser cannons have been used to good effect on the Mil ships. We have several that appear to be in good working order, but they do not have their own power supply.

CAPTAIN: Hell of a way to test that kluged weapons console. The power drain going to be a problem?

EO: The power from the cannons will be taken from propulsion and other electrical uses, Captain. We are low on fuel because we didn't get a good reload during the-uh-expedited lift.

CAPTAIN: Noted. Historically, we have power to burn and a dedicated weapons officer, not an overworked EO and a misused Science Officer, but this wasn't a military ship, the freakin' Mil aren't supposed to be attacking and the strap-on weaponry aren't supposed to be needed. Will we still have enough juice to get to Lunar base, EO?

EO: (pause) If I assume this trip to use twice the normal fuel because of the delay and other maneuvering, we will have less than 10% reserve, less than regs allow. Sir.

CAPTAIN: Officer, we got kids here and there's nothing but kids on Luna. Regs aren't my worry. Science Officer, if they fire on Luna, let 'em have everything we've got. Charge 'em.

EO: And shields?

CAPTAIN: Science, you've got the weapons console. What do you think? Keep it brief.

SCIENCE: Those ships are armed to the teeth, Captain. I think we may need the shields, too.

CAPTAIN: Make it so.

EO: Aye, Captain.

PILOT: Do you think that, if we can take out one, the others will blow as well as close as they are?

CARGO: Captain, the passengers and all crew are secured.

CAPTAIN: You might have something, Crestor. Navigation, set a course for the cluster, top speed, and let's let 'em have it.

EO: Captain, if we run shields on full with cannons blazing, our margin drops to nearly 5%.

CAPTAIN: Noted. Crestor, have we got bearings?

PILOT: Aye, Captain.

CAPTAIN: Science?

SCIENCE: Ready, Captain.

CAPTAIN: Hold on, everyone. They're about to attack Luna's new shielding. There's going to be some backlash between their shielding and ours, so it might get bumpy.

CAPTAIN: Fire at will.
(various alarms and some scuffling sounds, then an apparent explosion)

EO: Loss of command system 1. System 2 is holding. Shielding at 1/3 capacity.

PILOT: There goes one! And another! I think we stopped them, Captain!
(additional alarms)

EO: Another energy wave, Captain!

SCIENCE: Shields are collapsing!

CAPTAIN: Brace yourselves!

[end transmission]

So, what do you think?


RS Classic: Setback for a Science Geek

>> Saturday, June 26, 2010

In the novel I’m working on, which is clearly percolating in the back of my mind because I keep bringing it up here, I started out with a space accident. Now, when it comes to science, I am mostly a dabbler in most of the heavier sciences: biology, chemistry, quantum physics, particle physics, electromagnetics, etc. I have an excellent grasp classical physics and orbital mechanics as well as a good understanding of most of the engineering fields. I don’t write really hard science fiction for the very good reason I’m not qualified to do more than try not to through the laws of physics, etc. out the window if I can help it. But, once in a while, something I write wanders into my bailiwick and I go to town.

Space accidents fit. I understand, as I mentioned, orbital mechanics and was kind of stoked about doing something really science-y after my sword and sorcery novel was completed.

I had a binary planet system (like Pluto and Charon, only larger, more earth sized), with some gravity fluctuations as a result and other wobbles and quirks. I played with a magnetic field and unusual radiation (which helped screw up the ship as it crash landed, solved some problems for me and accounted for missing on the landing by several km). Finally, a little candy for the geeks.

Only, when I had a few people read it in a forum, they all said the same thing: lose the prologue it sounds like Star Trek. Aside from the fact that my physics is better on any given day than Star Trek’s (OK, that hurt a little), I was using my mission control console as a guide, not a show. In fact, one reader decided to chastise me having the captain call out commands to positions not names (though this is standard practice for Mission Control and, according to my understanding the Navy, too). I still maintain, as much as I love Star Trek (not for its science), every space oriented story is not the same..

So, in the end, I had to excise it. Painfully. My geek moment, set aside. *Sigh*. I kept a quick blurb so people had some sense of what was happening and kept the original in a different file. I figured I could add it as an appendix for those wanting a geek fix.



RS Classics: Shapeshifting

>> Thursday, June 24, 2010

There was a time when I thought about pursuing genetic engineering. I was a kid; I didn’t realize how important it was or would become. I just found it fascinating. Well, as usual, my innate lack of practicality won out so I became what I am (dummy). However, I still find it fascinating.

One way I indulge my fascination is with fiction (Haha, you thought I would be talking science again, today, didn’t ya?). I think Dune might have started it with their talk of breeding lines. I did some dabbling with it in the finished novel, what with my “tribe” where only female children can be conceived. It’s fun to play with.

However, in my new novel, it’s more prevalent. I have again a tribe where there are unusual traits. For all members of this group (effectively another tribe), everyone has some sort of psychic power, but some, called the Prime, are also shapeshifters, sometimes involuntarily.

Yes, it’s not pure science fiction. I don’t like to limit myself and shapeshifting is almost as interesting to me though not for scientific reasons. I don’t know why it appeals to me, but it always does. There’s something about the power of changing into something else, different emotions, different strengths. I’ve played with it before, although that character could change into any shape, but, in this case, each of the Prime can only change into one other creature, including a protohuman. When human, they share some of their animal traits (like night vision) or temperament (like hissing for the snake individual and purring for the cat). They are all predatory animals of the fiercer variety and it appealed to me to play with the traits while they were human, too.

What does this have to do with genetics? Well, I added a quirk. Prime can’t mate with prime (or really safely with others of the same tribe) without a good possibility of death, much like a Manx cat is generally bred with a “normal” cat as two Manx genes makes a dead kitten. So, our shapeshifters must find mates from outside a tribe in a world where shapeshifters and psychics are considered demons. Makes it tough to be honest with mates, find love, or breed a new generation. So, yes, I play with sociological stuff, too.

Yep, writing is a “what if” type person’s playground. Any quirk of society, science or fancy that crosses my mind is apt to find itself explored in a novel. I just can’t be trusted with any idea. Heck, I once had a conversation with a friend of mine, talking about that irritating voices they were using in some car that said things like “The door is ajar.” I said, “Could be worse. It could be saying, ‘You drive like an idiot.’” Now I have a story called “Back Seat Driver.”

If I could just figure out a way to work out the mass question, how they can change mass without cheating science, nothing could stop me.

Not that anything can really stop me now. :)


RS Classics: A Voice of My Own...

>> Monday, June 21, 2010

Once again, a post that could use the light of day.

For an unpublished author (except for a few short stories and technical papers), I’ve got a very distinctive voice. I might say, too distinctive, but I like it so I’m not going to.

I took a single creative writing class in college and my teacher wasn’t sure why I was in the class. Admittedly, it was the kind of teacher that wrote “literary” poetry, the kind that give me headaches. He explained that I shouldn’t be there since I already had a “populist” style. “I don’t know why you’re in here,” he told me in a sad voice. “You have a developed style. You write stuff anyone could read.” Uh, yeah. Clearly, he thought that was a bad thing, but really, shouldn’t you write stuff anyone could read? I might add that, though he didn’t change my style, he gave me an A anyway (telling me that I did "my style" very well).

What does that mean? I like dialog. I like for people to get to know my people by hearing what they have to say. I rarely spend a lot of time describing characters in detail as I like readers to figure out who they are by who they are rather than what they look like, or, at most, how other characters see them. I describe action in detail, but setting minimally. For me, the texture and life that pulls the story along is all in the people.

Of course, I have other quirks, too. Rapists get killed, and not necessarily gently. Protagonists don’t rape. Ever. Ditto for child abuse and other heinous crimes. Since I often write in extreme environments where survival is key, violence is frequently a part of the story.

I like humor. There is no genre that can’t be improved with a little humor.

All of my longer works (novel length) involve cats. And dragons. It’s a signature.

I like my female characters strong. Chances are, if my heroine is in distress, she saves herself at least in part. I also like men that are strong enough to respect the strengths in the women.

When I use science, I make it real. When I write fantasy, I don't pretend it's science.

When I write characters, they have flaws. That makes them real, too.

So, what’s your style?



>> Saturday, June 19, 2010

So, the novel that was coming together stalled, mostly because I didn't have the right direction in mind.

That's bad.

I did, however, think of a new start to a novel I'd already started. Although I liked the chapter I had written on it, I wasn't moving anywhere with it (it's the sequel to one of my completed novels). The other day, I realized why. Though I loved it, it was the wrong chapter for the beginning of the book. Instead, I went another direction, wrote a new first chapter (and the one I'd already written will still work, I think, later on) and am moving forward.

Maybe things are starting to move again.


Slow Couple of Weeks

>> Saturday, June 12, 2010

Those paying attention might have noticed that the tally of words on the novel I'm working on hasn't changed. I've stalled out on it. I could write more, but I know I'm going in the wrong direction, writing far too many chapters without moving forward. I suspect it's because I'm not sure what I want to effectively do in this novel. Since I can write humorous character development indefinitely, I figured I should stop so I just don't have to cull my favorite bits.

I should have sent some short stories off or reworked my query a few times. I still may do that and I appreciate everyone giving me feedback on it. I like my writing, but I'm well aware of my selling skills, or lack thereof.

Truth is, I'm still recovering from the near fatal scare with my son a few weeks back and I still haven't evaluated the financial fallout from that, since we're free in this country, to be sent to the poorhouse by even a couple of days in the hospital (and that's WITH insurance). And that's stressing me so I'm doing mindless things that destress me.

Writing can do that, but only if I'm in the zone.

I'll get back to it, when I'm ready and it will be all the better for the delay.


RS Classics: What Do You Know About Accidents In Space?

>> Monday, June 7, 2010

As much as I, as someone that abhors loss of life for any reason, hates that the loss of life in our space exploration history, I am also fascinated. I need to know about these for my job, and, in fact, I would encourage anyone in the space industry to learn about them. A healthy understanding of what went wrong in the past is key to not repeating those errors. But, as much as I grieve for the lives lost, I am fascinated by the topic.

Part of my fascination is that there is so much information readily available and yet I was really amazingly ignorant of how many accidents there had been and how many near misses we’d had. Here I was, having worked in the space industry for eighteen years, and I saw an amazing presentation on this topic of accidents and near misses and escape systems at the last International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety (IAASS) Conference last year in Chicago. I wanted to know more. By a strange coincidence, I was in a position to investigate past accidents for a task not long afterwards.

Once again, Wikipedia came through for me with a article on “Space Accidents and Incidents”. I’d recommend anyone interested investigate this page and follow links. Remember, this includes not just US accidents, but accidents in space programs around the world, and a useful collection of near misses with many a useful lesson learned. Another excellent source of information on specific space missions is The Encyclopedia Astronautica (and, wow, they updated the look of it since I’d checked it out last in February).

Even though I’m recommending checking it out for yourself, I thought I’d tell you about a few that fascinated me:

Soyuz 1: The first flight of the craft that would be the workhorse of the Soviet/Russian human spaceflight program ended in tragedy when the parachute failed to open, killing Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov.

Soyuz 11: The first Soviet flight to the first Soviet Station (Solyut), the successful mission ended in failure when they opened the hatch to a dead crew. A jolt during reentry caused a ventilation valve to fail open, causing depressurization. The crew recognized the depressurization, but could not close the valve before being overcome by hypoxia. Cosmonauts Dobrovolsky, Patsayev, Volkov were lost. The Soviets began flying a crew of two with pressure suits instead three crewmembers.

Gemini 8: A failed on rocket caused a spin that caused such G-forces that the crew was very close to blacking out before they regained control by shutting off the orbital attitude system and turning on the reentry system.

Soyuz 23: After an aborted docking with the Salyut 5 space station, an emergency landing put the crew of Soyuz 23, Cosmonauts Rozhdestvensky and Zudov, at risk as they landed in Lake Tengiz in -20 deg C conditions and during a blizzard. The capsule sank to the bottom of the lake and, because of conditions, could not be retrieved and opened until the next day. Amazingly, the crew emerged unscathed.

There were also a number of catastrophic launch and ground facility disasters including catastrophic fires at Baikonur Cosmodrome, Xichang, China and Alcantara, Brazil. Also, on that page, are notations of asphyxiation events on the ground at KSC, fires in oxygen chambers and training accidents.

Really, folks, this is fascinating stuff.


Query Struggles

Well, I thought I'd found a happy medium between voice and formula, but it's not apparently successful either. Any of you want to help me figure out why? If I can figure out my marketing mistakes (and I'll be the first to say, I'm no marketer), perhaps I can carry that thinking elsewhere.

Tander was afraid those carefree days where he was master of his own destiny and comfortable with his own abilities were gone for good. First, his wife, Layla, told him she was pregnant, as she was rescuing him from his own folly..

Then, he discovered he was no longer just the extraordinary swordsman he always wanted to be. Apparently he's also some sort of powerful magical prodigy though he has no idea how to use his powers. He does have an unprecedented six tiny kitten familiars with more magical know-how than Tander will likely ever have, and who aren't shy about pointing out Tander's shortcomings.

All of which faded to nothing when Layla and other women of the Jenri tribe were abducted, leaving a dozen husbands left for dead, including Tander. Tander knows nothing about the kidnappers except that they have nefarious plans, phenomenal magic powers, and are hidden in the midst of frozen mountains so cold Tander might shatter if he stumbles one more time.

To save them he'll have to lead a band of angry sorcerers, cutthroats and Jenri warriors, all just as anxious over the safety of their loved ones as he is. Tander has to lead them to the right place quickly, while learning what magic he can, so they can save the stolen Jenri, if his impatient rescue party doesn't kill him first.

He didn't want these powers or a flock of noisy but helpful kittens, but he'll need them. He'll need all the skills and talents he and all his companions possess to succeed. Because he has something more important than his life to lose: Layla.

Curse of the Jenri is a fantasy novel of about 116,000 words.
Any ideas?


Which Is Better?

>> Friday, June 4, 2010

More than the mechanics of writing, the breathing of life into characters, the slogging through syntax and grammar, the effective description, the clever weaving of plot, the coalescence of atmosphere, writing, in my opinion, should do one more thing: it should be worth taking up someone's time.

As I've read hundreds of queries (and, for that matter, hundreds of published books), one thing's struck me time and time again. So frequently, the book or the query letter is like an engineering problem: insert values into the formula, note down the results. Books slog forward with the formula, using cardboard caricatures, to reach utterly predictable outcomes, fight interchangeable bad guys, save inconsequential heroines or other victims, which could be fine if you could add *something* special to make it good. No, no, I'm wrong. You have to change something in that formula, I believe, to make that good. You might make a sale. You might be successful and successfully published, but you won't make it good unless you stir up at least one (preferably more) of those elements.

This is absolutely true of novels. The question is, is it true of queries? Do you have to be one of the herd, even if your book isn't, in order to get the attention or an agent or publisher?

I won't say I have the answer. I am not omniscient, but this question struck me as I saw a response to what is a very accurate reflection of my novel's voice, of Tander's view. A reader commented that I hadn't followed the formula (though, I had in a previous post, but that's neither here nor there) and seemed concerned that I didn't know the formula or couldn't use it.

I know the formula. I can use it (even if I haven't yet perfected the technique). Thanks for worrying. The question is, should I?

If Query Test is any indication, neither is very successful (which argues that, at least, either my usage of the formula is flawed or it's insufficient to give a real sense of a non-formula novel). My formula query has only 2 successes out of 11 readings. The unconventional query is 0 for 7. Hard to argue that the unconventional method has been less than successful.

But it calls to mind a dilemma. If we take as somewhat a given that many of the books published yearly are comfortably formulaic, the kind of books one can pick up at the airport when one wants to read a boilerplate book, a standard romance or cozy mystery. Formulaic queries for publishers and agents looking for an easy sell/easy sale will likely do quite well if the writer has any sense of the mechanics and a decent set of writing skills. There's nothing wrong with that.

But, if one has written something *different*, something that falls out of formula with insane plot devices or complex multi-faceted characters (or both), that manages to be touching and thrilling and funny as hell all at the same time, how would an agent know, how would a publisher know?

I guess my real question is, is it better to pander to the common denominator, find an agent willing to read it even if it's not reflective of the actual book? Or, is it better to infuse your query with a voice as distinctive as the book itself? Consider it understood that nine out of ten agents or publishers will be frustrated by the off-kilter format or nonstandard structure, but what if it might entice the *right* agent, the *right* publisher, make them a believer. Someone who will go to bat for the book because they believe in it.

I'm not expecting to hear the answers. I'm not sure there is just ONE answer.

I know, if I can get one, I want the agent who believes my book is special, is in love with it. I'm just not sure if I have entirely figured out how to get his or her attention. I don't think straight formula will work for me.

I expect I'll be doing a bit more experimenting.


I'm an Idiot

>> Wednesday, June 2, 2010

I'm an idiot. Back a year or so ago, my good friend helped me with a query by making it far different than my normal type. After reading Query Shark, I was so certain I had it nailed and knew what I "really" wanted, that I left this behind.

Except, I just read it again. What was I thinking? This is great. THIS is what my book is about.

It wasn’t enough that women from Tander’s tribe had been stolen, including his wife, Layla, or that those who had stolen them had nefarious plans. And phenomenal magic powers. And could escape in seconds. And an underground fortress in the midst of frozen mountains so cold Tander was afraid he’d shatter if he stumbled one more time. It wasn’t enough that he was surrounded by angry husbands worried about their wives and willing to take their tempers out on him if he was leading them in the wrong direction. It wasn’t enough that he was also surrounded by the remaining women from his tribe who were equally angry and more than capable of kicking his butt.

No, on top of all those little issues, he discovered he's no longer “just” an extraordinary swordsman, but also a great and powerful sorcerer with absolutely no idea how to use his powers. He was not just any sorcerer, either, but one chosen by six tiny kitten familiars who do know how to use his powers and who have no problem telling him. All the time. While they demand to carried all over his person, purring and taking inopportune naps. He didn’t want these powers or a flock of noisy but helpful kittens, but he'll need them. He'll need all the skills and talents he and his companions possess in order to save their women—and Layla.

But we love you, Tander! Solace insisted, purring and licking his neck.

Things have got to get better soon.
Damn. I should have just left well enough alone.


Taking It On the Chin

I''m sold on Query Test. Not because they love my query. Au contraire. Because they were kind enough to tell me why they didn't love it. Four out of five readers wouldn't want my novel. Three gave reasons:

  • The premise has potential, but I don't really get why magic seems to carry such low prestige in this world. It's power, isn't it? Also, the query might benefit from a clearer focus.
  • The first phrase suggests the MC is a sexist. I did not want to read further.
  • Mortification means putting somethign to death. I found myself backing up to see if Tander was a man or a cat or what?
Am I angry? Hell no! I'm grateful! Grateful that people took an extra few seconds and told me what they didn't like. That's worth uncompromising adulation to me, which won't do me a bit of good if the agents keep sending it back.

It told me that I didn't sell Tander, the main character, that I was misleading about him (he's not sexist by a large margin - in fact, amazingly so), that I focused on what he was feeling and not who he was. Truth is, like most of my books, the key to the story is the character and the journey the character makes to become who he or she becomes. If I'm not selling the main character, I'm not selling the book. It's not their responsibility to read between the lines; I have to sell him or I'll go nowhere. That's why honest criticism is always the best.

This I can use. This I can learn from. And next time, hopefully, I'll be able to sell the character I missed selling the first time.

Thank you, Query Test.

P.S. It's also educational reading the slush pile.


New Tool for Queriers

>> Tuesday, June 1, 2010

I saw this website in a comment on Query Shark (and Query Shark is one of those wonderful tools that keep on giving). It's called Query Test and it's an opportunity to get what a writer and/or reader's take on your query without waiting indefinitely or getting nothing but rejections. Although you may only get a thumbs up/down, there is a potential for at least a few comments on why it didn't work.

And you get to read others and learn from them - what works, what doesn't. What you like, what you don't and why. You submit a query and then read other queries, providing at least a reject/accept, to building up the points to submit new or revised queries.

It's too early in the day for me to have an opinion on it's long term viability, but I've found it an interesting exercise so far. Feel free to give it a try.

No ads. No income. Just a tool someone was kind enough to provide.



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