Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Today's Wisdom from Middle Earth

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.” 
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Monday, November 27, 2017

Auntie Deborah Holds Forth on Writing Topics

Q: Can I learn to write novels from movies? If so, which movies?

A: Rather than specific movies, watch those director’s commentaries in which the process of story construction is discussed. For example, in the extended DVD editions of The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson and the writers talk about the decisions they made in adapting the books for film; these segments are filled with insights into how stories work (on film) that also apply to prose narrative.

My second suggestion is to read some of the excellent books on screenplay writing, paying particular attention to the 3-act structure and the way tension is created, built, and resolved. With only dialog and action as tools, the script writer has to use both to excellent advantage, something we novelists could learn much from.

Q: Do you write stories longhand or on the computer, and why?

A: I do most of my drafting on computer (used to be typewriter, back in the day) because I want to write quickly. I don’t care if it’s rough, I just want to get the basic elements of the story down. To promote the free flow of ideas, I need to get my internal critic offline. Longhand comes in when I’m stuck or revising and then the slower pace helps me to focus on nuance and detail. Then I want and need all my critical faculties; I’m usually either trouble-shooting, adding layers of resonance and depth, or filling in crucial gaps.

In the past, I wrote extensively in notebooks by hand when I wasn’t at home — waiting for appointments, while my kids were in gym class, at the airport, etc.; this was in the days before laptops/netbooks/tablets. Now it’s just as easy to stick my Chromebook in a bag and go; it’s light enough to carry easily. The increased productivity from keyboard vs paper makes it worthwhile.

Very occasionally I’ll switch to dictation (Google Voice, which usually drives me a bit nuts because it doesn’t learn), especially for dialog, but I find the differences difficult. It’s an added if less desirable tool to help me through those stuck places.

Q: I'm too upset to write. Help!

A: Running away to a world inside our minds has long been a strategy for writers. In fact, daydreaming as children was how many of us got started as storytellers. So one way to look at your question is to just let yourself escape and pay attention to what gives you comfort, hope, and courage. That’s where the passion in your story will be.

Another aspect, one I have struggled with, is how to focus enough to write when in the midst of a crisis. Again, the strategy is to do what you can, even if it’s not the project at hand. Have faith that as you allow the story to lead you through survival and recovery, you will regain the ability to concentrate. You may find, however, that coping with those life problems changes what you want to write. If you have a contract or commitment to produce something that no longer speaks to you, you will have to behave like an adult professional and renegotiate. But if your book is “on spec,” it’s entirely possible that the best story for you to work on is one that emerges from your struggles, not something initially conceived before those problems descended upon you.

Q: What are the essential elements of a fantasy novel?

A: A fantasy universe requires the same essential elements in any good story: vivid world-building, characters that are complex and fascinating, a sympathetic protagonist with a worthy goal who faces both internal and external obstacles, and so forth. The difference between mainstream (or science fiction) is that fantasy as a genre allows you to bend the laws of physics as we know them. Whether that means a well-thought-out system of magic, the existence of elves or unicorns or any other mythical being, or any other element, it must be an integral part not only of the world but of the plot. It doesn’t help to have a dragon as your fantastical element if it never puts in an appearance, or a vampire that exists only in stories.

Sometimes stories get marketed as fantasy when they are in reality perfectly non-magical stories set in an alternate-medieval world. Fantasy does not necessarily mean medieval! Some of the best fantasy literature takes place in modern settings (or future, or Renaissance…). And let’s not forget the wealth of cultures that are not Western European! There’s a whole world of folklore and history, not to mention fascinating characters and traditions, out there.

(My epic fantasy trilogy, The Seven-Petaled Shield, was based on the conflict between the Romans and Scythians, with added cultures derived from the nomadic horse peoples of Central Asia, the Phoenicians, and the ancient kingdom of Judea. Each of these has its own relationship to the land/sea, and its own magic derived from that bond.)

Q: How do you know where to end a chapter?

A: My chapter divisions arise naturally from the story itself. Just as the entire novel has an inciting event rising tension, reversals, climax, etc., so does each scene, although of course the resolution of tension is partial if at all, so that it builds over the course of the entire book. A chapter may contain one or more scenes, but has the same overall “arc” of drama. Some may lend themselves naturally to a twist or cliff-hanger at the end, but this is not a good thing to do consistently (you will aggravate your reader!) The end of the chapter, like the end of the scene, can be a transition, “a lick and a promise” of more adventures to come.

When writing a rough draft, I set up one chapter per file, with a numbering system that indicates also which draft it is. I don’t combine them into one “novel-length” file until I’m ready to sent it out (either to a beta reader or my editor). (Example: 1NOVEL.03}

Occasionally, when revising I will divide chapters as I add and develop material, and even less occasionally I will combine them if I find myself ruthlessly pruning “flab.” I don’t try to make them the same length within a book or from one project to the next. They are the length they need to be.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Very Cool Astronomy and Physics Stuff for November

The Beauty of Ice

On November 14, Operation IceBridge scientist John Sonntag took this photograph of ice in the Weddell Sea, a part of the Southern Ocean off the Antarctic Peninsula. The geometric shapes are due to a phenomenon known as “finger rafting,” which occurs when two floes of thin ice collide. As a result of the collision, blocks of ice slide above and below each other in a pattern that resembles a zipper or interlocking fingers. Brine expelled from the ice forms a solution that acts as a lubricant. For finger rafting to occur, it’s critical that the ice be thin—calculations suggest no more than 8 inches, or 20 centimeters. Any thicker and the ice loses its flexibility. Without flexibility, thicker ice floes that collide can result in a big pile up known as “ridging.”

A streak of lightning in the skies over Japan has generated positrons — the antimatter equivalents of electrons — and radioactive carbon-14, confirming a theoretical prediction, according to a paper published in Nature on 22 November.

NASA — After more than 13 years at Saturn, and with its fate sealed, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft bid farewell to the Saturnian system by firing the shutters of its wide-angle camera and capturing this last, full mosaic of Saturn and its rings two days before the spacecraft’s dramatic plunge into the planet’s atmosphere.

How the Earth stops high-energy neutrinos in their tracks

For the first time, a science experiment has measured Earth's ability to absorb neutrinos -- the smaller-than-an-atom particles that zoom throughout space and through us by the trillions every second at nearly the speed of light.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Saga of the Prius

Once upon a time, O Reader, hybrid cars were new and wonderful, the best of both worlds, a stylish way to reduce our dependence on foreign petroleum and thereby prevent wars and save the planet. If there were issues with the manufacture and disposal of the hybrid batteries, or the way the extra battery weight chewed up tires and suspension systems, no one got very excited. The cars got in the range of 50 miles per gallon and had these nifty dashboard screens that allowed you to track your mileage.

The most immediate drawback was how expensive they were, even the bare-bones models. I accepted that I’d never be able to afford one. And sighed. And kept driving my battered old Mazda Protégé. But fate had other ideas. A friend and her partner needed to liquidate various assets in order to study with their guru in India for a year, so I bought her year-old red Prius, a 2004. It came loaded with all kinds of extras I never would have selected for myself, like a sound system that played both CDs and cassette tapes, a GPS, and Bluetooth. I plastered the back bumper with bumper stickers, thereby making it mine.

Thus began a long and (mostly) happy adventure. I played a lot of music in that car. The CD changer held 6 disks, which turned out to be exactly right for listening to the extended version of the music to all 3 The Hobbit movies, which contributed in a major way to my sanity during the last Presidential election and its aftermath. The GPS helped me get un-lost countless times, especially after I figured out the reason it kept taking me the looooong scenic route was that the “Allow Freeways” option was off. I never used the Bluetooth.

My relationship with the exterior of the car was less harmonious. Suffice it to say that if you so much as tapped the bumper covers, they dented. I left the dent in the hood made by a deer that jumped out in front of me but didn’t kill me, as a reminder. But the years and miles rolled by, with roads trips to college reunions, family vacations, and so forth. When my younger daughter asked to borrow it for a series of interviews for residencies in family medicine, I handed over the keys.

A few days later, I got a message from her, saying that a warning light of the terrifying variety had appeared, the car was parked in a safe place nearby, but that she couldn’t get it started. After conferring with our friendly local walking-distance mechanic, my husband and I made our way to the poor Prius, AAA card in hand. Exploiting our special relationship, I was able to start it and drive it to the nearest hybrid specialist.

The news was not good. The hybrid battery, which was now 13 years old and which we expected to fail any time, was fine. The culprit was most likely the computer, which was located behind the dashboard, which would take YikesThatManyDollars to just open up and look at, and YikesEvenMoreDollars to repair if indeed that was the problem. And then we’d still be facing the demise of the hybrid battery and the pressing need for new front tires before the winter’s storms.

We took a deep breath and called the folks who cart your car away for charity. Here I am at the garage, saying goodbye.

Now we were down to my husband’s van, a 2002 Mazda MPV that has carted dogs in their crates, loads of garden tools, plants, lumber, lots of people on its 7 seats, and such like over the years. The door locks are cranky, it does have a functioning radio and single-CD player, and it gets less than 20 mpg. Fortunately, we don’t drive it a lot, but now we would be putting more miles on it. I embarked upon a courtship phase by buying a bunch of Andrea Boccelli CDs at the local thrift store and playing them to woo the van. The van purred at me in response.

I called my daughter to let her know the outcome with the Prius. Without missing a beat, she said, “Mom, remember the car you bought for me [when I started San Jose State]? I was going to sell it in May [when I graduate from medical school in CT]. I’ll drive it home and give it to you.” She went on to say it wasn’t in perfect condition but the engine had always run well. I wasn’t listening too carefully at that point. The universe in the form of my loving, generous daughter was giving us a car.

Interestingly, it’s one thing for us to have bought the car, a Toyota Corolla (great gas mileage, yay!) for her. I expected to do stuff like that as a parent, especially when it was important to enable her to commute “over the hill” and finish her four-year degree. I feel overwhelmed with gratitude, though, when the generosity goes the other way. Guess I’d better start getting used to it.

I wonder what kind of music the Corolla likes?

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Squash Harvest. 2017

Every year we grow winter squashes of various sorts for food. I specify food rather than decoration because the output of a small plot of land in nutrients and calories from winter squashes is extremely good. They’re not only delicious (and beautiful) but are low in sodium and fat, and provide an array of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Growing them is fairly easy, although the vines have a tendency to wander and take over.
Midsummer 2017

Autumn 2017

Like summer squashes, winter squashes hybridize and so it’s best to either grow only one variety or start them from commercially obtained seed or seedlings every year. At least, that’s the theory. We often end up with “mystery squashes.” (“Wait! I don’t remember planting that – what is it?”) Our current theories are: (a) these are truly hybrids from last year’s crops; (b) they are hybrids from the seeds that entered our garden through compost scraps. The latter used to be more true when we got vegetable trimmings from the local health food store. My husband tells me we use “cold” composting (worms) rather than the “hot” method, so seeds will survive.

Boer White squash

Buttercup, one of our favorites

Mystery squash, perhaps a hybrid of delicata and acorn. We got two and have devoured one. The shell is quite hard, as it often is with hybrids, but the flesh was delicious.The seeds will go to a friend who runs a seed-saver business.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Friday, November 3, 2017

Short Book Reviews: How Many Clones in a Murder?

Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty (Orbit, 2017). A crew on a generational space ship wakes – or rather, their clones do, a standard procedure that usually involves downloading stored memories for continuity. The one remaining crew, the captain, is near-death, there is blood everywhere, and none of the clones can remember what happened. In an added twist, all of them are criminals whose paths have crossed in the past and who have reason to hate each other. 

Skillfully handled action and discovery of information lead to one plot twist after another. I especially liked how my initial assumptions about each character were turned inside out in a way that gave them depth and humanity, even the ship’s AI. 

Exceptionally well-done science fiction mystery.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Grand Age of Astronomical Discovery

This is an amazing age of astronomical discovery. Not that long ago we could only speculate on the existence of planets around other stars, not to mention exploring those in our own system. We didn't know Jupiter had auroras or any of the many, many amazing discoveries of the last decades. Once we were limited to what our eyes and cameras could detect through the thickness of our terrestrial atmosphere. The Hubble Space Telescope launched our instruments beyond that blurring layer, and other telescopes, both on Earth and in orbit, expanded our view to include other parts of the EM spectrum. We have X-ray and infrared telescopes, and color enhancement by computers. Space probes like the Pioneers, Voyager, Spirit and Opportunity, Cassini-Huygens, Juno, and New Horizons have vastly expanded our understanding of the solar system. Who knows what wonders lie yet to be explored?

Here are a few tidbits in recent news:

In the past, auroras have been spotted around Jupiter’s poles by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and by the Hubble Space Telescope. Investigating this phenomena and the mechanisms behind it has also been one of the goals of the Juno mission, which is currently in an ideal position to study Jupiter’s poles. With every orbit the probe makes, it passes from one of Jupiter’s poles to the other – a maneuver known as a perijove. Full article here.

Using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered that the brightest galaxies within galaxy clusters “wobble” relative to the cluster’s centre of mass. This unexpected result is inconsistent with predictions made by the current standard model of dark matter. With further analysis it may provide insights into the nature of dark matter, perhaps even indicating that new physics is at work. Full article here.

Using an innovative new telescope array, an international team of researchers has discovered a distant gas giant roughly the size of Jupiter around a star half the size of ours. It’s considered the largest planet in proportion to its companion star.
Bayliss and Wheatley spotted the hot Jupiter using the Next-Generation Transit Survey (NGTS) instrument, a wide-field observing facility composed of several telescopes at the European Southern Observatory’s Paranal Observatory in Northern Chile. This state-of-the-art facility is operated by the Universities of Warwick, Leicester, Cambridge, Queen’s University Belfast, Observatoire de Genève, DLR Berlin, and Universidad de Chile. Full article here: