Category Archives: Commentary

Generating Science Fiction Stories

Filofax and Notebooks

The act of creativity has been a subject that fascinates me. I have always been a creative woman, I can not stop creating things any more than I can stop breathing. It is a major part of my life and shapes who I am. When the desire to write burst within me in 2010, a single character demanded that I start to write his story. More characters in the story followed and together all these people have become a steampunk science fiction series that I will one day publish. Yet, a single series does not an author make. From time to time, I have been asked to contribute a story to an anthology or a magazine and I found myself frozen, unable to write a word or meet a deadline. I was forced to let these opportunities go without submitting a single word.

Outline The Problem

I became determined to overcome my science fiction writer’s block. While I have published memoir shorts and a regency romance, I consider myself to be a science fiction and fantasy author. I am well versed in the genre having read most of the classics from Robert A. Heinlein, Issac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke, to a range of women science fiction authors such as Vonda McIntyre, Andre Norton, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. This has allowed me to become familiar with the genre tropes and style of the “golden age” of the 1950s and 1960s when science fiction gained its footing in popular culture. Yet, how to generate science fiction ideas for myself eluded me.

My first thought to solve the problem was to listen to other authors in the genre and get an idea of how they developed their ideas. I attended convention panels with Vernon Vinge, Todd McCaffery, Greg Benford, David Brin and other famous authors to glean how they came up with material that gained them Hugo and Nebula awards. Over time, I realized that each of these authors had a system to store ideas for themselves related to science fiction. Every author had a different way of obtaining these core ideas. Some had buddies who worked at JPL or NASA, others were scientists themselves with years of training in their chosen field. They attended science conferences or read journals about the world of technology today, took these raw facts and concepts, pushing the ideas into the future and giving it a literary twist.

The Past Through Tomorrow

Being a collector of fountain pens and notebooks, I had read how people in the past had kept journals known as “commonplace books”. This was a compilation of ideas and information that the author thought relevant. It was popular with the thinkers of 15th century England and eventually became a scholarly tool adopted by major universities. I liked the concept of the commonplace book and wondered if I could apply it to my science fiction idea generating problem.

To find the basic facts to form ideas from, I signed up for free science journals on a variety of subjects. I joined science fiction clubs and listened to what concepts intrigued the readers.

My paper notebook failed.

There is such a barrage of information in the journals, many fields are expanding their knowledge at speeds that make it difficult to keep up with, that copying the information by hand became overwhelming. I switched to using Evernote and set up folders where I could cut and paste various science-based articles that I thought might have a possible idea to base a story on. Using this collation method proved to be easier to maintain and slowly, I began to have folders of possible science-based​ concepts to write about.

Sharpening The Tools

Although I was generating facts to draw on, I was still having trouble generating science fiction stories except for my Opus Magnus. An author friend of mine suggested that instead of writing short stories, I should try poetry. The form was short and wouldn’t take up as much time to write. I had also taken an online writing course put out by the University of Iowa where one of the lessons said that to practice scene building, try writing haiku first. Haiku was about describing a single moment in time, which are the building blocks of stories.

This is where my love of Scifaiku was born. The poems are only three lines long and I can do them in batches. I would start with facts from my commonplace folders in Evernote and then apply an emotion, setting and time to them. It worked. I began to assemble science fiction poems and much to my surprise, people seemed to like them.

In September of 2015, one of my online writing communities held a writing challenge. Write one flash fiction story a day for the entire month. If I did the challenge to the end, I would have thirty flash fictions to show for it. I decided to try. I would focus all my creative energy on writing science fiction or fantasy and see where it led me. As it turned out, writing with a group of authors gave me the support I needed to complete the challenge. Not all the stories I wrote are good enough to submit, but a number of them were good enough to either send out as a flash fiction or to expand into a longer and better story in the future.

I have followed up with doing two more challenges in 2016. For the first time, I have a backlog of science fiction and fantasy stories to draw on. What is more, I seem to be able to create new characters and plots without the strain that I used to feel. This practice has sharpened my skillset.

Last Word

Today, short stories and poetry come to me more easily. I have established a method of generating science fiction stories that works for me. As time passes, my files grow richer with more science-based concepts to draw from. I hope that by outlining my creative process this gives you ideas on how to be more creative in your own writing.

Mars Inspires Writers

As a science fiction writer, the planet Mars has always intrigued me. It is a new world full of vast plains, mineral wealth, and the possibility of humanity having a second planet to call home. The technology to go there is already here, it simply will take the inspiration and guts for us to get there, along with the courage to develop the red planet into a proper home.

I’ve written several short stories that take place on Mars and often times I use photos or stories from scientific journals as inspiration for my tales. I stumbled upon a series of full sized posters were developed to inspire new settlers to go to the red planet. The posters are available for free at NASA. They were originally commissioned for an exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex in 2009.  Below are smaller versions of my favorites. If you like the images, be sure to go to NASA and see them all. Download one or two for your walls. Maybe they will inspire you to write about Mars as I do, or even to go there one day yourself.

P01-Explorers-Wanted-NASA-Recruitment-Poster-600xEXPLORERS WANTED ON THE JOURNEY TO MARS

Boasting the solar system’s biggest canyon, putting Earth’s Grand Canyon to shame, is Valles Marineris. There you can experience the blue sunsets while the twin moons, Phobos and Deimos, sail overhead. Can you imagine being one of the first people to explore such a glorious place? It would be breathtaking.

P04-Surveyors-Wanted-NASA-Recruitment-Poster-600xSURVEYORS WANTED TO EXPLORE MARS

Mars is covered by many robots that are measuring the planet and taking samples. Yet, once people arrive the land will need to be partitioned and sold to settlers much as it is here on Earth. Land will be designated as cities and townships. Acres set up for farms and mines. For this, surveyors will be needed. Much as George Washington, the first President of the United States, was a surveyor for the American colonies in his youth, people with these skills will also be needed on Mars. Could this be you?

P06-Technicians-Wanted-NASA-Recruitment-Poster-600xTECHNICIANS WANTED TO ENGINEER OUR FUTURE ON MARS

One of the skill sets that will be needed on Mars at once are technicians. They will be needed to repair the machines that keep people alive in the hostile environment. They will be the ones working in the supply ships that will run between Mars, Earth, and the Moon. Such jobs should be in high demand. Will you be one of those people who go there to work your trade?

P07-Some-User-Assembly-Required-NASA-Recruitment-Poster-600xASSEMBLY REQUIRED TO BUILD OUR FUTURE ON MARS

Machinists and mechanics will also be professions in high demand on Mars. Builders of homes, of factories, mines and more will pave the way for future immigrants to the red planet. Already, people in these fields are applying to go one way to Mars even today. They bank on their ability to build what they will need to survive on the red planet without having to return to Earth. It takes courage to face a life on a new world, much as settlers a few centuries ago faced one-way trips to the Americas from Europe.

P08-We-Need-You-NASA-Recruitment-Poster-600xNASA NEEDS YOU

Reminding us of the famous Uncle Sam poster of another era, this final image looks you right in the eye and asks if you have the courage and desire to reach for Mars. Could being a technician, teacher, builder or even a parent raising a child there be in your future?

I hope that you have found inspiration for your own stories with these fun images from NASA. That they inspire you to dream about a new world and what life there might be like. If these images help ferment a few new science fiction stories for you, as they have for me, all the better.

Self-Editing Techniques to Polish Your Novel

self-editing writing

I’m a firm believer in independently publishing my novels. I enjoy the marketing process since it involves getting out and meeting people. Being a working artist for the past twenty years or more, I find working a table at a convention or being in a booth at a fair to be a normal state of existence. I would miss the experience if I allowed others to do this for me. There is nothing like the personal touch when it comes to learning what your readers like (or not) about your work. Other pluses include retaining complete control over my writing and gaining the maximum profits on my sales.

Part of being an Indie Author is making sure your manuscript is the best that it can be before you release it into the world. Instead of accepting the cover art the publishing house insists upon and using their editor, I take the responsibility to hire people to do the work myself. It can be costly, a good editor doesn’t come cheap (nor should they), but in the end, I feel that keeping control of my work is the better end of the equation. Self-editing can help to reduce the cost of an editor and proof-reader since they will not have to do as much work.

During my self-edit process, I use beta-readers to provide insight into the content. I follow with editing software to catch general grammar, punctuation, passive voice, and adverbs. I spend far more time rewriting and editing a work than I spend in the rough draft. However, there is more I do during self-editing than rely on machines.

Below is a checklist I use to polish a novel, novella or short story before I send a longer manuscript to an editor and proofreader or submit a short story to a magazine.

1. Do not express emotion via mannerisms of punctuation, typestyles, and sizes. “The horse…is…DEAD!” doesn’t make an equine any more expired than “The horse is dead.”

2. Remove mannerisms of attribution. People speak. They do not wheeze, sigh, laugh, grunt, gasp, snort, reply, retort, or exclaim, ect.

3. Do not use similar names for your characters, it causes confusion with the reader. You should also avoid using the same first initial in names of your main characters.

4. Show, don’t tell. If Alex pounds on the door and demands entrance. You do not need to tell the reader he is angry.

5. Along with showing instead of telling, you do not need to explain the emotions of the characters. Let their actions do it for them.

Alex pounded on the door. “Let me in!”

instead of

Alex was angry at Mary. Furiously, he pounded on the door and shouted at her, “Let me in!”

6. Avoid cliches. This means not only common words and phrases, but also cliched situations.

Examples: Starting with your character waking up. Having a character look in a mirror so you can describe them via their POV. Having future romance partners bump into each other on their first meeting. It has all been done before. Don’t repeat history.

7. Remove stage directions. You don’t need to describe every single action of all the characters in every scene. Leave some of it to the reader’s imagination. We live in an age of television and movies. The reader’s mind has been trained to use similar images when they read about a place or situation. There is no need to describe it as much as authors did 100 years ago.

8. Use adjectives sparingly. Instead, find a strong noun and verb to convey the same information. Keep it simple.

9. Remove the word “that”. It adds extra weight to your sentences without giving any substance.

10. Avoid the words “up” and “down”. Only use them when needed. He started [up] the car. She walked [down] the street.

11. Do not be redundant. Do this in content with your ideas, but also in your sentence structure.

12. Choose regular words over the more unusual. Don’t show off your vocabulary. Make your content and ideas shine instead. Don’t get in the way of what you are trying to say.

13. Start the action right at the beginning. Don’t start it after a couple of pages of descriptive scene setting. Just get to it!

There is much more to self-editing, but this checklist is a place to start. Don’t let revision and editing daunt you. While it is a huge task, in the end it is rewarding to know you have polished your manuscript and made it the best you can.

Novel Writing: Organizing the Rough Draft

Header For Oganizing Your Novel

Writing a novel is a many step process. Your first action is to sit down and write the rough draft. For me, this means sitting in the various coffeehouses in my local area with my trusty AlphaSmart typewriter, a notebook with a brief story outline, and plenty of ice coffee.

When I write, the characters become friends to me, real people that I care about and want to spend time with. During the drafting process, this is a positive since it keeps your butt in the chair and working. However, after drafting, this love of story becomes a liability. Distance in the relationship is needed in order for you to take the next step in the process. Once that messy manuscript is completed, I stick it in a drawer or a computer file and take a long break from the work in order to allow my minds to reset on the story.

Once a sufficient amount of time has passed, it is time to open up that file and take a long look at what I have written. This is the point where I cringe and wonder what the heck I could have been thinking during those long sessions at the coffeehouse. I think that most authors feel this way at this stage in the game. What comes next is a read through of the book where you note places where you have repeated concepts, where plot holes have developed and other problems that need to be fixed. In many cases it is necessary to reorganize the book so that it has the plot twists and other major actions happen at the proper places in the book. The theme of your book needs to be discovered so that you incorporate it into the book and micro-scenes should be clipped to make the action more streamlined.

My process uses some of the techniques that I learned in the four books I am reviewing below. My favorite is Blue Print Your Bestseller. I use Horwitz’s method to break down my story into scenes, color code them in order to find plot holes, take out tiny transition scenes that slow down the pacing of the book and, most importantly, find the theme of my story if I have not done so during the drafting process. Then I reassemble the story into chapters and go forward in a more traditional manner toward the editing process. His method is a beautiful match to Scrivener and works wonders in that writing environment, although he personally uses paper in his descriptions.  However, there is much value to be found in all four of these books.  If you find that you have trouble with plot and structure as I do, these books will be of good service to you.

Blueprint Your BestsellerBlueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method
By Stuart Horwitz

I found this book to be an excellent primer on how to organize the first revision of your novel. The method starts with taking an unfinished manuscript, such as a Nanowrimo effort, and walks you through a process to break apart the work into its component scenes, identify the various threads that weave through the work, discover the book’s theme, and then finally put the book back together into a better more cohesive whole. The examples were clear, the language friendly and knowledgeable, and the content very useful to any writer. I feel that this book should be in every author’s library and recommend it to all my author friends.

Story EngineeringStory Engineering
By Larry Brooks

I have found this book to be instrumental in explaining the components of what makes a good story and how those elements can be combined. Brooks takes you from story concept through character development, scene construction and the basic structure of your tale. I found the book to be easy to understand and to have a fresh viewpoint on the subject. Once you have finished that rough draft, this is a great primer on where to move the various elements of your story or how to strengthen scenes and characters to make them more memorable.

90 Day RewriteThe 90 Day Rewrite
By Alan Watt

I have to include Alan Watt’s sequel to the 90-Day Novel in my list. The first book helped me overcome a major blockage in a series that I was writing and allowed me to complete a Nanowrimo project on schedule. I recommend the former book for anyone prepping for the 30 writing experience of Nanowrimo, it will get you to the finish line.

It was with great expectations that I picked up this book once my first draft was done. Once again, Watt designed a workbook that guides you through the process, in this case, of the first rewrite. Your work is broken down into thirteen weeks of tasks to accomplish that lead you on to clean up your book’s structure, strengthen characters, and do all the necessary things in your rewrite. If you feel as if you are wandering lost in the woods when doing your first rewrite, this book will leave you a trail of breadcrumbs to follow.

The Plot WhispererThe Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Author Can Master
By Martha Alderson

As you may have guessed by now, plot and structure are my two problem children as a writer. I come up with real characters and interesting locations, but what they do in those places sometimes is a struggle for me. The Plot Whisperer helps to address these issues. She shows you have to create plot lines and subplot that work together, a method of scene tracking, how to show character transformation during the climax of your story and much more. This is a well-written book with many good ideas to help you become a better author.

Managing Time as a Writer

Clock fleur de lis

I have a confession to make. I have no sense when it comes to time. As an artist, I fall into that right brain zen mode all too often and time seems to disappear. I’ll be writing a scene or sketching one of my scifaiku poems, blink, and the next thing I know several hours have gone by and my tea is cold. I am left wondering how the day got away from me.

As much as we all love our creative outlets, when you are a working artist or author, time is money. Keeping track of how much time you are spending on what you are doing helps you price your products and understand if you are losing too many hours gazing at your friends on Facebook or playing solitaire on your tablet.

While I prefer to use my paper-bound bullet journal to track my tasks and keep my activities focused during the day, I have been picking up the habit of also noting my time.

The apps below are ones that I checked out for my own use in an effort to corral my time usage. I like ones that have a desktop component along with the phone since I spend a fair amount of time at my desk as a writer. I was not approached by any of these companies to review their products. What I have to say about them is my own viewpoint and opinion.

Toggl
Free and Pro Versions

What I like best about this app is that there is a desktop version that coordinates with apple or android. You download the app and it rests in your desktop tray where you can toggle it quickly. Toggl keeps your time information in sync with all your devices. Since I work on a desktop in my home office, having the computer version is a real plus for me. The interface is simple to use, you open it up, label what you want to track and hit start. When you are done, hit the stop button. If you forget to start a timer, you can go back and guess your start time and back track. Your time information can be downloaded into a CSV file for storage. Toggl is designed to be used by teams of people, but I find it is great for a single author to use. You can even use it for Pomodoro writing purposes!

RescueTime
14 day free trial then $9 per month

Sometimes, having to manually start a timer or remember where you were on the internet can be daunting. RescueTime is designed to run in the background of your desktop and mobile phone and it tracks the time you spend at websites and applications. If you think you spend too much time on Facebook or Twitter, this program will show you the proof. It even has a way to block off certain sites if you have been there too long. It is compatible with Apple, Android, and Windows on your desktop.

Personally, I did not like that a third-party was tracking everything I did on the internet. As a writer, I do plenty of research for my science fiction or historical novels and sometimes that does mean wandering around the net in peculiar places. I never know when a fact is needed for a story and I need time to dig online and make a determination about a fact tidbit. Still, the interface seems easy to use and if the ability to shut down social media is important to you, RescueTime might be a good option for you.

Focus Booster
Free 30 day trial, $2.99 basic monthly plan

I’ve been a huge fan of the Pomodoro method of focusing your productive work into small timed sessions with small breaks between them. I use this technique to up my word count while drafting or to keep me going when editing a story. Focus Booster is Pomodoro on steroids for your computer or by using it online. It has a clean interface that starts your timer and allows you to create labels for what you are working on. In the paid version, you can download your files as a CSV file, create invoices from your timesheets, or create productivity charts with the program. I personally have not purchased a plan, but I do find it tempting since this would interface with my current work habits. If you like to use the Pomodoro Technique in your work flow, this service is worth looking into.

Timely
Free to 5 active projects. $14/mo for single user with more projects

Timely is a tracker with a different concept. It merges with your online calendar in order to combine scheduling of tasks and time tracking together. You schedule your work life and then log what you do. As an author, you might set up your daily calendar to block out times for writing, others for research, ect. Then you go to your chosen time tracker, pick the project you are working on and start the timer before you begin work. When you use Timely, your schedule is your actual timer, not a third party. As your timer runs for each task, you can see on your calendar how much time you’ve spent on each project vs how much time you had planned for it.

The app runs with most major calendars such as google and apple. There are apps for iOS and the apple watch to help you track time on the go. Timely will create reports of your time, do billing and invoicing, and allow you to export your data to Excel or PDF.

I’m still on the fence with this one. If I were a freelance writer, it would be very useful for billing and tracking time per client. The concept of using your online calendar as the actual timer is very elegant and intuitive once you understand the idea. I am an author and my “client” is myself. For me, this would be more tracking of work than I need and it would not interface with my work flow as other services that are more based on the Pomodoro technique. Still, I feel comfortable listing it as an option to writers since we all have different ways of getting our work done.

ATimeLogger
Free or $2.99 for upgraded App

This time management program does not have a desktop version, but it is available on both iOS and Android. It is very basic. Pick an activity from the app and then start the timer. It can be used for personal tracking or for work. The app will create either bar or pie charts for your time usage, allow you to create and set goals, and allow you to download your data via CSV or HTML. It is a basic time management system, but for a writer who simply wishes to know how much time they are using per task, it should be enough. The price is right too. For me, it would not be my first choice because I spend much of my writing time at my desktop, but for those of you who are tied more to your phones and are on the go, ATimeLogger might be the answer to your timing needs.