Monthly Archives: November 2013

My Reading List for the Holidays

Between preparing my dissertation and doing NaNoWriMo, I haven’t read much lately. My eventual goal is to write excellent science fiction. I feel that reading in the field is essential to writing better in the field. So I try to make sure that I keep up on science fiction reading. Below is the reading list, in no particular order. We’ll see how I do!

Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge– Vinge is one of my favorite authors, and this book is the sequel to The Peace War, which I enjoyed.

Camouflage by Joe Haldeman– Haldeman is another favorite of mine. This novel won the nebula award.

Gateway by Frederick Pohl– I read this over a decade ago. I enjoyed it, but I remember nothing of it, so a re-read is in order. The novel often appears on “best-of” scifi lists.

Starship by Brian W. Aldiss– I enjoy Aldiss, and novelist Ed Lerner recommended it to me at a science fiction seminar. So I definitely should read it.

Cyteen by C. J. Cherryh– Set in the same universe as Downbelow Station, which I loved (see my review here). It’s the size of a bible, but I have high hopes.

The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek– A classic humorous novel of Czech literature, set during World War I. I keep hearing good things about it and it’s been on the shelf for 5 years. I’ve even been to one of the bars described in the book. Time to read it.

The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain–  Twain writing about travel. Yes.

Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler– I haven’t read anything by Butler yet. People rave about her, so I would be remiss not to try her out.


Writing prompt: the tissue printer

Time: 8 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“The printer”

I loaded the file into the printer and made sure all the print cartridges were full—nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, carbon… Carbon and hydrogen always went fast, but the cartridge was no bigger than nitrogen or oxygen. The traces array was full enough too. I didn’t want this print-out to pause mid printing, it wasn’t good for the creatures. I made sure the enzyme and synthesis units were at operating temperature and weren’t gumming up. Once I had printed an entire miniature penguin only to find it dead, with damage to the proteins. That’s an expensive mistake.

This time I was printing a fairy. I had slaved for hours on the design, making sure that the wings were sufficiently large to support a creature of the size while still looking appropriate. I borrowed the digestion from a hummingbird, and the wings from extinct, enormous species of dragonflies. She would be six inches tall, beautiful and the color of caramel. I had hoped to start with the colors of the rainbow, but I was worried that yellow might end up looking jaundiced, and I wanted this first one to work. I could sell her to a fantasy novelist for a pretty penny, but it would go better if she was alive and beautiful.

I did a last check on the equipment and hit the go switch. The enzyme cartridge came to life, and soon the print head started on the internal organs, the template spinning around, allowing different angles. With these things, the sequence was also important.

I sat nervously on my stool, while the print head flew around, filling in muscle here and connective fiber there. Several hours passed, and I could see a tiny heart. I couldn’t be more nervous if my (hypothetical) wife were giving birth.

Fun Science: Vacuum and Pressure

Pressure is caused by collisions between particles. Scientists use the term “vacuum” when there are few particles, and thus few collisions. Air in our atmosphere is dense with particles; atmospheric pressure is very high compared to lab vacuum or the vacuum of space. Scientists use vacuum in many ways. Vacuums were used in lightbulbs and vacuum tubes (such as the old CRT or cathode ray tubes of old TVs and computers). Vacuums are used for depositing materials in clean environments, such as on silicon wafers for microcircuitry. Vacuums are used for separating liquids that have different evaporation points. In scientific labs, we can produce pressures billions of times lower than atmospheric pressure, but the pressure in space is still lower.

Atmospheric pressure: Every cubic centimeter (also called a milliliter) of air contains 2.5 x 1019  air molecules. That’s 25,000,000 trillion molecules, where the US debt is roughly $12 trillion, and a terabyte (TB) hard-drive holds a trillion bytes of information. That is a lot of particles causing a lot of collisions. The average particle travels only 66 nanometers before colliding with another particle. That’s only about 200 times the size of a nitrogen molecule.

On top of Mount Everest: Pressure is roughly 1/3 of the pressure at sea level, and there are 8 x 1018 molecules of air per cubic centimeter. The average particle travels 280 nm before colliding with another particle.

Incandescent light bulb: The pressure inside a lightbulb is 1 to 10 Pascals (pressure at sea level is 100,000 Pascals). There are still about 1014 molecules/cm3, or 100 trillion molecules. The average particle travels a mm to a cm before a collision. This pressure is too low for plants or animals to survive.

Ultra high lab vacuum: The most sophisticated lab vacuum equipment can produce pressures of 10-7 to 10-9 Pascals, yielding about 10,000,000 to 100,000 molecules/cm3, respectively. Particles travel an average distance of 100 to 10,000 km before colliding with another particle. Such extreme vacuums require highly specialized equipment, including specialized pumps and chambers. Only certain materials can be used; paint, many plastics and certain metals can release gases at very low pressures, making them unsuitable.

Space vacuum: The vacuum of space depends on what part of space you mean. The pressure on the moon is 10-9 Pa, or roughly our highest lab vacuum, with 400,000 particles/cm3. The pressure in interplanetary space (within the solar system) is lower yet, with only about 11 particles/cm3. It is estimated that there is only about 1 particle per meter cubed in the space between galaxies. Still, some microorganisms have survived exposures of days to space vacuum by forming a protective glass around themselves.

Going the other way, there are pressures much higher than the pressure of our atmosphere.

At the bottom of the Mariana trench: Pressure is about 1.1 x 108 Pa, or about 1100 atmospheres. A variety of life has been observed in the Mariana trench.

At the center of the sun: Pressure is about 2.5 x 1016 Pa, or 2.5 x 1011 atmospheres, or about 100,000 times the pressure at the core of the earth. This pressure is sufficient to fuel the fusion process of the sun, where hydrogen is combined to form helium.

At the center of a neutron star: Pressure is about 1034 Pa, or 1018 times the pressure at the center of the sun. Here, pressure is so high that normal atoms with electrons around a core of protons and neutrons cannot exists. Nuclei cannot exist in the core of a neutron star.

Read about other science topics on my fun science page.

Writing prompt: “Magic Tea”

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Magic Tea”

“Here, drink this, dear,” the old hag said. The darkened growth on her nose shook. “You don’t want to come down with anything.” Leo thought it sounded a little like a threat, but he was cold to the bone after getting lost in the woods. It had been so lucky to find her home, so tucked away from it all.

“Thank you, ma’am. I’m not sure what would have become of me if not for you.” The beverage steamed enticingly. His put his face close to the cup and felt the radiating warmth.

She just smiled, revealing a row of gray and uneven teeth. The ones that she had, that was.

“It smells delicious, what’s in it?”

“Just some tea and some spices. It’s an old family recipe. It’ll heat you right up.”

He blew on it to cool it off. She leaned in, strangely interested. He tilted the cup back and took a deep drink. It felt wonderful, the heat spreading down his body. “This is delicious,” he said.

“Yes,” she said.

He continued drinking the tea. In no time, he didn’t feel any chill anymore. He felt wonderful, and tingly all over. Then black hairs sprung from his arms. “What—what’s happening?”

“Don’t fight it,” she said with a kind but uncomforting smile. He was growing fur!

Today I sold my first story

Today I sold my first fiction story. It’s hard to express my thoughts and feelings. I will keep working hard, and I will eventually sell more, but today I am elated.

Below are some musings and reflections on what led me to today’s achievement. This is hardly to say that I am an expert after a single publication; it’s a list of things I think I did right that might be useful ideas for others. I have read many tips on getting published from experts. They doubtless have more experience than me, but they got published when the industry was really different. They have had years to gain some distance from the hard emotions associated with the process.

  • I learned to finish projects. I used to be good at big ideas and poor at execution. I made grand plans and I never finished anything. I dreamed but I didn’t labor. I credit grad school and aging for teaching me to finish and work on the long scale. The Fairy Tales collection featured on the side of this page was the first big project I finished; it took about a year.
  • I exposed my work. For some people, this is easy. It was very hard for me. To me, exposing my work involves more than having others read my work–it’s about hearing what they say about it. Unlike engineering, writing is subjective (which is terrifying!). If enough people say it’s bad, they’re likely right. As a first step, I started this blog, slightly over a year ago. Then I joined a local writing group.
  • I accepted critique. This is related to the point above. Of course I think my work is good, but sometimes it just isn’t. If one reader didn’t get the joke, maybe they’re a little dense. If several didn’t, the joke wasn’t properly conveyed. I’ve met a lot of other aspiring writers who are uncomfortable with this fact. It’s very hard. I wrote in a vacuum for years; sometimes I got it wrong. I got great critique at
  • I wrote regularly. For the first several months of this blog, I posted three times a week. Three times a week I had to say something (semi) coherent. My writing group has a monthly theme, and I made myself write something every month. It wasn’t always good, but that was good motivation. Recently I’ve been writing at least one writing prompt a week and posting it here. This month I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo.
  • I submitted. And I submitted and I submitted. Stories are rejected for tons of reasons; inadequacy is just the tip. Many places accept only 1% of what they get. Some places only publish half a dozen stories a year. Some places are vague about what they are looking for (in my experience, beware the “we never get enough of x” statement). Sometimes they already have a story about a cat, or a story where the protagonist is disappointed, or a horror story, or an intimate first person story. Any of the above are reasons to get rejected. My story got rejected three times before it got accepted; it was the 32nd thing I submitted since the end of June. My favorite story has been rejected 8 times so far. Others in my writing group have excellent work that they have submitted and have had rejected. And then they stopped.
  • I researched those markets. I read what they said about themselves. I used places like The Submission Grinder and Duotrope to find out their response times. A lot of my rejections have come from sending pieces to unsuitable markets–it’s hard, but I got better at it.

But mostly, I am so happy. I worked hard and got very frustrated sometimes. This post is as much to motivate myself as anything, since the journey is hardly begun. I hope it will be useful to others as well.

Writing prompt: “He tore off another sheet of paper and threw it in the bin”

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“He tore off another sheet of paper and threw it in the bin”

He tore off another sheet of paper and threw it in the bin.

“This just isn’t working, I don’t know why I even bother! I’ll never reach 50,000 words!” He buried his head in his arms.

A clattering caused him to raise his head. The bin was tipped over. James looked at it with curiosity; he hadn’t heard the cat come in. The crumpled pieces of paper rolled out of the bin, one after another, with a strange sense of direction. That was odd.

The pieces uncrumpled themselves, and then crumpled together, forming some kind of an animal in amalgamation. An ostrich, he decided.

“You just need to have imagination!” He blinked. It was the paper ostrich that spoke. It had a buzzing voice, like air blown quickly over the edge of paper.

He looked into his coffee mug. What type was this?

“Put the mug away and get to work. We’re full of good ideas, and we’re here to put you to work. First, you will write about a radioactive raccoon that has been breaking into people’s trash. Then you will write about a woman’s struggle against the tyranny of cowboy aliens in the early American frontier. Then you will write about a colony of people who live inside the sun. Then they will all meet!”

“That’s insane,” James said.

“They are words, and you will write them! You weren’t doing any better before!”

“That’s true. That one about the sun sounds kind of cool.”

“Write, and the inspiration will come. How many words have you written in the month before this one?”

James didn’t reply. He always meant to get around to writing… there were just cool new bars opening, and concerts… Hmm… what would he write about a colony of people living inside the sun?

Why I’m doing National Novel Writing Month

This year I am doing National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for the first time, in which you write 50,000 words in a month. I am also writing my PhD thesis (137 pages so far!), which must be done before the end of the month. I wake up in the middle of the night worrying about figures and citations. On top of that, I am TA-ing for 20 hours a week. So that sounds like I have enough to do–why I am I doing NaNoWriMo?

I was reluctant about scheduling away so much time at first. I really hate being busy. If I’m busy with work, I tend to see people less, just so I can maintain a little autonomy in my schedule. However, lately I’ve worked so hard on technical writing that I feel guilty doing fun stuff. In the last month, I’ve barely written fiction, I’ve barely been outside, I’ve barely seen friends, and I’ve barely worked on other hobbies. Whenever I picked up a book to read or a pen to draw, a little voice said “shouldn’t you be working on your dissertation?” I don’t work on my dissertation all the time, but it always weighs on me.

I still waste time. Everyone does. I still watch TV, I still read pointless websites. I decided that fun has to happen too. If fun won’t happen spontaneously, then scheduling something makes sense.

So– NaNoWriMo. I went to the kickoff event here Friday. Everybody was really friendly and energized. Several of my friends from my science fiction writing group do it. It’s fun to talk about writing when most of the time you sit and stare at it. It’s fun to feel an external incentive to write, when professional obligations push the other way. I’m not writing a novel, because I still have an unedited novel draft waiting for my attentions. I decided to write a few novellas, which are longer than short stories and shorter than novels. I look forward to what the rest of the month holds. Three days in, and I’m having fun writing. I might fail to reach 50,000, but I’ve already written 7200 words that I probably wouldn’t have without this challenge.