Archive for November, 2011

It’s On Its Way…

Well, the Curiosity Mars rover has been launched and is on its way.

That’s quite a feat.  The rover is as big as a car (though NASA didn’t say what kind of car and that includes some variation, from a Mini Cooper to a Ford Excursion), and it’s expected to roam around Mars for about two years after it arrives in August of next year.  It might be expected to do more, though, because the two smaller rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, launched in 2004, were given life spans of only a year, yet they lasted well beyond that.  Spirit got stuck in a pile of loose Martian soil over a year ago and is now pretty much dead, but Opportunity is still going strong, still exploring way beyond its expected lifetime.

Curiosity is supposed to determine whether Mars once supported life.  That’s a big order, and not a simple feat to perform.  Actually, it will be looking for organic compounds, not life itself.  Biologically, Mars may be dead now.  Life may have existed in its rusty soil in the past, millions if not billions of years ago.  Mars almost certainly was wet in the past–there are indications of flowing water which may even continue today–and the presence of water and organic compounds back then could have led to the formation of living, although microbial, life.  I’m waiting for the results.  This could change the concept of life on earth from a unique situation to that of…well, use your imagination.

But Mars isn’t the only planet or moon that is so fascinating.  I’ve watched the images and data coming in from probes that have been sent to the outer planets and their moons over the past 40 years or so.  Ever since the Voyager probes that exited our solar system and the Viking landers that plopped down on Mars in the ’70s.  Now we’ve found out a lot about those bodies, and the fascination level just increases.  To travel out there and see them first hand would be, to me at least, a compelling and enchanting trip.  Anybody else want to go?  Look at these:

The atmosphere of Titan (a moon of Saturn), totally unbreathable since it’s made of mostly methane, and the methane lakes that dot its surface.
The geysers of Enceladus, a moon of Jupiter, that spurt miles into the sky of the moon.  Way unlike any thing we have at Yellowstone.
The huge oceans of Europa, pure water, locked beneath a thick crust of ice, and perhaps hundreds of miles deep.  A perfect breeding ground for life, though it is awfully cold down there.
The volcanoes of Io, another moon of Jupiter, that shoot sulfur miles into the sky.
The deserts of Mars (virtually the entire planet is one big desert), so tremendously different from anything we have on Earth, and so completely lacking in obvious vegetation.  I have trouble visualizing that sometimes.

And there’s undoubtedly more out there that we haven’t seen yet.  I’m sure it will be hundreds of years before we can get a man to the outer planets to see them–it may even be fifty years or more before we get a man on Mars–but the first explorers will have a tremendous vista to stare at when they get there.  I’d love to be there.  How about you?

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The Changing Face of Querying

Well, I’ve started querying literary agents in a substantial way over the past couple of weeks.  My first novel, The Anthanian Imperative–Blue, is ready for someone to take a hard, serious look at, and I’ve started trying to get an agent interested.  But querying nowadays is a little different–at least for me–than it used to be.  Now, almost all of my queries have been by e-mail.  I’m used to printing out a copy of the query letter, several pages or a chapter or two of the novel, perhaps a short bio or resume, and a stamped, self-addressed envelope (I never did understand how an envelope could address itself) and stuffing it into a 9 X 12 manila envelope and trudging down to the Post Office to mail.

Times have changed.  Now I have to prepare the same documents, including the letter, but now I type or copy them onto the New Message page of my e-mail provider.  I like that.  It doesn’t cost me any more than the regular monthly charge for internet service, and anyway, since I have internet service I might as well use it.  There’s no more postage to mail the envelope, no more gas that takes me to the Post Office.  It’s quite simplifying.  (Now I know why the Post Office is in financial trouble.)

There has been a short learning curve, though.  I always worry about the quality of the e-mal message when it gets to the recipient.  I tried several test e-mails, sending them to myself, and scanned the results.  In some cases, the email came through with margins changed, line spacing altered, or font shifted.  When I’m sending an e-mail to someone looking for any reason whatsoever to reject my request, I want it to be as close to perfect as possible.  So I fiddled around until I got it just the way I wanted it.  I wanted it too look as good as a regular mail query where I’m used to being able to control exactly what the letter looked like down to the most insignificant detail.  It’s important to make sure everything looks perfect.  But heaven only knows where it will go from here.

I did submit a query to one agent who requested regular mail, and I dutifully sent off a neat letter and a few pages from the manuscript.  I thought it went out looking really good until I realized, several days later, that I hadn’t put in the SSAE.  Since you don’t have to have an SSAE with e-mail and I’d become so accustomed to not having to put it in, I’d forgotten all about it.  Live and learn.  I do have another query I’m working up right now which will be regular mail, and you can bet I’ll have an SSAE in that one.  On the other hand, I expect most of my queries from now on will be e-mail and I’m looking forward to sending them out.  Wish me luck.  How are yours going?

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A Short Review of “A Stolen LIfe,” by Jaycee Dugard

I picked up a copy of the memoir of Jaycee Dugard last week at the local bookstore (oddly, it was in the “True Crime” section), because it was a book I had been wanting to read ever since it came out.  Kidnapped from her house in Tahoe, California, at the age of eleven in June, 1991, and forced to live hidden and totally out of the world’s view in the backyard of her captor’s house, she survived for eighteen years until 2009, when she was finally released.  Survived is the important word.  She survived not only the kidnapping, but repeated rape that resulted in two pregnancies (both resulting in girls), the first when she was only fourteen years old, and the second at seventeen.  She lived alternately between two shacks, neither with running water, and used a bucket as a toilet.  Her captor, Phillip Garrido, had been diagnosed with ADD and bipolar disorder, but apparently got very little help for his disease, and even his psychiatrist seems to have failed to realize the depth of his disorder.  The case has drawn attention to the California parole system because Garrido, a convicted felon, was on parole at the time.  His parole officers failed time after time to recognize that he held Dugard in a hidden part of his backyard.  Only when two UC Berkeley campus officers got suspicious about Garrido’s presence on campus–where he went to videotape young girls and promote his “discovery” that other people could hear him speaking through the power of his mind–was anything done to release Dugard from her captivity.  Oddly, she doesn’t describe the actions of the Berkeley cops in much detail.  Neither has anyone else in the media; I’ve never been totally sure exactly what it was they did that resulted in Dugard’s release.  But anyway…

In any event, I found the book fascinating reading.  Granted, the writing suffers from the fact that Dugard never finished the sixth grade, though in that light it is reasonably well done.  She writes largely in the present tense, an odd choice.  I would have expected the past tense.  Every now and then a sentence will drift from present into past tense, mangling the context a bit.  Her prose is straight forward, though, and many sentences are just a few words.  She tends to not use contractions much, and the reading sounds stilted.  The book could have been improved by better copy editing.  I’m surprised Simon and Schuster, the publisher, didn’t polish it more.  I even found one small mathematical error.

Dugard does a good job of detailing the facts of her capture and imprisonment, but the one thing I found somewhat lacking was any sense of the boredom, the tedium of her confinement.  Obviously, she couldn’t detail every day of the time spent there;  after all, eighteen years is well over 6000 days.  She focuses the book on the important events of her captivity, the times that make a benchmark, and from this there is a sense of the dreariness of her existence, though it doesn’t come through as intensely as I had expected.

What she does do well is write about the disturbed nature of Garrido’s personality.  His control over her is absolute.  Several times she notes that if she does something wrong, or says the wrong thing, he’s all over her, telling her how she’s wrong and “correcting” her.  This happens so frequently, it’s no wonder she remains hidden for so long without attempting escape.  Interestingly, the pregnancies and motherhood, though apparently unplanned, make it even more difficult for Dugard to escape.  She doesn’t know where she is, so how could she escape with two small children?  Where would she go?  She’s trapped.

Overall, I was impressed with the book and I recommend it highly.  It’s not a heavy psychological thriller and it won’t win any awards, but Dugard may have a career in writing ahead of her.

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So You Want To Be An Author

To my mind, there’s a difference between a “writer” and an “author.”  They’re not mutually exclusive, but they are separable.  A writer is anyone who writes, but an author is a person who’s been published and makes a living (or part of a living) from writing.  That means an author is a writer (he has to be in order to get published) though not all writers are authors.  Like me.  So far.  That definition isn’t unusual or different from the definition a lot of other people have used, but these days a writer has to be more than just someone who puts words on paper and gets someone else to publish them.

Some authors are now publishers.  Self-publishing has reached all-time highs with the advent of easy, quick electronic publishing formats.  Now, anyone who wants can dump a manuscript into one of several publishing houses (CreateSpace, Smashwords, even Amazon or Barnes and Noble to mention a few) and bingo! it will appear on a screen somewhere.  But if that’s all that the author does, good luck to him/her getting anyone else to read it.

An author can’t simply write anymore and let it go at that, unless he doesn’t want to sell anything.  Authors have to be involved in marketing, too.  Some publishing houses (the older kind, that produce a hard copy book with a cover) even require their authors to devise their own marketing plan.  Can you imagine?  The big houses have dropped so much of what they used to do, and dumped it all into the lap of the author.  Every author now has to have his own website (fortunately, you can get a website design service to make one for you, but it will cost), produce a blog (do you think I do this for my health?), have a Facebook page with at least a thousand friends, and have a Twitter account with at least 10,000 followers.  I am so far behind in this race it’s not funny.  I have no website, I let my blog talk for me, and I refuse to have anything to do with Twitter.  I can’t see expressing myself and my opinions in 140 characters (that’s characters, not words) five or six times a day just to keep a publisher happy.  (To post to Twitter is to “Tweet”–how frivolous can you get?)

Right now I’m in the process of querying agents about getting my first novel (The Anthanian Imperative–Blue) published.  I’ve worked on it for over ten years and I feel it’s publishable, with suitable input from an agent and editor and others, of course.  I’m not beyond taking suggestions that will make the book better by any means, but to be told I have to “Tweet” four or so times a day just to satisfy a publisher simply takes time I could spend writing and revising.

I can see doing readings of my book around the country, talking about it to various groups that might ask, blogging about it once a week, making a website once the book has been accepted for publication, even having a contest or two to give away free copies of the book, and so on, as a part of a marketing campaign.  But having to do all that by myself?  I’m a writer and a scientist.  I never took courses on marketing in college or graduate school.  I don’t know the first thing about marketing, and writing my own marketing plan would be a waste of the precious time I could spend writing.  I’ve got several ideas for new novels and not a considerable amount of time to do them.  Time is money, they say.  (I don’t know who “they” is, but “they” say a lot of good stuff.)  Better to spend it writing and revising a good novel.  Enough said.

Anybody else got a spleen they want to vent?

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