Sunday, November 28, 2010

A partial success!

That story I was working on last week has been partially successful.  At least, my query package, including letter which describes the story succinctly and yet enticingly, and one-page complete synopsis, did their job and the editors have requested the full manuscript.  Since this is how pretty much all new writer fiction novels are sold (often to agents, who then deal with the publishers if they choose to represent you), being able to create a successful query letter and synopsis in the short story market is encouraging.  I am learning how to improve on the "selling myself" part of the professional fiction writing process.  We'll see how the manuscript itself fares.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Debt scares the heebie-jeebies out of me.

If I could go my entire life without ever having to use credit of any kind, I would.  I have so far, in so much as I haven't bought anything myself with credit.  However I grew up in homes paid for on my parents' credit, now live in a mortgage-financed home and pay rent to the homeowner who is my housemate and Significant Other--but spouse he is not, so his debt is not my debt.  (Now that I work in the green building energy efficiency world, I can help him make some improvements that raise the value of the home!)

I have recently come face to face with the prospect of debt of my own, as I've been fermenting and slowly bringing to life my ridiculously ambitious graduate school dream.  Unfortunately not a graduate school discipline that offers much by the way of research or teaching assistantships, and watching my friends finance cars after getting accepted into physics graduate school, those disciplines seem safe and secure if not lucrative. But not the dream, I'm discovering.  This dream is ambitious not necessarily because I am trying to be accepted into an ivy league school, although I may indeed find that was over-ambitious, but because being accepted and actually going would mean going along with ivy league prices.

The only way to cover a fraction of that--because I have considerably savings, but it's still not enough--is with mortgage-comparable debt.  Is my dream education worth that to me?

This world...

Yesterday I sat through an all-day training on things my boss has heard a bazillion times but I'm new enough to to appreciate.  This training gives us a certification that allows our company to appear on a website list of companies who, by virtue of having sat through the training, are supposed to know more than what the average building company knows, which is little, about energy efficiency.

Since we are The Original Green Builder, we'd better know.

There are actually a heck of a lot of construction details that never get done, that are simple to do, that you cannot really access to fix once the building is completed so you ought to attend to them first, that make a heck of an energy efficiency difference.  But more on that later.

One of the speakers was really good.  Knew her stuff, told good stories, linked it together well, explained jargon and acronyms and put everything in helpful context.

The other presenter read off of the slides without elaborating, as if she didn't know what the things she was reading meant to be able to elaborate (probably not true, but how it came off), made no connections between things (because that wasn't on the slides!) slouched and shifted her weight constantly and didn't make eye contact, had a very shaky obviously nervous voice.

I can sympathize with those things, because you do them when you are nervious and don't know better.

I'm constantly surprised, now being in a professional setting, that people don't know better.  I've seen so many poor public speakers, read so many instances of terribly poor and unclear writing.  I recognize that when your job is something else, it isn't always worth your time to pay attention to those things.

But you sacrifice on how you come off if you don't pay some attention.  I'd thought, all while I was desperately interviewing and trying to get my feet through doors, that proficiency in those kinds of things were a baseline,  not the exception to the rule.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Teasers--or Yawn-Factories

One of the lessons thrown at aspiring writers over and over again is the need to sell your story quickly.  Since all editors need sometimes to make decisions is the first line or two in short stories, the first paragraph or maybe page in longer works, you can't wait for the rest of the story to be good enough.  It's got to grab from the get-go.  But especially in the "query" first world, you've got to sell your story without using the actual story, to someone who is slammed with submissions, doesn't know you from Joe, and probably knows a heck of a lot more about the craft and industry than you do.
So you must sum up theme and conflict in one sentence, and it has to be compelling, interesting, and fresh.  And if you work on them too long or look at them too many times you'll go frikkin crazy.

Here are some of mine, short story and novel alike,mostly in the "light fantasy or science fiction" category:

An uprooted man joins a theater to recover from a recent loss, and must delve impossibly far into the world of his character to save the lives of the cast.

Two young people fight for their own definition of true love, despite the decidedly strange physics which stands in their way.  (That one is shooting for the odd genre of science fiction humor)

A storm-followed teenager runs away from home to rebel against her family's destructive secret, and must fight to keep her family and small Appalachian town in one piece.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Stories I Hate

To get in the mood to finish this short story up...

Stories with only male characters, stories with only female characters, senseless rambling while vaguely intimating that the Protagonist Is God On Earth (or not, in the case of Children of Dune, which I literally threw across the room, although I liked the first one okay), stories which don't make sense but try to call the nonsensicalness intellectual superiority, utterly any variation of the "Super Smart Scientists/Mathemetician/Intellectual With No Social Skills Who Suffers From All the Mediocre People Who Just Don't Get His Brilliance," any story at all that makes the protagonist Oh So Superior to Everyone Else, yet also protagonists whose faults make them despicable rather than human, stories that just don't go anywhere (books 7-10 of Wheel of Time), anything whose only theme is a commentary on the utter futility of caring about anything (Heard of Darkness, and too much of what is considered "literary" and also "intellectual"), books where all women are weak and "giggly" except for the one female protagonist who is masculine and continually described as an utter rarity (fantasy suffers so, from this, with the very notable exception of Wheel of Time), stories that portray all members of one gender as unworthy or useless end of discussion, stories that end in horror, despair and futility, stories with too much action and nothing else, stories with too much description and no movement...

That's all I can think of for now.

What do I like, then?

Stories with characters I can't help but care about making brave and difficult choices in the face of something that matters, or else learning something about themselves or the world in a way that relates strongly to a compelling and optimistic theme.  I can deal with pessimistic themes on occasion if they're thought-provoking (and NOT in an "oh it all sucks lets just go crawl in a hole and die" kind of a way), but I am at heart a romantic, a believer in right and wrong and the power of human decisions to make the world into a better place, even if it's just one character's struggle for his or her tiny piece of the world, even if "better" is fraught with imperfection.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why I Bike (To Work, Sometimes)

I have such a backlog of half-formed posts.  One thing biking (and running, for that matter, started doing a lot of that also) does is allow time to think through and compose various blogsays.

Mozilla totally thinks that's a word,"blogsays," even though I just made it up.

Right now I am scurrying to finish a major overhaul of a short story I wrote a long time ago for hopeful publication (actually, it's just so that my query letter will in fact have a real story behind it), so the backlog won't be coming just yet.

The trouble with composing while biking is that I mostly compose bike-related posts.

There are three reasons I bike what I think is a considerably distance in considerably traffic to work, and they are not necessarily hierarchical.  One by itself isn't enough, two together make me feel vaguely wistful if I end up hitting the snooze alarm on any given day instead of doing it, and three together are why I do end up doing it.

1)I am concerned about climate change and think I have a moral duty to try to do what I, personally can do to help us reduce our collective carbon emissions by the scientifically-advised amount in the scientifically-advised amount of time.  I hear people argue that what one individual does matters not at all in the face of tons of individuals probably never doing what many individuals ought to to make a difference.  Like my 1 ton less CO2 a year does a damn thing to alter climate change--but to me; the moral obligation remains the same.  If everybody waited for everyone else to do the right thing before doing it for his or herself, then any will or vision to create a world that is better than the world that currently exists would be essentially nonexistent, and that would be a terrible world indeed.  (Is riding my bike to work really that heavy?  Symbolically yes, because the moral imperative of climate change is just that heavy.)

2) I want to reduce the amount of money I spend on gasoline by a noticeable amount.  If I only bike once every now and then, the amount isn't noticeable.  If I do it once or twice a week, I can save about one fill-up a month.  If I do it whenever humanly possible I can save any more, and sometimes I have that goal.  When it's not below freezing outside in the morning.

3)It's frikkin' awesome!  I feel great afterwards.  I'm physically stronger for doing it regularly.  I feel more alive and connected to my community.  And you know, it's just fun, even (with the right gear) when it's not all that warm outside.

Monday, November 15, 2010


One of the unexpected weird things about my new job is that I have to dress each day like somebody who knows how to dress nicely.  Not that I think I ever dressed like a dirty slob hippie before, (I mean, I wore clean clothes without holes) but, I never really put any thought into wardrobe planning, either.  I have a decent collection of business casual, due to planning ahead for this day while yardsaling and visiting the goodwill bins and chiding various department stores for not stocking anything smaller than a frikkin 4 petite--but I really am clueless as to what to do with it.   I feel vaguely fake and vaguley aloof wearing this stuff, and the problem with nice clothes is that it's not always pratical to do much in them, becasue they're nice and you don't want to mess them up.  They're just not me, but maybe the problem is that I still don't really feel like the business world is me.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Are Electric Cars "Greener"?

Potentially, maybe...but generally not so much.

Electricity as it is right now is not very green--though it is somewhat greening, and there is potential to make it more so.  At least, the biggest opponent of more widespread deployment of renewable and nuclear energy is political, not technical.  I have posited before that we are much better at overcoming technical limitations than we are at overcoming political ones, so one can assume that electricity is not greening at such a rate that the average electric car is powered by anything other than batteries charged with coal.

Cars emit a host of pollutants, most notably carbon dioxide and nitrous oxides of various forms, commonly referred to as NOx (pronounced "nocks.)"  NOx 1)contribute to acid rain, 2) react with sunlight to make ozone, which is great for blocking ultraviolet light in the stratosphere, but when produced at ground level not so good for people who like breathing easily on hot summer days, especially people with risk factors like small children, the elderly, and asthmatics.  Ozone levels in the southeast (I don't have firsthand experience with other regions) get so elevated on some summer days that prolonged outdoor exertion is considered unhealthy for most people.

Ground-level ozone is a concern for multiple reasons: high concentrations damage crop and forest tissue, and it's also a much more potent greenhouse gas that carbon dioxide.   

Here in the southeast most electricity comes from coal.  Coal-fired power plants emit carbon dioxide, sulfur oxides SOx ("socks"), and trace other things like mercury and lead.  SOx 1) contribute even more strongly to acid rain, 2) forms a layer of very fine particles suspended in the atmosphere, that are also irritating to breath in for those who are sensitive, and contribute to smog.

The good news is that SOx emissions in particular are declining thanks to a cap and trade program that's been in place since the 1990s.  Emitters buy credits, ones who have made technology improvements such as scrubbers that make their SOx emissions go below required amounts sell the extra ones, and the total number of overall credits available declines each year.  If you felt like speeding that along, you could go buy a SOx credit. (My econ teacher did that, and framed it.) Both NOx and SOx from large emitters are capped-and-traded, but obviously nobody is cap and trading the NOx that come from private vehicles.

So the trade-off between a gasoline or non-bio-diesel powered engine and a car charged with coal-fired electricity is really between more NOx or more SOx.  Carbon dioxide is gonna happen either way.  Certainly there may be a difference in the carbon dioxide released per unit of petroleum verses coal that makes one less absolutely contributory to climate change--but since coal and fuel combustion technologies alike vary strongly in their age and efficiency, and about three different varieties of coal with very different properties are regularly used by the same plants, that is a difficult and largely apples to oranges comparison.  While we're at it I suppose one should also look at life-cycle costs when considering claims of relative greenness:  the energy and environmental costs of finding, drilling for, securing, shipping, refining, shipping gasoline verses the energy and environmental costs of finding, mining, and shipping coal. I'm curious enough that maybe I'll look into that for another post, but still, apples to oranges.

Hybrid cars by contrast actually are greener, because they are tapping into an otherwise unused energy source and charging batteries with something one does while driving anyway--putting on the breaks.  That idea, tapping into otherwise unused sources, is certainly thinking along the right track toward sustainability.  I will note that my fully gasoline-powered Saturn, a product of GM, for goodness sake, regularly equals or exceeds the gas mileage of the first-generation hybrids, although they've outstripped me in recent model-years.

The advantage I do see of fully electric cars is that it takes two huge pollution problems, coal and gasoline, and turns them into one, just coal, which is theoretically much more capable of being supplemented by more environmentally sustainable production methods.  Sometimes simplifying your problems is progress--turning your oranges into apples.  The only apples to apples "green" alternative to gas combustion is biofuel, which is great when produced from used vegetable oil, but actually very un-green if made from palm-oil planted on illegally logged rain-forest.  From a climate change mitigation standpoint, we cannot afford more deforestation, and could really use some re-forestation instead.

Maybe a hybrid biofuel engine is the future.  Or crazy superconducting mag-levs, assuming room-temperature super-conduction is possible, something we have not yet observed but haven't found evidence yet either that it is impossible.

There's also the issue of American driving patterns--which is a lot of downtown, where electric or hybrid cars are doing something, anyway--but also a lot of inter-city.  People generally want cars for both capabilities, getting to work each day, visiting your sister on weekends.  Hybrids can take you inter-city no problem but don't perform much better than regular vehicles when doing so.  Electric cars don't generally have enough juice to go more than one or two hundred miles--although this could be changing.

Light passenger rail would be sweet, but way too expensive right now, and not practical at rural to suburban density levels, most common here.

By the way, your gas is pretty much exclusively 10% ethanol in North Carolina.

Fuel cells?  Still have to work out that hydrogen exploding thing.  Super efficient though, and non-emitting in the carbon dioxide department, although the method of obtaining the hydrogen is probably going to be quite carboniferous.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


My most recently kept-up circle of local (meaning non-Internet, non-distance, as most of my friendships actually are do to this constantly mobile world of ours) friends are quite awesome people, but they are all more extroverted than me.  We used to all be woefully underemployed together, so I had more time to be extroverted with them, but I was the schmuck who got a full-time job first.

I am unabashedly and undeniably on the introvert side of the scale, but can be quite functionally extroverted in the right circumstances.  Incompatible schedules make this very difficult, however.  I want to spend time with just a handful of us, that's fine for them sometimes but sometimes they need more excitement and more people.  Sometimes that's fine for me too but then I have to go home and recharge, and while I'm doing that they are still out finding more things to do and more people to do them with.  There's no reason I should feel like I have to come along on all of that, of course, but I find that new acquaintances and new plans are constantly being made that I might want to join in on after a re-charge but by then it's already too late.  I'll propose plans of my own from a position of being out of the loop and secondary to what is going on, thus I am rarely taken up on them, and I have to remind them to remember to include me on things they are planning that I might love to do after being re-charged.  The whole experience makes me feel somewhat socially breathless, like I am constantly fighting to keep up.

There's a little bit of my frugality entering into this too, because I am unwilling to spend money on several social events in one night or even one week or hell even more than once or twice a month, and while I wasn't working this was especially important and especially damning because I had so little money and yet so much time. All together I sometimes find myself feeling stuffy and prudish and boring, compared to they who are free and fun and infinitely interesting.

Introverted friendships have always served me better:  more depth, more doing the kind of activities I want to do in a group size that is comfortable for me, more commitment to a friendship across distance, since the trend in this place is for young people to be unable to find jobs here and thus leave.  In some ways being forced into more extroversion has been good for me, certainly seeing and understanding differences in other people has been.  But trying to force my friends into a friendship mold that works for me, or trying to force myself into a mold that works with how they work...probably isn't good for anybody.

Well, turns out they're all moving away too as they too, secure jobs that aren't in this jobless town, so looks like I'm in the general market for some more compatible local friends regardless.

Antagonists are Essential

Just like most aspiring and perhaps real writers, I have my spurt non-blog projects that never get finished, I have my great ideas I have to go home and start writing only to abandon a few months later...etc.

Those and a host more problems have got to be fixed (why am I using passive voice? I have to fix them) if I want to do more than just aspire for the rest of my life, and I suspect that fixing these things requires discipline, hard work, and simply slogging through day after day.

The oldest project of mine is something that started off as science fiction, went more of a fantasy route for a while, and I'm now trying to re-route toward science fiction again.  I am absolutely in love with this project, even though I've stalled out about five times on the actual writing since high school.  It has many the things I love about science fiction and/or fantasy:  big-picture ideas of space and time, parallel universes, people and creatures from other places, super-human powers (and the responsibilities and consequences that come from being powerful), characters who I think have great heroic potential because of and in spite of their their human flaws, decent interpersonal and internal conflict.  Romance, of course.

I keep re-working the background stuff to incorporate new ideas, science I just figured out how to twist awry, etc.  And that is a problem, of course, because at some point you have to just write the thing.  And I have never been able to progress, despite how much I love my characters and their world and their strengths and weaknesses and issues.

I think this is because despite all these other fun elements, I never had an antagonist that was truly worth fighting, or who was deep enough to be interesting.  I wrote the bare bones of this story when I was in elementary school--oddly, the first and only time in my life that I wrote novel-ish length stories from start to finish without much trouble.  They have elementary-school quality of course;  my idea of good and evil wasn't particularly refined back then. It was very black and white and very much of 'these guys are evil just because they are", and my bad guys didn't do particularly scary or bad things because...I didn't really understand back then what full range of bad things were possible, and more importantly, what various motivations for bad things might be.  Now that I'm adult I have seen "evil just because not good" done really well:  Joker in The Dark Knight was a really great example of "I'm fucking insane evil  just because I am"--and it worked.  Gave me frikkin goosebumps.  But it gave me goosebumps because of how Joker the antagonist pushed the rest of the story:  spotlighting the heroes who dared to stand against someone so scary and senseless, highlighting the choice between caring for a thinly possible ideal, running in fear, or deciding to "just watch the world burn."

Many more times, however, "evil just because I am" has not worked at all--(example, Avatar.  Well, there was supposed to be a reason, but the reason was so poorly defined that it was pretty much "evil just because") because it didn't' force the main characters to define themselves against it.

I don't know who my antagonist is supposed to be in this story.  I have what my elementary school self created, which is two-dimensional and has no backstory and not much reason for doing what it is doing.  My struggles to re-define all the science fiction or fantasy or whatever else elements of this story have really been trying to re-define what the heck the people in my story are fighting for,  because I'm not satisfied with what was there.  Heroes need something heroic to stand for.  They need circumstances which allow them to choose to be heroes.  That doesn't have to be some dark insurmountable race of aliens, or a hidden smuggling ring or terrorists or whatever.  It is possible to have evil be something more subtle: man pitting various incompatible internal wants against each other, hell, man against bureaucracy or an approaching black hole or a wasting disease, man against all the shit from his past while trying to find his way to a better future.

It's just that heroic fantasy or science fiction tends to have some big, malevolent bad guy or bad organization or bad species.   Fantasy is often a fan of the amorphous dark powerful Satan-like being--I'm thinking Wheel of Time here, which manages to make such a cliche antagonist into something that I did mostly find really enjoyable and interesting because of the various interpersonal conflicts that resulted from having to deal with Scary Evil Force of Nature.  In science fiction it's probably any number of scenarios involving aliens, or various natural features of an inhospitable universe, or humanity's inability to deal with technological advances, or else just a crime mystery novel set in the future.  I like all of those...but I don't know what I want for my story, and I need to know, because everything my lovely characters are going to be doing in their lovely word is irrelevant if it doesn't mean something against some kind of danger or intrigue or high stakes.

I've known all of this for a long time, because I know the kind of stories that have given me goosebumps throughout the years, and I know for all of them exactly why. It is much easier to recognize that in someone else's work than try to figure out how to put it into my own--which is just the skill a writer needs to have, no excuses.

It's the basics that will kill you.

Friday, November 5, 2010

thoughts on a very tough question

Some concerned people, mostly of the politically liberal persuasion, say that the wars this country is currently involved in are wrong, the growth and spread of terrorist groups is largely our fault by being there and creating a class of dispossessed to be lulled into violence, that we should just leave and maybe then they wouldn't have as much reason hate us so much.  The global reach of our policies, our mass consumption of resources, our witness and participation in torture in wrongful civilian death is evil, we have nothing clear and right to fight for, and we need to just stop it.  Plus it's a huge money drain.

Sometimes I have thought this, but as I hash it out I find that I actually disagree.

What we have done as a country, directly or not, has often been harmful to people of other nations. Climate change is the one example I keep coming back to.  It was us who put the Taliban in power, not noticing the ticking time bomb that was, not recognizing or acknowledging or caring that some things that aren't communist are also pretty evil.

We will never fully match our ideals, and I doubt any human civilization ever can.

But we shouldn't forget what separates us from the people we are fighting these wars to stand against. The individual leaders of terrorist glorify in violence in the name of religion, use fear and control among their own people to grab and hold on to power, violently oppress the female half of their society.

I want my country to truly exemplify the ideals I've no doubt had brainwashed into me, and I know that it falls pitifully short of doing so sometimes.  We do seek to spread our ideals into the rest of the world--and you know what I would rather live in a world where a woman I disagree with on pretty much everything can run for vice president and I can just vote against her than in a world where little girls are doused with acid for committing the crime of trying to go to school despite being female.   I don't particularly want to be ashamed of a system that works however imperfectly to prevent violence in the face of a group of people who glorify in it.

If we cut our losses and leave those wars, we'd start being able to make some dents in the deficit, for one.  Our troops would be safe, for the meantime anyway, and pressure on civilians in those countries caught in the middle might be eased.  They could decide on their own then, if they would oppose radicalized Islam or tolerate and potentially be subsumed by it.  It many ways they have the right to that decision.   Perhaps there would be less terrorist recruitment, as war-torn, jobless, angry young men would not so readily be given reason and opportunity to blow themselves up for Al Queida.

But at this point, I doubt our withdrawal would stop any of it.  The leaders want what we hold up as good about our society to burn along with the greed and corruption they so protest.

Does our presence there or not make a different anymore?  Does it make it better or worse for the people living there?  Does it make us safer from terrorism? I don't know what we should do, and I don't know how to fix it.  But I know it's dead wrong to think that if we just leave them alone they'll suddenly stop attacking us.  They probably won't even stop harming the civilians around them.