Sargassum and the art of writing about what you know

Sargassum, as seen here in the curl of the wave, drifts ashore when the winds are steady, rolling into massive piles along the littoral zone, crucial for the ecology of barrier islands. Is it coincidence or by grand design that it is washing ashore during a super moon, when the highest of tides will push it further up onto the beach, trapping the sand with it to build up our dunes? Here in FL, there is a strong conservation not to clean this up as other states do for the benefit of tourism. A mistake. Some folks see this as an annoyance, their tender virgin feet having to touch it on their way to the water.

But Sargassum serves such an important role in the nurturing of juvenile species of marine life, some who will spend their entire lifecycle within the floating mass known as the Sargassum Sea. Sargassum is one of my favorite seaweeds in the class Phaeophyceae. In fact, my upcoming novel, Silversides, has most of the characters named after a class of macroalgae: Phaedra, Rhodes, Kora, Cody and my protagonist, Nori. Kulcin (main antagonist) on the other hand comes from a previous work, From Europa With Love, and what an antagonist he is. Of all the characters, he refuses to let me write his dialogue. Stuborn….

 

Writers are taught, “Write about what you know.”  But Sargassum?  It does not always need to be a subject matter that you are an expert in.  What it does require is for you to connect with your story in terms that you are an expert in.  In my case, once I named my characters after classes of seaweed, I was able to connect with those characters like never before and my story came to life.

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Where Do Sci-Fi Writers Get Their Ideas? Part III

EEven if you are not a writer, this is perhaps one of the most inspirational TED Talks I have ever watched (Anne Madden).  It should make you think, something our media is trying to suppress.

I encourage every writer of sci-fi to watch and absorb.  Listen and let your creativity loose, let it be the muse over your shoulder, pushing you to write that sci-fi great.  I have, with my previous novellas (November Seedand From Europa With Love), both works inspired by my own research, as a former Marine Biologist, and having absorbed snippets from TED, Wired, Space.com, ZME Science  or from posts by my fellow G+’ers (you guys and gals rock!)

 

Anne’s talk is bursting with hard sci-fi nibbles for a writer, such as: ‘A human devised solution‘ or ‘vaccinations for fear‘ or ‘beer made from wasps‘,  her concepts come rapidly and I had to watch this talk a couple of times, hitting pause often to write down some ideas in my file, Book Of Ideas (every writer needs a file like this).

Finding ideas to write about is simple: The real universe exists within itself, as you will hear, but every writer of sci-fi, including myself, feels trapped sometimes, that every sci-fi plot has already been written.  Maybe this is why we are seeing iteration after iteration of the same thing; just how many alien species can there be who has one primary objective and that is to kick Humanity’s ass?  To break out of this monocular view, Anne says one thing that can turn us from this view:  ‘Most of the life around us remains unknown‘  I love this statement.   It is the one statement a writer of sci-fi should strip away and use as a mantra and be that break-away writer, typing out the next best seller.

Some of my own ideas that came from listening to this talk:

  • Anne states, ‘One cell is not a powerful alchemist,’ but a Novemdecillion (10 to the 60th) of them working together, are.   Using the immortal template of  Don LaFontaine, “In A World, under the dictatorship of a government controlled bacteria, where the true thought police of humanity, live within…”  Think of what your protagonist could do against that?
  • What about a lab geek on a spinner (space station) who the crew loves and adores, because he or she can make exotic flavored beers from bacteria found on alien worlds, to break the monotony of their long hauls through space.  But the beer that tastes like the finest wine, a silky smooth texture has hidden attributes (which I will leave it up to you what those attributes are… think along Anne’s line of, unknown.).
  • Or about a military deep-ops team on a planet, whose adversary is so ruthless that it strikes fear into even the most insane, psychotic, toughest bad-asses Earth could produce, but taking a mere pill that ‘vaccinates against fear’, albeit for only 1/2 hour, allows them to proceed.  This is enough for you to create a scene so nerve-racking for your reader, because time is running out for a few due to someone losing the bottle of pills …… 
  • In my current work in progress (Silversides), I dropped in a subplot (inspired by a TED Talk) of the backstory of my protagonist’s mother, Haruka Matsui, who plays a minor introductory part and who created a medical breakthrough, bioSketchers, for humanity’s final halt of natural selection, where controlling one’s DNA is just a cocktail away.  My concept for this backstory has it’s roots in a TED talk, where the researcher was racing toward a final one-two punch of curing aids… But what if something we are on the cusp of eradicating is also the key that unlocks everything (aka, bioSketchers)?  Although this is a very small chapter in Silversides, I know I’m coming back to it, where Haruka’s story and the story of bioSketchers will be told.

 

Are you an Aspiring Writer? Read This.


When I left Corporate America to become a writer, I had received some excellent advice from a partner at the firm I was employed by. He had shared with me his most guarded resource for good writing, one that he kept closely by his side, one that he often referred to while writing a legal brief – Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses, by Mark Twain.

Upon leaving his corner office that day, he warned me.  “Download it.  Read it on your commute,” he said with a thin smile.  “But be warned,” he added, “you will laugh out loud.”

He was right on both accounts.  This is a brilliant piece of writing. Not only is this laugh out loud reading, it delivers so many important rules for a writer to follow.   One of my favorite things to do is pump this piece through the persona of my IVONA text-to-speech engine, Amy–in her stoic British accent–who gets me to laugh while serving as my muse.

Below is an excerpt from Mark Twain’s observations of Fenimore Cooper’s work.

“There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction — some say twenty-two. In “Deerslayer,” Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:”
Here is my favorite from that list:

10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the “Deerslayer” tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences, by Mark Twain

Immersion – The action of immersing someone or something in a liquid.

I am always looking for ways to become a better writer, through immersion, and this is a perfect example. I have been surfing my entire life, so I have first-hand experience with this feeling, but I can see this tech being used in so many ways, for so many things that I have no experience with.  How cool would it be to space-walk?

Where Do Sci-Fi Writers Get Their Ideas? Part I

GroveBar

I was chill’n at one of my favorite places tucked away in Port Salerno, FL called the Grove Dock Bar & Cafe.  In fact, this exact longitude and latitude was the inspiration for the sequel to my upcoming sci-fi (Silversides) and where Chapter one starts in the year 2026.  This place is a BYOF (bring your own Food)… You provide the food, they provide the drinks.  Kind of tells ya how local and tucked away it is.GroveBar_2

A place where the view and ambiance normalizes the playing field for people of all social and economic circles– where at the end of the day we’re just people of the same planet all enjoying the same thing… a great conversation surrounded by simplest of things.

GroveBar_3I had brought an artist friend here for the first time last year and he fell in love with it, although, he sat down right in front of the mermaid holding up the roof and when he looked up he laughed, then said, “Kind of intimidating.”  He was 80 at the time but still managed to jump over the door into my ’62 Austin Healey Sprite when I picked him up. He scared the shit out of me, “Guy! Whoa… what are you doing?  I can’t even do that.”

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I always wanted to do that,” he smiled.  “Promise we can come back.”    When this el Niño takes a break and it warms up in southern FL, I will fulfill that promise to Guy.

So what inspires me for a story line?  I suppose the simplest of things.  For Silversides, it was this bar.  I came home one day and pounded out a complete chapter of what I thought it would be like here in 2026 with not a clue of what would follow. Five hundred pages later and 20 light years away, the first draft is done and editing is moving along nicely.  For November Seed, it was a common reed called Phragmites that launches all their seeds during the first cold snap in November. A private holiday for me.  Writing From Europa With Love, the inspiration was from a stunning image I saw on the internet of Jupiter’s moon Europa and a contest dare to write about it.  Inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere, you just need to look deep enough for it and not skim the surface.  When I hear writers say, ‘don’t know what to write about’, that drives me crazy.  I have five novels started with five more ideas waiting after that.

Here is a perfect example of something anyone can write about.  Watch this fantastic mini-documentary and learn what inspired the creator.  Then transport yourself to some remote outpost on a dust-blown rock of a moon where intra-stellar wars were fought and the moon was declared too dangerous for humans to colonize because of undocumented arsenals left behind.   And your protagonist finds herself here, clearing a plot for she and her fusion powered robotic dog to spend the only remaining time she has left.  In a place no one will come looking for her, and if they do, only she knows where all the nasty stuff lies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The future is here–I have seen it!

FutureWIKIIf the game of golf has been said, ‘as being a beautiful walk, interrupted.’ then the isomerism can be said about surfing the internet ‘as being a walk beautifully interrupted.

I was conducting research for my Work In Progress (Silversides) and found a wiki post that was exactly what I was looking for (artificial gills), but something was off;  I was reading a post taking place in the future and It freaked me out. I looked up at the URL and saw I was on a site called wikia (future).  Wow!  This was so cool and my mind was racing–so weird because my yahoo horoscope for the day(Gemini) predicted this would happen.

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I had all these ideas pitching by me, so many it was like trying to grab at dandelion seeds in a breeze, where reaching toward them provided their evasiveness and at the end of it, I was left with nothing in my hands and only ideas.

So here is how I see this spectacular site useful to sci-fi writers: 1) Research for your sci-fi writing; 2) A one-stop-site to park new terms, ideas & concepts for sci-fi writers to create the future by using, in their works, this library–why invent terms if a good one already exists; 3) Like wiki, your posts can be the forward or a snippet of your story (making sure it adheres to the guidelines and does not read like a self-promotional ad), yet promotes your work; 4) That the concept of this site would make for a great sci-fi itself, where a destitute protagonist stumbles across a URL somewhere between the intra and dark net of tomorrow’s news (modern take on the protagonist finding a newspaper of tomorrow’s news, with a twist–this automata is self-aware).

I’m sure you all can add to this–I need to get these ideas spinning through my head down on digital before my muse steps over the threshold of my consciousness.

To enter the future, click here: http://future.wikia.com/wiki/Main_Page

 

What are your characters wearing these days, in space and once they get to their destination?

davaI was reminded by a G+ post, by Ralph Roberts, of the brilliant Dava Newman and her recent appointment to NASA.  

When writing Sci-fi, think about what your characters are wearing, in space.  I had viewed a TED presentation by Dava Newman, of her work, on EVA design.  It was such a valuable visual for me during a recent series I wrote called Kulcin’s Law, avalable on www.Offworlders.com.  These were the suits I envisioned my astronauts were wearing, becasue I wanted them to move effortlessly and not have to explain getting in and out of their EVAs.  Below is Dava’s TED talk.

Dava Newman on TED

 

Then, when your crew gets to their destination, you might want to check out the latest fashion ETs are wearing these days:  Check out these possible Sci-Fi fashion statements.

 

 

 

Write about what you know.  But it’s not what you think.

Porphyra_yezoensisWhen I first became serious about writing, I thought it wise to get advice, but pre-internet days, this was not an easy task.  I had attended adult education courses at NYU in creative writing and at the New School in NYC on publishing.  Added to that, I would spend time leaning against racks of books in the NY Library and branded bookstores (pre-amazon) reading up on writing and publishing. 
To really make things hard on myself, I had zero pedigree in writing—zero!    I was a geek scientist with a great imagination.  That’s it.
Whether attending a lecture or reading up on my own, the advice seemed rooted into this simple concept:
     “Write about what you know”
Seriously?  No mater how hard I tried, there was no way I was going to make seaweed or TCP/IP into a Sci-Fi. 
      “She stood before me, the silhouette of her supple figure entrancing.  It was there that I draped my Porphyra yezoensis (Nori) over the banister and waited for the packets of TCP/IP at my hip to be delivered.  Bully!  What was I to do?…”
 
As a Marine Biologist with a specialty in seaweed and later as a technologist in network engineering, that is what I knew about.
I also learned that the lectures and Instructors of the events I attended as well as the ‘How to be an author’, authors,  were as frustrated as I was.  So I shelved my ideas of writing for 30 years, trying now and then, but never a spark.
It was maddening.  Like looking at a beautiful painting or reading the most perfect, flowing prose of a favorite author and then trying to apply that same lucidity into my own work.  It wasn’t happening.  My characters and words fell as flat onto the surface of the paper they were written on.  I had these great stories in my head and wrote the treatments into a leather bound book, hoping one day I would figure it out.
That day came three years ago.  I had just taken a rental on the upper east side of Manhattan and my neighbor in apartment 12K came over in a panic with a computer problem.  Before I even knew her name, she told me she was to give a lecture at Sotheby’s on famous jewelry heists the next day, and while finalizing her digital thoughts,  the laptop blue-screened with all her notes, images, and videos on it.    As I worked my magic, she occupied her panic by asking me about myself.  I hinted at being a writer one day and told her of a storyline (Silversides) and she loved it.   
The laptop resuscitating, she said to me,
      “So just fucking write it!” 
You have to know, she is a tough NY broad and the thought of not doing it, scared me.  So I did.  My characters were just as faceless and flat as always, but I got around the speed bump by not naming my characters.  She and Her go a long way.  I wasn’t concentrating on style or how fluid it read. Honestly, I was more afraid of not doing it, knowing Diana would check back with me as promised.
Page after page, I had been putting off naming my protagonist, She, and I knew any day now, Diana, was going to be knocking on my door.  In my own panic, I typed out, Nori……
That light bulb moment was blinding.  Suddenly my character had a face and I was no longer writing, but having a conversation. I quickly named my core remaining characters after seaweeds: Cyan (antagonist) Phaeo (beautiful), Rhodes (Nori’s right hand man), Corilline, and Codi (my fauna and flora buddies)—all shortened, genus names of seaweeds.
With my hand placed upon my forehead for effect, I had been taking the advice to literally and the lecturers and authors who touted the same advice were either keeping the secret to themselves or passing that information along because that is what they were taught—never truly understanding the meaning behind it.
It is not so much you need to write about what you know—after all, how much do I know about alien planets or cultures, or even spaceflight for that matter. What I do know a lot about is seaweed, biology and network connections.  So giving my characters names of seaweed, made that connection for me.  I could see their facial expressions as we spoke.  I followed them on trails through alien terrain. I was on the journey with them, documenting their tale as told to me.
Don’t take the advice of writing about what you know so literally.  Make a connection to plot and characters with what you know in the form of names and places and the rest will fill in more easily.  Get the story down in the form of a straw man, then go back through it, filling in the legs and arms to give it life and where it can stand up on its own.  Then go through it again, dressing it in a crisp ironed shirt and overalls.  Give it color and then present it to the world. 

Improve your writing with technology

IvonaOne of the best ways to measure your writing skill is to hear your own work read out loud.  Unfortunately, when we, as the writer, attempt to do this our writing sounds terrific—we’re bias.  You really need a third party and I found one—Amy. (http://www.ivona.com/)

I live in New York City and on my way to work one morning, I assisted a blind man onto the M79, which is a cross-town bus.  I sat next to him and asked where he was heading and offered my assistance.  He was on his way to the Apple Store on 5th Ave.  As a technologist, that got my attention.  I asked why?  It turned out he was having problems with his iPad and wanted to get there early before the crowds—this was around 6:20 AM, and now, he had my full attention.  I asked him what problems he was experiencing, what he uses his iPad for and how.  He told me the iPad has some great text-to-speech technology, but it was not working correctly.

A technology I thought would be cumbersome for someone blind was everything but that. He was quite tech savvy and the iPad was a window to the world, just like it was for myself.  After spending the morning with this gentleman,  I now think we, the seeing-prepared, are held to a disadvantage.   He was making full use of the inherent features of the iPad, much more so than myself, and here I was, a technologist. His iPad would announced what keys he was touching, alert him of incoming messages and read aloud his email, texting and web page content after a search. His eBooks were read aloud and the navigation of the streets in NY directed him to his destinations (You have arrived at your destination). He could hear documents sent to him as well as transcribe documents he sent. He used the on-board microphone and voice commands to navigate around the web. I accompanied him to the Apple Store that morning.  I needed to find out more about the technology.  During my ride with him, I am not sure which impressed me more: the technology or his ability to make it through the grid of NYC on his own.  It’s a challenge, for anyone.

How ironic.  It was a blind man who opened my eyes that morning.  When I returned home that evening, I explored the technology of my Samsung Galaxy Pro 10.1 tablet as well as my S3 smartphone.  I forced myself to use the voice-commands to launch applications, set tickler reminders, navigate web sites and use the voice-to-text for crafting emails, text messages.   Since that time, I have upgraded both my phone and tablet to the Galaxy S5 and Galaxy Pro Tablet 12.2 (respectively).  I use GoogleNow (creepy good). After that day, I realized that having sight makes one blind to some of this technology.  Our eyes have actually dumbed us down a bit.

Now familiar with a lot of the text-to-voice and voice-to-text capabilities, I was still missing was a true text-to-speech engine (outside of Google’s built-in voice navigation). Searching the web and Google Play for other people’s experiences, I settled on Ivona for my text-to-speech engine.  This is not to say that Ivona is the best engine out there, but it is free, so that’s a good start.  With Ivona, you need to add in a persona—the voice interface.  I chose “Amy.  Her sultry, sophisticated British accent is perfect since the protagonist in the Sci-Fi I am working on (Silversides) is female.

Unfortunately, Ivona does not allow one to open a document within its application directly, at least in the free application.  The only way is to cut and paste the text from my document into the Ivona applet.  That works great, but you can get lost quickly cutting and pasting text back and forth between your document and the Ivona applet. In addition, the Ivona applet does not like more than about two paragraphs at a time or it will overload the capability and do nothing.

To streamline this aspect, I used an additional application.  I looked at the list of compatible apps, recommended by Ivona, and selected Moon + reader Pro ($2.49).  I looked at the other free apps, read the reviews, but Moon +reader pro seemed to be the app of choice.  I made the right decision because Moon + reader Pro was able to identify both my DropBox and Google Drive folders, making adding documents to Moon + reader Pro’s bookshelf easy.

NOTE:  There is one drawback and that is Moon + reader Pro will not recognize .doc or .docx (WORD) format.  You first need to save your document into at least PDF format for Moon + reader to open into its built-in reader. This is easily accomplished with DropBox’s or Google Docs to convert doc or docx formatted files on the fly. You can open a .doc or .docx file through Moon + reader, but it will launch your default .docx application (in my case, Documents2Go), rendering the text-2-voice aspect out of the picture.

So I now use a combination of both practices.  When editing, I will cut and paste a paragraph from my Document2Go or Google Drive doc file directly into Ivona and play it back.  This allows me to edit until I perfect the read—then I paste it back into my Documents2Go editor and save it back to .docx.

NOTE:  Do not cut and paste too much into Ivona.  I found a paragraph is good.  There are two main drawbacks to loading text directly into Ivona: 1) Too much text takes time to process before it reads it back to you; 2) Every time you stop to edit, then resume, it jumps back to the beginning.

But if I want to hear what I have edited to date, I save to .pdf format, load it onto my Moon +reader Pro bookshelf and let Amy read the most spectacular novel ever written. Priceless.

As a product, I am impressed with the plethora of features of Moon + Pro.  I even downloaded a restaurant menu (PDF) and Amy read everything out loud to me, including the wine list—she’s not much of a drinker and she butchered the French wine names….   I think there is a way to correct pronunciation, but I have not explored that yet.

What you need to know about Moon + reader Pro on Android

The application is packed with features, but getting to those features without reading takes a bit of trial and error, with emphasis on thee error. As an example, I somehow dimed my screen setting within Moon + reader to where I could not see the screen.  I thought it was my tablet settings, but it only occurred when I opened a document within the Moon + reader.  I had to go on-line and learn that if you touch the middle of the document, it brings up the navigation bar.  I then had to go into a dark closet so I could see the screen.  Finding the setting to brighten the screen was buried, but I found the correction by swiping my finger up or down on the left side of the screen: brighten (up) dim (down).  You can also speed up or slow down the speech using finger touch sequences—you will want to learn them right at the start.

Adding files to your bookshelf and favorites is the next thing.  I suggest you do not conduct a search—way too many unrelated documents get loaded and you can only delete one document at a time.

Now that I have taken the time to understand the features of these two apps and how they work in concert with each other, I feel like I have gained sight.  It has helped me in my writing, significantly.  To hear your written words through the voice of someone else is your true editor.  Amy never criticizes my writing, only improves it.

I am using the free beta of Amy.  I think when the beta program ends, I can switch to another persona or outright buy one, but the price is steep ($125 – $250).  I have to admit, I fell in love with Jennifer, but can’t afford her.. just yet….

My writing platform (all links active below)

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NOTES: I have written and published my novella, November Seed (87 pages), and the first draft of Silversides , my Work In Progress (489 pages), entirely on a Samsung Galaxy tab 10.1 and more recently upgraded to a Galaxy Pro Tab 12.2, using android 4.4.4. For compiling my work into .mobi and .ePUB, I use Scrivener’s on an iMac. All eBook cover art was taken on a Galaxy S3 & S5 Android smartphone and using either the onboard photo editing or SnapSeed app for android for finalizing.