Sciencing Fiction Be Hard

I like my science fiction accurate. I mean, Star Trek is fantasy, Star Wars is a space opera, and Firefly is a space western. The Expanse, with a couple of exceptions (and excepting the protomolecule and all that jazz), is pretty accurate. That’s what I look for.

So…last week, my critique group was working on two characters in a lunar lava tube with limited suit oxygen. “But there are oxygen candles,” geeknerd me said. But chemistry, but physics, But real rocket engineers in the critique group.

To the internet I go, trying to figure out how heavy a candle needed to be to provide oxygen for one person for eight hours. and what would be the gas volume for oxygen and how would a space suit accommodate the extra pressure. To say nothing of heat production… Sometimes there are bunny trails, sometimes there are rabbit holes, and sometimes…dragon lairs. Oh, and don’t bother Chat-GPT: to the same prompt, I got two different answers:
1. Asked the same prompt and got two answers. “…The amount of oxygen…[is] around 1 to 2 pounds of oxygen per hour…,” and
2. “The total amount [is]…in the range of tens to hundreds of liters per hour…”

In other words, GIGO, one the first computer acronyms that I learned so many years ago.

Watching a Randal Munroe interview was cathartic. Fractal science questioning and answering are what he lives for. (And, also, harassing Commander Hadfield about how a T-Rex would fly on top of an apparent 737s.) Buy his books! What If 2 is brilliant!

Randall’s got more time than I to turn BTUs into thermal conductivity for surface regolith on the Lunar South Pole and how long the tether from the candle to the spike on the surface could be before the cable melted. The solution to all the above? Write out the oxygen candles and have the characters’ situations be more dire. It’s good to be a god. The surviving characters will thank me.

Cartoon Copyright (C) Randall Munroe,, used according to site guidelines.

Trigger Warning: Trigger Warnings

When Sophie’s Choice was released, I went with a date to see it. I didn’t check reviews; I just heard about a great actress. I spent the last half of the movie sobbing and scared the bejeezus out of my date (especially since I had to drive her home). My mother had told me that story, in gory detail, from her multiple personal experiences with the Nazi “selektion” at Auschwitz. Cue “triggering.”

At the last ArmadilloCon, there was a spirited set of discussions, on and off-panel, regarding trigger warnings. Even with the book title “The Property of Blood, ” the author was urged to use a trigger warning for violence.

As someone who’s lived with PTSD for most of their lives and has had the cinematic Vietnam vet flashback, I don’t see it this way. Caveat Emptor needs to be a much finer, more granular warning, if at all. What triggers one person may be fine for another. And where’s the limit? Do we warn if there are giant spiders in the novel? What if there’s non-consensual, non-sexual touching? The echo of trauma from a bully’s beating can be very painful for some readers, but how does one alert the public?

What Ilona said, mostly. But also, if there’s a large amount of specific violence such as anti-<abuse> that’s not on the title or dust jacket, it’s probably not a big deal to add a warning on the back cover just to give a heads-up. My $0.02, IMHO, YMMV.

Publishing & Reality… and Magic

My series, under a nom-de-plum, is finally back in process, after a bout of reality-induced depression and anxiety courtesy of religious fundamentalists in all branches of government. Oh, and nazis. They’re feeling empowered more and more. “This can only end in tears” — ancient parental saying. This was compounded by my having a discussion with a publicist who refused to work with me on the series because the owner is pro-life. (And apparently Jewish practices are anti-life, but I’ll let that one lie.)

So I’m close on the release date of the next book in that series, but having said it would be in “the fall of 2022,” that’s not a small bullseye target.

To restart my engine I returned to a novel I’d completed in first draft, shown to a couple of folks, and knew I needed to make many changes. It’s a YA fantasy novel, with a large world-building component (points a finger at Marshall Maresca’s thoughts and work on that topic).Getting magic right is tricky. Don’t know if I nailed it, but I’ll be reaching out to a few readers in the next couple of weeks.


On the Writing of Romance Novels, and Plot Problems Therein

Wow, I’ve neglected the site for an entire year! Apologies. I published a suspense/murder-mystery novel under a nom de plum, with novel #2 at an editor with an artist teed up to create the cover. #3 is written and past first draft, and #4 is being written. That last one is a departure from the first three, with a focus on character relationships and the consequences brought on by the previous books. Book Three was hard to write–the saying that if an author doesn’t cry while writing it, readers won’t when reading it is true. And Book Four is where pieces get picked up.

That, in turn, brought me to looking at a trunk novel that I’d buried after writing myself to the point where characters and plot needed complications and messy feeling-type issues. Need I say I wrote this a long time ago? I described my issue to a developer while on Focusmate: “Someone hands you 20,000 lines of code and says ‘clean this program up: it’s supposed to be used to count spiders.’ Then you start looking at the code, and it plays music, and a great game a chess, all with cool graphics… but doesn’t count spiders. Now I have to ‘edit’ it to make it do that.” Okay, weird analogy.

Cover of book titled

Image from Wikipedia

My point is that it’s got good bones, this 20-year-old discarded 80k of writing. Interesting characters, great visuals, nice location. All the elements, but not enough plot points to make it a novel. A romance novel. A genre I’ve never written in. About a triad, becoming a quartet. While there’s tons of interesting (and sometimes contradictory) advice on creating a romance novel, (a) it feels more like ingredients and directions for making a very fiddly cake, and (b) it’s all focused on CIS het couples. The only poly novel I’ve read to this point, and one that piqued my personal interest, was Donald Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite.

My takeaway from a few hours searching is that, while LGBTQIA+ realities have (finally) moved more into the mainstream, “Romance,” at least as defined by literally dozens of coaching and writing sites, are still back in the 90s (except for the BDSM components for a little more spice). So, better armed, I’m looking for the “story arc” and “formulas” that do focus on the plurality that love can be.

Or maybe I should stick to SF and M/M? {sigh}

Manuscripts vs. Entropy

Lightning StrikeI’m prepping a manuscript (Last Run) for shopping, after a HUGE number of great changes suggested by the White Gold Wielders writers group here in Austin. Having one’s novel read and commented on in group format is a blessing I would hope for all my novels.

I fired up Scrivener, started making changes, moved from my laptop to my desktop, and Uncle Murphy struck. The result: A few dozen “recovered” files, blank scenes where once text resided. What’s been updated? What’s had changes? Between a Word copy used for the group discussion, a text comparison tool, and a lot of careful scrutiny of the recovered files, I was able to bring the manuscript back to wholeness, with only one scene flagged as “deleted right before the crash–” and therefore not an issue.

Save. Save again. Save yet more. One of the first things a writer learns is “keep a backup.” I have Dropbox, exports to Word, saved zip files of scrivener folder structures for major edits. And still, Murphy manages to get a word in edgewise. Or at least cost me three hours of quality time repairing, because things went splat at exactly the wrong time.

On Authors Finishing Their Book Series

Ilona Andrews, the estimable urban fantasy writing team of Ilona and Gordon Andrews. They’ve done single and series stories and, if UF is your groove, their Kate Daniels and Hidden Legacy series are must-read. They also co-write a great blog, filled with everything from progress reports to yarn (the textile, not stories) to rants and to raves for fellow authors’ new releases. In her latest blog post, she posted a letter about whether authors should finish their book series. I’m not going to go quote her; you can read it for yourself.

Here’s my response to that “writing prompt:”

Great topic! I think Jim Butcher is, from a purely reader perspective, a good example. He got to book 16 out of a professed 20, and then stopped for… years. (He’s coming out with the next two books in the series in 2020.) I’m not getting into reasons on his side, or anything else, but from a reader’s perspective, I’ve got an emotional investment in not just the characters, but the dynamic results of the worldbuilding. For full disclosure, I’ve got all the Dresden books, even {shudder} the graphic ones. Some things are best left, IMHO, YMMV, to the imagination. The Dresden TV series, which lasted all of one season, was pretty good as well, and it was a pity it was canned.

But TV and graphic novels aren’t the issue. The issue is that, for readers, there’s an implicit contract between the reader and the author that they’ll buy the next book in the series — and that it’ll get written. There are caveats to that statement. The Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock books, Agatha Christie’s books… even the Rabbi Smallman books, are, similar to the Simpsons, episodic. There’s a reset button. There’s previous history that accrues, but the end of one book does not insist on a continuation.

George R.R. Martin’s series also doesn’t, in my opinion, require additional books. So many characters come and are killed in each novel that, once the saga reaches a certain point, it can stop. There’s a joke I’ve heard many times that Martin could write a 900-page book just describing snow and people would buy it because it’s in the GoT series.

There’s a flip side to all this. I think there are authors who wrote one last novel in a series to cap it all. (Or for other, less-understood reasons.) Louise Bujold McMaster’s last book in the Barrayar saga, “Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen,” feels to me like an afrterbirth: the essence but not the substance of previous novels. Elizabeth Moon, for all that I’ve loved her space operas and “The Deed of Paksennarion,” ended her Serrano space opera with a pair of novels that, while they were entertaining, were less credulous, and lacked some of the real tension in the previous books in the series.
But I bought them anyway. Because of the author, because of the worldbuilding. But… I won’t buy the next in those series, if there is one, because the joy I felt in the previous books wasn’t matched in their latest.

Hopping back up to the Dresden series, it, at least for me personally, got less and less interesting as Dresden the person became Dresden, the Man Who Talks with Gods (or, at least, the royalty of the Faerie). The tension, the personal loss, the existential danger of Dresden as a human person, has dissipated. Leaving the novels more space opera-esque and less about the man…



In the throws of editing (yet again) a manuscript after paying for a professional editor to go over it. In the process of trimming the piece, I realized how much a countersink. Say the same thing and then say the same thing. Over and over. Each time differently. But don’t just make the point, screw it in tightly. And saying it a different way to be sure the reader knows what I’m trying to say.



Back from hiatus, and starting, edits on my second Shmuley Myers book. It builds on an ultra-Orthodox Jewish Austin police homicide detective in a world (soon to be real, apparently) where every non-birth pregnancy becomes a murder investigation, contraception is illegal, church and state prance together in an evil waltz.

Shmuley needs to balance his roles as a pious Jew, a loving husband, his job as a civil servant, and…

Cuspical Data

Last post I talked about the uncertainty of “that time” between an agent submitting a manuscript to a publisher and when a writer gets a response from the publisher in the form of a rejection or a contract.

Thing the First: A Conversation on Time on Cusp

I posed these questions to Marshall Ryan Maresca, a local Austin published author:

  1. Is there a correlation between the number of requests for a full manuscript and the possibility that it’ll get picked up?
  2. Are there months where publishers generally make decisions on contracting to publish a novel?
  3. How long would a publisher sit on a manuscript they’ve asked for before coming back with a decision? I’d heard a few snippets back at the last ‘Con, but… you’ve been through the grinder a few times now.
The following is a quote, edited to preserve anonymity where necessary, of Marshall’s response:
“Man, let me tell you, that interstitial period in a writers career, where you’ve made that massive level-up achievement of Getting An Agent, but still haven’t sold… it’s rough.  And it is just because you’re in limbo.  You’ve got people asking for it, so that’s good.  But it can just take forever.  I mean, it was about two and half years for me.  [Author], I think four.  As for months when things happen and when they don’t? I mean it all depends.  I hear that a lot DOESN’T happen in the summer months, for example, because editors are often going to cons and such each weekend.  I know that it was about a year between when my agent sent Thorn to [publisher] and when she started reading it, and she really didn’t read it until I went up and said a polite hello at WorldCon.  And my agent was just telling me a story of one editor who kept going, “Yeah, I know, I’m going to read that soon” on someone else’s manuscript for years.  I think Martha Wells made the joke of “glaciers honk at the publishing industry to move faster.”
“(But, on the flip side, you get something like [another author], whose agent sold his manuscript a week after signing him.)
Thus, the big unhelpful answer is, “Who knows, man?”
Well… okay, then. The crystal ball continues my future opacification. All I know is Marshall has a glass of a good scotch coming his way.

Thing the Second: Odds of Getting Agent Representation

Someone posted this article on Austin’s Indie Authors Society Facebook page [link to Nelson Literary Agency here]. Keep in mind this is from an agent, not a publisher. So the numbers and “successes” only mean the author received an offer of representation, not a publishing contract. The crux of Kristin Nelson’s post was this: for four agents, the agency received over 20,000 query letters. Of those, they requested about 440 manuscripts. And of those, a quarter of those authors received an offer letter from the agency to represent the author and try and get their manuscript published.
Bottom line: The agency looked at the manuscripts of 2.25% of the query letters they received. And only 0.56% of all query letter writers were given offers of representation. I strongly recommend reading Kristen’s full blog post for precise numbers and more (and funnier) odds.

Wrapping This Up

Neither of these items is directly connected, except to make a single point: the odds of an author, even with a great book and query letter, are literally minuscule. Not lottery minuscule, but certainly nothing you’d want to pin your mortgage payment on selling that Great Novel. Sigh.

Trunk Novels & Research

By my count I blew five weeks and generated ~100k words on a novel I’m regretfully consigning to the metaphorical trunk. And what’s funny is that I’m sure that if this novel was written forty years ago, it’d be on its way to my agent.

The difference is research and realism. With a little research and math, for example, reveals the sheer impossibility of using a physical “curtain” to secure, deflect, or deorbit satellites. The power budget’s too large, the volume of space, as crowded as it is in LEO, is immense, and the time to manufacture a solution from the time of crisis needed to be measured in many years, if not decades.

Space vehicles aren’t created the way or at the velocity of airplanes that went from idea to combat in World War II. It’s not enough to weld some reaction tanks on a skeleton and call it good enough. I mean, sure, if one’s looking to build non-repeatable and occasionally lethal craft. And while it was easy for me to create and model a graphene/kevlar sheet that could be put into debris’ way in space, the size of the sheets, the speed of cleaning… did I mention that space is big?

One NASA engineer calculated that just LEO orbit was ~1,292,613,096,000 cubic kilometers[1]. Lasers zapping debris? Powdered regolith shot out in sprays to interdict anything in its way and slow it down to deorbit? Dozens of teams of “miners” pulling sats out of range for recycling? Heck, how about putting a small asteroid in orbit to clear a path[2]? These solutions all might have worked in the fanstastical, stories in the Analog of the 1960s through 1980s. But now? I think a writer should be fair with the reader: if it’s science fiction, it has to be based on the most we know of science. And manufacturing, and human nature.

So Brightly Needing is consigned to that black hole into which every novel whose momentum slows below the Schwartzschild radius goes.

Okay, fine. I’ve got short stories to submit, a few to edit and still others to write. Rocking on.