A Puzzling Sunday

When I was a kid, I asked my parents for a Star Trek puzzle I saw in the toy store. I think the image was taken from one of the Gold Key comic book covers. I don’t remember how many pieces it was, but it wasn’t an “easy” puzzle because a lot of the pieces were black with stars. Even as a kid, I was obsessive enough that I stuck with it until it was finished.

From that point on, every time a distant relative or family friend asked what kind of gift they should give me, my parents would say jigsaw puzzles. As a parent myself, I can see why. They often have nice pictures and they’re relatively inexpensive, so it doesn’t feel like you’re imposing on those relatives asking for suggestions. The problem is, after doing that first jigsaw puzzle, even though I stuck with it and completed it, I discovered that I didn’t especially like doing it. What’s more, many later puzzles I received had pictures I didn’t even like that much. Oh, they were often pretty enough, but I’d rather see a mountain valley than put together a puzzle with a photo of one.

My wife, though, loves puzzles. She does tell people that she wants puzzles with photos or illustrations she likes, but she is very good with any jigsaw puzzle. Even without looking at the box lid, I’ve seen her pull out random pieces and start putting them together and I’ve seen her put 500-piece puzzles together in under two hours. My daughters have also inherited some of this puzzle skill. So, when our local comic shop started having puzzle tournaments, I suggested to my wife that she should enter. Up until a week ago, she competed in four tournaments with one of my daughters and a friend or two on the team and they’ve won all four. So, it surprised me this past weekend when my wife asked me to join them for the puzzle tournament.

The way these tournaments work is that every team is given the same puzzle. The team gets two hours to work on the puzzle. The first team to complete the puzzle wins. If no one completes it, the team with the largest number of assembled pieces wins. We were given a 1000-piece puzzle featuring an illustration based on John Carpenter’s The Thing. The illustration was largely shades of red and gray. On the team with me were my wife, my youngest daughter and a friend of my daughter’s from school.

Although I’m not altogether a fan of assembling jigsaw puzzles, I’m not bad at them. I’m a sufficiently old-school astronomer that I had to become really good at pattern matching to identify star fields in a telescope eyepiece or on a computer monitor. That old Star Trek puzzle way back probably helped me hone that skill. As an editor, I look for misspelled words and bad grammar. I can see how things fit together from seemingly random patterns. I went along to the tournament for the sake of family together time.

At the end of two hours, we had 261 pieces assembled, a little over a quarter of the puzzle and we were the tournament winners. Our prize—another puzzle. This one was a Scooby-Doo puzzle, that looked a little more to our taste. My wife is now five-for-five at the local comic shop’s puzzle tournaments. She plans to return for at least a couple of more rounds and will compete in the final round at the end of the year. Whether I go back and compete again will depend on how the tournament days line up with my schedule.

This was probably the most fun I had working on a jigsaw puzzle and from what I saw, all the teams had fun. I think for me, the most fun part was spending time and collaborating with my family. I did come away realizing that the obsessive part of me that sees a puzzle through to completion (or until a time limit) is a necessary part to me being a writer. When I start a story, I need to see it through until it’s finished. Stories are not unlike jigsaw puzzles for me in that they often start with flashes of scenes and moments of characters doing something and I really want to see how they all fit together. I think the reason they satisfy me more than puzzles is because I’m the one who created the picture that appears when it’s all finished.

Another fun thing that happened on Sunday is that author Stephanie Kato interviewed me at her blog. Click here to read that interview and learn a little more about me.

Plotting by the Seat of my Pants

Should you plot your stories with meticulous care or should you write spontaneously and see where the muse takes you? I know writers who have an almost religious devotion to each approach and there are certainly pros and cons to each approach. My ability to plot stories before I write them has helped me make sales before I’ve taken the time to actually compose them. In this case, plotting can effectively become a pitch. An editor might solicit an idea from me. Afterwards, I go away and think about it for a time and then throw some ideas about how I would handle the story to the editor. The editor then gives me feedback on what works and what doesn’t work. This can be a very exciting process and it’s one I recently went through with an anthology editor and it’s also how I created the outline for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. Hopefully I’ll be able to share news about the story I just wrote before the year is out.

Those who write by the seat of their pants argue that you don’t always know your characters when you start. The more you write, the more you understand their motivations. If you plot, there’s a danger you force your characters to take actions that aren’t true to them as they’ve developed. That’s a valid point, and one of the ways I counter that is to treat my outline more as a set of goals than as a detailed roadmap. For a short story, it tells me what my characters are going to do to set them off in a direction. It suggests complications they may encounter along the way. I don’t always write an ending. Instead, I think of ways the story might end depending on who the characters turn out to be. It’s exciting when I get to the end and the characters do something I don’t quite expect because its right for them. That happened to me this last week and I like the ending much better than any of the ones I actually plotted in advance.

In a novel, the plot points are a little more defined, but again, I try to keep them general enough that they serve as complications the characters encounter. There is a challenge if the characters diverge far enough from the original conception that they don’t encounter the complications laid out for them. At that point, there’s no choice but to revisit the outline. Figure out what path the characters are on and see whether there’s a way to get them to encounter the original complications or see if you just have to create new ones altogether.

Now, if an outline serves as the basis for a pitch, what happens if the story becomes very different from the outline? This is something I don’t worry about too much for two reasons. First off, good editors are more concerned about finding good stories than assuring your story perfectly matched the pitch you gave them. If the story works and doesn’t violate any guidelines, you’ve still got a really good chance of selling the story to an editor who solicited one from you and liked the pitch. Second, when you make your pitch, you’re not likely to give the editor your entire outline. Mostly you’re laying out the initial situation and the problem the characters are going to be faced with along the way. If you resolve those issues in a different way than you envisioned, no problem. The editor doesn’t necessarily know that. Again, what the editor will care about is whether or not the story works.

For pantsers, I recommend trying your hand at plotting a story or two. It could prove a lucrative and useful skill down the road. For plotters, I recommend leaving enough room in your outline to let your characters breathe and do things you didn’t quite expect. You might be surprised at the result!

Taking Risks

I’ve heard the saying, “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing grows there.” I don’t know who first said it and I can’t find an attribution. I’m guessing it probably started with a wise grandmother. Like most such sayings, it contains truth. As human beings, we need to explore and try new things to grow and develop. If we stay in one spot too long, no matter how beautiful, we begin to languish.

Last weekend, while attending the Bubonicon science fiction convention in Albuquerque, my daughter and I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17 astronaut and the only professional scientist to walk on the moon. After being an astronaut, he went on to become one of New Mexico’s senators. It occurred to me that Dr. Schmitt is a true embodiment of a person who pushed himself to achieve great things. Early in his career, he had to work hard to get a PhD in geology. During the era he entered the astronaut program, he had to learn to become a fighter pilot to convince the head of the Apollo training program, Deke Slayton, that he had what it took to be an astronaut. Even after going to the moon and coming back, he switched gears again to enter politics. I can’t help but admire his life’s journey.

People have sometimes asked me why I write in so many different types of stories. I’ve written science fiction set in the distant future, steampunk set in the past, vampires, and horror set at an observatory. I’ve tried my hand at editing and teaching. I’ve taught myself how to do layouts. Learning these things is one way I’ve moved out of my comfort zone to grow. That said, I was very comfortable back in 2008 as a full time writer and editor doing my own work, editing a magazine, and consulting for El Paso Community College. Then an old colleague came along and asked if I wanted to return to Kitt Peak National Observatory. I had to move out of my comfort zone to say yes to that proposition.

At Bubonicon, on a panel about large scale surveys in science, author and mathematician John Barnes made an offhand comment about how he is much more successful in his writing when he’s gainfully employed doing something else. I thought that was an interesting comment, because I found the same thing when I returned to Kitt Peak. I became a far more productive writer when I had to make time to write. I wasn’t going to stop writing. Taking the job helped me grow and find new time management skills in addition to learning about new instrumentation and new methods of astronomy when I joined the team at Kitt Peak.

My daughter stands with Dr. Schmitt in the photo above. She’s at a phase in her life where she’s applying for colleges and scholarships. This moves her out of her comfort zone, but she knows she needs to do it as part of her life journey. I love that photo because I admire both Dr. Schmitt and my daughter for taking chances to do great things.

That said, one should be careful about bashing comfort zones. Sometimes you can get hurt when you take risks. I’ve taken risks and had stories I thought were a sure thing rejected. There have been times where I’ve been reprimanded for doing what I thought was the right thing. I was grateful for my comfort zone as a place to retreat to, to heal from those painful experiences. The challenge after taking a risk and failing is not to stay in the comfort zone too long. Eventually you need to move out of the comfort zone so you can learn from your experience and then continue on to the next step of the human adventure.

Editing and Ego

A week ago, I was listening to the Freakonomics Radio Show on NPR and caught a segment where they interviewed Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago. The interview was all about why we are poor judges of ourselves. For example we might think we’re wearing a mind-blowing wardrobe, but no one else notices. Or, maybe a professor thinks they’ve given the most poignant lecture ever, only to put the class to sleep. The interview was actually a rebroadcast, so the transcript of the interview is available online here or you can listen to it here. It occurred to me that Epley’s research gives a lot of insight into both the dangers of self-editing and the care one needs to take when editing others.

In the interview, Dr. Epley makes the point that human beings aren’t especially good at knowing what others think of them. The root of this problem is egocentrism. Epley doesn’t use “egocentrism” in a negative context. Rather, he means that we’re the people most expert in ourselves. So, when we change our hairstyle, we know we’ve made a change and understand immediately why we did it. When we say something, we say it from the context of our life experiences. The problem for us as writers is that our readers may not know everything we know, or even understand it the same way we understand it. Readers simply haven’t lived a life with the same experiences we have.

This is actually why editors are so vital to writing. A good editor has a good understanding of the audience you’re trying to speak to and can tell you where you haven’t been clear, or where they won’t understand what you’re trying to say, or where you may imply something you don’t mean at all.

The challenge of editing oneself is that you come to your writing knowing yourself better than anyone else. You know exactly what you meant to say when you wrote it. One way to defeat this is to give yourself time. I’m currently editing The Pirates of Sufiro, which I first wrote twenty-five years ago. I have twenty-five more years of life experience and I don’t see everything the same way I did before, so it’s much easier for me to see places where people could misunderstand what I meant or where I had pictures in my mind I didn’t fully communicate on the page. Now, you may not want to wait twenty-five years to edit your manuscript. If you don’t have a publisher who is covering the costs of editing, and you can’t cover them yourself, you really need a beta reader or two. It’s best if they have somewhat different life experiences than you do and are willing to give you honest feedback.

This actually goes a long way to explaining why its dangerous for family to edit your work. We’re often told its because family will spare your feelings. Those people don’t have my family! However, what family do have are many of the same life experiences. What’s more, they hear you every day and have learned what you mean, even if you may not be clear to someone else. So, utilize your family with caution.

I see an important caution for professional editors in Dr. Epley’s remarks as well. Early in my editing career, I sometimes gave in to the temptation to rewrite a sentence or a paragraph. In this case I’m not talking about replacing a misspelled word or adding a punctuation mark. I’m talking about changing the sentence in an effort to make it more clear. I’ve known other editors who do this as well. The problem is that the editor is now silencing the author and overwriting the author with their words. An editor’s job is not to rewrite. Instead, it’s better for an editor to point out how something can be more effective, or perhaps how they understood a paragraph or a sentence to confirm that’s what the author meant. The editor’s job is to point out how a character did something that doesn’t feel true to that character and let the author fix it. Now, I have some authors I work with and we have developed a rapport. In that case, I may take a crack at rephrasing something, but I endeavor to point out that it’s a suggestion and that the author should feel free to change it or even revert the suggestion if I’ve added unintended words.

The bottom line is that we need editors because our egos sometimes get in the way of expressing ourselves as clearly as we could. However, editors need to beware not to let their egos take over the manuscript. Their job is to make sure the author is communicating clearly and effectively.

Visiting Marceline

My family’s story has been an important inspiration for my novels. My first novel, The Pirates of Sufiro, was a science fiction tale inspired by my mom’s family of Texas and New Mexico pioneers. Learning more about their history led me to write more directly about the wild west in my Clockwork Legion steampunk novels.

When people learn about my interest in genealogy, they often ask me if I’ve taken on of the many DNA tests that are currently on the market. While I think that would be interesting and it’s something I’d like to do, it’s a fairly low priority. Some of that is because of I know the limitations of DNA testing. For example, some genes are passed along patriarchal lines and others are only passed along matriarchal lines. What’s more, genetic markers are based on statistical samples. For example, 80% of Scottish people may show a given genetic marker while 70% of people from Africa may have another genetic marker. So these tests are based on statistical samples rather than absolute measurements. Most of all, DNA doesn’t tell me much, if anything, about the day-to-day lives of my ancestors, which is the stuff that makes good story fodder.

In my recent travels, I paid a visit to Marceline, Missouri. The town is probably most famous as the hometown of Walt Disney. However, I went to pay my respects to my great great grandfather, Paul Teter. I knew he was a veteran of the Civil War and I also knew he was Marceline’s first Justice of the Peace. He was also the father of my great grandmother Montana and her sister Arizona, who I wrote about two years ago. While in Marceline, I paid a visit to the Carnegie Library, which has a depository of newspaper articles and genealogy resources. It proved to be a real treasure trove.

The Carnegie Library’s collection is fabulous. They’ve indexed their newspaper collections, which makes searching them easy. I soon found stories about weddings my great great grandfather officiated over, often having the families over at his house. I learned about his career as a “police judge.” Today, most jurisdictions would refer to the position as a “magistrate judge.” I also found two items of note in the “City and Vicinity” column of the Marceline Mirror dated February 9, 1906. The third paragraph reports that “Mrs. Paul Teter fell and sustained a sprained ankle that disabled her for many days.” A sad bit of news indeed. Two paragraphs below that, we learn, “Elias Disney, of Chicago, is in the city with the expectation of locating on a farm near this place.” The farm is the one Walt Disney grew up on and where he lay under the family’s famous dreaming tree. A DNA test wouldn’t have given me that little connection and I never would have seen the town that is said to have inspired Main Street at the Disney parks.

While searching through the genealogy records at the Carnegie Library in Marceline, I also came across a memory shared by Arizona Teter’s son. He noted that Paul Teter owned a book and stationary store located on the street above. One of his most famous customers was young Walt Disney who would choose a book and sit reading in the window seat until the store closed. Arizona remembered that his favorite book was Robinson Crusoe. There’s something pretty amazing to learn that my great great grandparents contributed to Walt Disney’s love of adventure fiction. I don’t know quite where this research will lead me, but I’m sure it will inspire more stories in the future.

The Pointing Dance

This week, I have been engaged in an important, albeit tedious activity at the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope. I have been building pointing maps. Telescopes are large, bulky machines that have to point with extreme precision and track the almost literal clockwork motion of the sky. They are engineered carefully, but like any machine they are subject to wear and tear. What’s more, to keep getting the best science, telescopes have to be upgraded from time to time. This changes the telescope’s behavior with time.

The WIYN Telescope ready for a night of collecting pointing data

Because the Earth turns constantly, the sky overhead appears to move at a constant rate. To keep objects in the telescope’s field of view, the earliest telescopes were literally mounted to clocks that moved at the sky’s rate. To make these work, you have to imagine a line in the sky that’s a projection of the Earth’s equator. Then you have to tilt your tracking axis to be at the same angle as that imaginary line in the sky. Another way to think about it is that here at Kitt Peak National Observatory, we’re at 32 degrees north latitude, so you have to tilt your telescope 32 degrees up from the southern horizon to track the sky.

Now, if you look at the photo of the WIYN Telescope above, you’ll notice that it’s mounted flat to the floor and it’s not tipped to match our latitude. That’s because it’s expensive to engineer big heavy telescopes so they can be tipped up at an angle. So, the WIYN telescope actually has to track the sky in two axes: azimuth and elevation, kind of like a radar mount. To track the sky, we have to use computers to adjust the tracking rates constantly. The computers only know how fast to track in each axis if they know where we’re pointing in the sky. If there’s an error in pointing, there’s also an error in tracking.

When I tell people I’m a writer and an astronomer who operates telescopes, it’s often assumed that I have lots of free time on quiet nights at the telescope to write. That doesn’t happen on nights of pointing maps. Instead, it’s a busy night of pointing to a star, noting how far off it was from where we expected it and then moving on again. We do this for anywhere from 75 to 100 stars with a telescope like WIYN and the exercise takes about half the night.

The way pointing and tracking are interconnected also make me think of how I use outlines as a writer. With the telescope, we can imagine that I point to a star and correct the pointing at one spot, then let the telescope track. If the computer thinks the star will be a different point in an hour than it really will be, it will track toward that different point and it won’t follow the star. You need to know where the star really will be in an hour.

For me, an outline is like a little like a pointing map. It tells me where the plot is at point A and it tells me where I want to be once I reach point B. With the telescope, it better be pointed at the star at both points A and B. An outline is more flexible. It’s more like a guideline. I try to listen to my characters when I write my outlines and make sure that points A and B make sense for them. However, sometimes as I write, I find characters do things I didn’t quite imagine the first time. The beauty of an outline is I can change point B. The challenge is that when I do, I realize I may also have to change points C, D, and E as the plot progresses!

I’ve been having a lot of fun rewriting my novel, The Pirates of Sufiro for its 25th anniversary release. I actually wrote some of the original draft when the WIYN telescope was first being built in the 1990s. Rewriting the book is the ultimate case of writing to an outline, especially since I don’t want to change it so much that people can’t pick up older editions of the sequels and follow them. I’m expanding the story and letting my characters breathe more. I’m letting them guide me and asking if what they did entirely made sense for those characters. I’m taking them from point A to point B. Those points can’t really deviate, but I do allow myself to add points A.1, A.2, and A.3 to better explain how they moved from point A to point B.

You can read chapters from the previous edition and see how I’m following my version of a “pointing map” by following me Patreon. My site is at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Practice Makes Perfect

I spent last week at Kitt Peak National Observatory assisting with the installation of the Dark Energy Spectrographic Instrument on the Mayall 4-meter Telescope. We spent a couple of months running the refurbished telescope through its paces on the sky with a simple commissioning camera and now it’s time to finish installing the complete instrument. As we get ready to install this complex array of 5000 robot-positioned fibers that feed ten spectrographs, I find myself thinking of the old saw “practice makes perfect.” Well, how exactly do you practice building and installing an instrument no one has built and installed before? As it turns out, there are ways to do this.

One of the major tasks this week has been “dummy” petal installation. The photo above shows a view of the 4-meter telescope from the top. We’re facing the primary mirror (which is covered with white covers that say “Danger: No Step”). In front of that, and right in front of the camera is the prime focus assembly. The 4-meter mirror focuses light into the prime focus assembly. In the old days, a camera sat there. Now there will be 5000-optical fibers aligned with objects on the sky by robot positioners. Those robot positioners are quite delicate and take up a lot of room, so a test petal has been created. The petals fit in the pie-shaped wedges you see in the photo. The dummy petal is the one with Swiss cheese, like holes. It’s carefully guided into position by the red mechanical assembly. Lasers are used to make sure the petal is positioned very carefully and put in at just the right place. Here’s what one of the real petals looks like.

The entire fiber petal sits in the silver box. The black structure on the right is the same size and shape as the Swiss cheese dummy petal. Behind that is a tightly packed array of delicate fibers. The real petal above will have to be placed precisely without breaking anything. So, in this case, we practice by creating a mockup to try out all the procedures and check that we know what we’re doing before we start installing all the really delicate, expensive instrumentation. There will be ten petals like the one in the photo above and light from their fibers will go down to ten spectrographs two floors below the telescope. We currently have six of those spectrographs installed in a clean room.

Currently, three of the spectrographs are in the lower layer of racks. Three are in the upper layer of racks. The spectrographs are where the real science happens. Light that comes down the fibers is spread apart into a literal rainbow and we can see the characteristic fingerprint of the chemical elements of the objects that each fiber in the spectrograph is pointed to.

The spectrographs and the petals remind us that practice makes perfect when you do things repeated times. We’re practicing with the dummy petal, but then we’ll install ten real petals. We’ve installed six spectrographs and we have four more to go. Each time we take another step forward, the easier the process becomes.

Of course, practice made perfect on our way to building these spectrographs in the first place. We built other, smaller fiber spectrographs and learned lessons from their construction. We’ve learned about robotics and we’ve learned lessons from other people who also work in the field by following their work.

Writing is much like this. You practice by doing. You might start with some short stories to get the hang of writing. Then you might try your hand at a novel chapter, then you’ll write another. All the while, you should keep reading to see what others are doing and have done. You’ll learn techniques as you try them out. You will likely encounter difficulties, but as you keep reading, you’ll be sensitive to those difficulties and you’ll see how others have solved them. This is just one of the ways that science has taught me to be a better writer and being a writer has taught me to be better at the science work I do.

You can learn more about my writing at http://www.davidleesummers.com