Music for the Journey

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve started evaluating my revisions of The Pirates of Sufiro and deciding whether or not it’s ready for publication as is, or whether I should take the book through another round of edits. As I mentioned in the last post, The Pirates of Sufiro tells the story of a planet founded by pirates and their conflict with even more unscrupulous people. I’ve also come to realize that The Pirates of Sufiro serves as a bridge, showing how a pirate captain like Ellison Firebrandt guided the next two generations into becoming heroes who would save the galaxy.

The first part of this process is making sure characters like Ellison Firebrandt, Carter Roberts, and Suki Mori are true to the characters I envisioned in Firebrandt’s Legacy. I also reread the next two books in the series, Children of the Old Stars and Heirs of the New Earth, to make sure I believe that Fire Ellis, daughter of Ellison Firebrandt, and her son, John Mark Ellis, are where they need to be. Of the two, I think Fire will need the most help in Pirates while John Mark needs a little more work in Children of the Old Stars.

The good news of my reading adventure is that while it looks like I’ll be spending a little more time rewriting The Pirates of Sufiro than I originally expected, the rewrites of Children and Heirs will probably go a bit quicker than I initially expected. In fact, I’m thinking once Pirates is released, it’ll only take about two or three months to finish the new editions of the next two books.

To elaborate a bit on the issue of character consistency, one element of the story that becomes increasingly important as the series progresses is that John Mark Ellis comes from Nantucket. He has a connection with the sea and has even become acquainted with Earth’s whales as intelligent beings. I think there’s enough connection with Nantucket and the whales in Pirates that these things don’t come out of the blue. Nantucket takes on greater importance in Children of the Old Stars.

Despite that, there’s a scene where a character looks into Ellis’s mind and sees a castle on the Scottish moors. I wrote that because I imagined Ellis’s ancestors as Scottish, but it doesn’t really serve a story point or fit Ellis’s self image. In the new edition, look for him to be sheltered in a light house against a raging sea. In another scene in Children of the Old Stars, I imagine Ellis humming “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I did this at a point where he reaches an important decision and it happens because Ulysses S. Grant was an early inspiration for the character and I wanted that Civil War connection. The problem is that Ellis himself wouldn’t see that connection. He would actually sing songs related to Nantucket and whaling. This led me on a quest to find such songs. During the search, I discovered a wonderful musician and educator named David Coffin based in Boston. He has an album called David Coffin and the Nantucket Sleighride which includes songs just like the ones I was looking for. I even discovered that one of the old songs from circa 1820 fits the mood of the scene I was looking for very well. What’s more, his old songs are great for getting me in the mood to write scenes with Ellis. If you want to learn more about David, his website is: http://www.davidcoffin.com. His albums are available on Amazon and iTunes and I highly recommend them if you want to learn more about sea chanteys and early American music.

The Waiting Game

Two weeks ago, I mentioned that I’m about to wrap up three book projects. One is the novel Upstart Mystique by Don Braden, which I’m editing and publishing. One is the anthology Exchange Students edited by Sheila Hartney that I’m publishing. The third is my novel, The Pirates of Sufiro, which I’ve revised for its twenty-fifth anniversary release. Over the last couple of months, each of these projects has involved a lot of time at the computer. I’ve been reading, revising, sending emails and making sure that everything is ready for typesetting and final cover creation. I have completed preliminary typeset copies of Upstart Mystique and Exchange Students and I’m just waiting for the covers to proceed. The Pirates of Sufiro is out with early readers. And so now I wait…

Okay, my cover artist, Laura Givens, works fast enough, I don’t imagine I’ll be waiting long, but finishing the typesetting does depend on having a finished cover. That might surprise some readers, but the reason for this is to assure the book has a cohesive look. I like to make sure the fonts used in the headers and on the chapter titles is a close, if not exact, match for the fonts used on the cover. This is certainly not an absolute requirement for publication, but I think it gives the book a much more polished and professional look.

For me, the transition from being very busy to waiting for stuff I need to complete projects is always a bit of a challenge. I wonder what my early readers are going to think about that stuff I’ve been slaving over for the past year. Are they going to like it or tell me I was wasting my time? I always look forward to seeing the covers Laura comes up with for work. Waiting for those is more akin to waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve. I know good stuff is coming, I just don’t know exactly what it is. Of course, it’s not productive to sit around fidgeting about either of these. I think the very best things a writer can do while waiting to hear back from people is write something or read something. In that spirit, I’ve been catching up with some fun reading and will share some of that over the next couple of posts. I also started working on a model of the Enterprise from Star Trek: Discovery that I received as a Christmas present. You can see the work in progress in the photo.

I spent a day during my first break of the new year making sure I had everything I needed to complete the model. I planned to start it once these projects were all complete as a sort of reward to myself, but I decided to get an early start. It turns out this model is a very simple build, but it has a LOT of decal work. I decided that I really needed to invest in a product I’ve seen recommended to me on several modeling forums and by some friends called “Micro Sol” which really helps the decals settle onto the surface of the model. Of course, this is the one thing I needed I couldn’t find locally, so I had to order it. So, I’m waiting on that project as well! So, I’m back to reading and thinking about what writing projects are next for me. I do a lot of my thinking by walking, so I am getting some exercise in while I wait. If people keep me waiting long enough, who knows? I may just get that next writing project started.

A Stormy Holiday

This year, I spent Thanksgiving on the job at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Because my daughter had the week off, we opted to have our family celebration at home on Monday before my work week began. Over the last dozen years, I’ve spent several Thanksgivings on the job. It’s not necessarily a bad way to spend the holiday. My co-workers and I get to share a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving.

Of course we have diverse political views, so sometimes we find ourselves skirting those topics just like many families around the country. In many ways, those of us who work at the observatory are like a family, bound by a common passion for exploring and understanding the universe around us. Moving that mission forward is one of the things that makes working at the observatory on a holiday worthwhile.

Then again, working at a ground-based observatory, we’re subject to the wiles of the weather and this holiday weekend has proven to be a stormy one. Times like this do give us awesome sunsets like the one above, but not much time looking at the stars. We had rain, fog, and wind gusting upwards of 70 miles per hour. These are not conditions one should subject precision scientific instrumentation to. So, why do I have to hang around on nights like this?

First and foremost, there’s the chance the weather may improve enough for us to open. In fact, on my first two nights of this shift, even though the weather looked hopelessly bad, we did manage to get about two hours of data each night when the weather calmed and dried out briefly. Another reason I have to be available is that some of the instrumentation will be damaged if we lose power. On a remote mountaintop in the Arizona desert with 70 mile per hour winds and rain and snow, that’s a real possibility. If power goes out and doesn’t come back before battery backups drain, I may have to jump into action to start an emergency generator. What’s more, we have had circumstances where the weather has damaged buildings and I may need to take action to protect the telescopes or instrumentation.

Fortunately, our buildings and power systems are designed well enough, I don’t have to spend my entire night actually saving the telescope. So, while I’m waiting to see if my services are needed, I get a chance to do some proofreading. This weekend, I’m proofreading the novel Upstart Mystique by Don Braden, which my company Hadrosaur Productions will be publishing in early 2020. It’s a great science fiction novel about a group of colonists who are pulled off course and are forced to land on a planet they didn’t intend to settle before their ship is destroyed. The novel explores fascinating questions about human and machine intelligence.

I became a writer because I love to read. Hadrosaur Productions exists, in part, as a way to give back. The company allows me to seek out writers whose voices deserve to be heard and bring their books to readers. I know many people who read this blog are fans of my writing, but I encourage you to check out the works of the other people I publish as well. This holiday season, I’m especially thankful for writers like Greg Ballan, Joy V. Smith, and David B. Riley who have given me the privilege of editing their stories and I’m thankful to all the readers who are eager to find new, exciting fiction. As we enter this holiday season, please take a look at http://www.hadrosaur.com. I bet you’ll find a good book to share with the adventuresome readers in your life.

Textual Origami

Back in 1993, when I was first writing my novel, The Pirates of Sufiro, I created a very broad synopsis of each of the novel’s four parts. I wrote one page in a notebook describing what I expected to happen in that part of the book. Then, as I had time, I wrote the scenes that, I hoped, would bring the story to life. When I’m working on a novel, I often have a flash of a moment in a story. Back then, I was good about writing those moments down right when they happened. I would then call it a completed scene, then start thinking about the next “moment.”

Reading the novel now, over 25 years later, I realize many of those moments read more like scene fragments rather than complete scenes in their own right. The scene fragment might describe something significant that happens to a character, but it’s over and done with so fast that we don’t really feel like we spent time with the character or got to know how that fragment fit in the story’s bigger context. So, one of the things I’m doing in the novel’s 25th anniversary edition is identifying fragments that can be folded together into longer scenes, so the reader spends more time with each character getting to know them and understand their motivations a little more before moving on to another scene. I’ve begun to think of the process as textual origami.

As an example, I had a scene fragment where a colonel is watching a holographic display of a space ship. His adjutant arrives and they have a brief conversation. I then move onto another scene fragment with other characters. In the next scene fragment with the colonel, he’s still watching the hologram. Another ship arrives. Then we move onto the next fragment. It occurred to me, there’s no reason at all that the two fragments of the colonel and the hologram couldn’t be combined into one scene. The colonel and his adjutant could be talking when the second ship arrives, adding another layer to the scene.

Over the years, as I grew as a writer, I tended to get better about creating longer scenes all on my own. However, I still occasionally wrote and inserted a scene fragment here or there. I didn’t really think about my tendency to create scene fragments until I wrote my novel Owl Riders just a couple of years ago. The novel’s editor was the first editor to encourage me to combine some of these fragments into longer scenes. Once it was pointed out, it was easier to see my scene fragments in other novels.

Admittedly, not every scene fragment needs to be folded into long, extended scenes. Sometimes a fragment can help to highlight a moment or emphasize a very particular incident. With that in mind, I think the scene fragment is a very powerful tool, but its one that should be wielded carefully.

If you want to see more in-depth posts detailing my process of rewriting The Pirates of Sufiro for its 25th anniversary edition, I encourage you to support my Patreon campaign at http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. Also, I should point out that supporting my Patreon campaign is also a way to help support this blog. I took the leap earlier this year to buy paid WordPress hosting for this blog to give readers an ad-free experience. A portion of the money I get at my Patreon site helps to cover the hosting fees.

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.

Trimming Files

This weekend finds me at El Paso Comic Con. If you’re in the Sun City this weekend, I hope you’ll drop into the convention center and say “hi.” In the week leading up to the convention, I’ve been working on a project that’s both tedious and fun. In effect, I’ve been working as an assistant sound engineer on the audio edition of my own book, Firebrandt’s Legacy.

I’m working with Eric Schumacher of Seelie Studios to create a full-cast audio book. Eric is in the photo above, to the left. Creating full-cast audio adventures has always been a goal of Hadrosaur Productions and our partnership with Seelie is a way to help make that happen. I’m very excited that a vital member of the cast is Geoffrey Notkin, the multi-award winning host of the Science Channel’s Meteorite Men series, who will be narrating the audio book. That’s him on the right in the photo above.

The process of creating the audio book started with Eric chopping my story up into the parts each actor would read. He and I worked together to cast the parts, then he’s been bringing each actor in to read their lines. What happens is that Eric creates an audio file for each actor reading several different takes of their line. Each take might involve a slightly different emotional nuance or emphasize different words in the hopes of finding just the right dramatic impact. Now this is where I come back into the picture.

We now have long audio files with each actor saying the line several different ways, plus each of these files has all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes. There’s discussion with the director about the reading plus there’s some laughing and joking. My job has been to create individual audio files of each individual take and catalog them in the order they appear in the story. Eric will then review these files with the audio editor and combine them into the final audio book.

What we’re recording right now is just the first chapter and I already have over a thousand audio files. As you can imagine, the process of trimming and the final process of stitching these back together will take a while. Now, each chapter of Firebrandt’s Legacy is a stand-alone short story. Once we finish this first chapter, we plan to release it, then start a crowdfunding campaign to finish the book. Our goal will be to raise enough money to pay all the actors, the director, and the audio engineers a fair salary for the amount of work it’ll take to record the remaining fourteen chapters.

I’ve been having a fantastic time listening to each actor’s interpretation of the story’s characters. In fact, I even have a part in the audio book as well and I’ll talk more about that closer to release time. In the meantime, you can learn more about the collaboration between Hadrosaur Productions and Seelie Studios by visiting http://www.bookmediasolutions.com. If you want to be notified of the crowdfunding campaign when it starts, be sure to sign up for my newsletter at http://www.davidleesummers.com. If you don’t want to wait for the audio book campaign and would like to help make this a reality right now, be sure to check out my Patreon page at http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. If you sign up there, you can even read the entire book through the posts and get a sneak-peak at the re-edited edition of The Pirates of Sufiro that I’m currently working on.

Lasers on Telescopes

For me, the phrase “lasers on telescopes” brings to mind super villains capturing top secret astronomical facilities in order to execute a nefarious plan. I think of Mr. Freeze capturing Gotham Observatory to build a giant freeze ray in the movie Batman and Robin. Perhaps a funnier and better example is Chairface Chippendale using a laser in a telescope to deface the moon with his name in the TV series The Tick.

Laser measuring tool (on yellow arm between black mirror covers) over the Mayall primary mirror.

In fact, lasers are used on telescopes. Perhaps the best known real-world examples are telescopes that use laser guide stars. This is a technique where astronomers fire a laser mounted on the telescope into the sky. The laser light is scattered by the atmosphere, but optics in the telescope correct that light back into the proper size beam and also correct the stars seen at the same time. We had a system like that at the 2.1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak run by CalTech. There was also a system like that at the 3.5-meter telescope at New Mexico’s Apache Point Observatory.

Now, these lasers are not ones that are likely to be co-opted for nefarious purposes by super villains. Lasers used for guide stars just aren’t that powerful. That said, they can’t be used with impunity. The artificial guide star laser at Kitt Peak was visible in the ultraviolet band and would interfere with optical telescopes also observing in that band. What’s more, I’ve been told Apache Point Observatory had to clear laser firings with the Air Force, who had a base nearby. The observatory’s laser wasn’t likely to shoot down planes, but we could imagine tragic results if a pilot happened to fly through a laser’s line of sight only to be blinded.

This past week, while working at the Mayall 4-meter telescope, we were also using a laser. In this case, it wasn’t fired at the sky, but the laser was mounted on the telescope’s mirror cell and fired at different surfaces on the telescope to get precise measurements. Now that the refit for DESI is nearing completion, the engineers need to make sure everything went back together as it was designed. They need to make sure all the new parts are placed in just the right place. If not, this is the time to make adjustments. Measurements of telescopes are important because they help to assure that astronomers can focus the telescope properly. Precise measurements are also critical to determine the proper weight distribution of the telescope, which in turn helps it track the sky precisely.

As it turns out, I also spent part of this past week working on an adaptive optics system a little like those laser systems I mentioned. However, the WIYN Tip-Tilt Module doesn’t actually use a laser. Instead, it takes precision measurements of an actual star and uses optics within the instrument to bring that star as close as possible to a precise point. I’ve seen it used to deliver incredible image quality with stars only 0.3 arcsecs across. To put that in perspective, star images with WIYN are typically more like 0.8 arcsec across. The size difference is the result of atmospheric blurring.

This all echoes something I’ve been saying in the past few blog posts. If something isn’t quite right, there are ways to fix it, even when its a multi-million dollar scientific project. By comparison, books are much easier to fix. It’s why beta readers and editors are so important to the writing process. They help us see places where we didn’t express ourselves clearly, made something work in an artificial way, or simply used the wrong word. It’s part of why reviews are so important. Reviews help customers, but they also help writers because they tell them what worked and didn’t work.

Over the years, reviews helped me refine my craft until I could write books like Owl Riders and Firebrandt’s Legacy. And yes, reviews are helping me shape the 25th anniversary edition of The Pirates of Sufiro, which I’m working on right now. I hope you’ll join me on a journey to one of the worlds I’ve created and, if you do, please leave a review to let me and others know what you thought. The titles in this paragraph are links where you can get more information about the books.