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.

The Hands of Fate

While reading the book of plays, Uncanny Encounters – Live! by Paul McComas and Stephen D. Sullivan a few weeks ago, I was reminded that Sullivan had written a novelization of the movie Manos: The Hands of Fate. The movie has been declared by people such as the writers of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Elvira as the worst movie ever made. The movie fascinates me personally because it opens on El Paso’s Transmountain Highway and much of it is set in the familiar desert between El Paso and Las Cruces. It is a terrible movie and I’ve only survived my viewings by laughing along with hosts such as those I mentioned. So, I was very curious what Sullivan did with a novelization of such a movie.

I put the book on my Christmas list and lo and behold it arrived and I devoured it between Christmas and New Years. The novel takes a humorous, snarky tone and could really be seen as a companion to the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version. It’s very self aware and has fun with the movie’s problems. That said, the book made me aware that Sullivan had not written just one novelization, but two. The other, Manos: Talons of Fate, attempts to turn the campy film into a serious horror novel. I downloaded it to my Kindle, and I must say, Sullivan does a fine job of using the movie as a basis for a chilling, Lovecraftian tale.

According to the book Huh? by Hal C.F. Astell, Manos: The Hands of Fate was the result of a bet made in a coffee shop between fertilizer salesman and insurance agent Harold P. Warren and Stirling Silliphant, a writer for the TV series Route 66. Warren apparently played a bus driver in the series and he bet Silliphant that anyone could make a movie and see it released. In fact, he started plotting the movie on the spot. No doubt that very cynicism that just anyone could make a movie is part of why people are happy to have seen it turn out so bad. However, despite that issue, Harold Warren had the tenacity to see the project through and complete it, something many would-be writers never manage.

What fascinates me about Sullivan’s approach in this novel is that he doesn’t alter the plot very much at all. Instead, he delves deeper into the characters’ heads and lets us understand why they are doing what they are doing. He gives the scenes more detail and depth while letting them play out very much like they did on screen. He does add a few things that don’t happen on screen, but he keeps that to a minimum. The result is a wonderful demonstration of the thin line that exists between a story that works well and one that doesn’t work at all.

Sullivan’s exercise in writing two novelizations of Manos: The Hands of Fate also interests me because it’s not unlike what I’m currently doing at my Patreon site. I’m presenting chapters of my novel The Pirates of Sufiro as they appeared in the most recent print version and giving some brief analysis of what worked and didn’t work, then within a couple of weeks, I’m releasing an edited chapter. While I certainly hope the most recent edition of The Pirates of Sufiro doesn’t descend to the level of the movie Manos: The Hands of Fate, it was my first novel and I don’t feel I did as good a job describing characters and situations as I could have. I also don’t feel like all the story’s “beats” hit where they needed to.

My goal with Pirates is much the same as Stephen Sullivan’s goal with his novel. I want to improve Pirates, but I don’t want to change it so far that it become unrecognizable. If someone picks up a different edition of one of the sequels, I still want them to be able to read with confidence that the same major events transpired in all editions of the novel. You can support me in this experiment at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. Please drop by and browse the posts. While many posts are reserved for patrons, several are free so you can get a sense of the work I’m doing. I hope you like what you see.

The Circle of (a Writer’s) Life

On Friday, I typed “The End” at the bottom of the last page of my latest book, Firebrandt’s Legacy. The book collects previously published stories of a space pirate captain named Ellison Firebrandt and his crew and adds some new stories to create what amounts to a “fix-up novel.” Each chapter is a short story, but the whole thing forms a complete story arc.

Like typing “The End” on most books, this really represents the beginning of the road to publication for this book. In this case, I don’t expect editing to be quite as arduous as some books I’ve worked on. Many of the original stories have been edited by such people as Hugo-nominated editors Jennifer Brozek and Bryan Thomas Schmidt. Of course, the new stories will need a critical eye and care will need to be taken to make sure the stories all work together as a whole. For those who want an early look, chapters 1 and 12 are available for anyone to read at my Patreon site. Thirteen chapters are available to read for all patrons—and it only costs $1.00 per month to be a patron. You may cancel at any time. I plan to share the last two stories this month. The site is: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Now these chapters are likely to get tweaked as beta readers and my editor work their way through it, but your support will help me pay cover artist Laura Givens and help pay the costs of editing and typesetting the book. What’s more, to show my appreciation, I plan to share a gift code with my patrons that will allow them to download the complete book once finished. I’ve also adjusted my Patreon goals. One of those goals is that with sufficient support, I can make this blog ad free.

As it turns out, I finished this book the day after I received news that I had been promoted from “Observing Associate” at Kitt Peak National Observatory to “Senior Observing Associate.” In essence, the promotion recognizes my seniority at the observatory plus the work I’ve been doing with the on-line manuals for my fellow operations’ staff.

These moments coming together do cause me to reflect on where I’ve been and where I’m going. I worked in astronomy full time from 1990 until 2000. At which point, I decided to devote myself to writing and editing full time. I did that until 2008 when staff members at Kitt Peak asked me if I wanted to return. I agreed under the provision that writing was recognized as my primary career. So far, my supervisors have been very supportive of this. I also returned because I feel astronomy is a way that I contribute to the larger body of human knowledge. My position as an astronomer and a writer allows me to communicate some of what we learn to the public through appearances at conventions and through this blog. This broader support mission is not part of my job, though, it’s supported through sales of my books and Patreon supporters.

My schedule at the observatory is not all that flexible, it involves working long nights, and those nights often require full concentration. My pay is pretty good for living in the southwest, but even with the most recent raise, it’s still below the average salary in the US according the Census Bureau. I note this just to point out that despite my full-time job, I’m not a well-to-do hobbyist. I do need support from sources like book sales and Patreon to continue publishing and to afford travel to events.

So, looking ahead, I’ll spend this fall polishing Firebrandt’s Legacy for publication. I’m scheduled to appear at several events including Bubonicon in Albuquerque, CoKoCon in Phoenix, TusCon in Tucson plus I’ll be signing books next month at a local bookstore. More about each of those soon.

I’m also working on some projects that I can’t discuss yet and am not entirely sure when I’ll be able to announce them or whether they’ll bear fruit at all. I say this less to tease you and more to say I am working on things in the background. In the meantime, as I announced on July 21, after Firebrandt’s Legacy is complete, I do plan to turn my attention to a new edition of The Pirates of Sufiro, which was my very first novel. In a way, “The End” on Firebrandt’s Legacy has caused me to spiral back to the first book I wrote and I hope to take what I’ve learned on life’s journey so far and make it an even better book. Whether it’s through my books, appearances at conventions, Patreon, the web journal or some combination, I hope you’ll come along with me for this exciting journey.