One Million Words… and Counting

This is my 20th year participating in National Novel Writing Month. Every November since 2002 I have challenged myself to write at least 50,000 words of a novel.

Every year so far, I’ve succeeded.

Today, I reached a significant milestone. Cumulatively, NaNoWriMo, has allowed me to write 1,000,000 words.

November 6, 2022. Author Charles James has cumulatively written over 1,000,000 words directly through participation in National Novel Writing Month.

For the record, my millionth word is somewhere this sentence:

Hey, I get it,” Raddock said. “This ain’t easy. That’s why you chief engineers make the big bucks.”

I was kind of hoping it might come out in a sentence that was more dramatic. But I’ll take it.

In the Beginning

NaNoWriMo Logo circa 2002 courtesy of the Wayback Machine.

I started National Novel Writing Month back in 2002. Back then I was working on my PhD and really didn’t have the time for something so ambitious. To hit 50,000 words in a month, someone like me needs about two hours per day to dedicate strictly to writing. That’s a huge commitment when you’ve got a candidacy to prepare for, experiments to run, code to debug, and academic papers to write. But writing is my constructive down time that allows me to be fully engaged and focused in all the other things that I do. So I gave it a go.

My first NaNo novel was an origin story about a ninja who worked for the mafia. The story fell on its face at about word 50,001, but I had fun writing it. In 2002 the NaNoWriMo website was pretty basic, but it allowed people all over the world to cluster together in regions where local “municipal liaison” (ML) volunteers would schedule meet ups. That first year I was so excited to finally start meeting some other writers, but I think we only had one event, and like my novel, it kind of fell on its face.

2003 was the year NaNo really took off in my local region. As October 2003 rolled around, I realized I was looking forward to November. And I mean… who looks forward to November?

The website had forums and on them, people were getting excited. I had an idea for a science fiction series about interplanetary marshals and bounty hunters. We had a new local ML who organized planning sessions and then, when November hit… write-ins! To anyone who hasn’t attended a write-in they must seem particularly odd. Back in 2003 we would all have been huddled around in a restaurant with clunky laptops all taking turns plugging into one available outlet, and quietly pounding out words. Then every twenty minutes or so, boisterous laughter.

Making Time

NaNoWriMo is not about producing a quality book, at least not in November. Writing that much, that fast, you can’t. (Or at least I can’t.) But what it does allow you to do is exercise your creativity as a writer. Over the years I have written science fiction, fantasy, westerns, thrillers, action-adventure stories, steampunk, horror, and stuff that doesn’t really fit well inside a genre box. Overall I’ve learned about crafting a story, not just the knowledge of “how” to do it, but what come from all that writing (and feedback when sharing the work) is the development of the skill in applying it. Knowledge and skill are two different things. It’s important for writers to have both. You can gain knowledge from courses, from reading, from conferences, etc. but skill… skill comes from doing.

In 2005 I successfully defended my PhD, started a new job as a post-doctoral researcher, got married… and still won NaNoWriMo.

From 2007 to 2009 I completed a clinical residency in medical physics. It’s called a residency because you more-or-less reside at the hospital. I also wrote my national certification exams… and I still won NaNoWriMo.

2010… my first child was born. I was a new dad. I also commissioned a new cancer center, including setting up two new nuclear accelerators and a CT simulator… still won NaNoWriMo.

2014… fellowship examination. I was now the father of two young children and a senior medical physicist…. still won NaNoWriMo.

From about 2016 – 2019 I volunteered as the Municipal Liaison in my city. I organized prep-parties, write-ins, and TGIO parties. I was even there a few times when no one showed up… and I still won NaNoWriMo.

Could I have been doing something more productive? Yes and no. I mean sure, I could have put that time into research, starting a business, etc. But writing is my constructive down time. Other people play music, paint, draw, do computer animation, build Lego, etc. Constructive down time makes you more efficient, more engaged, and more resilient against burn out. Once you start seeing it as necessary, it’s no longer a “waste of time” but an investment.

Writer to Author

Last year, in 2021, I took a major step. I took a manuscript I had been working on for a while. It wasn’t a NaNo novel per se, though many elements of prior NaNo novels come together in it, and I scraped together some extra money and hired a professional editor… shout out to Adria Laycraft. I had been workshopping this novel with my writing group for some time, but I decided to take the plunge. With a couple rounds of critical editing, I formed my own company, Megavoltage Publishing, and in June, I released my first major science fiction novel, First Command.

First Command by Charles James

The reviews have been incredible. The book has been consistently in Amazon’s top 200 of Teen and YA Space Opera novels. And the success has allowed me to start working on a sequel, which I began writing as a NaNo novel last year. Black Hole (stay tuned for release date info) is now going through its final revisions and I plan to release it in early 2023!

A Note of Thanks

I’d like to close with a note of thanks. Thank you to the team at the (former) Office of Letters and Light, now the non-profit group National Novel Writing Month. Thank you to the sponsors and donors whose generosity keeps this craziness running year after year. Thank you to all the people who volunteer as Municipal Liaisons, and those who support them, for all of the time and hard work that they put into local events and helping writers to connect. Thank you to my own community of writers, and those communities I have had the privilege of being a part of over the past 20 years. And of course thank you to my family and friends for always supporting me.

Harnessing Terror To Tell A Great Story

Deep down, everyone experiences fear. Sometimes it can motivate us to do things we otherwise wouldn’t do. Sometimes it prevents us from doing what we know we should. Now that Halloween is upon us, I thought it might be a good idea to look at how this emotion can be used to drive not just the horror genre, but fiction in general.

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The Basis of Fear

“…fear is a fighter’s best friend… it ain’t nothing to be ashamed of. See, fear keeps you sharp, it keeps you awake, you know, it makes you want to survive. You know what I mean? But the thing is, you gotta learn how to control it. All right? ‘Cause fear is like this fire, all right? And it’s burning deep inside.”

– Sylvester Stallone as Rocky in Rocky V

At its most fundamental level, fear is a reaction to a perceived threat or dangerous situation.

When you recognize a threat, your amygdalae (almost-shaped clusters of nuclei in your brain’s cerebrum) release hormones like epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. This rush of hormones dilates your blood vessels and airway, quickens your pulses, increases blood flow to skeletal muscles and elevates blood sugar levels. In short, it triggers an intense degree of alertness, focused on the threat, and enables quick defensive or aggressive actions. This is quite commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” response. When seen through the lens of evolution, this stimulus-response reaction makes a lot of sense. That hyperaware state might make you notice the snake slithering in the branches over your head, or the panther crouching in the bushes.

As a writer, you can tap into that heightened focus, using your story as stimulus.

Classical Horror

The specifics of what people fear are fascinating, particularly in a classical sense, before our collective psyches were desensitized through repeated televised exposures.

Anthony Camara, an associate professor with the University of Calgary, argues that vampires, werewolves and mummies first appeared in the 19th century. For a very long time in western human culture the human body was seen as divine, and separate from the animal kingdom, but as we came to understand evolution, this worldview had to shift.

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Classical werewolves are a shape-shifter archetype. At the risk of speculating, the shifter, as a fear, may derive from a fear body dysmorphia… that a body does not look “as it should.” At the same time an argument can be made that this archetype has a root in fear of change. Thinking back to Michael J Fox in 1985’s Teen Wolf, there is a strong parallel with puberty. Suddenly you’re hairier than you used to be, emotions are more intense, you can venture out into the night, and you’re a lot more powerful than you were as a kid. Connected to this, there is also a fear of an inner animal, that uncontrollable unbridled emotional element of the human psyche that doesn’t obey the rules and brings forth chaos … Jeckel and Hyde… and from this even the Incredible Hulk.

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Zombies although “re-animated,” are often a symbolic (if not literal) representation of death. They embody both death’s random nature and its relentless forward march. You can keep ahead of them and stay safe for brief periods of time if you follow some simple rules, but horde doesn’t stop. The stories that evolve against the zombie background rise from those moments of humanity (or the hope for it) in the face of an unstoppable tide. That said, there are other elements of symbolism in the zombie milieu. It’s been argued that 1968’s Night of the Living Dead was a response to much of the imagery coming out of the Vietnam war.

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Monsters like Godzilla, or the Alien “xenomorph”, or even our fascination with the dinosaurs, can be seen to represent the fear of our place in the world, that despite all of the great advances of our technology, we human are not at the top of the food chain. In a more subtle way you could even lump vampire characters… those monsters of the night that feed on us, and to whom we must surrender our free will.

Our Biggest Fears

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

– Marianne Williamson

According to a 2014 survey published in the Washington Post, the number one fear in the US was public speaking with over 25% of people reporting this fear. More broadly, this can be lumped in more generally with social fears or anxieties.

Fear of heights is up there too.

Photo by Karen Lau00e5rk Boshoff on Pexels.com

Creepy crawlies… snakes, spiders, bugs. This fear is very much rooted in evolution. In that link they talk about reactions that babies have to pictures of snakes and spiders that trigger an innate disgust response. Interestingly, pictures of animals like bears or rhinos (presumably far more dangerous) don’t invoke a similar response. There is likely an evolutionary advantage in noticing and keeping away from creatures that hunt or defend themselves with venom. Presumably without this, we wouldn’t move. But when there’s a bear or a rhino close, you’ll have other reasons to get out of its way, even if from a distance you think it’s kind of cute.

Closed spaces… claustrophobia. People with this fear can find small enclosed spaces unbearable. Movement and even air supply can fell limited and they can be overcome with a sensation of compression.

There are a lot of other common ones too… fear of flying, the dark or being unable to see, fear of disease, of blood, extreme weather, and death all round out the top 10.

Using Fear to Drive Story

Now that we know a little something about fear, how can writers, including non-horror writers, use this to make their stories engaging? I would argue that even in cozy romance, there reader will have a desire to see the two characters get together, but underneath that, is a fear that they won’t, a fear that some blundering misunderstanding, some bad decision or some inherent character flaw will keep them from finding their happiness.

There are two kinds of fear to be aware of in storycraft… the fear experienced by the characters in the story and the fear experienced by the reader as they watch what happens. Sometimes they are the same, but not always. In first draft, I find it’s important to think about what emotions the characters are experiencing, but then in subsequent drafts, think specifically about the reader.

To use fear effectively, you first need a character the reader cares about. Establishing that reader-character bond quickly is critical. I don’t think there’s ever a sure-fire way of doing it, but some things that help are giving the character a clear goal, forcing them to confront problems that are relatable to your audience, giving them interesting quirks, and having the character care deeply about something or someone.

Next you need a stimulus or a trigger… something that will put that character in peril. And it doesn’t always have to be physical peril. Remember, some people are just as afraid (if not more so) of being made to speak at the front of a full lecture hall as they are of standing in front of a hungry tiger. Ideally that peril will also oppose any goal that character has.

Now crank it up. Add a ticking clock so that the reader can measure and track the impending confrontation. Give the reader some information the character doesn’t have. (Or at very least don’t go the other way–it’s hard to create a satisfying story where the character is aware of something the reader is not.)

Compound the threats. One dramatic way to escalate the tension is to have the character search for, and attempt to solve the problem, but then have each attempt at a solution somehow draw the real threat closer, or add another one.

Avoid comfort. Sometimes it’s necessary for the story pace to slow down. The characters and the reader need to catch their breath, experience the less immediate emotions that come from whatever is happening to them, and plan for the next phase of the story so they can take agency for the outcome. But don’t let them get too comfortable, otherwise the reader will feel as though they have reached a comfortable spot to put the book down.

Surprises need to make sense in hindsight. Occasionally they can work out of the blue, but the reader needs to trust that the characters are working on a solvable problem.

The Hail Mary

“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out.”

– Stephen King

This quote from Stephen King sums up a last resort… the old gross out. But I recommend using such techniques sparingly.

Too often I think writers go straight for the vivid imagery but in doing so, lose sight of the story they really want to tell and what they’re actually putting out into the world. I’m not the story police, but I think it’s important for all writers to remember that what they are writing will have an audience, and ideally they’re going to be impacted, sometimes deeply, by the story. And sometimes in ways that were not intended. Readers carry their own fears, and hopes, and personal histories, including sometimes very real traumas into the story with them.

Happy Halloween

Plot Planning for NaNoWriMo

November is coming and writers around the world are preparing for the challenge of writing a 50k word novel for National Novel Writing Month. I’ve already posted my top tips for success, but one thing I didn’t touch on was planning out your novel. Plotting is a tricky topic, because every writer has their own system for doing it (or winging it, if you’re a pantser). By no means am saying these tips are the only way to do things. Instead, this more of a “this has worked for me” post. As writers we all have to find and hone our own process, but often there is value in reviewing what has worked for others.

So we have a few weeks until November starts. You want to give it a shot this year. You’ve made time in your schedule, you want to write, and you have a few ideas. How do you organize them.

Image courtesy of NaNoWriMo

Start with the Basics

The first thing to establish is your goal. Not the 50k words, but what kind of outcome are you hoping for? Are you writing for yourself or to share with a limited audience? Or are you writing because you want to sell a novel and start a second career as an author? As an independent author myself, I write commercially, for a broad audience.

Establish the genre you’re writing in. If you’re eventually looking to sell your writing it really helps to know your market. Read extensively in it. Learn the market trends. Learn what readers of the genre tend to look for. Of course this isn’t something you can just to in the last week of October. It more of a constant commitment. That said, if you haven’t done this before, go with the genre you read and enjoy most frequently.

In my experience you need two fundamental ingredients to a story… (i) a character, and (ii) a problem. It’s very easy to get bogged down in world building, character development sheets, themes, trying to fill in the steps of the Hero’s Journey, etc., but just about all stories are really about a character confronting a problem and changing in some regard through that confrontation.

A spy with two gunshot wounds in his back (character) is pulled out of the Mediterranean Sea and no memory of who he is (problem).

A young orphan (character) is summoned to attend a mysterious school that teaches magic and has a connection to the death of his parents (problem).

A banker (character) is convicted of a crime he did not commit and must survive in a prison without hope (problem).

Refinements

This is where you get to go crazy with character development, world building, etc. For some people, this can be the most enjoyable part of writing. If so, embrace it and nerd out.

Your main character should have a goal that relates to the problem in some way. The reason the goal is critical is that once you establish it, you can brainstorm roadblocks, or obstacles that will keep your character from reaching their goal. In developing these, remember that the most dramatic ones occur when the character is forced to make a decision or take an action with consequences. Once you have a list, you can try to figure out how they interrelate. How can one lead into the next?

Something to remember here is that often a character may have a superficial goal… what they want in the beginning. But that may not be what the character actually needs. Sometimes what they need is in direct opposition to what they initially want. In brainstorming about wants, think about what your character needs and what you’d actually like to see that character attain by the end of the story.

One trick to help organize these ideas is to write out your blurb. Imagine your story is complete. What’s on the back cover? Writing out a rough blurb before you write the story can often make writing one later, once you’re ready to publish, a lot less complicated.

Plot Skeleton

The skeleton really helps to give the story a framework. It doesn’t have to be very detailed (but it can be). You just start with the initial character and their problem and outline each roadblock until you get to a final conflict that will ultimately determine whether the character achieves their goal.

Some people use beat sheets to accomplish this. These are detailed outlining tools that specify what should be happening in each story and about when it should happen and how many words you have to describe it. Some writers swear by these. Others avoid them altogether.

What I find helps during NaNoWriMo is a document that’s maybe a page or two long that maps out the rough turning points in the story and how they are related. To me this is the plot skeleton.

As you are pounding out words, you keep this available as a quick reference. Whenever you get stuck, it can serves as a roadmap of something to write toward. And if you’re really in trouble, your free to leave off in the spot you’re at and start at the next big turning point. Remember, there’s no rule that you need to write in a chronological or linear fashion. You can always come back and fill in holes later. This will help you to get those words out at a manageable pace instead of getting stuck wondering about the details of how to get from point C to point D.

Play With the Story

This is one aspect of planning out a story that’s really important for me. You start by trying it on for size. Sometimes this can even be the first thing you do. Write out a scene or two, with how you think the story will play out. Sometimes they’re awesome and you want to keep going and that’s how you know you’ve got something. Other times, you get that first page or two set up and you quickly realize that while the concept seemed exciting, it doesn’t really have wheels yet.

Just an opinion here, but this is I think why a lot of writers have files that are full of beginnings, but so rarely are they completed. It’s because what they’ve labelled as a beginning isn’t actually a beginning at all. It’s the author’s first landing in the primordial ooze of a fictional world of their own creation. It’s world building, it’s characters revealing themselves, it’s discovery of problems. That’s why you often end up with massive info dumps in first drafts… the author is figuring the world out.

Playing with the world ahead of your core creative effort (NaNoWriMo in this case) helps you brainstorm while you’re in direct contact with the characters. And this will give you lots of ideas that you can draw on when you need to focus on creative output.

Final Tips

In coming up with a plot one of the best things you can do is tempt fate. Ask what’s the worst thing that could possibly happen? And then play it out. How will your character deal with this in a way that’s true to their traits? How will they grow from it?

No plan survives first contact with the enemy. So if it falls apart half way through, don’t fret. Having made the plan the first time means you can figure out another one from where you’re at.

A Day for Truth and Reconciliation

In Canada, today (September 30) is day for Truth and Reconciliation. Today I want to take time to reflect on and honour those children who were forced into the residential school system. Between 1867 and 1996, there were 140 federally run residential schools. Many of the children who entered these schools never came home. Those who survived were robbed of their language, culture, history, family, and ultimately their right to be children. My family and I honour those children and we honour their families and communities and the multiple generations dealing with the ongoing impacts of the residential schools.

National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. In this image, provided by the Government of Canada, the circle at the centre represents being together in spirit of reconciliation. The poster is orange in colour to represent truth and healing. The long pathway is meant to be the road to reconciliation. The eagle represents First Nations, the narwhal represents the Inuit, and the beaded flower represents the Métis.

Today as an author, I also take the time to acknowledge that the work I produce is written in Lethbridge, Alberta, within Treaty 7 territory. The Treaty 7 lands are the traditional and ancestral territory of the Blackfoot Confederacy: Kainai, Piikani and Siksika, as well as the Tsuu T’ina Nation and Stoney Nakoda First Nation. It is also home to the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region 3.

Will Artificial Intelligence Replace Writers?

Automation and artificial intelligence are changing our world at an alarming pace. In Phoenix, AZ , Waymo One, a company founded from Google’s self-driving car project, allows people to hail driverless taxis. In medicine, AI algorithms can comb through mountains of data and identify patterns in medical outcomes that would take years to discover by conventional methods, or assess medical images and detect the presence of disease better than humans with decades of experience. These technical advances are amazing, and quite frankly a little bit scary. With machines outperforming humans on so many fronts, we as humans are left facing the question of our own obsolescence.

One hope remains. The arts. Sure you can get a machine to do math because math is ultimately a pattern of rules. But art by its definition is an expression of the human experience. Isn’t it?

AI and Art

Here’s something that freaks me out. I just went to https://hotpot.ai/art-maker and from a relatively simple string of input text generated this picture of the main character from my novel First Command, Cassi.

Cassi Requin–the main character in my novel First Command, as rendered by from a simple string of descriptive text by the artificial intelligence tool at https://hotpot.ai/art-maker on the left, and the commissioned cover art from https://miblart.com/ on the right.

I mean, holy crap! That could be an actual person on the left!

I certainly couldn’t draw that, and it would take years for me to develop the skills to generate something that complex with a computer graphics platform like Blender. Generally speaking AI art like this is based on a set of algorithms called generative adversarial networks of GANs. The system learns a specific aesthetic by analyzing thousands of input images and then generating new images consistent with that aesthetic. Images are generated randomly and judged in an adversarial way in relation to the input request until an acceptable output is attained.

If you really look at these GANs, they do a great job with what they’re meant to do, but they can struggle with things like faces. The thing is, even if you don’t get it right the first time follow-up routines can take something that looks face-ish and rework it to appear a lot more realistic.

I thought art was one of the last impenetrable bastions of the human race against our AI overlords.

The Turing Test

The reason the AI struggles with a face is that it doesn’t know it’s generating a face. It’s generating a pattern, based on patterns it has identified. These patterns are hugely complex, but they don’t account in any human experience of interaction with a face… tears from the first time you’ve broken up with a significant other are different from the tears when your dog died… your mother’s smile from when she tucked you in as a child is different from the smiles on the faces of your flag football team mates when you’ve one won the 2007 University Division III championship.

In 1950 Alan Turing proposed a test he referred to as the imitation game. It has since become more popularly known as the Turing test. The basic idea is this: an interrogator can interact only in a textual basis, asking questions of and receiving answers from two candidates A and B. The interrogator cannot see or otherwise inspect A and B. One of the candidates is a machine and the other is a real person. It is possible for the machine to do well at the game and make itself imperceivable from the human?

For early programs, sure, it was pretty easy to spot when a computer was just applying simple logic rules and drawing from random tables when necessary to generate responses. But as time goes on, the amount of data that computers can process in an effective and timely manner has grown exponentially. From the interrogator’s point of view, it’s not like there’s a single question that can be asked either. Are you a human? Either one can lie.

How would you interrogate the participants?

What if you fell in love with a participant and felt that love reciprocated? Is that real love, or just a machine emulating love? How would you know the difference?

AI and Novels

I’ve mentioned before in my blog that in his book Sapiens, author and historian Yuval Noah Harari has argued that one of the defining characteristics of the human race is our ability to tell stories. In fact this trait may just be responsible for the tremendous success of our species. Through stories we can comprehend the value of money or the fear wrath of a god. Over history stories have enabled collective, cooperative behavior on massive scales.

Is it possible for an artificial intelligence to write something as complex as a novel?

Certainly. Many popular tools available right now are based on an algorithm called the generative pre-trained transformer 3, or GPT-3. This is a deep learning algorithm that’s used as a natural language processor. Basically, given a block of text, it makes a prediction at what comes next and it often does well enough so as to be indistinguishable from the prose of a human. But according to this article, it’s not without its flaws. Sure it can string words together that make a certain logical sense, but in one of the examples it talks about the wind of a passing train knocking a character off her feet… not exactly logical for anyone who has ever been passed by a train… but of course we humans are not immune from plausibility holes in our fiction either.

I’m not sure whether it has the capacity to string together a coherent and engaging plot for the entire length of a novel, but I don’t doubt that is possible.

In the foreseeable future, what is likely to happen is that AI won’t act so much as a replacement for writers, but increasingly it will serve as an augmentation. Writers will play an editorial role, generating ideas where needed and then smoothing over AI-generated text with the lens of experience.

On a recent forum I frequent, the question came up, if AIs can produce decent books (and probably by the thousands) why would people pay humans to do the work as a much slower pace?

To this, I have several answers. I suppose time will tell if they hold up.

Craftsmanship

Robots can manufacture things like furniture, clothing, jewelry, etc. much faster and with higher precision than humans, and they have been able to for years. But there is still a market for hand-crafted items. In fact, in many cases customers are willing to pay extra for it. Often that’s because hand-crafted items are of higher quality because he goal of the work was to produce a quality item, and not to optimize profits off of a Minimum Viable Product.

And as noted above, there are aspects of the process that will still require supervision and navigation through the complexity of story production. For example, we’ve had calculators and spreadsheets for years, yet today we still have accountants.

Originality

Artificial intelligence, is largely based on emulation. It looks at what exists, and with a little poke, replicated the patterns within its experience. So if/when we get the point where AI is producing stories, my guess is that, many of these will be iterations on existing themes. This could be a boon, in for example sub-genres of romance novels where the audience demands rather formulaic stories. The theme repeats, but there are unique elements to each story than could be generated either through human input or random generation.

But the truly original ideas–those based on emerging trends, predictions about the future, challenges to social and cultural norms, metaphors for the deep problems encountered within the human experience–will be quite challenging to generate in any reliable manner.

Economics

This isn’t so much of an argument as to why AI books won’t happen, but more of a why they shouldn’t happen. If you consider a series of “bots” churning out stories, they would presumably be controlled by some kind of corporation much bigger than a typical independent author. The money taken in from these machines can essentially fall into a black hole, increasing the wealth of the corporation that owns them, but when you support an independent author, that money tends to go back into that author’s community.

Why We Read (And Write)

People read for all sorts of reasons… to relax, to escape reality, to learn… but I think one big reason is that there is a social element to it. We read to connect with other humans, and to enhance our own experience. Through books we experience what it was like to be an explorer with Shackelton or to walk on the moon, or to fall in love in Regency England. We contemplate what it might be like to be left on Mars, or what our lives might like if we could travel across the galaxy in the blink of an eye.

I would also add the writing is also a part of this connection. People don’t always write to share their work, but when they do, particularly today, it’s not really for the purpose of making money. People write out of a need for creative expression and that need won’t disappear even if there are machines that can do it better than us. People write to share a part of themselves with others.

I’ll close out this post with one of my favorite quotes from Carl Sagan.

“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

Carl Sagan – Cosmos, Part 11 The Persistence of Memory (1980)

Why the James Webb Space Telescope Matters So Much

In a world that feels like it’s been dominated by story after story of harsh, negative news, the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope, released earlier this week, mark a triumph of human innovation. As a science fiction author and professional scientist myself, it’s easy to geek out over this stuff. But it’s important to think about why this matters so much, not just to people like me, but to everyone.

The first image from the James Webb space telescope of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, 4.6 billion light years away shows thousands of galaxies in unprecedented detail. Released on July 11, 2022, this image contains some of the faintest images ever detected in the infrared spectrum. It even makes use of a technique referred to as “gravitational lensing” where the collective gravity of the galaxy cluster draws in light from even further away, allowing astronomers to collect light from when the universe was very young.
Credit:  NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI (link).

10 Billion Dollar Price Tag

The cost of the JWST is estimated at about $10 Billion. That’s billion… with a B. There’s a lot you could do with $10 billion of public funding… build new hospitals, fix up roads, give single person on the planet a buck and quarter. I mean, sure, the image up above looks pretty and everything. But 45% of the people in my home city don’t have a family physician. In fact, in 2011, the US Congress nearly scrapped the whole thing. So why should taxpayers (from the participating countries) foot such a hefty bill… just for a fancy telescope?

A Revolution in Our Understanding of the Universe

You only have to look at the success of JWST’s predecessor, the Hubble space telescope, to see how advanced scientific tools like this facilitate leaps and bounds in human knowledge. The Hubble was launched into orbit in 1990. At the time, no one had observed a single planet outside of our own solar system and no one had even heard of dark energy. Today, we have direct evidence of over 5000 exoplanets (largely thanks to the Kepler space telescope and many ground-based telescopes). Hubble was used to make the first measurements of the atmospheric conditions on an exoplanet and has provided the first visible-light images of an extra-solar planet. Before its launch, the age of the universe had a relatively high uncertainty… somewhere between 10 and 20 billion years. Now it’s far more precise… 13.8 billion years. And not only that, it has shown us evidence of an ever-expanding runaway universe driven by an unknown “dark energy.” Suffice it to say, the list of scientific contributions is long and continues to grow.

So if we now have a tool that is even more powerful, by a factor of 100, it will unlock even more secrets from the universe. We’ll learn more about how stars form, how galaxies interact, and we’ll gain even more insights into the nature of dark energy and dark matter.

Understanding these things is about far more than satisfying our innate curiosity about the universe and our place in it (although there is that too). But our understanding of the physics underlying the universe is based on models. The more extreme data we can collect, the better those models get. And all of our technological innovation is based to one degree on another on an accurate understanding of the fundamental physics of the universe. Even your phone’s global positioning system (GPS) wouldn’t work without an accurate understanding of general relativity.

Investment in Basic Science

Consider investment in basic science research from a financial point of view. While these things can be difficult to measure, numbers from the National Institute of Health (NIH) suggest that investment in basic science research provides a positive return of a whopping 43%! The Human Genome Project, for example, is estimated to have provided nearly $1 trillion of economic growth, a 178 fold return on investment! Every dollar $1.00 invested in basic science research by the NIH has stimulated an additional $8.38 of industrial investment in the following years.

The point is to consider the long game. Every coach worth their salt will tell you that the way for an athlete to get into the big leagues is to start early and built solid fundamental skills.

The System Works

During the launch of the JWST, the teams involved predicted 344 points of failure. The fact that it launched and deployed flawlessly is not only a testament to human ingenuity, creativity and resourcefulness, but in a time that’s plagued by political cynicism, misinformation, and anti-science rhetoric, it provides a beacon of hope that collectively we (humans operating within publicly funded systems) can accomplish great things. We now live in an age where it’s now possible to study the chemical composition of an exoplanet that’s 1,150 light years away.

And we found water.

Using its Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) the JWST was about to measure light from the exoplanet WASP-96 over a period of 6.4 hours as it transited in front of its sun. The light collected gives astronomers a “transmission spectrum” and based on the relative dimming of light at specific wavelengths, the chemical composition of the exoplanet’s atmosphere can be determined because different chemicals will vary in how much light they absorb or scatter.
Credit:  NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI (link).

Finding Value in Casual Summer Reading

This week the bell rang for the last time at my youngest son’s school. The kids cleared out their desks and he came home with a back pack full of construction paper projects, math books and graded science papers that had been lining the inside of his desk for the better part of the year. It’s summer vacation and he’s excited about going to see his grandparents on the west coast.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Summer is in full swing. The nights are short and warm. The grass is green. It all makes me a little nostalgic for the summers of my childhood.

I never considered myself that much of a reader as a kid, or at least that wasn’t how I would have defined myself. But I can’t help remembering long, lazy summer days in Ontario cottage country, sitting by the lake, with no TV, no computer, no “devices,” just reading.

On some days the book didn’t even matter. It was casual reading. No pressure. No essay on symbolism due the next morning. No pop quiz to prove I’d gotten through the assigned chapters.

It started with Archie I think, and the gang at Riverdale. We could pick those up at the supermarket when we went into town.

I used to read the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure like a total coward. I’d stick a finger in the page at every decision point so I could go back if I didn’t like the outcome. As a kid I went through those by the pile. Along those lines there were also the “Micro Adventure” books written in second person. They had little computer programs in BASIC that you could type out on a Commodore 64. Well… someone could. I was stuck at the cottage. No computer.

My sister had the foresight to actually pack books for our trips the cottage. Her stash of books wasn’t necessarily the first pile I went for, but I got through my share of Nancy Drew, the Babysitters Club and maybe the occasional Sweet Valley Twins. We don’t talk about Flowers in the Attic.

One summer we went camping up and of course, it snowed in July. It’s funny the details you remember about a trip like that… shampoo frozen in its bottle, a station wagon that wouldn’t start, and leaches in the lake. That trip I picked up my first horror book from the campground general store… from one those squeaky metal turning displays. I stayed up past midnight, tucked into my sleeping bag, reading by flashlight as my breath fogged up in front of me about a kid who had the power of astral projection.

As I got older, I started reading magazines. I had so many Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines I should have had a subscription to each. Of course, I was also an avid reader of Inside Kung Fu, because there was short period in my life where I was planning a career as, you know, a ninja.

I picked up a book on the Bermuda Triangle by complete serendipity. It was probably an old library discard, but my mom told me I could pick any book I wanted and somehow that one ended up in my hand. It was full of pseudo science and crackpot theories, but below the surface it carried a message that resonated deeply with me… that there was more to the world than what they taught us in school. Ultimately that book led to later popular, but more mainstream science books like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

That was how I found my way to a career in physics.

In the end, there’s tremendous value in reading. Casual summer reading, those books that you dust off from the closet and pull out just to pass a rainy afternoon, or to relax before you go to bed, can lead to unimaginable places.

Photo by EYu00dcP BELEN on Pexels.com

First Command: The Experience of a 1st Time Author, One Year In

My first novel debuted one year ago, and it’s been quite a ride. Here’s what I’ve learned from my experience as a first time author.

First Command – On a training mission, astronaut cadet Cassi Requin and her crew crash on an alien world. With their flight instructors locked in stasis, Cassi is promoted into her first command–rank, authority, and responsibility. Pursued by pirates, Cassi leads her crew across the hostile terrain to a remote survey station and their only hope for survival.

Write the Book

It took me a long time to put the book out there. There were of course some practical hurdles. Number one was writing the thing. I love writing. Even so, First Command took several years to go from that first day I started typing draft one to publication. My first big tip for writers seeking to publish their work: get it written. You can’t publish something that doesn’t exist. You can only publish what you complete.

Often that means you have to accept that your first draft won’t be that great. In fact it may not even be good. But once it’s done you can jump into editing. And you can make it amazing.

Hire an Editor

Hiring an editor in no way absolves you of self-editing. In fact, what I found was that in preparing to sent the manuscript to an editor, I would forcefully go through multiple self-edits before sending it off. I spent time reading chapters to my writing group and my family. Again, not to get it perfect, but I wanted to make sure my editor was spending her time on the all the things I couldn’t catch myself.

Professional editing can be expensive, but this is one area where it really pays to make the investment. It’s like you get a university-level course in the craft of writing, and you’re the only student. And even more importantly, it give you an independent set of eyes on your work that will give you the feedback you need to hear, not just the feedback they think you’ll want to hear.

It’s important to spend time searching for an editor who will work well with you, and who can offer what you’re looking for. There’s basic stuff, like the difference between developmental, line and copy editing, but you also have to consider knowledge of the genre, jiving with your style, balance between criticism and pointing out what you’ve done well, and how well they understand the story you’re trying to tell.

Here’s one secret: Many editors will do a test-edit of your first thousand words or so for free. They can give you a critique on your work and tell you what they’ll help you to focus on. When you’re ready for an editor, this can help you figure out which one is going to be the best for you.

Putting Together a Cover

People judge books by their covers.

A cover becomes a focal point of your marketing. It’s what potential readers see when they’re searching for that next great read. What’s critically important about covers is that they need to tell people what kind of read they’re in for. First Command is a science fiction story featuring astronaut cadets and so it was important that the cover convey both science fiction and a young adult demographic. The team at Miblart suggested the main character, Cassi, with her helmet off, in front of a crashed spacecraft on an alien world. I went with an illustrated cover because there was generally more freedom than with models and photoshop, and illustrated covers are quite common in the genre.

On the left is one of the concept drawings for First Command‘s cover, courtesy of Miblart. Seeing cover art for the first time was a big deal for me. It’s like part of my imagination stepping into the real world.

Starting a Business

First Command is published by Megavoltage Publishing, a business I started in 2021. I’m not a “business” person. But even then, I knew if I was going to put books out into the world, I wanted to do it as professionally as possible. I can’t offer a whole lot of advice on this aspect of the process, but if you’re thinking about striking out as an independent author, there is this dimension to it. Business license. Taxes. Book keeping. Marketing.

I do commonly hear the advice from successful independent authors to: treat it like a business.

The caveat I would attach to this is that it’s important to establish for yourself what you define as “success.” For many independent authors, that means supporting themselves full time with their writing. But that’s not the only definition of success. For some people it simply means sharing their stories with their target audience.

Marketing is tough, because it put you in a position where you have to talk up yourself and your work and this goes against so many cultural lessons that insist people be humble.

Another tip on this front is to get really good at summarizing your work. Blurbs, elevator pitches, tag lines, log lines, tweets, social media posts, and even casual conversations when someone asks what your book is about… condensing your work down into a few simple sentences, or a single concept can be a brutally challenging task. But when you do it well, that makes it so much easier for people to find your work.

Biggest Surprise

So far the biggest surprise for me has been how much of an emotional effect my work has had on people. As a writer I generally aim for my work to resonate with readers, and I’ve had a so much positive feedback it has been at times overwhelming. I’m always so grateful to hear from people who’ve enjoyed my work.

This is a beautifully written story whose characters are really likable.  It is evident that James took great care with this story and with the characters and all their histories, their conflicts and their weaknesses, in order to forge a strong narrative that drew me in and made me really care about these people!  Each character was developed so carefully and beautifully, and in such a way that they were exactly enough, and no more.  The challenges they faced were extremely visual, emotional and really stressful but all this within a framework that was believable and backed up by either real science or by some really compelling sci-fi.  James is disciplined in his writing and the result has me believing that I really understand the challenges, limitations and customs of this time, these places, these people.  I also appreciated the opportunities he took to suggest the greater good in mankind as well as in individuals, and he did it with a gentle nod, instead of a judgemental shove, as I’ve seen in some movies over the years.

– Amazon Reviewer

Keep Going

One final lesson I’ve learned is the importance of persistence. As a writer you have to keep going, keep pressing forward, and keep writing.

I’m currently working on a sequel to First Command. It’s already been through one round of edits and I’m feeling good about it, that it’s a worth successor. I don’t have a release date yet, but I’m aiming for later summer, or early fall. I’ll be posting here for sure when it goes up for pre-orders.

What is a Black Hole Anyway?

When it comes to the universe, gravity runs the show.

Even light can be pulled by gravity.

It’s not a strong effect, quite subtle in fact. Usually we need very, very strong gravity from really, really massive objects like stars, to observe the effect. But it’s there.

Gravity traps us on the surface of the Earth. If we want to escape and break out into space, we need sufficient kinetic energy to overcome it. In simple kinematic terms, this can boil down to obtaining a single velocity… the escape velocity. Exceed the escape velocity… you’re free. Move at less than the escape velocity… you fall back to the Earth.

But light has a finite speed: 299,792,458 meters per second (or about 186,000 miles per second).

Gravity can keep getting stronger.

So if you keep adding mass to a body, eventually its gravity can get so strong that the required escape velocity is faster than the speed of light. Since nothing can go faster than light, nothing can escape!

That’s a black hole.

Here’s a Very, Very Brief History of Stars

Stars start out as blobs of hydrogen. The more hydrogen that collects, the more gravitational pull the object has. The more gravitational pull it has, the more hydrogen it collects. Eventually that hydrogen gets squeezed together with enough pressure to overcome the electromagnetic repulsion of the positively charged hydrogen nuclei, and you get a nuclear fusion reaction, releasing light energy and generating helium nuclei… a star is born. Over billions of years, the hydrogen is used up. If the mass is larger enough and the gravity is strong enough, the helium nuclei can fuse into heavier elements like carbon, nitrogen and oxygen and this can keep going until fusing the nuclei no longer releases any energy (that happens at about iron).

The light energy produced by the fusion reactions produces and outward force that balances gravity. This allows the star to maintains a stable size. But when all the light elements (the fuel) is used up, that outward pressure is no longer there. The star collapses in on itself.

There are barriers to the complete collapse. When matter is compressed, electrons slowly fill their available quantum states. Once that happens, the matter exerts an outward pressure, called the electron degeneracy pressure that can balance against the inward compression due to gravity. But if the star has more than about 1.4 times the mass of our sun, even this can be overcome and the matter gets crushed down into one giant nucleus supported by neutron degeneracy pressure. The outer material rebounds off the degenerate core in a very violent explosion–a supernova.

If the star is massive enough, the gravitational force can overcome even this. And the star keep shrinking, concentrating more and more mass in a smaller and smaller volume. Eventually, you reach a state where you have enough mass concentrated into a small enough volume, that the gravity around it is too strong for even light to escape–the black hole.

A view of the massive object the the center of the Messier 87 (M87) galaxy… a black hole. In 2019, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration released the first image of a black hole. This image, published in 2021 by the same group, shows the black hole in polarized light. The polarization arises due to the magnetic fields close to the black hole’s edge.
Credit: EHT Collaboration (https://www.eso.org/public/images/eso2105a/)

Anatomy of a Black Hole

By its definition, you can’t actually “see” a black hole. But you can certainly see the light from the space and matter around it, and its effects on that light, as in the image above. This particular black hole and the center of a galaxy about 55 million light years away from us, is estimated to be about 6.5 billion times the mass our sun. All around it, matter is being pulled in and smashed together generating light. In the center, the gravitational force is so strong that light can’t escape, which is why there’s a black spot. We’re looking at a void. The light around it is reddish because the light that is in fact far enough away from the hole to escape still has to climb out of a gravitational energy well. In doing so, it loses energy and shifts toward the red side of the spectrum.

Black holes themselves are pretty simple things. They have three properties: mass, charge, and spin, and otherwise don’t seem to have and distinguishing features, (aside perhaps from differences in the matter accreting around them). They have an event horizon. This can be thought of as it’s surface, the boundary beyond which light can’t escape.

That said, in a very recent paper, a group of physicists looking at quantum gravity have suggested that matter inside a black hole may leave a subtle quantum signature on the gravitational field around it. This is exciting because in quantum mechanics, there is a fundamental idea that information cannot be lost. But if everything inside a black hole simply disappeared, that rule would be violated. This new ideas, sometimes referred to has the black holes having “hair” reconciles these ideas.

Gravitational tides are also worth mentioning to. A tidal force arises due to a difference in force at two separate points. Here on Earth the difference in gravity between your head and feet is extremely small, arising from difference between your head and feel relative to their distance from the center of the Earth. But near a black hole it can be substantial, enough to stretch you out quite violently. Physicists occasionally refer to this phenomenon informally as “spaghettification.”

At the black hole’s core is a singularity–a place where matter is compressed into an infinitely tiny space. Here, our concepts of space and time break down. Some physicists argue that there’s a Plank limit to this, that there’s a fundamental granularity to the universe and that nothing gets smaller than about 10-35 meters, so it’s not technically infinitely small. Interestingly, you can find solutions to general relativity for a rotating singularity that enable backward time travel. Others have argued that you can produce wormholes connecting different places in spacetime, and you might even generate white holes elsewhere in the universe that spew forth all that swallowed energy at the speed of light. The truth of the matter is that no one really knows. And no one is likely to know.

Why a Spaceship Can’t Be Invisible

If you’re a science fiction fan, you’ve likely heard of the Romulan cloaking device, a fictional means of making a spaceship invisible. While the the device works by way of technobabble, the basic idea is that it transports electromagnetic radiation from one side of the cloaking field to the other. It makes for a very interesting plot device, effectively turning any spaceship with such a device into an intergalactic submarine.

Why can’t a spaceship be invisible?

In my upcoming sequel to First Command, I explore a similar idea… a hostile spacecraft that can’t be seen.

But hard science fiction fans tend to scoff at this notion. An invisible spacecraft is scientifically implausible. It can’t be done.

Why is that? And is there any way around it that doesn’t resort to techno-magic?

Black Body Radiation

With sufficient instrumentation, you should be able to see just about anything in space (provided there’s nothing in the way). This is because all objects with a temperature above absolute zero radiate energy. This energy is called black body radiation because it’s given off even if the object in question has no other means of generating or reflecting energy.

Example black body spectra for terrestrial temperatures from Planck’s Function (I’ve written the function out at the bottom of this post, if you want to get your nerd on). These examples fall in the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

In this graph, I’ve generated a plot of specrta–intensity of the frequency of light radiated from an object at a given temperature. Each curve corresponds to a temperature encountered here on Earth. The coldest recorded natural temperature, for example was about -89.2°C (-128.6°F) recorded in July 21, 1983 in Antarctica. What the graph shows is that as temperature increases, so does the overall energy radiated (the area under the curve), and spectrum shifts to the right–toward higher frequencies. For terrestrial temperatures, these emissions are in the infrared section of the electromagnetic spectrum. When you get up to several thousand Kelvin in temperature, the emissions are visible light. Our sun, for example, has a surface temperature of 5778 K, and obviously is the source of our light here on Earth.

Contrast

The reason we can see anything at all generally comes down to an imaging concept called contrast. Simply defined, contrast is the relative difference in signal intensity of an object from it’s background.

An example of contrast. Moving left to right, the difference in gray values from the background increases. The darker objects are easier to see.

Space itself has a temperature: 2.7 K (−270.45 °C/−454.81 °F). It’s not absolute zero. But it is pretty close. This background is pretty much the same in any direction. No matter where you look, the only electromagnetic radiation (that’s not coming from an actual object like a star or a planet) is in the form of very low energy microwaves. It’s like setting the background in the image above to nearly pure white, and that makes even the light gray squares stand out even more.

See?

So basically, any object with any thermal energy at all, even liquid nitrogen at 77 K, will stand out. Living humans give off infrared radiation. Stars give off visible light. Therefore any given spaceship will be visible (or at least detectable) to any other spaceship.

This means that even if you have a perfect ‘camera-screen-ship-in-between’ system like the Romulan cloaking device that will transmit light from back to front, you still have the radiation coming off of you due to your temperature to worry about.

So is there any way to hide a spaceship without resorting to techno-magic?

Samarium Nickel Oxide

Recent scientific work has discovered a very interesting property of NiSMO3, a crystalline oxide that can be made into an ultrathin film. In a 2019 paper from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, researchers showed that when samarium nickel oxide heats up, it undergoes a transition from an insulator to a metal. As it does, it’s emissivity (the tendency to emit thermal radiation) goes down. Over a relatively broad range of temperatures from about 105 °C to 135 °C, there is no change in thermal emission.

This fundamental property of matter appears to be circumvented!

In principle, objects could be covered with a thin layer of this substance to mask their infrared signature.

Of course making something that’s 135 °C look like it’s 105 °C is a lot different than making something that’s several thousand Kelvin look like 2.7 K. But in science fiction we’re allowed some leeway to extrapolate from existing science. There is certainly some potential here anyway.

Here’ a link to a video explaining samarium nickel oxide.

Other Options

There are some other strategies to consider too in a game of intergalactic hide-and-seek..

Infrared radiation can be blocked. All you really need is some aluminum foil (a conductor). Of course you can’t just wrap your ship in aluminum because someone would still see the aluminum (or the heat coming off of it). But the point is that you can hide behind something that can be seen… a planet, a star, an asteroid, etc. Space is full with a whole lot of nothing, but people are usually most interested in the rare spots where stuff actually is. So hiding behind something is certainly an option.

Space is really big. When two ships are far apart, it takes time for light from one to reach the other. If a ship that’s ten light minutes away suddenly turns to attack you, you won’t actually see that happen for 10 minutes. That’s not invisibility proper, but it does give rise to some interesting strategic games if you’re writing suspenseful space combat.

Resolution limits what you can see a far distances. Just about every image produced with modern technologies is made up of pixels. A given pixel value corresponds to the average amount of light incident on it. An object that is further and further away is made up of fewer and fewer pixels until eventually it’s just averaged over a single pixel. Eventually you just don’t see it at all.

Hacks. Since we need technology to detect infrared light, there’s always a risk that technology can be corrupted. It’s not too much of a jump to imagine that specific objects could be artificially masked out of existence.

Invisibility in Space?

By it’s most proper definition: no. It’s not going to happen.

But there is some absolutely fascinating science that suggests it may not be as impossible as we may have first thought.

Get Your Nerd On…

If you want to nerd out for a moment, the relationship between the frequency of the emitted electromagnetic radiation, referred to as ν, and temperature T, is this bad boy right here…

Planck’s Function

In 1900, the German physicist Max Planck showed that this empirical formula describes the intensity of a segment of the light spectra emitted from an object of temperature T (in Kelvin) into a solid angle. For reference, h is Planck’s constant (4.1357 x 10-15 eV s), c is the speed of light (2.9979 x 108 m/s), and k is the Boltzmann constant (8.6173x 10-5 eV K-1). Here’s the like to the Wiki article for more information.