Tuesday, April 24, 2012

One story ends, and another begins...

The U.S. space shuttle program is over. The shuttles are being moved to their new homes. Discovery, the most recent shuttle to be moved, was flown piggyback style from Kennedy Space Center to the Smithsonian last week. (Sad, but also...friggin' awesome. I mean, look at that picture!)

Anyhow. Retiring the shuttles has stirred up loads of controversy. Mostly regarding the lack of plans for any immediate replacement.

I am all for the retirement of these vehicles. They're dangerous and old. Do I wish we had new ones ready to take their place? Of course. But we don't.

A rant on that deserves its own post, so I'll leave that thought for now. While it is important to acknowledge the end of this great space story, it's equally important to highlight the start of a new one:


Planetary Resources is a company consisting of loads of ex-NASA folks and backed by X-Prize billionaire founders, Google execs, and James Cameron (who just got back from visiting the deepest part of the ocean). And they are going to make asteroid mining a reality.


Okay, so they aren't mining asteroids just yet. But they do have the groundwork laid. Their first step is to send up small space telescopes to locate and examine asteroids around us. Next, they'll tap for non-precious materials in the space rocks, like water, which will be critical as a resource out in space for both these asteroid missions, and pretty much any other mission. They'll make reservoirs of such resources to float around out there for others to use (at a price, I'm sure). Finally, the third step is the actual asteroid mining.

The cool part about this is that their goal isn't just to make loads of money by mining precious metals, etc, but rather to lead the way into further space exploration. Odds are, money won't start coming in from these operations for decades to come. So they really aren't out to get rich quick, here. These are people who are genuine visionaries and are doing this just to see if it can be done.

And it can be. Visit Phil Plait's blog (Bad Astronomy) if you want a more in-depth and professional explanation of what's going on. This isn't impossible. It can be done.

Will it be done?

I don't have an answer to that.

It's exactly like writing a novel. You start out with a great idea. You might even put together a solid plan. But as you begin, you find obstacles. You are forced to make changes. New ideas pop up halfway into things. And your end result might not be what you'd been originally planning at all. Or maybe it will be. Or maybe there will be no end result, because you fizzle out and lose interest.

Any and all of that is possible with this new endeavor that Planetary Resources is embarking upon. But regardless of where it goes, this is the start of a new space story. We're not done with you, Outer Space. Even as we pack away our shuttles, humans still have their eyes trained up at the stars.

And that makes me ridiculously happy.

Post-Conference: NESCBWI 2012

Wow, what a conference!

I got back from Springfield on Sunday evening and was far too wired from my post-conference high to sit down in front of my computer and write a follow-up. And yesterday I was naturally far too exhausted to do so.

Two days late, here I finally am. I'll be keeping this short, because I have another post I intend to write tonight. So, here is a brief list of takeaway lessons I learned from the conference:

  1. Publishing will happen when the time is right. There is no rush. Rushing just hinders your own growth as a writer.

  2. It pays to take the time to get to know the business and marketing side of the writing world before you actually land yourself a book deal. As Scar once famously said, "Be prepared!".

  3. In my newest project, my kid character team apparently meets secretly in a old musty cellar that I didn't even know existed before Saturday. Thanks, writing prompts!

  4. Real-life writing friends are the best things ever. My critique group kicks butt and takes names. We're going places, baby, and we're having an awesome time together on our journeys.

  5. I'm ready to query. Really, truly ready. I had my query letter and first ten pages critiqued, and the agent and editor who did the critiquing found next to nothing wrong with them! A few touch-ups, and then full-steam ahead to the agent hunt! Huzzah!
All in all, a fabulous weekend. I'm already looking forward to next year. And in the meantime, I'm looking forward to reading the awesome new books I bought at the conference bookstore.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Pre-Conference: NESCBWI 2012

Here we go!

This will be my second year attending the annual NESCBWI conference, and I'm totally pumped. Especially for this year's theme: Keepin' It Real. (Dropped "g"/apostrophe addition mine. Just looks cooler that way.)

Reality is awesome, and it's great that it's getting attention this year. I mean, reality is where SCIENCE happens, so how can I not love it?

My goals for this year's conference:

1. To get over my fear of writing non-fiction and get comfortable with the idea that in my writing career, I can be both a fiction and non-fiction author. (Everyone under the sun wants me to write non-fiction, and the idea currently terrifies me.)

2. To learn more about the agent-author relationship and the road to publishing. (A road I hope to be on soon.)

3. To get solid critiques of both my query letter and first ten pages, so I can re-enter the agent hunt with more confidence. (I purposefully put querying on hiatus as the conference has grown closer. I'm eager to jump back into the waters.)

4. To get inspiration for my current project. (More than anything, I want the fantastical premise of my newest story to feel like it's firmly grounded in reality.)

5. Have a lot of silly fun with my fabulous SCBWI critique group. (Who's bringing the hummus?)

If last year is anything to go by, I'm positive all these goals will be reached. NESCBWI 2011 was amazingly helpful and gave me tons to think about. For NESCBWI 2012, I signed up for sessions that I believe both build upon last year's lessons and are also relevant to my current level of author "maturity". I want to make the most out of this weekend.

So here we go!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Alien Animals

With science discovering new exoplanets nearly every day now, proving that our solar system is not all that special (and most definitely not alone), it's a super fun time to write sci-fi!

Finally, there is science to back up the idea of planets around other stars, planets within a habitable range of stars (the "Goldilocks Zone": not too hot, not too cold), and even methods for detecting the composition of the atmospheres of these planets (...water vapor? Oxygen? We're lookin' for YOU!). At this point in time, it's pretty much assumed that aliens must be out there.


...but wait. Before you grab that pen and start creating your alien planet, now may be a good time to step back and learn something about evolution.

I think most of us grasp the basic concepts of evolution: species change over time, and it usually has something to do with out-competing each other and/or fitting into their environment. But if you're going to sit down and construct an entire alien world, you need more than the basics.

Example: James Cameron's Avatar attempted to create an alien world with fully fleshed out ecosystems. I say "attempted" because, in my opinion, they failed.

Setting aside whatever positive or negative feelings I have about the story itself, the glaring issues with the created creatures made it hard for me to concentrate on the movie. The sad thing was, I could see that a great deal of thought had gone into the invention of these animals. Clearly, though, not many thoughts from functional morphologists.

Instead of a detailed rant covering each and every one of the flaws I noticed, I'll focus on the biggest one. And no, it's not the tail-mind-meld thing, which I just have to chalk up to movie magic so I don't hurt my brain. No, my personal biggest issue is the number of limbs Pandoran animals have:

Six, for the most part.

Frankly, that's alright with me. It makes me curious as to their skeletal structure, but it doesn't raise any improbability flags. At least, not until we examine where the exceptions are:

The Na'vi only have four limbs. 


The movie attempts a cutesy way of explaining this. Fairly early on in the movie, this guy shows up:

Some sort of primate-like critter, hanging out in the trees. Instead of six distinct limbs, this guy has two hind limbs, and its two pairs of front limbs appear to be fused.

I see what you did there, Avatar. Giving a nod to our own evolution: humans are primates, and the Na'vi must be from whatever family this guy is from. So this guy has fused forelimbs as sort of a evolutionary step towards only four limbs.

Too bad this is just plain silly.

Tree-dwelling animals would not fuse limbs together. Tree-dwelling animals evolve to hold on well to branches, and the more limbs for that, the better. Reducing the number of limbs is absolutely backwards from what happens in reality. Six limbs would be an amazing advantage in the trees. Heck, just look at spider monkeys. They use their tail as a fifth "limb" because extra limbs are just that awesome in trees.

Unless those lemur-like fusing limb aliens evolved from a creature who had been a ground-dweller, it just makes no sense for selection to favor fused limbs in the trees. The Na'vi themselves, as a primarily tree-dwelling species, should've retained six limbs as well. But they didn't.

The Na'vi must have left the trees sometime in their evolutionary past for the limb proportions they have in the movie (human-like limb proportions) to make any sense. They obviously switched over to bipedalism as an adaptation to living on the ground rather than up trees, and lost their extra set of limbs because...

Okay, I still can't explain why they'd completely lose their extra set of limbs. I mean...EXTRA PAIR OF HANDS. SO USEFUL. WHY DID THAT DISAPPEAR?

Ahem. Anyway. Continuing with my confusion, while the tree-dwelling animals are, for who knows why, reducing their flexibility and number of limbs, it appears the ground-dwelling animals hold onto their extra limbs.

Excuse me while I go flail about in frustration.

Animals that specialize in running along the ground are known as cursorial animals, and evolutionarily-speaking, cursorial animals evolve to reduce how much their limbs come in contact with the ground (think horses as an example: they reduced even the number of toes that touch the ground down to one toe per leg). Therefore, if any animal on Pandora should fuse limbs...it would be these ground-dwelling ones. But in every instance of a ground-dwelling critter on Pandora, it of course has six limbs.

So maybe none of them are actually cursorial? They don't run?

Except for all those scenes with stampeding animals in the movie. Oh dear.

Frankly, the Na'vi are the only potential ground-dwelling animal for whom it would make sense to keep all six limbs, since they only use two limbs to touch the ground anyway. But they're the only ones who lost a set!

Perhaps now you begin to understand my issue with this movie. This is just one example of where the body structure of Pandoran animals fails to make sense. As mentioned, I won't go into all the other instances here. It would take far too long.

Takeaway lesson:

If you're going to create an alien world, do yourself a favor and read up on evolution, and in particular, functional morphology. Functional morphology is the study of how the structure of a body part relates to its function. It answers the question, "Why does that thing look like that?".

If you want cool things that may not make sense on your alien animals, read up on sexual selection as well. Animals can certainly have things on them that don't serve much of a purpose for their own survival, as long as it somehow relates to the survival of their genetics (getting the opportunity to pass their genes on through mating). This gives the chance for a lot of creativity on your end as an author.

Whatever you do, though, don't fall into the trap that advanced species must resemble us. The Na'vi could've had extra hands! So cool! But as biased human creators, they were designed instead to match our own bodies. Perhaps to make it easier on the human characters who had to take on the alien forms. Perhaps to make it easier on animators. Or, most likely, because we associate our own form with higher intelligence.

Just some food for thought as we begin to imagine what could be alive on all these new planets science keeps finding. Aliens are awesome in stories, but they're even cooler when they're biologically plausible.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


How do kids learn language? From others, of course. From people who talk to them. From television, music...


We've got a pretty big responsibility as children's book authors. The words we choose to put in our stories and the meaning we give those words have an impact on the next generation.

I'm pretty sure we're all aware of this. You've probably seen studies on how kids who grow up with a language that assign genders to nouns perceive the noun as that gender (example here). So if we already know about how word choice can affect how we view the world, why am I talking about it? Because...SCIENCE! Duh.

Most people think dinosaurs are extinct. And this bothers me, for a number of reasons.

The biggest reason is...dinosaurs aren't extinct. We see them alive and well nearly every day.

Ta da! I know, I know, most of you are thinking, "Yeah, birds came from dinosaurs, we get that." But no. Most people don't get it. Not really.

Birds didn't just come from dinosaurs. Birds are dinosaurs. They're part of the dinosaur family. On the tree of life, the base of their branch is "DINOSAURIA". Dinosaurs are not extinct. Many are, but many are not.

Trying to say birds are not dinosaurs is like trying to say that whales are not mammals: "But whales can't be mammals! They don't have legs, and they swim around the ocean, and they breathe out the top of their heads, and they're just too different to be counted as a cute, fuzzy mammal!"

True, whales are different. They're a different type of mammal. That's why we give them the name "whales". It's another group of animals, nested in the larger group called "MAMMALIA".

Same with birds. They're one group nested in the larger group of "DINOSAURIA". Sure, they don't look much like a Stegosaurus, but let's be honest...does a five ton Stegsourus look much like a five pound Compsognathus?

No. But no one would question calling Stegosaurus or Compsognathus dinosaurs. So why do we question the sparrow?

If we grouped the pictures of the Stegosaurus, the Compsognathus, and that sparrow from above together, I'd wager a person who'd never seen any of those creatures before would say the sparrow and the Compy looked like closer relatives. And they'd be right! Sparrows and Compsognathus are both in the same biological suborder, Theropoda. Stegosaurus is far, far removed from that group of animals.

So why the hang-up about calling birds dinosaurs? Because that's not how we were raised. We were all taught that dinosaurs died long ago, and we'd never see one alive today.

We were taught wrong.

And now, this affects us. It reinforces a world view that we just can't afford to have anymore: the separation of the modern from the past. We aren't separate. We're connected. And we need to stop using language that teaches children to separate. We must show kids how all life on Earth is connected, if we're to have any chance of raising a generation who will respect the planet they live on.

By showing how dinosaurs are still around, just with modified, evolved bodies, we strengthen the idea that all life branched off from the same creatures, and has changed over time through evolution. That all life is related, and that life is continuous.

This is also why we need to be careful when talking about Humans vs Animals.

Yes, I get that we need a distinguishing category for animals that are not humans, and that saying "animals" is faster than saying "non-human animals". I do this myself frequently (though I try to catch myself). But perhaps, at the very least, it's time to stop using the word "animal" to mean lesser or baser. Stop using it as an insult. Stop using it to mean stupid.

Because we are animals. And we like to consider ourselves pretty darn smart. Does that make us special animals? Sure. Just the same way as it makes cheetahs special animals. We boast the highest brain power. They boast the highest speed power. Every animal has something that makes it special.

Some may argue that our specialness is more important or better because we've "changed the world".

So what? So have bees. And they haven't caused a mass extinction along the way. We have. Go us?

The bottom line is that world will benefit if we stop seeing so many differences and separations between animals (including us). We share so much in common. Humans are animals. Specifically, we're primates. Science has illustrated this for us beautifully. And science tells it how it really is, whether we're comfortable with it or not.

I argue that one of the greatest reasons we aren't comfortable with some of these ideas is because our language has reinforced this separatist thinking. It's time for that to change. It's time to use language to help us see our similarities and connectivity to all life, and thus an increased compassion for it in all its forms.

As the teachers of language, authors have the power to take up this challenge and change the philosophy of their readers. Not just in regard to changing the notion of how life is related on Earth, but in all things. Do what you can to use words that bring us together, rather than divide us apart. Birds as dinosaurs and humans as animals are only examples. This type of word choice thinking can apply to all sorts of things. Racism. Sexism. Ableism. This list goes on.

Now for the tricky part. I totally get that to make realistic characters, you can't have them all using this type of language. For example, on a trip to the beach, my kid character won't see a flock of seagulls and shout to the other characters, "Hey look! Sea-coast dinosaurs! The beach must be around here somewhere!" That's just not natural dialogue.

But chances are, one of the kids in your novel will know that birds are dinosaurs. That's what the newest books and educational television are (correctly) promoting, so having one or more of your characters know this fact is not at all unrealistic.

They can be the obnoxious kid that corrects their friend:

"Seriously, if I don't pass this test, I'm dead. Dead, dead, deader than the dinosaurs, dead."

"Then you're not so dead after all. Look, there's a crow! Looks pretty alive to me."

"Shut up, Colin."

Dialogue is the trickiest place to make these types of changes. But it can be done. If you can master it in dialogue, you can master it in your own narration. You can influence a new generation of thought with what words you include in your writing, and what meaning you give those words.

Remember this. And good luck.