Back of the Envelope

Hi, everyone. You guys had quite a bit of fun tracking down the lost methane. We should do an open floor more often.

Quite a few years ago I worked for a geotechnical consulting firm. I’m a chemical engineer, and my work for these guys was all in the environmental area. Most of the engineers who worked there were of the geotechnical kind. At one point a graduate geotechnical engineer started at the firm. To say this young guy was brash would be an understatement. The first thing he did was walk into the offices of both the Principals, experienced and very serious men who walked around with an invisible neon sign saying “GOD” above them, and give them both a small white envelope. He then asked them to write everything they knew on the back!

Condensing all the things you’ve learnt over a career can seem well-nigh impossible, but it’s an interesting exercise to thing about the most valuable insights.

As writers we gradually extend our skills and accumulate bits and pieces of knowledge. Anything of worth seems to come pretty hard indeed. The question I was asking myself was – what is the single best thing I have learned? It’s a hard question to answer, and probably impossible because everything in writing seems to be interrelated. The knowledge and realisations that will enhance one person’s writing will not work for another. Some people do some things instinctively and everyone has unique ways of working – and blind spots.

For me, the first insight was understanding the importance of plot. My first novel draft ever was written off the cuff with just the smell of a story. That was fun, but it quickly derailed into a mess that was going nowhere. After that I spent more than four months writing out (by hand) a sketch for every single scene, right down to key pieces of dialogue. This enabled me to play with subplots and get a sense for overall arcs. I don’t go to that level of detail anymore, but I do plan the whole story by chapter and scene.

After that, the biggest penny drop was at a short workshop on story writing. The presenter outlined a simple framework of three interrelated elements: CHARACTER, SETTING, CONFLICT. That really enhanced my writing, particularly short story writing. I think this was when I realised that Setting has to be integral to the story – so integral that integral that to the story that if you took it away, you would have a different story – or would not be able to tell the story. The character also has to be unique to that story, formed by that setting, primed for that conflict.

So what would you put on the back of your envelope?

Mars Mystery

Hi, everyone. I have been totally crunched by a deadline this week, which is still looming, so I don’t have a post.

In the mean time, here is a link to a story on about the Missing Methane on Mars. Curiosity has failed to find the expected methane – a likely indicator of life –  that was spotted by orbiting survey craft. The plan was to examine the ratio of isotopes to see if it had an organic origin.

So where is the Missing Methane?

Voyager 1 Enters Interstellar Space

It’s official, Voyager 1, that Earth-ambassador for 1970s technology, has left the heliosphere – the bubble of charged particles and magnetic fields that surrounds the sun and its planetary progeny. Scientists back-calculated that it likely left this boundary on or around August 25, which coincidentally is when my wife and I hosted the biggest party ever. I knew something had to be in Galactic alignment.

I’m sure I’ve seen this same announcement at periodic intervals over the last five years. Or maybe it was ‘Almost leaving’ those prior times. Because Voyager actually did have to leave before the scientists tracking the spaceship could really be sure it had. This time it really is official. Apparently a fortuitous burst of activity from the sun caused the plasma near the spacecraft to vibrate, which allowed scientists to calculate how much was present. The plasma beyond the heliosphere is about 40 times denser than inside it, giving the clues that pinned down Voyager 1’s location. Beyond the heliosphere the plasma (BTW it’s a lot less dense there than around Earth – about 10,000 times less) grows colder and the outward pressure from the sun tailors off, causing it to grow relatively more dense than the plasma inside the limit of the heliosphere.

Voyager 1 is currently 18.77 billion kilometres (11.66 billion mi) from Earth, entering a vast new region of space where nothing else has been before.

So far Voyager 1 has seen the expected drop in solar particles and jump in cosmic rays, but has not observed the predicted shift in magnetic field orientation. No doubt the first of many surprises. Right now scientists are taking another look at the models that predicted this change in magnetic field.

This is a remarkable feat for humanity, but I can’t help but compare this with the sort of achievements outlined in fiction. I recently re-watched Event Horizon, where the experimental ship of the same name returned from some ‘other space’ to Saturn after being missing for almost a decade. Coming through a black hole no less, courtesy of its on-board singularity in the Gravity Drive. So when is this? Why in 2047. The critic in me wonders if we will even have a human footprint on Mars by then, let alone vast spaceships with stasis chambers roaming the solar system.

So are you encouraged, inspired, or left flat by Voyager’s achievement?


There is often a lot of discussion about crafting the beginning of a story – the first line and following paragraphs. There is no denying a good beginning is essential to hooking a reader or prospective editor. But what about the other end? The end-point of all that structure and character development? The bit that comes before those extremely satisfying two words (at least in the first draft) “The End”.

A good beginning combined with an attractive character might net a sale despite the book’s other faults. With enough marketing buzz it might even create a best-seller, but without that sublime end point, the book is in danger of losing its essential impact.

Perhaps the ending may be less important for books that survive on their characterisation (super-cool protagonists can carry a story through loose or even illogical plots), or that support themselves on superior prose style. But for the other books that lack that well crafted ending, are they destined to drift out of the consciousness of readers as time passes?

So what constitutes a good ending? For me it’s emotional punch and a simultaneously delivered, poignant realisation. A feeling of emotional resolution. When the character arcs have reached their end in a satisfying climax of drama and action that leaves the protagonist changed for the better. I know this does not work for everyone, perhaps seeming too ‘formula’. Some prefer unresolved endings, particularly in short fiction. I think everyone enjoys a surprise ending to mystery that is built well from the beginning (i.e. not ‘the gardener you saw for one paragraph on page 4 did it’).

What do you consider a good ending?