Need Dry Ice? Try Mars.

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A new study on the Red Planet suggests that the sharply etched channels that crisscross its surface may have been cut by frozen CO2, rather than water.

The contention is that these gullies are very much active, and continue to form on Mars even now in cold weather. If that’s the case, than it is almost certainly ‘dry ice’ or frozen CO2 that is developing this geological feature.

Recent photographs captured by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, have enable a new look at the phenomenon, allowing researchers such as lead author Colin Dundas to examine the timing of gully formation over the last couple of years.

downhill-end-martian-gully

The conclusion was that the gully formation is occurring in winter, when the Martian atmosphere is condensing out as a solid. Unlike Earth, where the temperature and pressure conditions for the formation of dry ice does not occur in nature, on Mars they occur every winter, most notably in the form of a seasonal polar ice cap.

As many as 38 sites have now been identified as showing active gully formation. All at times when it would be too cold for liquid water to flow.

So if your heading out the Red Planet – don’t forget the Beer Cooler. The dry ice is free :).

 

Building a Story – Plot Elements

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I will be the first to admit there are about a million ways to skin a cat.

When it comes to writing, there are as many valid approaches as there are writers. In fact, I am always fascinated by the varied processes of other writers. I never tire of hearing about it, as though each unique method is like another peek under the hood of some amazingly magical, complex machine. A machine I’ll never have a hope of truly understanding.

That said, I am pretty structured in my own approach. So if I’m going to pass on what I know, it’s going to be an organised method. That’s going to be a godsend to some, perhaps an annoying thorn in the creative brain to others. Either way, I hope you enjoy hearing about it.

OK. Plotting.

In formulating a story, I work around three basic elements. Character, Conflict and Setting.

In a good story, each of these elements should be integral to the others — i.e. the elements of the setting should be unique and have some interrelationship with the characters and their main conflicts. The conflict should be unique to the relationship between character and setting etc. But don’t strain your brain about that too much now.

Starting to put together a story is a time for free-flowing thought – anything goes. There is time enough to scrutinise later (believe me).

When I started putting together plots, it was all pen and paper (I was going to say clay tablets and stylus just for fun, but hey – I’m not that old).

Nowadays I put everything into a single Word file. All plot related notes, the actual plot flow, and all the research notes. Why? It’s so damn easy to find everything! Gone are the frustrated hours trying to find that key handwritten paragraph amidst a mountain of scrawled notes. The Word search function is a bit of code blessed by the Writing Gods. All you need to do and insert some key characters, or just make a mental note of the heading you need and presto, you are there. Between the search function and the ability to split Word into two screens, the power of that single Word document to facilitate the development of your story is truly amazing.

Right. Back to plotting.

I usually start by sketching out all the headings. When I say I have an organised approach, it doesn’t mean my mind is linear — not by a long shot — let’s face it, all creative people have thoughts like supercharged ping-pong balls, all of which insist on going sideways. It makes regular work meetings a nightmare.

What the structure enables me to do is capture these thoughts and ideas as they come, fleshing out the story background, then the story itself.

Here are the general headings I use:

General Notes & Ideas

What is the Book about?

Setting

Character

Conflict

Plot Flow

Specific research I put after these sections, under its own headings.

As I mentioned in a previous post, there is usually some key creative spark – that initial conception – that is your way into the story.

Right at the beginning I start with the General Notes and Ideas section, jotting down all the ideas that relate to the story. I am a visual person, so something in the act of writing these things down helps to solidify and expand the whole storyline. These notes could be plot ideas, character ideas or even worldbuilding. Anything really, just to get the creative juice flowing.

Then, depending on the book, I might need to do some specific research. How much? This is really a gut feel thing. As a general rule, I would say be guided by your own instinct about what you need to read. Don’t be too dogmatic to yourself. Don’t say: ‘Right. If I’m going to X I really need to research Y’. Choosing research is as much part of the mysterious craft of writing as anything else. This is a fact that many people miss. That same itch, or instinct, that makes you want to write in the first place will direct your attention to the work you need to pursue. You will know. It’s like that scene in Dragon – the Bruce Lee Story — where he is in the dream sequence with the demon. He is getting the snot knocked out of him in the graveyard (in the rainJ) and then suddenly there is a beam of light, showing Bruce a pair of nunchucks in the mouth of a lion statue. It’s exactly the same. There will be some beam of mental illumination or gut instinct that will tell you what you need to be reading and researching as background or aid to your work.

Of course, if your world is completely invented, your ‘research’ might be creating things from scratch, although I would usually put that under Setting.

Your research notes can be as clunky and disorganised as you like. The beauty of search function is you can easily find it if you need it.

At this stage I am usually bouncing back and forward between pursuing some research thread (again based on gut instinct) and scribing down ‘light bulb’ moments under the General Notes & Ideas heading as they occurred to me.

I am creating a mosaic of the work to come.

After doing this for a while I reach some sort of threshold and I begin to get more concrete ideas for the book. Often the first area to fill out is the Setting for the world. I have a particular love of Worldbuilding, and I often go pretty far down the rabbit hole sketching out culture, history, life forms, weaponry and of course — magic systems :).

But it’s never the same. A good chunk of the plot flow might come in one piece. Or perhaps the particular conception for this piece of work might actually revolve around a piece of conflict. In this case I might spend some time sketching out the warring parties, the internal dilemma, or even the scene I see.

I do sketch down thoughts on characters in much the same way. But I guess of all the areas I am more deliberate in my approach to Character. Apart from those initial ideas I might get on the fly, I usually have to make a conscious choice to walk down the character development path. I suspect this is very different from pantser writers, who are dragged by the nose by characters who very much take a life of their own from the outset.

In order to flesh out characters I use a number of key category areas to tease the story out of them (more in later posts on that). I work on each of the major characters until I have a really good idea of their personal history, what motivates them, what their current challenge is, and what is driving them in the story.

I usually find that I cannot properly build up the Plot Flow until I know the characters. The secrets of the story – the nuances and the key forces that comprise the narrative momentum — are lurking inside the characters. I’m with Stephen King on that one.

The vast advantage of being able to construct a plot flow before engaging in the actual process of writing as that you can add complexity. Multiple sub-plots. Red herrings. Tiny stories that happen in the background that are living part of setting.

As a reader their is nothing more satisfying to me than being surprised by a satisfying ending where multiple threads come into alignment. That is a truly thrilling part of this art to me, and it cannot happen without structure. To pull that off without sketching out the plot before hand, you need astounding luck and a story sense that is most likely bringing out structures that have been absorbed from other works of fiction.

Again, this is what works for me and my approach is structured.

I have other more specific headings I have not included – the exception being What is the Book About? This is a pretty key thing to give some attention to. It’s usually something I have to consider deliberately, and quite a bit down the track of story development. This is all about theme. It’s critical to get clarity on this. It helps to solidify your thinking, and is vital to later efforts to market and communicate your work. This is the raw material from which you will distil the ’25 words or less’ that sums up your work, often dubbed the Elevator Pitch. This is where you find yourself in an elevator for 2min with a publisher and have only a brief moment to convey your concept. The most memorable being the one used for the movie Twins with Danny Devito and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The pitch was simply. ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger. Danny Devito — Twins.’ That was enough to sell a movie.

Anyway, I hope some of you found that helpful. I describe my own method to get your brain working. Use what works for you – but never stop listening to your own instincts. Remember, there are as many approaches to writing as writers.

Next (I’m doing the longer posts on Writing Craft every two weeks) I’m going to look closer at Conflict.

What Space Tourism Needs

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Want to get into space? Heck – who doesn’t!

In the early days of space exploration the vehicles were the equivalent of experimental coupes with no room in the back. Rockets like the Saturn V had a lot of power under the hood, but the capsule had no seats for the kids or friends.

Kudos to Virgin Galactic for taking the next step, with vehicles for up to six passengers. These lucky six will be paying anywhere from US$95,000 to US$250,000 depending on the length of the journey. This upgrades us from two-seater to an Orbital Minivan, but really this is still only an extreme sport for the super wealthy. Maybe not the spouse in the passenger seat and kids in the back — more like the CEO and his lucky executives.

True space tourism would be closer to the model we have today with commercial aviation, opening up the unique travel and leisure opportunities for a wider population. That would require something akin to a tourist bus.

Interestingly, the designers of the Space Shuttle originally intended it to be used as far more than a cargo carrier, with some designs carrying up to 74 passengers in a modified rear compartment or ‘passenger module’. Check out the graphic below (attribution: chron.com blog).

the_future_of_space_tourism_6 - chrondotcom blog

Even more fascinating is the fact that the Shuttle was also originally conceived with a reusable manned booster. The problem was the manned booster was about the size of an aircraft carrier. Yet if they had managed to build it, the overall cost of spaceflight might have dropped substantially, taking advantage of the fact that the fuel is only about 1% of the cost of getting into orbit.

It is interesting to note that the development of reusable boosters (unmanned), is the key focus of Space X for this exact reason (i.e. that the hardware is where the real cost is, not the fuel).

If only. . .

 

 

Fleshing Out Your Story

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So you’ve carved out a piece of time in your life to write, found a corner of your house to call your own. How do you get from that blinking cursor on the blank page to a story that makes sense?

There is a lot of discussion in writing circles about plotters and pantsers. That is: writers who plot their stories out before they write and those who write ‘by the seat of their pants’, discovering the story as they go. On the one hand, the plot is king, on the other hand it’s the narrative, as driven by the character that the writer has brought to life. Of course there is a whole spectrum here. Some writers plot ‘to the horizon’, writing to a certain point that may be only a few chapters ahead. Many pantser’s claim they cannot plot without losing all their inspiration.

Which way is the right way?

I once went to Robert McKee’s Story seminar when he was in town here in Brisbane, a lecture that closely follows McKee’s book of the same name (BTW: if you ever go see McKee, make sure you are not late. He roasts people who disturb his rhythm by coming in after he has started – and fines them money after threatening to walk out if they don’t pay up). I had just finished reading Stephen King’s book On Writing. If you had to pick two people with diametrically opposed approaches, it would be those two luminaries.

In King’s book, he places a lot on emphasis on getting to know the character. Establishing such an immersion that the narrative of the piece takes on a life of its own. If any of you have run into McKee before you would know he is an advocate of structure with a capital S.

When the opportunity arose, I stuck up my hand and asked McKee what was more important, Narrative or Plot. I mentioned that Stephen King, in his book On Writing, emphasised Narrative. McKee (who seemed to get positively annoyed at the mention of King), did not actually answer the question. All he said was ‘a plot is nothing more than a series of events’ then went on to another question. Gee, thanks Rob.

McKee’s response got me thinking, though. His simple statement of fact – that a plot was nothing more than a series of events – made me realise that regardless of the approach of the writer, all good stories have to end up in the same place – i.e. with a well worked out plot.

As a rule each species of writer will be prone to certain weaknesses. Those who plot excessively may be tempted to ‘fit’ their character’s action into predetermined boxes, with a loss of life and spontaneity in the story.

Good pantsers are masters of the hook, and will often have a story that draws in a reader off the mark – yet their stories often lose coherency as the book continues, and the worst examples have endings that leave book-sized impressions in the wall through lack of resolution, or just plain nonsense motivations and events.

But no matter what style of writer, the objective is a well-crafted story that has all the key elements that make a great book: a well-structured plot with integral conflict, good characterisation, a well presented setting and a satisfying ending.

Whichever way you do it, you need to flesh out your story.

If you are an organised thinker like me, you will probably do a ton of research up front and piece your story together until you have the whole thing in place before you start at page one. If you are a pantser, you will irresistibly want to tinker with bits and pieces of the story all over the place, and your plot will gradually coalesce out of a patchwork of scenes, many of which will need umpteen revisions. Either way, once you have that whole story in place, you will need to stand back and take a good look at it.

But more on plotting next week.