Getting Started

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I’ve talked about quite a few elements of writing over the last few years, but since I’m starting a new series of blog posts about writing, I thought I would start right at the beginning.

Getting started on writing.

Off the mark, writing a novel can seem a pretty intimidating thing. For a start it’s a lot of words – thousands upon thousands of words. Even a typing monkey would need a good chunk of the year to fill up a Word file with the odd million characters or so that would equate to say 100,000 words, which is the length of a typical paperback fantasy novel.

So how do you do it? How do you know what to say? How do you sustain that input over such a long period of time?

As the hackneyed old phrase goes, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. That’s true, but it does not tell the whole story. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but then continues with another, then another . . . until the journey is done. It’s sticking to the process, keeping the momentum in the forward direction.

To use a writing Australianism: it’s about ‘bums on seats’. Physically spending the time it takes in front of your computer (with Word open, not Facebook :)).

No matter how much progress you gain from each of your single steps, the key is sticking with it. Everyone has periods of their life where they are tight for time. That step might be 10 minutes snatched from a harried lunch hour. It might be half an hour hiding in the emergency exit stairwell with a notepad. Twenty minutes on the bus with an iPad. It might be a precious hour in the quiet of the house before the crazy day starts and the kids clamour for breakfast, or a midnight hour stolen from your sleep.

It doesn’t matter when. Although one thing I do know: the earlier in your day you can manage to write (or work on your story), the easier it tends to be. Days seem to get more hectic as they go, demands increase – and energy wanes. But that’s individual choice.

But what to write?

Well – why do you want to write? Think about it for a moment. Only you can answer this. And the answer gives you the solution.

Every single story has a way in.

There will be a creative spark that drives the process. It might be an idea for a character, or an undefined sense for a story that blossoms into a frenzied exploration of setting. Or it might be a single scene – a key clutch moment where the story starts, or perhaps a heroic triumph in the latter part of the story.

Whatever it is, expand it. See it. Write what you see.

But however you find your way in, just stick with it! You are bringing something new into the world. You are creating something that has never been before.

Worried about writing something that will be like everyone else’s novels? Well, think of how many rock songs have G C and D chords. The variations are endless. With work and tenacity, you can bring a unique edge to anything. The odds are that if you stick with your initial conception, that spark that was the genesis of your work, you will find an expression all your own.

But what about characters? Storyline? Setting? Building a plot? Improving your expression? Your craft? Getting published? Marketing?

Don’t worry about that now. Just start. Just keep going. Keep your energy up. Seek out like-minded people or others that encourage you. Take in creative work that charges you up (writers are also readers – don’t forget that!).

One thing is for sure, your novel will never exist if you don’t start – and you don’t keep going.

Welcome to the journey. . .







Yes – Our Solar System Really is Weird

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The lengthening lists of new planet finds have allowed astronomers to start building on the science and knowledge of planet and solar system formation to draw some fascinating conclusions.

According to Astrophysicist Lars Buchhave (Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics) there are three sorts of solar system. The key to the classification system is the elemental composition or ‘heaviness’ of the progenitor nebula – specifically how metallic they are. Rather than the observation of a smooth transition between these three types, the collected data on exoplanets shows distinct types of solar system with little in between.

Planets above a blue planet

Planets around the most metallic stars tend to be big – gas giants in the Jupiter class and above. The reason being that the presence of these heavier elements allows more planetary development before the protostar ignites, allowing the growing planet to get heavy enough to attract the lighter elements of hydrogen and helium.

Planets around the least metallic stars tend to be mainly rocky planets, but larger than the rocky planets around our own sun

Those suns in the middle range of metallicity are associated with a third (unfamiliar) type of planet called gas dwarfs. These planets have rocky cores, but are large enough to hold an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium.

So where does our own solar system fit in? Apparently nowhere. Our solar system with our four small rocky planets and four gas giants is an unusual one. In terms of the metallicity spectrum, Earth’s Sun is an example of a metal-rich star, common in the spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy, so I guess at least our gas giants make sense based on this latest theory.

This got me thinking. Maybe our solar system was formed in the collision of two proto-systems early on? Would this explain the weird fact that Venus rotates in the opposite direction to all the other planets that spun off the ecliptic? Perhaps a metal-poor (Population II) star that went supernova leaving its drifting rocky planets to be snapped up by our Sun?

This oddness in our planetary composition is just the latest in a series of weirdness that relates to our solar system. I’ve noticed this before. The more we look – with the benefit of science – the more atypical we are. Like how both the Moon and the Sun are exactly the same angular size in the sky.

Some of these strange coincidences allowed the development of life as we know it. Jupiter has had a very positive role in protecting life on Earth, acting as our planetary ‘guardian’, preventing many of the asteroid impacts that would have sent life back to the drawing board again and again.

Back with a Vengeance

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Hey, everyone. After a bit of a hiatus, I’m going to be back with a vengeance:)

Starting from next week I’ll be blogging three times a week – Cosmic Monday with Space, Science and Astronomy news, Writing Thursday with tips and discussions on the Writing Craft, then Giveaway Saturday with special offers and freebies on the Jakiran series and more.

Stay tuned!


Earth’s Cousin Only 500 Lightyears Away. . .

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The discovery of new planets is coming thick and fast. Astronomers have now confirmed more than 800 planets beyond our own solar system. The unconfirmed tally is as high as 1800, with more than half found by the Kepler space telescope.

The latest find is known as Kepler-186f. So far five planets have been found in the system. Estimates are that this planet is only around 10% bigger than Earth – bringing it closer to the ‘Earth Twin’ that seems to be the Holy Grail of planet-finding. This is the latest discovery from the treasure-trove of data generated by the Kepler space telescope.

The exciting thing is that this planet is in the habitable zone of the Kepler system, meaning it is in a position relative to its star where water will remain liquid.

The newly discovered planet orbits around 52 million kilometers from it sun. This is around one third of the distant that Earth orbits our own sun, but since Kepler is a smaller, dimmer star, the orbit still falls in the sweet spot. Kepler has 0.48 the mass of Earth, and is a dwarf red star (type M1).

The new planet is in the outer limit of the Kepler habitable zone, so much would depend on the composition of its atmosphere. A thicker atmosphere would allow enough heat to be retained to prevent water from freezing.

Interestingly, Mars is in the outer limit of our own Sun’s habitable zone. In the case of the Red Planet, there is not enough atmosphere to keep in the heat. Mars is far smaller than Earth, with lower gravity, and less ability to keep atmospheric gases from escaping into space. Not surprisingly, planned terraforming of Mars revolves around thickening the atmosphere to allow liquid water to exist there (and melt the poles).

It is not known if this latest planet is a rocky world like our own Earth, but astronomers, such as Berkley’s Geoff Marcy consider it likely.

So it’s down to analysing the mass of data from Kepler to look for Earth’s true ‘twin’ – an Earth-like star in the habitable zone of a Sun-like star. It should only be a matter of time. The Kepler telescope has already shown that small, rocky planets like Earthy are common throughout the galaxy. Before Kepler discoveries has been confined to large ‘hot’ Jupiters.

Kepler, launched in 2009, was designed to enable astronomers to detect new planets using the ‘transit’ method – the reduction in brightness that occurs when a planet crosses the face of its star.

Kepler’s planet-hunting ended last may when its telescope went out of alignment. Despite this, the finds keep coming from the data it had already generated. There are an estimated additional 3000 additional planet candidates remaining to be analysed. Let’s hope the golden age of planet hunting keep rolling on, despite the end of Kepler’s first run at collecting data.

There is a new mission called K2 that would enable Kepler to start a new phase of observation to discover exoplanets and other stellar phenomena such as supernova, asteroids and comets. Let hope K2 gets the green light.

Juggling Molecules on Mars

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Here is a little bit of Chemical Engineering in Space.

So much of what we come into contact with is made of four elements – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen – the main elements of living systems. Add phosphorous and sulphur and you have what comprises 98% of all living systems.

The chemistry for juggling these four atoms – C, H, O, N – has been around for a long time.

Engineers and scientists have been confident enough in the chemistry and the various ways of manipulating them to propose various sets of reactions for use in gathering resources out in the vast reaches of space, as part of human exploration. This is part of a wider field of study called In Situ Resource Utilisation (ISRU), which has formed a key part of plans to explore other part of the solar system, particularly Mars, for the better part of two decades.

In the Mars Direct concept Robert Zubrin proposed using the well known Sabatier reaction:

CO2 + 4H2 => CH4 + 2 H2O

To react hydrogen with the Martian atmosphere to produce methane and water – very useful things to have on the red planet. The methane would be stored and kept for use as rocket fuel.

Methane and oxygen are a handy combination. In terms of chemical rocket propellant candidates, the Specific Impulse (Isp) of Methane and Oxygen at 3700 m/s is second only to Hydrogen and Oxygen at 4500 m/s (to convert to seconds of impulse multiply by 0.102).

Meanwhile the water from the Sabatier reaction would be split via very familiar electrolysis reaction:

2 H2O => 2H2 + O2

The idea was that only the hydrogen would need to be transported to the Red Plant. H2 weighs a lot less than CH4, freeing up space and payload for the 6 months transit to Mars.

Various test rigs were constructed on Earth, using analogues of the Martian atmosphere, which has been well characteristed since Viking. Mars has a lot of CO2 – more than 95% of the atmosphere – and a nice analogue of the Martion atmosphere right down to the low pressure could be similated for the rig. The CO2 is initially absorbed onto zeolite (an ever popular sorbent) under conditions simulating the Martian night. During the Martian ‘day’ the CO2 desorbs and passes into the Sabatier reaction vessel with the H2, which is heated to 300C. Reaction then occurs in the presence of the right catalyst (in this case pebbles of ruthenium on alumina). The water from the reaction is condensed out and passed to the electrolysis unit.

Still awake?

OK. Not surprisingly scientists and engineers planning Mars missions were concerned about overly complex systems forming such major part of a critical path.
Current plans for ISRU on Mars revolve around direct dissociation of the Martian atmosphere i.e.

2 CO2 => 2 CO + O2

[BTW if you could pull off this reaction at room temperature on Earth you would be an instant billionaire]

The current Mars Design Reference Mission proposes the production of oxygen on Mars through direct dissociation. Methane will be transported directly from Earth, with the ascent vehicle still using the tasty combination of methane and oxygen in its rocket engines.

So how is the CO2 pulled apart? There are many contenders, all of which uses a lot of energy. On Mars that energy is currently planned to be delivered by a 30 kW fission power system.

The front-runner for CO2 dissociation is thermal decomposition, followed by isolation of the O2 using a zirconia electrolytic membrane at high temperatures.

This system was developed for its first flight demonstration as the Oxygen Generator Subsystem (OGS) on the defunct Mars Surveyor Lander, which would have been launched in 2001 (but was cancelled following a string of Mars mission failures – Mars Climate Orbiter (1999), Mars Polar Lander (1999), Deep Space 2 Probes 2 (1999). That was a bad year. ).

The OGS was to demonstrate the production of oxygen from the Martian atmosphere using the zirconia solid-oxide oxygen generator hardware. This unit was designed to electrolyze CO2 at 750C (1382 F). The Yttria Stabilized zirconia material – once a voltage is applied across it – acts as a oxygen pump allowing the O2 to pass through it and be collected. The plan was to run the unit about ten times on the surface.

As I mentioned there were various contenders for the process. Such as molten carbonate cells, which operate around 550C with platinum electrodes immersed in a bulk reservoir of molten carbonate. Personally, the engineer in me shudders at the thought of trying to manage any sort of molten system that remotely.

The final system for CO2 decomposition used on Mars is probably still a work in progress. It will be interesting to see what develops there.

The fact is the initially proposed Sabatier reactions did not produce enough O2 to react with the methane, so some form of CO2 splitting process was still required.
So there are some things we can do to juggle molecules when we get to Mars.

Is everyone out there looking forward to getting to the Red Planet and grappling with what we find there?

Worldbuilding – Unique Weapons


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In my fantasy world Yos, all metal is present as a magical crystal called a glowmetal. These glowmetals are a naturally occurring blend of light and metal that cannot be created or destroyed. So in the development of weapons, swords and metal armour were out. Instead I developed various classes of composite ceramic.

Lanedd – which can be used for blades. This holds a razor-sharp edge, yet avoids the brittleness of pure ceramics.

Mought – incredibly tough material that can be cast into shape as armour or used for the haft of various weapons.

The longest practical lanedd blade that can be cast using the techniques available to Glassmiths in Yos is the ‘calv’ or long-knife. This is where the world ‘calvanni’ or knife-fighter derives.

On Yos the dualist’s weapon of choice is the greatscythe. This is a staff-like weapon with twin concealed blades, one at either end. The blades shoot out and lock into place. It is operated by a mechanism central to the haft . It is also the weapon of the Suul nobility.

I had a lot of fun trying to figure out how the greatscythe worked. After all – with no forged metal – I could not very well have conventional coiled springs.

Here’s what I came up with:

The greatscythe has a central fighting grip and a release grip slightly wider than this which is operated by twisting two rings. These have a thread on the inside that operates a rod moving parallel with the axis of the greatscythe. This movement switches what is known in knife-talk as an Out-The-Front or OTF mechanism.

To make this work I needed two separate types of springs in the internal mechanism, both which had to be some sort of natural material. The first I solved with small bone ‘leaf’ springs for the catches that lock the blade into position. For the main spring that drives the blade back and forward I used a rubber strap-spring.

The greatscythe itself tapers to the ends. Two cover plates attach to a hollow cast core and cover the dual mechanisms – sealed in place with a special mought (ceramic) that melts at a much lower temperature than the mought of the haft. So if the mechanism needs to be fixed the sealing mought can be melted away to free the plate.

Anyone else out there had fun with unique weapons?

The official launch of the Jakirian Cycle is being held next Thursday 13th March at Avid Reader in West End in Brisbane. You can register by calling Avid on (07) 3846 3422 or book on the events section of their site. Here is the link.

PS: Don’t forget to enter the Scytheman Book Giveway! I am giving away 5 copies of Scytheman, second in the Jakirian Heroic Fantasy series. The Giveaway ends on 10th March.