When Writing: How Curiosity, Spirit, and Opportunity Combine To Expose Humanity

Humanity is a complex thing.

We can be cruel, harsh, and close-minded. We can live in fear for that which is different — people, places, and technology. There is much that is dark and depressing about humanity.

But.

That is not all we are.

And as writers? We do our best work when we explore the darkness that lies within and expose it to the light. When we seek out the good, the bright, and the very hope that we are all born to hold within ourselves.

Honoring the Mars rover, Opportunity

Fifteen years ago, in July of 2003, we sent two small rovers 127 million miles from home to explore Mars for us.

Their names? Spirit and Opportunity.

Intended for a 90-day mission that we hoped would go longer, Spirit lasted over 6 years before a sand trap took them from us.

Carrying on with sampling, photographing, and collecting data without its twin for a total of nearly 15 YEARS, was Opportunity. We lost contact with them in June 2018 during a massive dust storm that covered the entire planet for a month longer than any previous storm Opportunity had yet weathered.

Its final message?

“My battery is low, and it’s getting dark.”

Opportunity (Mars rover)

We’ve been trying for months to reestablish contact, hoping the winds would clear the dust deposited by the storm from its solar arrays, afraid even the hibernation power was too much and the battery was drained too far to come back.

On February 13, 2019, NASA declared Opportunity‘s mission at an end.

On one hand, I feel incredible sadness. Leaving a robot — hungry, alone, in the dark, so far from home?

On the other? Opportunity is a testament to humanity. Like their twin, called Spirit, and younger sibling, Curiosity, they were named for the greater parts of us. Spirit, Curiosity, and the willingness to seize an Opportunity.

We might have hoped for 9 months, but Opportunity traveled further than a marathon runner on their own little wheels, crossing Mars’s surface for us.

The Little Rover That Could.


Faith In Humanity – Tumblr Edition

I don’t think I’ve ever quoted Tumblr on this blog, before, but Opportunity and their siblings are worth it.

These two quotes from Tumblr brought me the comfort I never imagined I would need, after the loss of Opportunity.

No guys you don't understand.

The soil testing equipment on Curiosity makes a buzzing noise, and the pitch of the noise changes depending on what part of an experiment Curiosity is performing, this is the way Curiosity sings to itself.

Some of the finest minds currently alive decided to take incredibly expensive scientific equipment and mess with it until they figured out how to move in just the right way to sing Happy Birthday, then someone made a cake on Curiosity’s Birthday and took it into Mission Control so that a room full of brilliant scientists and engineers could throw a birthday party for a non-autonomous robot 225 million kilometers away and listen to it sing the first song ever sung on Mars, which was Happy Birthday.

This isn't a sad story, this is a happy story about the ridiculousness of humans and the way we love things.  We built a little robot and called it Curiosity and flung it into the stars to go and explore places we can't get to because it's name is in our nature and then just because we could, we taught it how to sing.

That's not sad, that's awesome.

No guys you don’t understand.

“…This isn’t a sad story, this is a happy story about the ridiculousness of humans and the way we love things.  We built a little robot and called it Curiosity and flung it into the stars to go and explore places we can’t get to because it’s name is in our nature and then just because we could, we taught it how to sing.

That’s not sad, that’s awesome.

And

swanjolras Deactivated gosh but like we spent hundreds of years looking up at the stars and wondering “is there anybody out there” and hoping and guessing and imagining because we as a species were so lonely and we wanted friends so bad, we wanted to meet other species and we wanted to talk to them and we wanted to learn from them and to stop being the only people in the universe and we started realizing that things were maybe not going so good for us— we got scared that we were going to blow each other up, we got scared that we were going to break our planet permanently, we got scared that in a hundred years we were all going to be dead and gone and even if there were other people out there, we’d never get to meet them and then we built robots? and we gave them names and we gave them brains made out of silicon and we pretended they were people and we told them hey you wanna go exploring, and of course they did, because we had made them in our own image and maybe in a hundred years we won’t be around any more, maybe yeah the planet will be a mess and we’ll all be dead, and if other people come from the stars we won’t be around to meet them and say hi! how are you! we’re people, too! you’re not alone any more!, maybe we’ll be gone but we built robots, who have beat-up hulls and metal brains, and who have names; and if the other people come and say, who were these people? what were they like? the robots can say, when they made us, they called us discovery; they called us curiosity; they called us explorer; they called us spirit. they must have thought that was important. and they told us to tell you hello. Source:swanjolras-archive #I'm not crying #your mom is crying #science goddammit #people being people

s

“… maybe in a hundred years we won’t be around any more … but we built robots, who have beat-up hulls and metal brains, and who have names; and if the other people come and say, who were these people? what were they like?

the robots can say, when they made us, they called us discovery; they called us curiosity; they called us explorer; they called us spirit. they must have thought that was important.

and they told us to tell you hello.”

Source: DEACTIVATED: swanjolras-archive#I’m not crying#your mom is crying#science goddammit#people being people

Imbuing Your Writing With The Best Of Humanity

Curiosity is the ability for a writer (or their characters) to wonder. To think, what-if? Curiosity makes them want to explore. Makes them wonder why things are the way they are and if there’s a way to change them. Curiosity makes them want to know how things work.

Spirit is the energy and motivation to find out. You can wonder all you want, but without spirit, the questions will remain unanswered in your head.

And opportunity? That’s when spirit, curiosity, and timing match up. You can have all the spirit and curiosity about the stars above, but without access to telescopes and science, it’s hard to learn more about them. You can wonder all you want about the fairy world, but unless you find a door, you’ll never get the opportunity to explore.

Opportunity and spirit can take your characters, (and the rest of us), far beyond their abilities and their plans, to a point where they can achieve so much more than they ever dreamed possible.


How do you incorporate humanity in your writing?

Do you focus on the negatives?

Or do you allow the best of us to peek through the darkness and shine a beacon of hope?

If you’re a reader, which part speaks strongest to you?

Advertisements

How I Finally Gave In and Set Up My Own Newsletter Using MailChimp

Well, that was more complicated (and a little $$) than expected.

Until Monday, I Thought I Didn’t Need An Actual Email List

If you’re like me, you keep hearing how you’re supposed to cultivate that whole ’email list’ thing.

One problem.

I hate email. I like to read, archive, and keep my inbox under 25 items–aiming for Zero Inbox.

Besides! WordPress lets people sign-up with their emails, so they can get the updates that way. Right?

Apparently, I missed a small little detail.

When I FINALLY (after like 4 years) re-signed up to see what my email looked like? I learned You’ve Got To Have A WordPress Account To Subscribe!

Don’t get me wrong. When I set up my blog, four years ago, I checked out the first several emails, to make sure they looked fine. But? I had a wordpress account, so I didn’t even notice.

Besides? If I want to check out my blog, I view it on an RSS feed.

What’s an RSS Feed?

It’s a way to follow blogs and get all their updates — like Facebook, only you’re following Blogs, not individuals. Tumblr is actually an RSS Feed, but you can only follow other Tumblr blogs.

Whoops!

I know that’s gonna turn off people who don’t want ANOTHER account.

That’s When I Realized I Needed An ACTUAL Email Newsletter

I did some quick googling, and went with the one I saw most recommended, most used, and was FREE! (At least with my level of followers…)

So, next thing I know, I’ve got a freebie MailChimp account (so long as my mailing has fewer than 2,000 emails a month, I don’t have to pay a thing!) Plus, they promise a seamless experience when you switch to the paid levels. $10-$30 bucks until I have over 2,500 followers. [Sign up HERE!]

I went to the website, created an account, set up some groups, and then?

I created an automated welcome email and weekly RSS feed emails.

That’s when I notice something.

They’re posting my HOME ADDRESS. Eep! Not really something I want to provide to any online stalker. With a note that says US anti-spam law REQUIRES an address on any sort of mass emailing.

Sad trombone!

Fine. I’ll get a P.O. Box.

But wait.

Worn stop sign, in front of trees, a solid white wall half hiding a brick building.
Photo by Mwabonje on Pexels.com

It needs a physical address?

A little research later and I found a nearby Post Office that also lets you use their street address. I sign up online, pay, and… need to go in, in person, to get the key and show ID.

I pop on over on my lunch break, during this gorgeous 68′ February flash-spring and present my Passport and Driver’s License. Only 2 people ahead of me in line.

After a short wait, I hand over my papers. Only problem. I moved last year and my driver’s license is out of date– despite me updating them.

I dash out to my car and rifle through my glove box. My insurance card doesn’t have an address on it. But wait, what’s this folded piece of paper. My voter information sheet, telling me where to vote? Does it count as my voter ID?

I bring it back in, fingers crossed. With no line, I beeline to the counter and hand it over.

Does she accept it?

YES!

A few signatures later (and $92 for 12+1 free month, otherwise known as $7 a month), I now have a PO Box. She gets me two keys to test and hands me the paper with the street address to use.

Fun Fact:

It’s a different zip code than the street address of the normal post office.

Long story short — I now have a PO box with a street address and an email newsletter.

(Now I can use THAT when I win random twitter contests, instead of giving my mailing address to strangers.)

Quick Humble-Brag Break

I’m well on my way to hitting my reading goal for this year, with 16 books already under my belt.

And? Last Friday, I talked to my new mentor on the phone.

Mentor? Tell me more, Morgan.

I sent in a mentee application just before New Years to the Broad Universe‘s debut program and found out I was selected two Saturdays ago. We’d been emailing back and forth for a week, before we finally talked to start making a plan and for her to critique my 1st chapter.

That poor chapter’s been critiqued SOO many times. But, getting enough world building that no one is confused, without overwhelming them with info-dumps is a hard balance — and likely in a different place for every reader. I’ve got a little more work to do there.

As you know, I was planning on a little polishing and tossing her back into the query trenches. I’m sighing a little and getting ready to delve back into a full revision. Oh well. I’ve got high hopes and a guide, this time.

But! Back to MailChimp.

Getting Started With Groups On MailChimp

After MailChimp walked me through setting up, I knew I wanted custom email levels. I HATE stores that send either 7 emails a week or NOTHING. So, I looked around and figured out how to set up GROUPS.

Step 1: Open the list

Go to the Lists tab (create one for everyone who's received a welcome email if you don't have one yet), and select the list.

Go to the Lists tab (create one for everyone who’s received a welcome email if you don’t have one yet), and select the list.

Step 2: Manage your contacts

Select the 'Manage Contacts' drop down.

Select the ‘Manage Contacts’ drop down.

Step 3: Select ‘Groups’

Step 4: Create your groups

Click 'Show Groups'. Then, select 'Add Group' and name it as you wish. If you do this early, like I did, you won't have to add contacts manually, they'll be prompted when they sign up!

Click ‘Show Groups’. Then, select ‘Add Group’ and name it as you wish. If you do this early, like I did, you won’t have to add contacts manually, they’ll be prompted when they sign up!

And Ta-daaa! You’ve created groups, so people only get the emails they’re interested in.

My groups are:

  • Everything! (which I’m sure is what most people want *winks*)
  • Weekly Blog posts — which I plan to only send out once a week with all my newest blog posts inside
  • Occasional Updates — if I have news or such that I’d like to share with a targeted audience
  • And a group I like to call, “Actually Published Something“, for those people who support my writing, but don’t care about the details. Just let them know when I have something new coming out.

Creating The Actual EMAILS

MailChimp made this SUPER easy, with its built-in templates. But, there’s still a decent number of steps. You ready?

Step 1: Create A Campaign

We start off by selecting the 'Create Campaign' button.

We start off by selecting the ‘Create Campaign’ button.

Step 2: Select Campaign Type

In this case, I'm looking for EMAILS.

In this case, I’m looking for EMAILS.

Step 3: Automate This Thing!

I set up 2 types of Automated emails, a simple confirmation/welcome email, and a weekly blog feed. In this case, I'll be showing the RSS feed, because it's a bit tricker, but the flow is nearly identical. So, select the 'Automated' tab, and then pick your email type.

I set up 2 types of Automated emails, a simple confirmation/welcome email, and a weekly blog feed.

In this case, I’ll be showing the RSS feed, because it’s a bit tricker, but the flow is nearly identical. So, select the ‘Automated’ tab, and then pick your email type.

Step 4: Name Your (Email) Campaign

Set a name for the campaign and select the list you're using. (Luckily, you've already got that list set up!)

Set a name for the campaign and select the list you’re using. (Luckily, you’ve already got that list set up!)

Step 5: Map Your Feed and Schedule It

1 - Enter the RSS feed address. Typically, your address plus "\feed", but if you're not sure, just put in the URL and MailChimp will check for you.
2. Set the email period - daily, weekly, monthly..., set the time of day, and set the days of the week you'd like to email (IF there is something new.)
3. I saw complaints about poor quality images in the email feed, and saw recommendations to UNSELECT the 'Resize RSS feed images', so I did that.
  1. Enter the RSS feed address. Typically, your address plus “\feed”, but if you’re not sure, just put in the URL and MailChimp will check for you.
  2. Set the email period – daily, weekly, monthly…, set the time of day, and set the days of the week you’d like to email (IF there is something new.)
  3. I saw complaints about poor quality images in the email feed, and saw recommendations to UNSELECT the ‘Resize RSS feed images’, so I did that.

Step 6: Select Which Group Gets This Email

1 - Decide who gets this email: everyone? a segment/tag? or a group? I've got my groups set up, so that's what I choose.
2 - Select the question under 'Groups': "Which emails would you like to get", then select the modifier, and the groups they're in. Maybe this email should only go to people who selected Occasional Updates AND Actually Published Something?  But no. I went with "one of" and "Weekly Blogposts.
3 - Click DONE!
.
  1. Decide who gets this email: everyone? a segment/tag? or a group? I’ve got my groups set up, so that’s what I choose.
  2. Select the question under ‘Groups’:
    1. “Which emails would you like to get”
    2. Select the modifier, and the groups they’re in.
      1. Maybe this email should only go to people who selected Occasional Updates AND Actually Published Something?
      2. But no. I went with “one of” and “Weekly Blogposts.
  3. Click DONE!

Step 7: Select Your Campaign Options

To be honest, I didn't know what all of these options were and just sort of used my best judgment.


To be honest, I didn’t know what all of these options were and just sort of used my best judgment.

  • I like stats (that are free)
  • I’m happy to have formatted contact names — especially if it lowers the odds I’ll be tossed in the SPAM folder.
  • As my blog already retweets to twitter and facebook, I didn’t need those options.
  • I did select auto-convert video because of posts like this one with youtube embedded.

Step 8: Select Your Template

I like the basic template. I don't want fancy columns that end up with emails about 3 words across and an eternity's worth of scrolling. I wanted it simple and clean. So, I selected the basic template and hit 'next'.

I like the basic template. I don’t want fancy columns that end up with emails about 3 words across and an eternity’s worth of scrolling. I wanted it simple and clean.

So, I selected the basic template and hit ‘next’.

Step 9: Add Content To Your Email

For this example, I dragged the 'RSS Items' content block onto the email preview and then 'Social Share' (whoops, image has the wrong one circled), so people can easily share links to my blog if they liked the post. Put it in an order that makes sense to you.

For this example, I dragged the ‘RSS Items’ content block onto the email preview and then ‘Social Share’ (whoops, image has the wrong one circled), so people can easily share links to my blog if they liked the post.

Put it in an order that makes sense to you.

Step 10: Decide How Wordy Your Email Should Be

Decide how much of your blog post you want displayed in the email. I opted for 'Full Content."

Decide how much of your blog post you want displayed in the email. I opted for ‘Full Content.”

I’m torn here: I’m not huge on busy emails, so I’d probably prefer the Titles, or Excerpts. But. This isn’t for me. People who want an email are likely people who don’t want to go to my blog all the time. I have to remember that not everyone consumes the internet the way I do.

Maybe I should set up 2 ‘weekly blogpost’ emails — one full text and one not?

Then? You just confirm the email and hit publish! And you’re email is ready to go. You can pause and edit it at any time, without messing up the feed.

AND! Best of all? You can preview the upcoming emails.

If you’re interested in signing up for this awesome newsletter/blog update, there’s a bar at the bottom of my webpage, and a tab-link on my facebook author page I also set up. But, I figured I gave you enough step-by-step directions for today.

How I finally gave in and set up my own newsletter

Do YOU have an email list?
If so, do you have any tips for a newbie?
If not, are you contemplating one now?

Show. Don’t Tell: Readers Don’t Need Stage Directions

This month, I’ve been beta-reading and critiquing — short stories, a full manuscript, queries, and online snippets. I know I’m far from the first one to call out this issue, not even the first blogger this week on my feed, but I’ve been reading a lot of stage direction where it doesn’t belong.

What is stage direction?

If you’re in a play or a tv show or a movie, stage direction is a great thing — at least for the actors. It tells them where to stand, what to grab, and when to leave.

Here’s a snippet that was in an early draft of one of my manuscripts:

We passed a couple small townlets before reaching our destination later than I would have liked. We were both at fault for getting a slow start that morning. Fine, I suppose I should blame the slow progress on a break or two I’d requested. I would rather credit the mud weighing down my boots. Stopping to clear off a layer or four of mud was a very useful task for boosting my walking endurance. I decided to mark them as unavoidable delays.

It’s easy to fall into, especially when drafting fast or struggling for word count. You’re figuring out where the character is going and what they’re doing — and that’s okay. That’s to be expected.

But, when you come back to edit, you should recognize it for what it is and fix it.

Why is stage direction bad, in writing?

Stage direction is handy. It’s useful, both for the actor or the writer. But it’s a pretty explicit example of telling, not showing.

And? It isn’t needed by the audience.

Why doesn’t the reader need stage directions?

  1. You should be showing what happens.

    Like watching a movie, scenes should unfold, not be described.

  2. It’s boring.

    It’s a series of ‘this and then that.”

  3. Trust your reader.

    You don’t need to say, “he extended his hand, then grasped the congressman’s hand in a firm handshake.” Readers should know how handshakes work.

How To Fix ‘Stage Directing’ In Your Writing

Ways to show action without falling into stage direction format:

  1. Pick verbs that show the character’s attitude toward an activity.

    Instead of walking, your character might be striding in (one can almost see their head held high, eager or nervously ready to face the room). Versus one trudging in (scuffing their filthy shoes, eyes downcast is almost implied).

  2. If you’re in a close point-of-view, add in mental reactions.

    “With a tight smile, he shook the congressman’s hand and struggled not to share a piece of his mind.”

  3. Filter in non-action sentences

    Instead of a paragraph, detailing all the activities taken and nothing else, alternate with other sorts of sentences.

Ways To Break Up Action Sequences

  1. Dialogue
  2. Other characters’ reactions
  3. Description
  4. More mental opinions
  5. Here’s a great place for a single sentence of info-dump or background.

Dusk was coming in before I saw the chimney smoke heralding our destination.

“Wish we’d gotten a faster start, we might miss prayers at this rate,” I grumbled, forcing my throbbing feet to pick up the pace.

“You that worried?” Gellin looked back at me.

“I’d just rather be there before dark.”

“Hey, you’re the one who had to stop every hour to scrape the mud off her shoes,” he held out his hands, blamelessly, and I glared at him.

“The mud was slowing us down, or at least me. Those delays were inevitable!”I said, not wanting to admit my feet were novices to the road.

The difference is twenty-five words. Hardly a drop in the bucket, but the world you see is a lot less abstract.


Can you find examples of telling, instead of showing in your writing? Sometimes you need a friend to help you see them.

Best of luck writing and revising!

The Reward For A Job Well Done…

In my day job, I’d been working hard on a project for nearly a year, but turned the last of my work in back in December. Then, all I could do for that project was wait for everyone else to be done with their part. Tuesday, we had a big, milestone test, and it passed. But? It’s far from done.

But, my day job isn’t the only place where that happens, my writing works the same way.

I work hard, polish it up so it passes my own tests, and then I send it off to beta readers, or critique partners, or agents. I wait… maybe not-so-patiently for my writing to pass their ‘tests’, and then I hear back (or pass the no-answer-means-no-thank-you deadline).

So far, my responses have been positive — or at least neutral.

No one has told me my writing sucks and I should stick to reading. But? They all have ideas for improvement. Ways for my work to get better, for the plot to flow more naturally, to give the emotional core of the story a greater impact, to make the setting and main character something that an agent can connect with and draw them in.

Both of my projects already have a form, a function, and a shape. Now, it’s time to really see what I can turn them into.

This coming year is a year of revision for me. Taking rough manuscripts and turning them into a polished form. Rough stone to elegant statues.


Where are you with your projects? Are they still ideas and raw material?

Or are you ready to polish them ’til they shine?

Strength Isn’t Just For The Strong

At WorldFantasyCon, I attended a panel by this same name. Going into the panel, I expected a discussion of different types of strengths being compared to the default of physical strength. Instead, the panel veered into magical strength and stayed there.

Defining Strength

Of course, we addressed the titular topic, but the conversation just kept swaying magical.

Strength can be just an overwhelming level of power. But, to use one’s strength to accomplish one’s goals of any type is a form of competence. Be it physical, mental, mystical, or magical, without competence you end up with more of a firestorm than a laser.

Things Magic Can Represent

Magic can just be the extraordinary, but often in fantasy, it’s a way of discussing real-world issues without bringing all the baggage that its real-world counterpart has accumulated.

  1. The hubris of the human spirit
  2. It’s often an allegory for privilege or power
    1. In worlds where magic is bad – the main character is often non-magical
    2. In worlds where magic is good – the main character is often magical

Ways Magic Can Influence A Society

When certain people have power that others don’t have access to, that’s going to disrupt the social order. Just like any other sort of wealth or power.

  1. Innate magic leads to a more stringent class hierarchy
  2. Gained or earned magic tends to be in worlds with greater social mobility
  3. Availability of magic determines if it’s rare or commonplace — expensive or cheap.
  4. If magic is inherent in a place or object, that gives power to those who possess that place/object (ley lines/hubs, Dune’s dust…)

Tropes For Different Strengths

There are a lot of tropes when it comes to giving characters strengths and powers. Some are more overdone than others.

  1. Magic users are seen as more intelligent
  2. Magic types as innately light or dark
  3. Magic as a tool
  4. Magic based societies not developing more mechanical technology alongside it
  5. Using an outsider or non-magical person to introduce us to the magical world
  6. Using magic to solve everything
  7. Giving poor characters fewer skills, rather than different ones
    1. Try having a farmboy where his farming skills come in handy
  8. ‘Leveling’ the main character up everytime there’s a new boss

Types of Strengths For Villains

Heroes aren’t the only ones with strengths. Any respectable foe needs to have some strengths of their own.

  1. Some villains share the main character’s strengths… but let their moral convictions prevent them from doing the right thing or rationalize their way into the wrong thing.
  2. Some villains have good — or at least understandable motives — but their methods and the lengths they go, using their strengths to achieve their objective cross the line into monstrous.
  3. Some villains are the protagonist of their own story. The strength of their moral convictions — like Magneto in the X-Men. He might be on the wrong side, but I can’t say he’s wrong.

What sort of strengths do you have? Your core competencies?
What about your main characters and your villains?
Do they balance each other?


The panelists were Fonda Lee, Carol Cummings, Marissa Lingen, and Rhiannon Held.