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

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“… 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?

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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.

New Year’s Resolutions: Dusting off my shelved manuscripts

As January firmly establishes itself, this might seem a bit late for a resolutions post, but I always planned to take January off from writing and relax some, so you haven’t missed anything.

For me, this is going to be a year of reading, revision, and reflection.

Blogging/Vlogging

I’ve got such a lovely streak going here, I’d hate to break it. So, I’ll continue putting out a new blog/vlog every Thursday on writing tips or writerly musings.

When I have them lined up, I’ll be sharing Author Spotlights or Query Corners on Tuesdays.

Plus, I’m contemplating maybe a picture post on the weekends. I’m debating if Saturday or Sunday is better. Suggestions?

Reading

They say one can’t be a writer without reading. And, finding out what’s new and good in your genre is research, right? Although, that doesn’t mean I won’t do plenty of ‘for fun’ reading.

My goal is to read 26 books this year, one every other week on average. (Although, I tend to read in binges.) I’m looking at taking breaks from writing to focus on downtime and reading in January, MarchMay, and July. And I hope that planning intentional breaks will help fight the feeling of being on a never-ending treadmill, where I fail if I let myself take a break.

So far? I’ve read a couple romances and all 4 books in Charlie Holmberg’s The Paper Magician series. I think I’m off to a good start.

Revising

I’m sitting on a backlog of 4 manuscripts in various states — mostly collecting dust. It’s time to fix that.

I got some great feedback from a critique partner back in November for Manuscript #1 (a secondary world young adult fantasy), but it was kind of a bitter pill to swallow. I have been brainstorming and messaging with the critiquer on ways to fix it. But I took December and January off, partially sulking, partially trying to figure out how to solve the issues mentioned. I’m going to let the ideas percolate a bit more and plan to hold off until February before implementing my fixes.

Then, in April, I’m going to pull out MS #2 — the sequel to MS #1.

In June, I’m going to pull out either MS #3 (my gender-bent Robin Hood) or MS #4 (my middle-grade contemporary fantasy, where the more you connect with what you read, the more your world shifts to be like it… physically!)

Querying

Once MS #1 has been revised, again, I’m marching into the query trenches once more.

Starting in March, I intend to send out 3 queries a week for 4 months, unless I get an R&R. If it goes no where, I’ll contemplate edits in August.

Beta Readers

I’ll be reaching out to beta readers as I wrap up my revisions on MS #2 (May) and MS #3 or #4(July).  Readers for MS #2 will, by necessity, be people who have beta read or critiqued MS #1, but for the others, I’m open to a small pool of new readers.

I like to keep my beta reader pool to no more than 8 readers, typically from different backgrounds. I usually give them separate copies, so that their feedback won’t influence each other.

If my Alpha reader’s schedule permits, I’ll send my manuscripts to her for quick feedback, but otherwise, these may just go straight to my beta readers.

In August and September, I’ve blocked time to incorporate the feedback — at least for MS #2. And perhaps, some updates for MS #1 (either as query feedback suggests, or to better set up MS #2’s plotting).

Conventions

I intend to hit Balticon again (May) and WorldCon (August) in Dublin (!!). I submitted to be a panelist at Balticon… but after they’d already started sending out panel invites, so I may have been too late there. We’ll see. (Keep your fingers crossed!)

Writing

Hmmm, there’s very little actual writing on this project plan, but sometimes, that’s how the cookie crumbles. Besides, I’ve been assured that editing and revising and brainstorming ARE part of the writing process.

Plus? I don’t have a big idea pushing on me right now.

That said, I intend to do OctPoWriMo again — writing a poem a day for all of October. And then NaNoWriMo.

If I don’t have an idea by then, I’ll do a rebel NaNo and revise whichever manuscript hasn’t been touched.


And that’s my plan for the year. If you got a little lost, here’s the plan in chart form.

I’ll be focusing on reading every other month until the last quarter, revising most of my backlog, querying, a couple conventions, and a bit of writing.


What does your plan look like for 2019?

Did you build in flexibility?