On Alien Biology and 'Hard Sci-Fi'

Monster by Piolinfax

Monster credit Piolinfax – Image on Wikimedia Commons

I’m making up stuff again. The squishy sort of stuff, things an autopsy, a scanning electron microscope, centrifuges and spectrometers might be involved with if these were real-world organisms.

Building a monster requires some science. It’s best done if you’ve studied a soupçon of biology, a bit of chemistry, maybe even engineering if you’re fabricating a serious danger to your protagonists—say something that can survive in the dark vacuum of space, slice your arm off and eat it, break down a door with ease, is absolutely paranoid about its own survival and looks really ugly to us wee humans.

The alien race I’m designing is called the Sigotha:

The Sigotha as adults are about six feet long, and can rear up to twice that height. They resemble a cross between a lobster and a scorpion, and actually have both an internal and external skeleton. These apex predators are armed with a retractable scimitar blade on each leg, claw-hands on the front legs, a stinger tail, and four mandibles that are capable of slicing through metal conduit. A blow from one of their legs or the tail can send a man flying down a corridor. Their limbs can be coordinated in an attack that would reduce a cow into steaks and choice cuts within moments. They have two sets of eyes on the head, one set usually retracted, and speak in a series of clicks from their claw-hands, which also have prehensile appendages for manipulating tools. There is a tympanum or drum mouth on their upper thorax which they use to mimic sounds. Hearing, vision, sense of smell all surpass humans. The Sigotha are faster on ‘foot,’ amazingly agile, and have somewhat quicker reflexes than human beings. Their exoskeletons resemble metal armor, although the carbon-silicate material is much lighter and more difficult to penetrate than any material we use as armor today.

Yet again the humans have expanded out into the galaxy and encountered another sapient apex predator.  There are lots of fascinating and horrible creatures in science fiction. Some are filled out only enough for a plot line, others are built into waking nightmares.

There are many creatures out there, but this one is my own (hugs his Sigothan, which emits a sibilant series of buzzes and tries to reach his head with a rapidly-clicking lobster-like claw). We’re going to have so much fun together!

Welcome to Often Inspired!

Thrilling Detective 1935

“If the public likes you, you’re good.” — Mickey Spillane

 

Our signature motto is “Be true to your reader and the rest will follow.”

 

Have faith in your reader, but earn their trust first. Write something they would enjoy.

We hope you have a lot of fun here. Read. Critique. Create. Make friends.

— William V. Burns

Blood and Guts and Brains

U.S. Soldiers in Iraq

Photo: http://www.militarynewsnetwork.com/military-news/news1101.htm

Writing about those who stand in defense of their country is a challenge. If you’re close to your subject, if you’ve lived it, then you may have trouble stepping back to gain perspective. If you have never served, then you have to gain currency with terminology, basic tactical concepts, and may never capture the gut feelings of combat or even being a member of the service.

History can lend a hand. There is much source material. Possibly more has been written about war than any other human activity. I would guess from the books I’ve read that the leaders in war were favored first, and only during the last two hundred years have the front line soldiers’ stories gained prominence.

Soldiers serving under the command of General George S. Patton, nicknamed “Old Blood and Guts,” used to quip, “our blood, his guts”. Combat requires both, and a successful commander must also have the brains to see the battle in the context of history, to build a bold plan, and know when to hold to it or abandon it in the fog of war.

If you write about war, you will have to possess all three of these qualities.

Life in the military has been characterized as long periods of waiting patiently, punctuated by moments of heart-pounding action. A writer’s lot is not near as hazardous, but does involve working steadily, training yourself to know your genre and your craft, and then that moment of decisive action when you present a manuscript or a pitch for a book to an editor or agent.

It all comes down to that opportunity, maybe the only one you will get for your work to succeed.

Are you ready? Have you prepared, drilled, practiced? Has someone competent in the field checked your work? Are you using the right tools, tactics, strategies?

Will you pass inspection, will you reach your objective? Will you win?

–William V. Burns

Camaraderie at the San Diego Writers Conference, alas.

Writer

Picture Credit: Wikimedia Commons User:Onomatomedia

This last January I had the privilege of attending the San Diego Writers Conference, held at the newly upgraded Doubletree Hotel in Mission Valley. The venue was beautiful, the machine of the Writers Conference hummed along flawlessly, and the very best parts were the people.

The camaraderie of writers is a delight to experience. The professionals stoop to help the newcomers, the assured comfort the nervous (ye who are about to find out what an agent thought of your novel, we salute your courage), we cheerfully and thoughtfully dissect each other’s work, and then we retire to dinner or the bar to sip and sup and talk about the trials and comforts of the trade. Ideas and sometimes deals are worked out over a cocktail napkin. Friendships are made and sometimes even romances.

Writing is devilish hard work, as those who have iron enough to confront the virtual blank paper of a word processor know. It’s never assured, and lonely when you create, and sometimes hollow in the achievement of work that sometimes goes unread after all the sweat and tears put in. But there is the phone, or chat, and the solitude is broken. And perhaps once or twice a year you can make a pilgrimage to meet with your profession: agents, editors, a multitude of other writers, and then come the triumphs, small and great of learning more about your trade, your fellows, and yourself.

So it was a chill  wind in my heart when I read that the 2013 San Diego Writers Conference was cancelled.

The founder and coordinator, Diane Dunaway Kramer, was injured in an auto accident, and has been unable to help put together this year’s event. I pray for her recovery.

I will miss the camaraderie this year. I hope the event will be back in 2014.

–William V. Burns

Lessons Learned: San Diego Writers Conference

900x500_Diriks_Skisser

Just one month ago I attended the 2012 San Diego Writers Conference.
My objectives were to polish the pitch for my novel, and to learn what I had to do to get it published.
What did I learn?

  • How to create a great query letter
  • Build a synopsis of your novel
  • Jumping over the Slush Pile
  • Experience a Writers Convention
  • e-Books: The New Market

Was the conference worth every dollar I spent, and the time to get ready?

Yes!

–William V. Burns

Timeless

Arthur Conan Doyle -- A Study In Scarlet

Arthur Conan Doyle -- A Study In Scarlet

What makes a work of fiction echo down the ages, relevant to all who read it?

How can you craft a story, or a book, or a script that will resonate cleanly to readers who come to your work after you have left the stage?

A few thoughts…

Consider the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

What is the difference between the first Sherlock Holmes novel—A Study in Scarlet and Doyle’s 1891 novel, The Doings Of Raffles Haw?

One sits in the golden path of the world’s great mystery novels, and the other… well, I’m reasonably certain you’ve never heard of it.

In Scarlet, Sir Arthur begins by detailing the life of John H. Watson, M.D., veteran of the second Afghan War, recuperating in London. An interesting character, sympathetically described, who meets his roommate-to-be, a man who greets him and immediately says,  “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

What has begun as the reminiscences of an Army surgeon twists into a mystery… Holmes meets Watson and the game, as they say, is afoot.

The Doings Of Raffles Haw begins as a mundane tale of fiscal and family woe, and in a chapter or two slowly changes to a fantasy about unlimited wealth and its uses. The characters are utterly forgettable.

Points: Sharp, interesting characters, doing interesting things. Amaze your reader.

Both are set in approximately the same period. Both have plots with secrets revealed, and human failings set in a Victorian prism.

Both in their own way are fantasies.

One tale illuminates its period, and the other is just a  shadow of its time.

–William V. Burns


Project Gutenberg links to both novels:

A Study in Scarlet

The Doings Of Raffles Haw

The Point

The RoomIt was another pointless day at my community college. The usual agitators in my English 204 class had started a discussion which ranged far off its original course, and finally degenerated into an argument about that old cliche: If you knew a nuclear weapon was about to explode in a city in a few hours, and you had the perpetrator in custody, would it be ethical to torture him until he gave up and disclosed the bomb’s location?

Jenny, an earnest Marxist with deep blue eyes and an equally deep bosom, passionately laid out her reasoning for appealing to the terrorist’s human side, and stated that the end “…never justified the means, if the means were really mean.”

Paul, our designated conservative, opined that “…in the event that the torture was successful, and the city was saved, the President would surely pardon the torturer. In any case, what right does scum like that have to due process?”

Our instructor, a bored remnant of the Seventies, a blasé man in a tweed jacket, interjected a homily about the ineffectiveness of torture, but lost the thread somewhere in a dazed rant about the political system.

I was hoping Jenny would bounce up again – but then another student spoke up. None of us knew him by name. He was one of those colorless, middle-aged students who came in, took their notes quietly, and left, just collecting their credits for whatever reason. His voice was flat and unemotional.

“You’re all missing the point. There’s nothing philosophical about torture. It’s an act you perform because at the time you feel you have to. You don’t think about the morality of it. It’s beyond that. You have another human being before you, and you need the information. You have to be right. You just do it.”

The plain man rubbed his forehead. We were silent.

“He’s there, and he doesn’t want to tell you what you need to know. You’re there, and you have no choice. You just do it. In his agony, you know he’ll tell you anything he can think of—lies, fantasies, half-truths. So you have to take it to the end. You have to get to that point where he knows he’s going to die, where he’s bleeding from everywhere, and he knows the pain won’t stop, won’t stop until that last labored breath. He’s soiled himself several times. There’s bile on the floor. He’s drowning in his own sweat, and it smells of fear. The stench of him fills the room. You keep pressing him, until in that final haze of pain, just before he dies, you’re sure.”

There was no sound in that room except our breathing. The plain, middle-aged man placed his palms gently on the desk in front of him, and looked around at us.

“Don’t we all just do what we have to?”

He put his little notepad under his arm and left the classroom, just as the bell rang. We never saw him again.

–William V. Burns

Watch Us Sweat

Underwood Typewriter

Remember these?

National Novel Writing Month (hereafter NaNoWriMo) is a yearly contest to write an entire novel in just 30 days – November – from scratch – you start writing on November 1st, and stop no later than midnight November 30th.

Yes, it’s insane. But it’s a way to stop procrastinating, and actually sit down and write that book you’ve had in your head all this time.

The idea of NaNoWriMo was conceived by Chris Baty, and his site is here: NaNoWriMo.Org

That’s the official site…

Here at Often Inspired, we like to gather a few people during November for NaNoWriMo and have a party, where we share our work on the forum, pass out prizes, gripe, praise each others work, rally at the end, and produce some novels.

This will be our fifth year!

Join us on the forum and toil along with us, or just… watch us sweat.

Here are the instructions…

The Brown Room

clock“It’s because of the paradox,” I explained.

I fidgeted a bit in the hard metal chair. Government-issue furniture didn’t seem comfortable no matter what country supplied them, or what century. Of course my comfort wasn’t important at all to the middle-aged German police officer listening to me and writing in his small brown notebook. Everything in the room was brown, even the police officer’s suit and hat.

“We found you can’t go back into the past and change it in any important way, such as saving a political figure from being assassinated. We tried that with Archduke Franz Ferdinand and immediately the agent who garroted Princip, the assassin, found himself back at the venture capsule staring at a PATH FAILED mission indicator and only remembering the attempt hazily. He recorded what happened and then returned to base.”

The police officer raised one eyebrow and smiled grimly. “I am no fan of the Nazis, Herr Brummler, but such an astounding story doesn’t persuade me to release you. You are accused of killing Adolf Hitler, a notorious political agitator and admirer of Mussolini, at the house of Herr Hanfstaengl. Do you know we were but a few minutes from arresting that swine when you shot him? You killed him for no good reason. I would like your statement to answer this question. Why?”

I looked around me for a moment to get my bearings. I knew I didn’t have much time left. The clock on the light brown wall of the interview room showed 11:29. But if I persuaded…
“Of course what I’m saying sounds like gibberish. I’m nervous. I need to get back to my small vehicle. You can escort me there. Aren’t you interested how I got here? Where I came from? I promise I only want to open its door, and press one button. One small button. That will signal the computer that I succeeded. Is that so much to ask?”

Officer Ratzinger seemed even more amused. “I’m usually out in the countryside, helping our rural citizens solve mysteries such as missing cattle and non-payment of grain loans. I’m filling in for Officer Meyer, so please excuse my lack of sophistication. I do not believe a word you have said so far.” He leaned back in his own unyielding chair and chuckled. “Tell me who helped you find Herr Hitler. He was on the run from the entire Bavarian State Police after his little rebellion failed. We were set to toss him in prison and let him rot there harmlessly.”

“I’m not making myself clear. So you can’t change the past. But you can change the future. You can go forward, alter events, and there is no paradox.. Do you understand me at all?”

Ratzinger nodded. “I have read a few pieces of speculative fiction, Wells, Verne, and the like. I can see that. Go on, tell me how ‘they’ overcame this problem.”

I wiped my brow and looked at the clock. 11:35. So close, so close. I needed to get the idea into this rural cop’s head. “So they sent the equipment and our team all the way back to 1900, and we were not told what we were supposed to do or why. We were told to perform an unknown mission once a month—simply grab a mission kit, enter a venture capsule, and close the door. It would go somewhere, and to some… date. Because we would be traveling into our future, and knew not what we were supposed to do, we would leave the capsule, close the door, and then try to figure out what change they wanted us to make. Once I knew the date was 11 November 1923, and everyone on the street was talking about Hitler and the NSDAP, I knew. I knew I had to kill him. I did kill him! I prevented the worst war and massacre of the 20th Century. But it will be for nothing unless you take me to my—”

The policeman raised a hand to stop me, smiled, and uncuffed me from the table. My heart raced. He was going to take me there! Then he spoke softly to me while holding my wrists in his firm muscular grip. Ratzinger snapped the cuffs shut on me. “I have enough now. Don’t worry, Herr Brummler. We don’t execute the mentally deranged. You will be treated for your illness and perhaps, in a decade or so, you may be allowed to rejoin us.”

The time was 11:40. My twelve allotted hours were dwindling. Only twenty minutes left. I tried to break away but Ratzinger only smiled broadly. “Don’t make me crack your skull against the table. Behave yourself.” He pushed me into the small cell in the back of the room, and locked the door. He stood outside the grille and looked at me. “I am sorry for you. I think you mean well, but you are totally mad.”

I looked despairingly up at the clock. 11:46. Still time… the venture capsule was only a few blocks away…

Ratzinger disappeared, the cell grille faded, the furniture dimmed, and I found myself standing in the brown room, completely alone, just four walls, a ceiling light, and the clock, the clock must have been slow. My time was up. The brown room faded… and I was sitting in the venture capsule. The numbers glared red: 00:00 and the mission indicator changed to PATH FAILED. I had automatically been returned to 1900.

–William V. Burns

A Cottage Industry

Writing is local.

L. Frank Baum

A Local Writer—L. Frank Baum

If you’re sitting at a desk, or in the coffee shop, or under the weeping willow tree, tapping on the keys and trying to make your artistic vision one with the blank, mocking page—you are a local. If you have handed your work to someone and in return they have reluctantly given you a wrinkled piece of whatever currency spends successfully at your grocery—then you are also a business.

A cottage industry, no more, no less—akin to a potter, or wheelwright, or cooper or blacksmith, whether there is an oak tree or not in the area. You are an ink-stained wretch, grubbing for whatever shekels you can gather.

Writing is global.

The Internet may have hastened the process and broadly increased its extent, but laying words on a page to influence minds has always promised a worldwide audience.

J. K. Rowling has charmed people from pole to pole.

Stephen King has given universal willies in dozens of languages.

Dr. Seuss redefined whimsy and entertained children around the world.

If you write, your words may reverberate across the globe.

Write what you know, but write what you think people should know, wherever they are and whoever they are.

Even if you are writing in a cottage.

–William V. Burns