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Friday, March 24, 2017


What’s the hardest part of a book to write? Not the beginning, because what writer isn’t full of enthusiasm at the onset of a project? Sometimes that opening sentence is what launches the whole thing in an author’s mind. Call me Ishmael. Chapter One: I am Born. For years I couldn’t remember what happened to me that night.*

The middle chapters are almost always a hard slog, it’s true. They don’t call a problem with this section “the sagging middle” for nothing. Keeping up the pace, making sure you don’t lose all of your subplots in a swamp of details, enforcing consistency in your characters, all take discipline and drive.

But the proof of any novel’s pudding is at the end, when all the plot threads must tie themselves up in neat little bows, the bad guy must get his or her just deserts, and your hero and heroine must have resolved all their internal and external conflicts so they can enjoy their happily ever after. Aarggh!

Of course, the myth is that plotters and pantsers approach this moment of truth in completely different ways. Plotters, it is assumed, have it all figured out from the beginning. It’s there in the outline! This happens, then this, then, ta-da! Ends tied, bad guy dead, HEA.

Pantsers, supposedly, just write until things work themselves out. If they hit a wall, they write around it, or over it, or under it. Intuition working overtime, pantsers find solutions to whatever problems present themselves as they come up, though maybe that doesn’t happen right away. (I hope not, anyway, or I would be much more jealous of these folks than I already am!)

But, surprise! Hardly anyone is exclusively a plotter or a pantser. And the Muse is fond of throwing all sorts of obstacles in our path as we work our way through a story. Unexpected plot complications. Demanding characters. Corners, with wet paint on the floor all around. Inconvenient laws of physics that make you want to switch to writing contemporary romance. And, most especially at the end of a novel with any subplots at all, the issue of timing (that is, who is supposed to be where at exactly what day and time).

As a plotter, you might think I’d have fewer problems than some with tying things up at the end of a book. But right now, I’m close to the end of the first draft of Book 4 in my Interstellar Rescue series and, really, I have no idea how to end it. Well, I mean, I know generally what should happen. Minor villain vanquished by the hero/heroine (and, big reveal here, dog—which, I should add, I’d already put in the story before Pets in Space was launched). Major villain(s) vanquished (for now) by the Rescue team from earlier novels (since this is a series). Hero and heroine (and dog) get their HEA. Sexy secondary character set up for his own future book.  All good.

But the devil is in the details. I could use a little pantsing skill right about now. Because there comes a time when you just have to sit down at the computer and write something.
And hope it all comes out the way it should. In the end.

*The first line of Unchained Memory, Book 1, Interstellar Rescue series

Well done to the Finalists announced Tuesday, March 21, including SFR Brigade members Janet Halpin (Golden Heart®, Paranormal, for Beryl Blue, Time Cop) and Susan Grant (RITA, Paranormal, for Champion of Baresh)! The nomination for the RITA is especially sweet for Grant, one of the pioneers of SFR in the early 2000s who had been out of the game for several years. She self-published Champion of Baresh, which she calls a “book of my heart.” Good luck to Susan and Janet in Orlando in July!

Cheers, Donna

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Sea-ing the Stories #amwriting #inspiration

I talk a lot about how where I live influences many of the settings in my stories, but especially the sea. For someone who is supposedly a fire sign, I have a much greater affinity for water. Perhaps it was all those childhood holidays by a Welsh river or the annual camping trip to nearby Aldeburgh for the yearly carnival followed by fireworks on the stony beach. More recently it's the wide, golden beaches of Frinton-on-Sea, the mud and stones of Mersea, or hunting for prehistoric shark teeth at stony Walton-on-the-Naze. Alien mudflats, marine worlds, and tropical island paradises have all been created as a result.
Mud flats and weird sun shots at Mersea


Odd stone formations at Mersea

Shark's tooth
Whichever, I love to be by the sea, and apparently for good reason. It's been proven scientifically that a trip to the beach changes your brain. It reduces your depression, makes you more creative, de-stresses you, and changes your perspective on the world. I guess that's why I not only find it calming but good therapy for the muse, as well as the sea ending up featuring so often in my stories.

But although we've had some glorious weather in the past two weeks, it's not quite warm enough to spend a day at the seaside, even though I was itching to do our first visit for the year, and you can guarantee it'll be colder on the coast than inland. However, Sunday's forecast promised a dry, warm, if somewhat cloudy and windy day for last Sunday, so I suggested a walk and a picnic.
Not exactly sundrenched...
The two boys weren't particularly enthusiastic, but it wasn't cold, we bribed them with an ice-cream, and apparently the conditions were perfect for an odd phenomena I'd not seen before and made things interesting...

Spooky, huh? It reminded me of a scene from Sleepy Hollow starring Johnny Depp, where faithful servant Masbath is watching the woods from his wooden hut and the mists creep out, reach up ghostly fingers and snuff out the torches. *shudder* In this case, it's just very dry sand being blown across by the wind, but a great effect, right? And it leaves cool patterns on the beach too.
We also picked up some interesting shells, including some Turrids (the long, pointy shells) which we'd never seen there before (great spot by my husband). Shells of that kind were the inspiration for T'rill's coral palace in Keir - a fact hubs actually remembered as I asked him to try drawing it for me many moons ago. I'm not sure what happened to the picture though... Unfortunately you can't see the glorious play of colour in the mother of pearl interior on the broken topshell in this shot.
Turrids and topshells

Something like, but imagine it as a giant shell in pink coral

Despite the high winds and heavy cloud, it was warm with patches of sun, and I definitely felt the benefit. Even a couple of hours at the beach has the same effect as going on holiday for me (although the scrumptious blackcurrant and clotted cream ice-cream helped a bit too), and it was blissfully quiet - something that won't last once the temperatures rise! I can't wait until we can go more often, even though it'll also mean busier beaches. Oh, for that private tropical island all of my own!

Status Update
We had some truly gorgeous warm spring weather last week, so I spent a large part of my days sitting in the back room with our patio doors wide open to enjoy the garden, and letting my chooks have the run of the place. So it's probably a bit odd to have spent some of that time working on a winter solstice SF mystery set on an icy planet that I started a couple of years back but still haven't finished. I hadn't touched it since May 2016 (what did I do last year?!). I have no idea when I might finish it, if I do, and I don't have any finances for edits on it anyway (though I do have a cover). But since I'm still very iffy about my writing and finding everything hard, even adding a few words I don't completely hate is progress, so I'm not going to complain about that.

Also, I've caved and decided to do NaNoWriMo. Yes, I know I said I was quitting writing. Apparently I'm not done yet. Camp NaNoWriMo will be used to complete edits on two projects I've already paid for so maybe I can put them out and start earning an extra pittance from them. And just maybe I'll feel a little less under pressure from all the unfinished WIPs I have hanging around.

The dress part of the Tauriel cosplay is done, as are the arrows. I'm moving onto her fighting daggers now - my first time working with foamboard - then all she needs is a quiver and sheaths. I'll post pictures again when it's complete. Then I'll be moving onto middle child's Witch-King of Angmar cosplay.

Chook Update
We're now getting two or three eggs a day (yummy!), and the girls have been out and about enjoying the nice weather with me. Or making themselves at home inside MY home!
Ah, this dust bath is going to feel soooo good!



Chook incursion!

Monday, March 20, 2017

What is this Epstein Drive of Which You Speak?

This past week I had great cause to celebrate. The news came out that The Expanse was being renewed for a third season on the SyFy channel.

Break out the champagne and the Billins, everyone, the party is on!

Redecorating the Roci
SyFy's The Expanse Television Series
As you might know from some of my past blogs, I LOVE THIS SHOW! The Expanse has everything a great space drama should have--realistic adventure, a difficult quest, fabulous characters, intricate politics, amazing dialogue, science-based world-building, the gunship Rocinante...and even a touch of romance.

In fact, the last episode included a declaration of love between two of the characters. Being a SFR fan, the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) romantic sub-plots throughout the story arc really cinch this as one of my favorite SF(R)s on television...ever!

If you've been living in another galaxy far, far away and haven't heard about The Expanse, you might want to check out some of my previous blogs (okay, raves) about the show. You can find them here:

The Expanse: Seven Reasons Why You Should be Watching This Show (Feb 2017)

Rewatch: The Expanse SyFy Series (Aug 2016)

The Expanse: (Truly) Quality Sci-Fi Returns to Television  (Jan 2016)

The basic premise is that about 200 years in our future, mankind will have colonized the asteroid belt and the moons of the Outer Planets (note shameless promotional banner of my upcoming novel inserted here for effect....and because I needed more graphics) primarily to reap the rewards--water and minerals. Earth and the Moon are under United Nations jurisdiction, Mars has established itself as an independent colony of considerable military strength and no friend of the Earth/Moon, and everyone else is relegated to the outlier places in our solar system are collectively referred to as "the belters."

But how do they get around these huge, well...expanses...of space in a timely manner in the future?

Two words. The Epstein Drive.

What the heck is that?

There's actually no clear answer. That's where the "fiction" part comes in for this science fiction drama, although its far from mere hand-waveum.

Although the drive system isn't explored in great depth in the TV series, many fans have drawn their own conclusions from the books that it's a type of propulsion system used in this future--purely fictional and not entirely detailed--but believed to be a magnetically contained fusion reactor system that uses steam as a propellant.

Described as "magnetic coil exhaust acceleration" on a Wiki page, it's super efficiency allows ships to "burn" halfway to their destination (continuous acceleration) then perform a flip and burn at approximately the halfway point (to counteract the thrust and begin deceleration) until they reach their destination. (Flip and burn is shown in one scene of series when they change direction to intercept a distress signal, but "flip and burn" as a standard part of flight isn't really explored in detail in the series.)

Sol Epstein, inventor of the Epstein Drive
SyFy's The Expanse television series
The Epstein Drive is invented about 50 years from now--or about 150 years before the events in The Expanse--by a man from Mars named Solomon "Sol" Epstein, hence Epstein Drive.

If you're a viewer, you may have already watched the episode Paradigm Shift that includes a portion derived from Drive, a prequel short story by the James S. A. Corey writing team that explores the development of the Epstein drive by Solomon. (The series has a history of tying in some of these short stories into the overall story arc that's quite brilliant and the past-future analogies in this episode are particularly poignant.)

You can read the prequel Drive free online here:

What I love about the Epstein Drive element is that it's generated some vigorous debate and hypotheses between those well-versed in science. (Maybe a bit like the communicators on Star Trek inspiring Marty Cooper to invent the cell phone, is it not?)

If you're one of those SF(R) fans who has a genuine interest in reading thoughts about the actual science (raises hand), there's quite a lively comment string about the Epstein Drive that can be found here:

May your week be powered by magnetic coil exhaust acceleration. (Have a great week.)

Friday, March 17, 2017


All the film versions of the iconic KING KONG, from the first, in 1933 (starring director Merian C. Cooper’s stop-motion creature and actress Fay Wray), to the latest, KONG: SKULL ISLAND, in theaters now, have one theme in common: Something exists that is greater, older and more mysterious than humankind. We disrespect it with grave consequences; we exploit it at our peril; and we try to destroy it only to bring devastation upon ourselves.

The original film, in black-and-white with the rough soundtrack of the early talkie era, illustrated these lessons within the framework of a world still bound by colonialism and overt racism. The “savages” on Skull Island worshipped the huge ape they named “Kong” as a god. Indeed, they feared him enough to think it necessary to erect a huge wall against him and sacrifice a virgin to him on a regular basis. (The whole virgin sacrifice thing, of course, is what got poor Fay Wray in such famous trouble.)

Our intrepid (white) heroes, on the other hand, paid little attention to such backward superstition (at least until a 50-foot ape showed up at the bamboo gates). Even then, they were not deterred, but thought only of the profit to be made by capturing the beast and putting him on display to the masses in New York City. Their own sacrifices were thus made to the gods of greed and arrogance, as men were lost in the pursuit and eventual capture of Kong. And you can probably guess the rest, even if you haven’t seen this film classic. The NYC trip didn’t end well for anyone.

In its day, the film’s special effects both enthralled and horrified its audience. People screamed, fainted and left the theater, which only encouraged longer lines at the next showing. Box office records were broken, and KING KONG single-handedly saved the almost-bankrupt RKO film company.

Not so the two modern remakes of this vaunted film. Producer Dino DeLaurentis tried in 1976. Even LORD OF THE RINGS’ Peter Jackson tried in 2005. They barely covered their enormous costs, despite big name stars (Jessica Lange in the first case; Jack Black in the second.) At least give Jackson credit for his attempt to pay homage to the original in both tone and plot.

Now comes KONG: SKULL ISLAND, and we can be forgiven, perhaps, for wondering why we need yet another go at this great concept. But, what the heck? I’m a true sucker for Kong, have been since the first time I thrilled to those flickering torches and corny native drums in the original. This version boasts actors Samuel L. Jackson and Tom Hiddleston and the benefit of CGI. So, I thought, it must be worth a look.

Boy, was it ever! Trust me, you want to scrape your nickels and dimes together and get yourself to the multiplex ASAP to see this movie. It was the most fun I’ve had at the theater in a long time. Rip-roaring action! A hero you can root for (Kong, of course)! Interesting subplots! Special effects that leap off the screen at you! And don’t cheat yourself. This one needs a big screen to do it justice. I didn’t even spring for the 3-D glasses and it was spectacular.

The soulful hero of KONG: SKULL ISLAND
 Best of all, this rendition offers a new twist on KONG’s core concept, which improves almost everything about the film. KONG: SKULL ISLAND is set in 1973, shortly before the end of the Vietnam War. The significance of this will be mostly lost on many in today’s audience, for whom history is not a strong point. But it allows for a couple of interesting plot twists. First, Sam Jackson’s character is an Army colonel whose unit is packing up to leave ’Nam when he’s asked to escort John Goodman’s scientific “mapping” expedition to the nearby uncharted Skull Island. (More about that later.)

The timeframe is close enough to World War II that the expedition can encounter John C. Reilly’s character, a U.S. Navy pilot who crash landed on the island during the war. He’s a valuable source of information, even if he seems a little crazy at times.

Fay Wray’s damsel-in-distress has been replaced (thank God) by a much more able combat photographer (Brie Larson), who figures out right away there’s a story to be had and hitches a ride from Da Nang with the colonel’s helicopter squad.

And Hiddleston’s character, the “jungle guide” tapped by Goodman’s scientific crew to take them into the unknown hinterland, is found in a sleazy bar in wartime Bangkok. It’s hinted that he’s a mercenary/spy. Or something. Lots of local color there!

All of this is to the good, but the best is yet to come. The island’s “savages” are smarter than they seem. They worship Kong because he protects them from giant reptiles that are much worse. Kong himself has reasons for hating those creatures. And Kong, well, he is soulful. Powerful. Magnificent.

Don’t tell Jackson’s colonel that, though. He’s of the belief that man is king. (He loudly proclaims some other arrogant and misguided notions, too, like, “We’re not losing Vietnam. We’re abandoning Vietnam!”) But then, pride goes before a fall, which is a lesson he learns the hard way before the end of the film.

After all, on Skull Island, Kong is king.

Oh, yeah. KONG: SKULL ISLAND is a definite GO, GO, GO!

Cheers, Donna