Friday, August 27, 2010

The Mutating Mars Hoax
Normally on this blog, I share my writing-related thoughts and experiences. But this being August 27 -- anniversary of a persistent astronomical "misunderstanding" -- I'm passing along some information from NASA that, I hope, will be circulated widely. Every year I get the same dumb e-mails about "Mars Will Look as Big as the Full Moon!"

Come now, my friends! Have you ever gone outside after sunset and actually tried to find Mars in the night sky? The Red Planet is, at best, a dot. Even at its closest to Earth, it remains a dot. (The photo above is faked.) Read on:


August 25, 2010:  It spreads, it mutates, it refuses to die.

For the seventh year in a row, the Mars Hoax is infecting email boxes around the world. Passed from one reader to another, the message states that on August 27th Mars will approach Earth and swell to the size of a full Moon. "NO ONE ALIVE TODAY WILL EVER SEE THIS AGAIN," the email declares--always in caps.

News flash: It's not true.

Here are the facts. On August 27, 2010, Mars will be 314 million km from Earth, about as far away as it can get. Mars will shine in the western sky after sunset like a tiny red star of ordinary brightness. If you didn't know it was there, you probably wouldn't notice.

The origins of the Hoax can be traced back to 2003 when Mars really did swell to unusual proportions. On August 27th of that year, Mars came within 56 million km of Earth—the nearest it has been in 60,000 years. People marveled at the orange brilliance of Mars in the night sky and crowded around telescopes for clear views of the planet's towering volcanoes, ruddy plains, and glistening polar ice caps. At the height of the display, Mars was about 75 times smaller than the full Moon.

That's when "the virus" was born.

Someone, somewhere, reasoned as follows: If Mars is 75 times smaller than the Moon, then magnifying it 75 times should make it equal to the Moon. Early versions of the Hoax encouraged readers to get out their telescopes and insert a 75x eyepiece: "At a modest 75 times magnification," the message stated, "Mars will look as big as the full Moon to the naked eye."

Soon, the Hoax was vectoring around the internet, making copies of itself and mutating. Advanced versions of the virus, sleeker and less wordy than its ancestors, omitted the magnification and simply stated, "Mars will look as big as the full Moon to the naked eye!" Before long, the year was omitted, too. August 27, 2003, became August 27, and the Hoax became immortal. Indeed, years of stories contradicting the Hoax have failed to stamp it out. This is the fourth vaccination by Science@NASA alone.

Tolerant readers point out that the Mars Hoax is not really a hoax, because it is not an intentional trick. The original composer probably believed everything he or she wrote in the message. If so, even the name of the Mars Hoax is wrong!

Here's what you should do on August 27th. Go outside at sunset and face west. The bright light you see shining through the twilight is lovely Venus. Grab a pair of binoculars and scan the sky around Venus. A few degrees to the right, you'll come across a little orange star-like object. That is Mars.

Now go back inside and delete that email.

Author: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Just Write It!

Here’s an item I clipped and saved from the Spring 2000 Authors Guild Bulletin:
“I don’t like gorgeous writing,” novelist Kent Haruf told Dinitia Smith of The New York Times. Haruf, who lives in Murphysboro, Ill., is the author of Plainsong, winner of the National Book Award for fiction.

Haruf said he wrote the first draft of the novel with a wool stocking cap pulled down over his eyes. According to Smith, “He would sit typing blindly in the unheated basement of his unpretentious white frame house in this sleepy town trying to visualize the high, dry Colorado plains of his childhood.”

Haruf said he pulled the cap over his eyes because “I was trying not to be analytical, to get in touch with the intuitive, the visual, the spontaneous, without any attention to detail and syntax.

“It takes away the terror when you’re blind and you can’t go back and rewrite a sentence,” he said. “It calls for storytelling, not polishing.”
I wouldn’t be able to write with a cap pulled down over my eyes. More than likely, my fingers would get off of home-row and I’d end up with Mpe od yjr yo,r gpt s;; hppf ,rm yp …

Experience has taught me, however, that Haruf’s approach -- just write it; save the rewriting and polishing for later -- is the only way to write a novel. As I made the transition from writing nonfiction to trying my hand at a novel, I wasted beaucoup time agonizing over my first chapter. I can’t tell you how many rewrites I did of that one chapter. And none of them, of course, was satisfactory.

Finally I threw up my hands, figuratively speaking, and just went on writing the rest of the book. And by the time I reached the end of Book 1 of my WATERSPELL trilogy, I was a different writer. The process of writing fiction had changed me in countless ways. I was far more in touch with “the intuitive, the visual, the spontaneous” than I had been as a working journalist and a writer of nonfiction.

Book 2 came a little easier as I applied the lessons I had learned. I still tended to overwrite, but my style in Book 2 is looser, freer, more confident -- more spontaneous.

But it’s in Book 3 that I seem to have hit my stride. From late 2009 into early 2010, my fingers just flew over the keyboard as I wrote the first draft of that final installment of my epic. I remember waking up one Sunday morning with the whole story clear in my mind, sitting down at the keyboard, and tapping away at a blistering pace for day after day, then week after week, barely pausing until I had transferred the story from my head to the computer.

Write It, Then Let It Sit

The draft had to sit for months while I made a living -- such a pesky necessity it is, having to make a living. But this month I have finally been able to get back to it, and reading what I wrote all those months ago is like reading someone else’s writing.

I do not remember writing the scenes I am now reading. Cross my heart and hope to die, it’s the truth.

As I read what I wrote, I have no idea what’s going to happen next -- I’m surprised by each twist and turn. The whole story seems to have flowed out my mind, through my fingertips, onto the page, and left hardly a trace of itself in my memory. I remember the long, intense hours I spent bringing the draft into being. But the contents of the draft, I had forgotten.

Happily, I am not displeased with what I’m reading now. My mind must have been hitting on all cylinders during that two- or three-month period of feverish writing. I rather neatly tied up loose ends from Books 1 and 2, I crafted satisfactory explanations, I untangled the knots that remained after the first two installments.

What a relief to pick up the draft of Book 3 and realize I have nearly pulled it off! This trilogy is almost finished.

Oh, I still have many pages to write, including a third narrative lay (poem) that will be a sort of prequel to the poems in Books 1 and 2 that contain hidden clues. Those two poems came to me quite easily and naturally (I wrote about the experience here).

So far, the third poem hasn’t presented itself to my conscious mind. But I trust that my subconscious will spit it out at some point. I just have to be ready to write it down when it comes (hence all the notepads everywhere).

What I have learned from the years-long task of writing my trilogy is that the writing must come first. Rewriting and polishing have no place in the early creative stages of telling a story. Just write it!

Then, later, when you can look at the draft objectively, when you can see it as though somebody else wrote it -- that’s the time for analyzing, rewriting, and refining.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Writer's Bonepile

I keep a bonepile (and I'm not talking about skeletons in the closet). On my computer, I have these files:
Book 1 bonepile.doc
Book 2 bonepile.doc
Book 3 bonepile.doc
In them, I keep the major passages that I have cut from the books of my WATERSPELL fantasy trilogy. Not every superfluous adjective or adverb, of course, not every unnecessary prepositional phrase, but the meaty bits that, for one reason or another, I've edited out.

It's handy to be able to dip back into those bonepiles when I discover that I've cut something I shouldn't have. Recently, a critique partner told me my main character's motives during one important scene were murky. I was "being subtle," I replied. I was following this advice from Noah Lukeman's book, The First Five Pages:
"Picture the reader as brilliant, perceptive, having a photographic memory, taking everything in the first time he reads it, able to grasp ideas before you even begin to say them, able to see where things are leading before you begin to lay them out."
Well, as it turns out, I was demanding too much of the reader, expecting them to see where that particular section was leading without me laying it out. I needed to provide more information so the reader would fully understand why Carin had made her decision in the way that she had, when other factors seemed to strongly tempt her to choose differently.

Seeking something half remembered, I scanned my Book 1 bonepile, and sure enough I found that in an early draft I had revealed her thinking, I had shown the considerations that made Carin's ultimate decision seem inevitable. But, following Lukeman's advice about "how to be subtle," I'd taken it out.

The passage in the bonepile wasn't something I could just copy and paste into my working draft, but it provided a skeleton upon which I could build. The passage I ended up with is better than the original bits that landed in the bonepile, and I believe it solves the problem that my critique partner identified. (I'll find out, anyway, next time we meet.)

Bonepiles as Organization Aids

Kathryn Lay (the award-winning author of Crown Me! and other books and nearly 2,000 articles, essays, and short stories) has an excellent article in a recent issue of The Writer magazine, "Plot vs. character." In it, Kathy quotes A.M. Jenkins, the award-winning author of Damage, Beating Heart, and the Printz Honor Book Repossessed:
"I'm a very disorganized writer who gets through a manuscript mostly on feel. This means a ton of rewriting, moving things, gutting scenes, cannibalizing them if needed."
That makes me feel much better about my own slow progress through my WATERSPELL trilogy, as I grope my way to the final pages of all three books.

It also underscores the value of keeping a bonepile. Things that get moved (moved out), scenes that are gutted, can go into the bonepile, where they'll be available later for cannibalizing.

I know some writers keep every draft of a novel, just renaming them Draft 1, Draft 2, etc., as they revise their work. I don't do that. I don't care to be reminded of just how many drafts I've been through. I make my latest round of edits in the master file, and if I cut something substantial, I paste it into my bonepile file.

That way, I have only the "good bits" to sort through, the material that might actually prove useful, whether I eventually restore it intact to its original location, or I use it as a skeleton to hang better words on, or I cannibalize it and incorporate the meat of it into the story somewhere else.

Bonepiles give me the confidence to cut some "good bits" that might not be working as well as they should where they are. I can remove them, but toss them clattering into the pile with all the other potentially workable bits, and that way I haven't lost them permanently. My bonepiles can bleach in the sun for however long it takes until I'm sure I don't need them anymore.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Join the Fight for Net Neutrality

The clearest explanation of Net Neutrality -- what it is, and why we cannot afford to lose it -- that I've seen anywhere is in the July 2010 issue of The Hightower Lowdown, a newsletter edited by my fellow Texan, Jim Hightower, and native Australian Phillip Frazer. I quote from the preview that is available at their website:

"Unbeknownst to most people, the [telecom] conglomerates are making an outrageous power play in Washington to make themselves the arbiters of internet content. Using their role as 'service' connectors, they are effectively trying to squeeze non-corporate, non-wealthy voices off of the worldwide web.
"The whole idea of the internet is that it's a wide-open, wildly-democratic place where anyone and everyone can 'meet' to exchange viewpoints, ideas, facts, ideologies, theories, videos, opinions, stories, visions--and, yes, propaganda, nonsense, ugliness, and outright lies. The internet's beauty is in its free-flowing, uncensored, uncontrolled nature. No one should be allowed to control the flow of legal content that makes up this rich public discourse--not governments, not media barons, not special interests, nor any other intermediary. Instead, ordinary people get a full range of information from the internet and decide for themselves what is 'true' and valuable. That's democracy in action.
"However, to participate, you must first plug into this worldwide digital network. Hooking us up is a rather mundane mechanical task--but it has become the point at which the spark of internet democracy is confronting the stifling power of corporate autocracy. In the US, the plugging-in process has been entrusted to private, for-profit 'internet service providers' (ISP's), an industry now in the firm grasp of just four telephone and cable giants: AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon. This cabal of special interests controls 94 percent of the national ISP market, and the monopolistic group is now asserting its market dominance and political muscle in an autocratic effort to impose corporate censorship over what information the public will be allowed to get via the internet."

The rest of that article can be read online only by paid Hightower Lowdown subscribers (like me). But I don't think Jim and Phillip will mind if I quote a few more points that I found to be particularly enlightening:
"On the net, you get access to any and every website on an equal basis. A behemoth like Time Warner puts its content there for you to view, but so does a myriad of voices with names like Tiny Warbler. At present, anyone who puts up a web page (including us here at the Lowdown, is treated equally in the system, allowing millions of people around the globe to have their say. This freedom exists because the internet is a neutral mechanism, making no judgment about whose content is superior or deserving of special treatment."
If the big telecom companies have their way, however, they will destroy the neutrality of the Internet. They want to establish themselves as gatekeepers who will give privileged treatment to users who will pay a premium to have their content go out on the net.

What does this mean for those of us who don't have money? 
"The smaller, poorer, non-establishment communities on the web are to be shunted off to the slow lane, or not even allowed on the system at all."
Folks, this is serious. If we want to protect the Internet, if we want it to remain available to everyone on an equal footing, we must join the fight to protect Net Neutrality.

Here are some ways you can get involved:

Sign the Emergency Petition to Google: Don't be evil -- stand up for the free and open Internet. The New York Times has reported that Google is days away from announcing a deal with Verizon that would end Net Neutrality (and the free and open Internet) as we know it. We can't let big corporations take control of the Internet -- sign the letter to Google pressuring them to back out of this deal.

Join "Save the Internet" (

Join (

These sites will give you more information and show you how to take action on this issue. This is a vital matter to everyone who has a blog or a web page and doesn't want a phone or cable company deciding whether other people get to access it.