2013-12-22

Copyrighting your work

I would like to share an email I received the other day:

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Hello, doug_farren --

We have removed your document "Dragonverse" (id: 38242235) because our text matching system determined that it was very similar to a work that has been marked as copyrighted and not permitted on Scribd.

Like all automated matching systems, our system is not perfect and occasionally makes mistakes. If you believe that your document is not infringing, please contact us at copyright@scribd.com and we will investigate the matter.

As stated in our terms of use, repeated incidents of copyright infringement will result in the deletion of your Scribd.com account and prohibit you from uploading material to Scribd.com in the future. To prevent us from having to take these steps, please delete from scribd.com any material you have uploaded to which you do not own the necessary rights and refrain from uploading any material you are not entitled to upload. For more information about Scribd.com's copyright policy, please read the Terms of Use located at http://www.scribd.com/terms.

Best regards,

Scribd Support Team
Questions? http://scribd.com/faq


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Although I'm not positive, here is what I think happened: Some time ago, someone copied the text of Dragonverse and uploaded it under a new title to Scribd. Recently, Smashwords reached an agreement with Scribd and uploaded my books. Their text matching program noted that the new arrival matched an existing book and flagged mine (since it was the most recent) as being in violation of copyright. Thus the email. I have responded to this issue and hope to have it resolved quickly.

The email also got me thinking about Copyright law. The law states that a written work is protected under copyright law the moment it is created, all one must do is to affix the copyright symbol, the year, and the name of the author. Proof of authorship is usually accomplished by publication. The author is not required to file for a copyright with the Copyright Office. After I received the above email, I did some research and discovered there is a very good reason for an author to fork over the $35.00.

The biggest reason is creating solid proof that you are the author of a given work. Once you file a copyright, you are fully protected and proof is easy. You are still protected if you don't file but proving you are the author is a bit more difficult and pursuing legal action against someone who is illegally using your work becomes more difficult. But there is another, even scarier reason for every author to file for an official copyright.

Here's the scenario: An author publishes a new work by uploading it to Amazon. The day it becomes available, some crook buys the book then sends the file in to the copyright office claiming they are the author and giving a false date that precedes the date the book was first published. He gets a copyright that, according to the government, is earlier than the publication date and then the crook can try to sue the author for copyright infringement. Proving authorship is now much more difficult and getting the copyright transferred to the proper owner becomes a painful legal problem.

My advice to all writers - file for a copyright before you actually publish your book. The process is simple: go to the U.S. Copyright Office and click on the "Electronic Copyright Office" icon. Setting up an account is quick and simple and uploading your manuscript is easy. If your books are available in print format you may be asked to submit two copies to the Library of Congress. This requirement can be waived if you have a good enough reason. The cost of obtaining a copyright is $35.00 per manuscript. It becomes official as soon as you submit.

If you're already published but have not yet registered - stop reading and go do this right now.

In other news: I will be starting work on a Peacekeeper sequel within the next couple of days. Tom Wilks will be learning what it means to be gragrakch. I'm also giving him another challenge to overcome. And, although my co-workers have been urging me to write a book entirely about the "Porn Planet", I will not do so. I prefer to keep all my books clean enough for young adults to read.

Have a happy holiday and a wonderful new year!

2013-12-15

Writing as a business

If you're a writer and you plan on making money from it you should treat your writing as a business. Even if you are just starting or have made very little so far, you still need to seriously consider your writing as a business--here's why.

  • If you travel to do research, the mileage is deductible (only applies if you have a home office).
  • If you can establish a home office, you can deduct the portion of your utilities, home insurance, rent, home loan interest, and several other items off your business income.
  • Meals, trips to to conventions (i.e. DragonCon), and purchases of educational and writing-related publications are deductible.
The only downside to forming a business is the extra taxes you must pay on your earnings. If you're receiving good royalty payments and you have very little deductible expenses then perhaps just claiming the extra income is your best option. The only way to know for sure is to run the numbers. In my situation, having a business is the way to go.

So now that you've decided to form a business, now what? First, go get yourself a copy of Home Business Tax Deductions then study it. Don't just read it, study it. Tax law is a complex subject and it's easy to miss an important detail. Next, take the following steps:

  • Establish a LEGAL home office. Record the dimensions of this office area and take a picture of it.
  • Start a business journal. State the date the business was started and then continue with entries documenting important business activities. It's sort of like a diary for your business. You can use anything from a paper notebook to a cross-platform, cloud-based solution. I use EverNote because I can make an entry from any device.
  • Open up a separate checking account for the business. This is not required but is highly recommended.
  • Get or designate an existing credit card for business use only.
  • Get into the habit of documenting everything you do that is business related. Record the reason for and the mileage of every trip. Record when, where, and who you had business meals with. Record the time you spend in your office and the time spent using shared resources (like a computer that is used for business and pleasure). The IRS loves to see documentation--meticulous documentation. I like to use Google calendar so I can record every business activity in half-hour increments and I can access it from any device I own.
  • Get yourself some business cards.
  • Set up a website.
  • Create an e-mail for business use only.
Above all else, document your business activities and become familiar with how to treat your writing activities as a business. I would also recommend doing business as if you expect to be audited. Home businesses are audited more often than normal tax payers. If you keep your deductions legal and maintain accurate and timely documentation you will sail through any audit. The IRS realizes that many people try to claim more than they are allowed. Don't do this! Honesty and faithful adherence to the law will keep you out of trouble.

I am not a tax expert but if you have any questions as to how I do things myself, please feel free to drop me an e-mail. I can be reached at: author@dougfarren.com

2013-12-08

The Price of Technology

The other day my wife’s nephew took over my TV and started showing pictures on it using an old cell phone I had given him. Being a techno-nerd, I just had to figure out how. It didn't take long but then I wanted to try out a video. That failed. While researching why I ran across a way-cool app called Skifta. After loading a helper program on my media center computer I now have the ability to send any picture or video on my home network to any DLNA compliant TV within range of my cell phone no matter where I am. I had no idea my phone could do something like this! And that got me to thinking about this month’s post – how much does today’s technology cost us and is it worth it?

Let’s set the wayback machine (remember that?) to 1978. The internet did not exist. The median family income was $15,060 (U.S. Dept of Commerce ‘Current Population Report’, 02/1980). Consumers could buy a TRS-80, PET, or an Apple II computer for around $400.00. Although I can’t find an official reference, I believe the average consumer paid about $12.00 a month for a phone line. Television was free but limited to what you could pull out of the air.

In today’s world a normal person will pay over $100.00 a month for 200+ TV channels. Land lines are quickly becoming a thing of the past and most people will part with another $100.00 a month for the privilege of owning a cell phone. The internet has also become a service that most people cannot do without and a medium-speed internet connection is going to run you about $40.00 per month. These are all low-end estimates but they add up to a monthly drain on our financial resources of $240.00. As a reference, the median family income as of 2011 is $50,054.

Over the past 35 years the price of having access to the technology we use every day has increased by 2083% while the median income has increased 332%. Looking at it another way, technology amounted to less than 1% of a family’s income in 1978 while today it consumes 5.75%. Is it worth it?

The vast majority of the population will say that technology is well-worth the cost. We have nearly instant communications with each other no matter where we are. We have a mind-boggling variety of interference-free entertainment options and we are connected like we've never been before. I am a heavy user of technology. Because of it, I have become a successful indie author. But, as a writer, I also know there is a flip-side to every coin.

Technology has served to widen the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. Because of its cost, those living on the edge a few decades ago have been left behind. And the gap is widening. As the cost continues to grow, the income necessary to access technology will go up creating a further divide between us. But there is hope.

There are now government programs to provide cell phones to the poor. Most libraries now have public computers allowing anyone to gain access to the internet. My hope is that, one day, cable companies will offer free basic TV and internet service to anyone unable to afford to pay for a monthly subscription. The people in the ‘haves’ category can also do their part by donating used computers and cell phones to organizations that will put them into the hands of the less fortunate.


Is technology worth the cost? Yes it is. If you can afford to own the latest wiz-bang gadget your purchases will help fund the development of even more advanced technology. But you should also realize that not everyone is as fortunate and you should do your part in helping others enjoy the benefits of our modern society. Help stomp out greed. Give when you can. Don’t look down on the less fortunate but reach out a helping hand to them. We are all human and everyone deserves to share the experience of living in the modern world.

2013-12-01

Guest Post: Linda Nagata -- Writing the Near Future

I met Linda Nagata in the summer of 2012 at the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop in Laramie, Wyoming. Linda is an award-winning indie writer of hard science fiction. She has a particular knack for character development as well as portraying an incredibly clear picture of what the future may be like. Her most recent novel 'The Red: First Light' is an incredibly gripping, enjoyable read.

 The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata
Certain activities strike me as unwise risks—big wave surfing for example, or scaling a sheer cliff without ropes, or writing near-future fiction.

All stories age. Even those set in the author’s present, that accurately reflect the time and place in which they were written, can come to seem quaint, offensive, or just plain wrong as societal values change. Setting a story in the far future or the undocumented past can’t save an author either, as the plot, the attitudes of the characters, and the theme, will still reflect the author’s values, or the values of a society the author is raging against.

(On the other hand, if a story is set in a very distant period, than much can be forgiven: xkcd.com/771/)

Near-future science fiction is especially vulnerable to aging out. Back in the ’70s, the standard catchphrase “It’s 1984” was used all the time when there was any hint of government surveillance impinging on civil liberties, but we’re long past the date of Orwell’s novel and the phrase is rarely heard anymore -- and these days, with the abundance of social media, many of us are signing up to be surveilled. Technology evolves in unexpected ways, values change, history happens -- and story worlds become obsolete.

This fear of early obsolescence or “aging out” makes the near future a scary place to set a novel. What’s the lifespan of a book going to be when the associated history is changing even as the novel is written? My newest novel, The Red: First Light, is set in the very near future. I needed to have “a war going on somewhere.” For various reasons I decided to set the opening conflict in the African Sahel, only to have the region become a big item in the news just before publication. I crossed my fingers and hoped that unfolding political events would not make the story irrelevant. Other elements used in the story have also been making the news, but I won’t mention those for fear of spoilers.

Selecting which technological aspects of the story world will stay the same as in the present, and which will change, is the next near-future booby trap. When trying to set a story in what is almost-but-not-quite the real world, it’s good to keep in mind that change isn’t constant and that well-adapted technologies can stick around for a long time, even as other aspects of the world evolve. It’s also true that individuals adopt new devices at different rates. I got my first smart phone only about a year ago (and good luck trying to pry it out of my hands!) while my husband is content with a phone that just does text messages and calls. So it’s fair to include familiar elements and old-fashioned people.

And then there’s the issue of keeping up with, of being aware of, what is actually possible now. Earlier this year, a team at Stanford discussed their work creating biological computers to function inside of cells, in 2012 a quadriplegic was controlling a robotic arm via brain implants, and at least within the United States the legality and limits of drone surveillance and technology has become a subject of hot debate. As many have already said, we’re living in a science fiction world. With so much going on, is there any need to make things up?

Well...yes. Yes, there is. But still...

Technology is evolving so quickly, in so many places, in so many forms, that it’s all too possible to discover that a made up “future” tech already exists, with its potential repercussions researched and discussed. It’s almost certain that an author will miss some technological development, likely well known to those working in a particular field, that might have affected the story.

One further little twist: There’s also the question of what is “real.” Remember the mosquito spy drone? Not real, of course, but maybe next year? All these are good, sensible reasons for a writer to stay away from near-future fiction, but despite all that, some of us keep wading in. I like the subgenre, particularly for its relevance to this world we actually live in. Besides, it’s a great excuse to spend time delving into subjects I might not have been aware of, or had the time to look into, otherwise.

Research can be addictive though, and it’s easy to get derailed by details, stymied by the question of whether or not you’ve got it “right enough.” And then there’s the temptation to include all sorts of extrapolation in a story, to explain everything. Robert Jackson Bennett has used the phrase “Hot Mess Novels of Excess” to describe big, sprawling efforts, including his own. Plenty of great books fall into this category, and extrapolative science fiction is full of them.

Taking the opposite approach, an author can deliberately narrow the focus of the story. Less to go wrong that way, right? Maybe. Still, it’s a legitimate choice to aim for a fast-paced, focused tale. This can be techno-thriller territory, cross-genre stuff that can appeal outside the bounds of the science fiction genre – and in full-disclosure mode, this was my goal with The Red: First Light.

So how important is it to stay accurate to the world? Is an extrapolative SF novel spoiled if history or technology overruns it? Yes, sometimes. But a well-written novel can survive long past the obsolescence of the history it contains or the technology it projects. Though I call this sort of near-future science fiction “extrapolative,” we all know science fiction isn’t predictive. It’s a thought experiment. A test bed of what could happen, and where we might be going. A reflection of the human condition.

In the end, it’s the strength of the story that matters.

I think it’s best to regard near-future fiction as impending alternate histories—stories set in parallel universes, still familiar to us, but where events are sure to follow a divergent path.


Linda Nagata is the author of multiple novels and short stories including The Bohr Maker, winner of the Locus Award for best first novel, and the novella “Goddesses,” the first online publication to receive a Nebula award. Her story “Nahiku West” was a finalist for the 2013 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. Her newest science fiction novel is the near-future military thriller The Red: First Light. Linda has spent most of her life in Hawaii, where she’s been a writer, a mom, a programmer of database-driven websites, and lately an independent publisher. She lives with her husband in their long-time home on the island of Maui. Find her online at: MythicIsland.com.

2013-11-24

Should an author read or even respond to reviews?

As a nuclear power plant worker I am used to following rules. Some are absolute--never to be violated even under the most extreme situations. Others can be broken, but only if the rules for breaking them are followed. And then, there are 'rules' that should really be classified as suggestions. Some writers believe in the absolute rule of "Never, ever, read the comments". Some, believe it's okay to read them but apply the second rule: "Never reply to a comment". My personal rules regarding comments are not quite so absolute.

What most writers fear are the internet trolls who, for one reason or another, seem to enjoy online bullying. Why people do this is beyond me, but have no doubt, these people are real. Check out this article by author Dougie Brimson - it will open your eyes. The best tactic against the trolls is to simply ignore them.

I have gotten negative reviews on my books. Before I uploaded my first book to Amazon back in 2009, I knew there would be people out there who would not like my writing. That's fine. I also realize there are people who love to cut other people down. If I pick up a book and after 4 chapters I quit reading it because I'm not into the author's style, I don't immediately drop a negative comment. I'm smart enough to realize that not everyone has the same tastes. I don't like lobster but that doesn't mean that if I see you eating it I'm going to think less of you. Our differences are what makes us human--it's what differentiates us from robots.

I also realize that my fans can be a goldmine of information to help make my books better. That's why I read every comment, every review, and every email. I'm looking for constructive feedback--stuff I can use and act upon to provide my fans with material they will continue to enjoy. Nobody is perfect and even the best can become better.

I follow a similar rule regarding replying to comments and reviews. If someone writes a particularly good review, I thank them. If they provide a helpful comment or ask a pertinent question, I will also reply. I never try to start an argument with anyone when I reply. Bear in mind that anyone on the planet can read what you've written. Be professional.

Two stories I would like to share. There was an individual from Australia who wrote a rather bad review of one of my books. I could sense his frustration and I felt I could gain some useful feedback but the post did not provide any details as to what the reader was upset about. I replied. I kept the reply professional and I asked for particulars. He replied and that started a private email conversation that ended up with him retracting his original post and writing a better review. We corresponded for a few months after that. It was a good experience all around. There was one individual, however, who seemed offended by what had happened. This brings me to the other story.

There was an individual who wrote a very negative review of Translight specifically because I mentioned global warming and the government was not presented as a champion of advancement. The review said nothing about the quality of the book itself. I wrote a reply which caused her to fire off an argumentative response. I nipped it in the bud by not taking the bait and simply ignored it. But, realizing that there are some out there who take offense at some things, I revised Translight slightly to tone down the discussion on climate change. I prefer to remain neutral on some matters.

My suggestion to new writers: read the reviews because without them you have no way of knowing what your fans think of your work. Read them with the intent of learning how to become a better writer. Never reply to a negative review! Doing so is what the troll that wrote it wants--you will regret it. If you to find a comment worthy of a reply, do so in a professional manner. Expect to be baited and never fall into that trap.

Writers are public figures. Be professional at all times and listen to your readers.

2013-11-17

BSinSF: Space Weapons

In my past Bad Science in Science Fiction posts I’ve covered the obvious problems faced by scifi writers. Unless someone comes up with a suggestion, this will be the last in this tiny series.

What is the best possible weapon for an advanced culture to use? It depends. Believe it or not, if you’re interested in colonizing a planet that happens to already have an indigenous species living on it, your best tactic is to throw a few rocks at them—big ones. Change the course of a few asteroids and have them impact the target world and you have yourself a nonradioactive equivalent of an ecosphere destroying nuclear attack. Wait a decade or so and then just mop up the few survivors and move in. This is an example of a kinetic energy weapon.

What about fighting in space? Kinetic energy weapons would be useless for long-ranges because the target can maneuver out of the way. High acceleration missiles can also be used for close-in combat. But for long-range battles with the combatants at a distance of hundreds of thousands of kilometers then the only choice is a directed energy weapon—beam weapons.

Near light-speed particle beam weapons can deliver a lot of energy but require an enormous amount of power to operate. Is it worth the power needed to generate the particle beam? Perhaps. You must have a way of accelerating the particles and that usually requires a very long, difficult to aim, exceptionally power-hungry machine. Lasers are a much better choice.

In space, the choice of laser frequency would depend on what type of target you’re aiming for and how easily you can focus the beam. If your target is a very reflective surface you probably want to stay away from visible-spectrum lasers. If you’re trying to destroy something on the surface of a planet from space you need to consider how fast your beam will be absorbed in the atmosphere. The type of atmosphere will make a difference as well. If you want to keep the science real, look up the absorption spectrum of the major gas of the atmosphere. This means your beam weapon must be tunable.

I am a very big fan of science fiction movies. I love the high-tech weaponry and awesome special effects. Even though I am well-aware that every scifi film I’ve ever seen violates the known laws of physics when it comes to weapons I still agree with Hollywood when it comes to showing visible beams in space. Star Wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica would be less interesting if the weapons in use were invisible. Making them visible definitely adds to the visual effects.

Why are lasers invisible in space? Think about it for a minute. How do your eyes work? In order to see something a few photons of light from the source must enter your eye. A laser is a coherent beam of energy with all the photons moving in synchronization from the source to the target. If you can see the beam, then some of those photons are not moving in the right direction which represents a loss of power. The only way for those photons to leave the beam and enter your eye is if they are forced to change direction by hitting something. There’s not much of anything in space to hit.

The other factor involved is the frequency of the laser. If there was something causing the beam to leak photons then those photons would have to be in the visible spectrum to be seen. That’s a pretty narrow band of frequencies. If the beam is not composed of energy but is, instead, a beam of particles, then there is no way anyone could see the beam. The bottom line here is if you want your novel to follow pure science, then all beam weapons should be invisible.

I work at a nuclear power plant and I’m quite familiar with the units of measurement for power and energy—the two are NOT the same but they are closely related. It took me a long time to completely understand the difference. Even today, I sometimes get confused. I don’t know how many times I’ve read that a beam was delivering xx megawatts of power to the target. A megawatt is a measurement of the amount of energy consumed over a period of time. It is not what the experts use to denote the amount of energy delivered to a target. For this, they use Joules. Depositing energy is what causes damage. The more energy you can deliver to the target the more damage you can do. For a very good discussion of this topic take a look here.

While I’m on the subject of energy, the science-minded writer must consider how much energy it takes to actually damage a target. Unless your weapon is backed by a titanic energy source you won’t see the type of damage depicted in the movies. (Huge power sources have their own issues as I pointed out in a past post: Thermodynamics, the bane of science fiction.) A hit from a laser will not cause a ship to instantly explode unless it happens to cause a secondary explosion. I recommend reading up on how lasers work and how they affect their targets. You should also be familiar with how much energy it takes to melt a given thickness of material.

A final note—in order for a beam weapon to penetrate the skin of a ship, it must maintain its focus on a very narrow spot for a period of time long enough to deposit enough energy to burn its way through. Doing that at a distance of a few hundred or thousand kilometers when both target and weapon platform are moving is quite a task. If you want to damage your target, then you had better give your weapons mind-boggling power levels (or is it energy levels?).


By the way—I just finished season one of Falling Skies. I love it!

2013-11-10

Writing tools I use

Over the years, I've built up an essential toolbox full of the things a writer needs. Like a good mechanic, I have a few select tools I use more than others and a few that sit idle for long periods of time but are indispensable when I need to reach for them. Your list of tools may be different, but here are the ones I find to be most useful.

The first tool any writer will pick up is something to write with. When I fist began writing I used a typewriter, now I use a keyboard. My primary writing instrument is an Acer netbook running Windows 7 Pro. This small PC is the ideal writing instrument because it's portable and relatively lightweight. I can easily carry it on a plane and it is comfortable to use almost anywhere. The battery life is decent and it runs all the other tools I use. The netbook however, would be incomplete without the programs I use to write - Scrivener and Microsoft Word.

I used Scrivener for the first time when I began working on Peacekeeper. I found it to be an indispensable platform on which to write. If you're a writer and you like to keep side notes, you must check out this wonderful program. The Mac version has more features than the Windows version I use. The program takes some getting used to but stick with it and you will not be disappointed. I also suggest getting yourself a copy of Scrivener for Dummies. I use Scrivener for the first draft and the second pass. After that, all editing is done in Microsoft Word.

Scrivener is not designed to produce final output although it can. For the final editing phases I use Microsoft Word. I compile the Scrivener manuscript into a Word document and then use Word's built in grammer-checker and spell-checker to do another quick pass. I print it out and give it to my wife for her to proof. This will take some time which gives me a break from the project. After my wife is done, I input her changes and then make a final pass. She approves any changes I make (using Word's track-changes feature) and then the project is done.

Another tool that is an absolute must for any writer is some sort of simple, set and forget, cloud storage. I use Dropbox for this. This wonderful, free, program keeps my manuscript synchronized between all my devices as well as keeping it safely backed up in the cloud without my ever having to think about it. It also hangs onto several past versions just in case I screw things up so bad I've got to start over. If my hard drive were to fail, my manuscript is safe and sound. If you don't have a cloud backup system in place STOP READING AND DO IT NOW!

If I'm ever at a loss for a word I fire up The Sage. This is a free (I use the paid for version) super thesaurus. I don't use it very often but when I need it, I need it badly. Give the free version a trial and if you're satisfied then please give the developers a little financial help and make a contribution. In return, you get the most up to date version of this wonderful product.

Don't forget the internet. It is perhaps the most powerful tool ever developed for writers. From the comfort of your home you can do complex research in a matter of hours that in the not too distant past would have taken a long trip, a healthy wad of cash, and more time than most of us have these days.

The final tool is education. This comes in the form of books, formal instruction, and feedback from your readers. Never stop learning! Broaden your horizons and experience the world by reading something you might never have considered reading. Be observant of the world around you -- you never know when a story idea will present itself.

2013-11-03

In between writing projects

With Peacekeeper out in the wild (and selling quite well I should say), I'm taking a break from writing for awhile. I've recently received a book I ordered from Amazon titled "The 2014 Guide to Self Publishing" which I've started reading. Although I've been publishing my own books since 2009 it can't hurt to read up on the subject because you never know when you might run across something of interest that you didn't know about. I will be posting my review on Amazon and GoodReads when I'm done with it.

I am also reading "Conflict and Suspense". This is the book I leave at work and read before the morning meeting while I'm having breakfast (yes I eat breakfast at work) and having my morning coffee. This book might take awhile to read because of the limited time I have at work. It will be coming home over the holidays while I'm on vacation.

In the meantime, I've been working on where to go with the next book in the Galactic Alliance - Peacekeeper spin off. I've pretty much decided to write at least one and perhaps two more Peacekeeper books. That's why I wrote Peacekeeper in the first place. I have several interesting ideas but I need to let my brain work on the details for awhile before starting on the next book. I also have a very interesting idea for a follow-up to Off-Course. I will work on whichever story line is best developed when I decide to start writing again.

I did manage to finish watching all Firefly episodes and now I can begin watching "Falling Skies". I caught a few episodes a couple months ago and it looked very interesting. I had no idea it was into the third season. So, I signed up for Amazon Prime so I could watch the show from season one. I'll have to wait until season 4 starts so I can catch season 3 for free on Prime.

So that's what I've been doing. Not writing but doing a lot of thinking and reading up on how to write better. If there were some online courses I could take and if I had the time while working, I would be taking them as well. I would love to try to go to one of the Clarion's but I do work for a living so that will have to wait until I retire - if that ever happens. With healthcare so screwed up in this country I'm beginning to think I will have to work until I can no longer do the kind of work I do. Personally, I think this country's healthcare system is going to be our ruin. A man can work and save all his life only to have a single health emergency wipe out decades of savings putting him in the poor house. Insurance these days is a joke and the cost is so high as to be out of reach of most people. So, until that gets fixed, I think I will just continue to work and hope for the best.

I will let you know how things are going next week.

PS: I would like to write a few more blogs along the BSinSF series. I'm open to suggestions right now.

2013-10-27

A Writer's Brain never stops

After the final click which sent Peacekeeper on its way to Smashwords, I leaned back and thought, "Time to take a break and catch up on some reading and other things I've missed out on while working on the book." Well, that's sort of what's happened. My work schedule has gotten in the way with all last week being 12-hour days. I have managed to get some reading done as well as watching a few episodes of Firefly. But my writing brain has not taken a vacation.

I do a lot of thinking about my stories while in the shower (strange but true) as well as just before drifting off to sleep. Instead of taking a break, I find I'm still thinking about any one of the several stories that are waiting to be written. My brain has refused to take a break. I've come up with a possible Galactic Alliance novel that is a follow-up to Peacekeeper. This would create a parallel series based on Peacekeeper. I also keep thinking about a sequel to Off Course where an Akuda super-ship is discovered causing the Ba'Ruta to become involved. I've come up with a really cool twist concerning the mysterious Ba'Ruta. I've also had a few requests to make a third Dragonverse book and there are ideas floating around for this as well.

My biggest seller is the Galactic Alliance series and my wife strongly suggests that I focus more on that series than the others. I'm torn about this. I enjoy the large sales from the GA books but I also have stories that are itching to be told. I have been quite surprised that the Dragonverse books haven't sold better given the fact that many people are fond of dragons. I've often thought about going back and doing a complete re-edit of the two Dragonverse books and then continuing on with a third in the series.

I would also like to put together a 'meet the author' chat session where anyone can join in and chat live with me online. I don't know how many people would be interested in doing this either and even if there is a lot of interest in it, I don't know how to pull it off. I used to be a rather decent computer programmer but I've never done any internet programming. The sad thing is, I've been falling behind in the technology and now there's a lot of things out there on the web I'm not familiar with. There might be a way to do a massive chat but I can't tell you what it is.

I'm going to stick to my plans and take a break from writing at least until next year. But just because I'm not actually writing doesn't mean my brain is on vacation. The dumb thing keeps working even when I'm asleep.

2013-10-20

10-20-2013: Galactic Alliance (Book 4) - Peacekeeper has been released

At long last I can finally report that Peacekeeper has been released. This book has occupied much of my free time for the past 9 months. I did take several forced breaks to build a new fence around my house, attend DragonCon, participate in two refueling outages, and make a trip to Minnesota. I cannot thank my wife enough for putting up with my desire to finish this book and for her help in doing the grammatical review. She's not a big fan of science fiction but she does have a knack for spotting the grammatical errors I tend to miss.

As she was finishing up her first review, I was doing my second pass through the book and making additional changes. Although I wrote the novel using Scrivener, the final editing is done in Word. This gave me the ability to use Word's track changes feature so my wife could have her chance to review the changes I made. This process was finished on Friday. I made one final quick pass looking for spelling errors and seeing what Word claimed was not proper grammar. Only a very few minor changes were needed. This process finished up Saturday morning.

The next phase involved making 3 copies of the manuscript; one for Amazon, one for Smashwords, and one for Createspace. Each one is slightly different. Amazon is the easiest and it's pretty much a direct upload to start the publication process. Smashwords requires a different header page with a mandatory license statement on the first page. The hardest one to create is the one for Createspace. This gets reformatted into the 5.25 x 8 inch PDF that will become the interior of the book. I have to add page numbers and tell Word to use mirror margins so the printed pages will align correctly. I also have to do a page by page check to make sure the chapters don't end with only a couple of lines on a page. When everything is formatted properly, I print it out to a PDF file. The different versions get uploaded to the various sites and the process is complete.

I will be taking a break from writing for awhile. At the moment, I don't have a project in mind. I could write another Peacekeeper edition creating a spin off of the Galactic Alliance series. I also have an idea for a follow-up to Off Course and there's the possibility of a third Dragonverse book. I have a germ of an idea for a short story as well. But for now, I'm going to catch up on some of the things I've missed out on while working on Peacekeeper.

I was adding a recently completed book into Goodreads and it occurred to me that even though I read the entire book, I don't recall much of anything I had learned from it. On reflection, however, I know I did learn quite a bit. When you think about it, the human brain is always learning--it never stops. Reading a book on how to develop better characters will help me develop better characters even though I can't write down what I learned. The learning process takes place on a level that we can't directly access. There are books out there that give the reader these large checklists to run through to make a book better. Does anyone actually ever do that? I seriously doubt it! When you write a paragraph, do you go back through it, word for word, and do an analysis of sentence structure and word usage? I hardly think so. Instead, your brain integrates what you've read in the past into how you write. The bottom line is this: If, after reading a book on how to make your writing better, you set the book down and think, "well that was a waste of time", you're wrong. Learning has occurred--you just don't know it yet--now go write something!

2013-10-09

10-09-2013: Late post - Peacekeeper editing

This week's post is late due to a number of factors. Since the blog is about "Working and Writing" I should perhaps include some of the things that I do for a living other than writing.

I am a nuclear power plant worker. The company I work for owns 4 reactors. These reactors must periodically shut down about once a year (my plant is only every 2 years) so the reactor can be refueled. This is called an outage. It's a major event for a nuclear plant with lots of work going on. The plants that are not being refueled send a few people from each shop to the down plant to help with the work. That's where I am now. I am working 12 hours a day 6 days a week. That doesn't leave much time for anything else. Luckily, I only have one week left on this schedule.

My one day off is Sunday and I had to make a quick trip home to fix my Media Center server. Let me explain this as well: Instead of using a cable company DVR box, my cable comes into the house and goes to one of my computers. I have a quad-tuner installed and my computer serves as a whole-house DVR. I use Microsoft Media Center for this. My two televisions have an X-Box connected to them that then connects to the Media Center server and that's how I watch and record television shows. Last week, the server stopped responding and neither X-Box could connect to it. I found that Norton-360 had suddenly decided that the X-Boxes were new devices and blocked them. I spend last Sunday removing Norton and installing Microsoft Security Essentials. The server is now running smoothly.


Peacekeeper update: My wife has finished proofing the book and I am on the last chapter of my final edit. Because I'm not at home, I can't put her final changes in and she can't look at the edits I've made. We plan to take care of this as soon as possible. My hopes are to have the book available for sale by 10-19. If I can swing it, this date will be moved up.

2013-09-29

09-29-2013: Peacekeeper update

Last week we put 2026 miles on one of our cars. We drove from Ohio to Minnesota to visit friends and relatives. It was a whirlwind trip with almost no time for proofing or editing. My wife did manage to knock out several chapters and I did the same but we are not done yet. I am currently on chapter 36 with my final editing and my wife has about 12 pages left to proof. Once I'm done, Cheryl will go back and check my editing to make sure I haven't introduced anything bad and then it will be off to the presses (so to speak).

In case you're wondering, here is how I get a novel done. I use Scrivener to write it and also for my first editing pass. I then convert it into Word, do some minor reformatting, and then print it out for my wife to look at. She does her editing using a red pen. I then take her changes and enter them into what is now the Word master of the manuscript. I will also make a second pass through the book doing final editing changes. I use Word's track changes feature so Cheryl can find the changes I've made to give them a final look. This is how Peacekeeper is being built and the process has been refined over the last couple of books. My wife and I work very well together.

I am now sitting in a motel room in Beaver Valley Pennsylvania. Tomorrow morning, I begin working 12-hour days, 6 days a week in support of the Beaver Valley power station outage. I won't have a lot of time to write or edit but I promise to get some done while I'm here. I do have Sunday's off and if all goes well I hope to have the book done by the end of that day so it can be made available. I will fire off an email to everyone on my mailing list when that happens.

That's it for now. Stay tuned. Peacekeeper is coming soon!

2013-09-22

09-22-2013: Peacekeeper cover

This week's post will be a bit short on words as I'm on vacation in Minnesota. I've already visited my brother in Stillwater and we are now visiting my best friend from high school in Braham Minnesota. His wife is the one who did the covers for the Galactic Alliance series and Off Course. She has just finished the cover for Peacekeeper. Here is a sneak peak of the artwork:


My wife has made great progress on her grammatical proofing and I'm about half-way done with my final edit. I still have high hopes of getting the book out within a week or two of returning from vacation.

2013-09-15

09-15-2013: BSinSF-Things that blink, pulsate, hum, etc.

This week's BSinSF (Bad Science in Science Fiction) deals mostly with the motion picture industry although I'm sure there are a few stories out there with similar faults. The film industry seems to think that high-tech stuff, especially power generators and sensing elements, have to glow or make some sort of noise. A very recent example is the fuel cell in the defense drones in Oblivion. They glow like they're filled with the juice from a thousand fireflies. Sorry folks, fuel-cells do not glow. Neither do nuclear reactors (unless you can directly see the core) or super-batteries like the ones that power a terminator.

How about eyes? Virtually every robot, android, or cyborg seems to have eyes that glow. Why the heck would they? What purpose would the glow serve? Certainly not to illuminate the object being looked at; the glow is too weak and emitting the light from the sensing element would tend to interfere with the sensor. Light amplifying eyes or eyes that can see beyond the normal human spectrum are possible using today's sensing technology—none of which glow.


Advanced technology usually comes in indiscrete packages. Modern computers do not have giant banks of flashing lights (unless of course you own a tricked out Alienware machine). Even the computers of old only had a small section of indicating lights. They could be used by technicians to view the state of the machine's internal registers as well as for troubleshooting a broken computer. The list of Hollywood computers with huge banks of row upon row of flashing lights could make a long list (Time Tunnel, Star Trek, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, etc.). What on earth could be the purpose of all those lights, especially since not a single one of them is labeled?

Visible laser beams in space? Nonsense! An energy weapon in space is invisible. A laser is a beam of coherent light. The only way for someone to see a laser beam passing in front of them is if the beam reflects off something in its path and some of the light is bounced toward the observer's eye. In an atmosphere, this usually happens because of dust particles or microscopic droplets of water. In space, there is nothing for the beam to hit other than the intended target and therefore it will be invisible.

The bottom line in all this is if you have something that emits light, it had better do so for a very good reason. Indicating lights are okay if they serve a specific purpose. The glow of a warp reactor is explained in the Star Trek Technical Reference manual as well as the Hayes manual on Klingon bird of prey repair but that technology is well beyond our ability to reproduce.

So how about my other pet peeve—noises. I am confident that most people realize that space is silent. You will never hear the explosion of a ship or the whine of a phaser blast or the roar of a Viper's propulsion system. But movies would be pretty dull if Hollywood made their battle-scenes deathly quiet. I'm happy with this too since I'm a big fan of science fiction movies. But, there are some things that should be fixed. For example, nuclear reactors do not pulsate. About the only thing you can hear inside a nuclear power plant is the whine of running motors and the rush of water and steam flowing through the piping. Computer interfaces should not make a significant amount of noise. Try programming your keyboard to make a different short beep, boop, or a series of chirps each time you pressed a key or executed a command. You'll quickly grow tired of it and turn the speakers off. On a bridge with many computer interfaces, audible feedback would be a serious distraction.


The absolute worst offender I have ever seen in regards to sound and visual effect is the depiction of the nuclear reactor powering Captain Nemo's submarine in the B movie "The Return of Captain Nemo" (it is also known as "The Amazing Captain Nemo"). It looked like a giant upside-down turnip which glowed and pulsated with 'power'. When the captain wanted to fire his ultimate weapon he called down to the reactor room saying he needed "Full nuclear capability". The operator grabbed a hand wheel turned it using an indicator that showed reactor power. Of course, the reactor's glow brightened, the pulsations increased in frequency, and the deep, pulsing sound of the reactor became louder and increased in tempo. There is absolutely nothing right with any of this. Wrong, wrong, wrong! The reactor on "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" is another whopping error.


As a writer, I do try to make the science in my books at least believable. Things do not glow, pulsate, or make noises unless there is a specific reason for doing so. Consoles beep for attention. Motors and engines whine. Lasers and particle beams are invisible in space (there is one exception in the Galactic Alliance series but it has a valid explanation). To keep the science realistic a writer should research and become knowledgeable on a subject he or she intends to write about. If your ship is powered by a fusion reactor, you should at least understand the basics of how such a device might operate. Try your best to keep the science in science fiction.

PEACEKEEPER UPDATE: It's beginning to look like the book will not be available for release for another few weeks. The cover is not yet done and the final editing is still being worked on.

LAUNCH PAD ANTHOLOGY: The anthology with short stories from most of the Launch Pad 2012 attendees is now available as an e-book from: http://brittonknowles.com/ProductInformation/ProductID/224

2013-09-09

09-09-2013: BSinSF - Thermodynamics, the bane of science fiction

Before I get into the meat of this week's post I would like to give you a brief update on some other items. Firstly, I'd like to remind everyone of the soon-to-be-released Launch Pad anthology. It's filled with short stories from the Launch Pad 2012 attendees. Next, you will be happy to know that my wife is nearly finished with her grammatical review and I've started my final pass through the manuscript. My wife will have to make sure I didn't screw things up with the changes I'm making and then the book will be ready for release. I recently received a possible cover and the designer is working on making some requested changes. It's beginning to come together folks.

This week's BSinSF topic is on thermodynamics; it's the bane of science fiction in my book. Nothing is 100% efficient and most of the loss in efficiency shows up as heat. A perfect example is something I deal with every day—power production. Nearly every large power plant has a cooling tower and all that vapor pouring out the top is waste heat. How much? About 65% of the energy generated in the reactor or boiler! This waste heat creates a MAJOR problem for science fiction. In order to understand why, let's take a step back and talk about heat transfer for a moment.

Heat can be transferred in three ways: convection, conduction, and radiation. Convection and conduction require the heat source to be in physical contact with the transfer medium. A spacecraft is isolated from everything else by the vacuum of space which rules out both of these as a means of dumping waste heat. That leaves radiation, which is the transfer of heat through the emission of electromagnetic radiation. This means that if you want to keep your ship cool you need large radiators to dump the excess heat.

If you look at a picture of the International Space Station (ISS), the first thing you will most likely notice are the huge panels extending away from the primary truss. The largest of these are the solar panels that provide the station with electricity. The others are the heat radiators. Damage enough of these and the station will quickly become uninhabitable. Ever wonder why the space shuttle kept its cargo doors open the entire time it was in space? Because the inside of the doors served as heat radiators to keep the shuttle cool. If you're building a nuclear powered warship equipped with directed energy weapons, you're going to have to get rid of a tremendous amount of waste heat. To do that, you'll need a heat radiator with a very large surface area. Now you have a problem.

Take a close look at any science fiction movie ever made and try to point out the heat radiators. I'll bet you won't find any. The starship Enterprise would look pretty silly if you tacked on enough heat radiators to keep the ship's internal temperature within limits. To be honest, I never considered this problem until I started reading the articles on the Project Rho website. I took a stab at a possible solution in When Ships Mutiny by explaining that the entire ship's external hull was designed to be an efficient heat radiator. But I'm sure it wasn't enough.

If you want to write science fiction that is based 100% on known science then your incredibly powerful, massively armored warships are going to have to be equipped with extremely large arrays of heat radiators. If these are damaged or shot off you're warship becomes useless. Temperatures on the inside will quickly rise and your fusion reactor will end up turning your ship into a molten blob.

Even if you make the claim that your ship's power systems are 99% efficient you will still have to deal with the waste heat problem. Heat dissipation by radiation is very inefficient; that's why thermos bottles use a vacuum as an insulator. If your ship's main reactor generates 1,000 megawatts of power then you're impossibly efficient system will still have to find a way to get rid of 10 megawatts of waste heat.

If you're a math nerd and you want to find out just how bad this problem is, I invite you to do some research into thermodynamics. I could have run the numbers years ago when I learned about heat transfer and fluid flow in the Navy's nuclear power school but many years have passed and I simply don't have the time to learn about things like black-body radiation. The math isn't terrible difficult but you need to have a thorough understanding of thermodynamics to get the numbers right.

If you do read the associated articles on the Project Rho website you'll also discover that the heat problem also means that stealth in space (i.e. cloaking fields, stealth ships, etc.) are pretty much impossible. Sorry, the Klingon and Romulan cloaking devices simply aren't possible.

So what's the solution? Actually, in this case the only possible solution is to ignore the problem. That's right—I said ignore it. Until someone comes up with a way to dump excess heat into space without the use of large surface-area heat radiators then you're just going to have to sweep the problem under the rug and hope nobody asks how your ships deal with waste heat.


Next week I'll be tackling a pet peeve of mine by asking: Why do things in science fiction movies glow, pulsate, or generate light? Why do they hum, scream, or make sounds?

PS--This post was late because I got stuck working 12-hour nights at the plant. That doesn't leave much time for anything other than work and sleep.

2013-09-02

09-01-2013: DragonCon Day 4

Once again, this post is being uploaded the morning after I wrote it due to problems with the hotel wireless.

Our last day at DragonCon began with lunch at the Sun Dial restaurant located on the 72nd floor of the Westin hotel in Atlanta. We were joined by Jody Lynn Nye, Farah Mendlesohn, Stu Segal, and his son Steve. Farah was dressed in a Starfleet uniform. During lunch we were treated to a spectacular thunderstorm with huge bolts of cloud-to-ground lightning providing quite a show. We were a little worried because this was the first day we had decided not to carry our umbrellas.

Jody had to depart early as she was sitting on a panel at 2:30. We said our goodbyes and wished Farah a safe flight back to London—her flight departed at 7:00pm. On the ride back down (inside a glass elevator that rides on the outside of the building) we noticed it had stopped raining. Lucky for us, it didn't rain for the rest of the day.

At this point I had two choices. I wanted to attend Jody's panel at 2:30 but it was now nearly 2:50. I desperately wanted to attend a panel at 4:00 with Larry Niven and Jody and I realized the line would begin forming quite early. My original plans had called for me to bug out of the 2:30 panel early so I could get a good place in line for the 4:00 panel. But lunch had taken so long that it no longer made much sense to attend the 2:30 panel. I decided to start the line for the 4:00 panel. After several false starts caused by a lack of knowledge on the part of the conference room gatekeepers, I finally found where the line was to begin. So did several other people.

I stood in line for about 45 minutes and then found myself in the front row of the 4:00 panel—"The Logic of Magic". It was a wonderful discussion and I thoroughly enjoyed it. While I did all this, my wife wandered the dealer's room. Afterwards, I met her at Durangoe's for dinner and then we caught the bus back to the hotel thus ending our last day at DragonCon.


We have had a great time and now we must bid Atlanta farewell. We are heading back to Ohio with a stop in Wytheville to rest. During the return trip, my wife has said she will try to continue proofing Peacekeeper. In the meantime, I will begin my own final pass through the manuscript to make sure everything is as good as I can make it. 

2013-09-01

08-31-3013: DragonCon Day 3 (posted the day after)

Yesterday's post was delayed due to my being unable to connect to the internet last night. DragonCon brings in so many people that it overwhelms the area's communications grid. Cell phone calls are dropped, internet access via a cell phone is intermittent and very slow, and hotel wireless systems are bogged down to the point they are nearly unusable. If you do attend a future DragonCon event you should expect these things. The best time to use the internet is early in the morning when all the late-night party-goers are still sleeping. I am furiously typing this into a Word document in the hopes that I will be able to post it this morning.

We spent the first part of the day watching the DragonCon parade. I stood on top of a large cement planter that had had its tree removed and managed to have a very good view of the parade. I took 121 photos and videos of the event which I will post on Flickr when we get back. I then attended "An Hour with Larry Niven" and found him to be a very entertaining individual. The line to get into the conference hall where he was speaking started inside the building and meandered down the hall, out the door, then down the side of the hotel out on the sidewalk for about 300 feet. The sun was blazing hot and I think I over-exposed my neck.

After Mr. Niven's talk, I walked down to another meeting room to wait for Jody Lynn Nye to show up. She almost arrived late but she did have just enough time to hand me the flyer for the new anthology she and Mike Brotherton edited. I have a short story that appears in this anthology so I'm very interested in helping get the word out.

After lunch, my wife and I spent the remainder of the evening wandering around the dealer's rooms. I picked up a new dragon and my wife bought several trinkets for herself. She seemed particularly interested in the steampunk items. Back in the room, I spent quite a bit of time on Twitter setting up a lunch with Jody and Farah. I learned that Farah will be leaving on a 7:00pm flight even though the DragonCon schedule shows her on a panel at 8:00pm that night. After much back-and-forth, the time and place have been set.

I have to point out that every single person we have met here at DragonCon has been polite and courteous. We have spoken to complete strangers on numerous occasions and have yet to encounter anyone who was rude or impolite. This has been a very good experience: the weather has been nearly perfect; the people have been great; and the activities have been both entertaining and informative.


I will post a link to my Fickr pictures when I get back home. Trying to upload photos (even a single one) while at DragonCon is just too frustratingly slow.

2013-08-30

08-30-2013: DragonCon Day 2

No pictures today - the internet service here is just too slow. Started off with a very good (but not free) breakfast in the hotel restaurant. We then took the DragonCon bus to the Sheraton where we attended our first panel: "Crossing the Veil". This was a discussion about what happens after death. This was one of my wife's interests but I found it to be rather interesting as well. Next, we split up and I went to a writing seminar, "Careers in the Post-paper Era". I picked up several interesting ideas which I will be applying to my next book. I will probably make changes to my already published novels as well. I walked back to meet up with my wife and sat through a panel on "Paranormal Tech Talk". We split up again and I attended a lecture on "Fun in fusion Research". The presenter works with the International Test Experimental Reactor (ITER) and presented a VERY interesting as well as funny lecture. Finally, we walked through the art dealer's room and then spent some time just hanging around taking pictures of all the costumes.

So what did I like best about today? The lecture on fusion research was very good but I think if I had to chose one thing I did today as having the most value I would say it was the "Careers in the Post-paper Era" lecture. Why? Because I picked up a few tips on how to make my books better. All writers should be continually striving to improve. I want to produce the best possible experience for my readers and the best way to do that it to continually improve my writing skills. I read books on writing as well as attend lectures when I can. I also solicit feedback. If you find an issue such as a spelling mistake or a misused word in one of my novels, please tell me about them. I will correct the error and learn from it.

The parade is tomorrow and then we will be spending time in the dealer's room. I do have one panel to attend but that can change. If the internet connection holds out I will blog again tomorrow.

2013-08-29

08-29-2013: DragonCon day 1

Today started off rather interesting. I have a habit of leaving a few of my business cards on the lunch table at the hotel. This morning, the sales manager for the hotel by my daughter's recognized me and stopped to talk. He son and husband are both science fiction fans. Even though I did not have any books with me, she paid me for two of them, trusting me to mail them to her when I get back home. That's the first time I've made a sale like that.

We left the hotel by my daughter's and headed for the hotel we booked for DragonCon. To be honest, I was very worried because of the number of very negative reviews I had read about the Melia hotel. The trip into Atlanta was made without incident and check in at the hotel was very smooth. The room is a bit dated (no refrigerator and no microwave and the TV is an old CRT model) but it is quite nice and very acceptable. After settling in we took a cab to the Sheraton where we encountered a very large line of people for DragonCon check-in (see below photos). The line moved quickly and it wasn't long before we had our badges in our hands.

We walked from the Sheraton to Max Lagers where we met Jody Lynn Nye and Farah Mendlesohn, two of the Launch Pad 12 attendees. We had a very good time together. My wife and I then returned to our hotel where we spent a considerable amount of time working on our plans for the next few days. It's going to be a very busy next few days - I will try to keep track of my activities and blog in the evening.

Here is a pic of a small part of the line of people we stood in to check into DragonCon:

This is the sea of people winding their way to the check-in counters. It moved pretty fast:

2013-08-25

08-25-2013: BSinSF - Dangers of Space Travel

This post comes to you from South Carolina where I'm visiting my father on the way to Dragon*con. Next week's post might be a bit late because of the convention. Peacekeeper update: My wife is at about the half-way point in her grammatical review of the novel. She's been doing her best to proof during our drive through the mountains.

Space is an incredibly dangerous place and many science fiction stories seem to ignore that fact. The movie 2010 got it right but most other movies and many novels get it wrong. This edition of BSinSF talks about some of the dangers people face in space.

The vast majority of the population have no idea just how well protected they are living on the Earth's surface. They seem to forget that our home planet orbits a monstrous unshielded fusion reactor spewing forth torrential amounts of radiation. The Earth protects us in two ways from this onslaught: it maintains a powerful force field and it has a relatively thick atmosphere. The force field is the Earth's magnetic field which extends for hundreds of kilometers out into space. It deflects high energy particles away from the surface. The atmosphere provides a thick layer of shielding protecting us against many other forms of attack from space.

Radiation is a major concern in space. The international community measures radiation in Sieverts which is abbreviated as Sv. A typical person on Earth receives an annual dose of about .01 milli-Sieverts (mSv). The International Space Station is protected from most of the radiation in space because it orbits within the Earth's magnetic field. If you were to spend an entire year on the station, you could expect to receive a total dose of about 150 mSv. An astronaut on the shortest possible round-trip to Mars would receive a total dose of roughly 0.66 Sv. That's 66,000 times the radiation a person normally expects to receive. If you're on the surface of an airless world (i.e. the moon) you're exposed to this radiation. Mars has a very weak magnetic field and a thin atmosphere so living there will get you more dose than working at a nuclear plant. For comparison purposes, I work at a nuke plant and I have never received more than about 3 mSv of radiation in one year.

Things get even worse around Jupiter. Space probes working in the area have to be equipped with specially hardened electronics because the radiation field in the area would damage them to the point of failure. Biological material would not survive for long. Any ships carrying humans would have to be equipped with sophisticated heavy shielding systems.

But radiation is not the only danger in space. In order to get anywhere within a reasonable amount of time you need to travel very fast. Speeds are measured in kilometers per second and at those velocities hitting something as mundane as a fleck of paint can cause serious damage. The space shuttle has returned with dings in the windshield from hitting things like this. A marble-sized rock would do serious damage. Luckily, space is big—very very big—and the chance of hitting something is quite remote. Still, it's a danger, especially if you're traveling very fast for long periods of time. To prevent the forward section of your ship from being slowly eroded away it had better be protected by thick layers of heavy armor.

There are other things out there that are far more dangerous. Getting in the path of a gamma-ray burst for instance could be instantly fatal even light years from the source. If your ship is capable of faster than light travel, the navigational system had better be able to steer you clear of these deadly beams of radiation. There are also strange objects out there called magnetars with hyper-powerful magnetic fields. Get too close to one of these and they will not only erase all your credit cards but you could also find yourself without any iron in your body.


The bottom line—space is not a safe place to be and all science fiction writers should be aware of them. Your ship needs to be able to avoid the larger hazards as well as protect the occupants from the ever-present radiation field. If you want to keep the science right, then you need to learn about such things.

2013-08-18

08-18-2013: BSinSF - Sublight Propulsion

Quick Peacekeeper update: My wife is about 1/3 of the way through the manuscript making very good change suggestions as she goes.

This week's BSinSF (Bad Science in Science Fiction) post concerns sublight propulsion systems. Faster than light (FTL) propulsion systems don't exist and therefore any novel that uses them is in violation of real science. But, then again, the Star Trek communicator was pure fiction in the 60's—now we have cell phones.

If you think about it, every spacecraft propulsion system in use today is based on Newton's third law which is usually stated as: "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." Basically, we throw mass out one side of the spaceship and the ship moves in the other direction. Simple. But this simple concept creates some major problems for the science-minded SciFi writer.

The first has to do with the fact that every spacecraft ever built must carry a supply of mass (correctly referred to as propellant) that will be expelled to produce thrust. This propellant is part of the mass of the ship and must itself be accelerated. It seems like a colossal waste and it severely limits how fast a ship can move. Look at what it takes to put something into an orbit only 230 miles (370 kilometers) above the Earth. Rockets are ridiculously inefficient and it takes about a kilogram of fuel to put each gram of mass into space.

Another problem that is often forgotten is the fact that once you get moving, you will eventually have to slow down again. This at least doubles the amount of propellant you need to carry. Then there's the question of accelerating all this propellant—this is what the fuel does. For chemical rockets, the fuel is the propellant but if your ship is nuclear powered your fuel and propellant are separate items.

The bad science part of all this is illustrated in the following example. Let's say you are writing a story and you have a fleet of ships moving around a star system. Wanting to sound like you know what you're talking about you state that the ship uses a 'fusion thruster' or a 'plasma engine'. Your warships, of course, are large, impressive vessels armed with death-dealing weapons of incomprehensible power. They accelerate out of Earth orbit to meet the incoming fleet of enemy ships that have been detected crossing the orbit of Mars. A few hours later, the battle begins with ships maneuvering around each other to gain the slightest tactical advantage. Sounds great—right?

Let's run some very simplistic numbers: The distance between Mars and Earth varies between 54.6 and 225 million kilometers. Let's assume they are 100 million kilometers apart at this point in time. To make the numbers even simpler I'm going to ignore the relative motions between Mars and Earth as well as other simplifications. Let's assume your fleet accelerates for the entire trip, spinning around at the half-way point so by the time you meet the enemy fleet your relative velocity is zero. That means you're accelerating for 25 million kilometers. Your ships have some really bad-ass engines so they can accelerate your vessel at 1 gravity. The math says it will take you just under 40 hours to meet the enemy, not just a few. But wait, we should figure out how much propellant this will take.

The retired space shuttle masses about 68,500 Kg. Using the above scenario as well as the theoretically best engine possible and some equations available on the web I've determined that the amount of propellant your ship needs is in excess of 1.2 million kilograms! And that's just to get to the scene of the battle. After the fight is over the fleet will be stuck because they forgot to save enough propellant to get back home. Cutting down the acceleration will save on propellant but will lengthen the travel time. If you stick with pure known physics your novel is going to read like the adventures of Columbus.

So what is an author to do? Cheat. I hate to say that because I'm a big fan of getting the numbers right. But if you want to write a futuristic space opera with star-spanning empires and battle scenes, the only alternative is to cheat. If you do, at least don't blatantly violate the known laws of physics. The best way around this is to not explain the workings of your propulsion system at all. It's just there.

In the Galactic Alliance series, I utilize a reactionless drive. It latches on to the fabric of space and moves the ship with pure energy alone. But there are a vast number of problems with reactionless drives. Luckily, unless you're well-versed in relativity and have a firm understanding of the conservation of momentum, you won't know just how bad this idea violates the laws of nature.

If you want to at least try to keep your numbers right, do the research and run the math. Don't say your megaton battle cruiser fires its fusion thrusters to travel 10 billion kilometers to do battle with the enemy without mentioning the fact that it has to slow down and it has consumed a whopping terra-ton of propellant. Sometimes, you have to cheat science by creating your own—just make sure the rules it uses are consistent and don't blatantly violate known science.

Here are some more quick science notes that seem to be always forgotten:
·         Unless you have super-science your ships will have inertia. Once they get moving, they have to expend energy to stop.
·         Traveling for long times at near-light speeds will affect how time passes inside the moving ship.
·         Spaceships are not airplanes and will never fly like one. Forget all about how Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica ships operate in space. There is no up or down—ships can spin on their axis while continuing to travel in a given direction.
·         Orbital dynamics are tricky and you should at least be familiar with how a ship behaves in orbit.


For further reading (and there's a ton of it here that will make your brain hurt) I must recommend the Project Rho website. There is so much information on this one site that you can spend all week going through it. I strongly suggest you do so. I also have an Excel spreadsheet (soon to be a Java program) that does a number of these calculations for you. You can find it at the bottom of my web page at http://www.dougfarren.com/

2013-08-15

08-15-2013: Scrivener

I normally don't generate a blog post in the middle of the week but I just had to get this one out. If you're a writer and you've never heard of Scrivener then you need to give it a try. If you've heard of it, and you've tried it out and found it to be a bit confusing, then you need to revisit it. I've just finished reading a fantastic book on how to use Scrivener. The manual from the developers is okay but is severely lacking in a lot of the "how to" descriptions. This is no reflection on the developer team - it's typical because they work with the program all the time and they understand it's ins and outs. For the rest of us--read a third-party book.

The book I'm talking about is "Scrivener for Dummies". The best news is that it's available free at: IT-ebooks. Why would they give this away for free? Because after reading it I think you'll want to buy a printed copy to have at your fingertips. I know I'm going to. Buy it, read it, and then enjoy writing like you've never imagined. I love this program! Don't have a copy? You can try it for free at by clicking here.

One thing the book doesn't talk about and I think it's a serious omission is how to set up your project files. The information is in there, but it's not exactly obvious. Read the book--carefully--paying particular attention to chapter 12, and then start writing. I believe using the preset project formats is a good place to start but unless you understand how the compiler formatting options work you can easily muck it up. I did. For my own work, I should have used a folder to hold the text documents for each chapter with each scene in that chapter a separate text document. I didn't do this at first but after reading the book it didn't take much to restructure the project to conform to these rules.

I'm surprised that Literature and Latte (the developers of Scrivener) do not recommend this book. They should put a link to it on their website.

And, since I'm here, I'll let you know that my wife is still going through Peacekeeper. Have patience, it will be available soon.

Finally, I will be at Dragon*con at the end of this month. If you want to meet up, drop me an email. I'm sure I can find the time.

2013-08-11

08-11-2013: BSinSF (Bad Science in Science Fiction)

Peacekeeper is still in the hands of my grammatically correct wife. As much as I would like to, I'm not going to rush her. I also read a chapter of the completed novel at the writer's group yesterday and received some good feedback.

Today I've decided to begin a new phase in my blogging. Instead of writing about my writing (which is why I started this blog in the first place) and what's been going on in my life, I've decided to make it more interesting. This post is the first in a series of posts on bad science in science fiction. Getting the numbers right is very important in scifi because if you don't, somebody is going to notice. Even something as mundane as the size of a rotating space station must be checked. I do write scifi that uses questionable science (shields, stardrive, etc) but I strive to keep the technology within limits as well as making the numbers and behavior believable.

In this first post of BSinSF (Bad Science in Science Fiction) I'm going to cover a subject I'm very familiar with – nuclear power. I've been in the nuclear power field for more than 35 years and while that doesn't qualify me as an expert it certainly means I know what I'm talking about. I was a reactor operator for 11 years in the Navy and I now work at a nuclear power plant as a technician.

Contamination vs radiation: This is a common misperception. Radiation is particles or photons (usually gamma rays) that are emitted from a radioactive source. This includes an operating reactor. Contamination is a radioactive source in an undesired location. Think of it like this—contamination is like radioactive dust which emits radiation. Contamination can usually be removed unless you get it inside you and then it is still removed by biological action. Radiation can be stopped by shielding and it does not 'melt' things as I've recently heard on a poor television broadcast. Radiation will also not cause contamination. Neutron radiation can cause non-radioactive materials to become radioactive but other types cannot do so.

Critical reactors: This is actually a good thing! A sub-critical reactor is one in which the power level is dropping. Super-critical means the power level is rising which is also normal because it's how you raise power in a fission reactor. Critical, is simply the definition of a reactor running at a steady power level. For those of you who remember Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea – forget everything you learned in that show concerning nuclear power; it's all wrong! There is another form a criticality called 'prompt critical'. This is virtually impossible to achieve in modern reactors. Prompt criticality will destroy a reactor but will not result in a mushroom cloud nuclear explosion. The primary reason this cannot happen in a power reactor is that the fuel used in the core is not the same as that used in a nuclear bomb and it is not even close to the correct configuration. The explosions at Chernobyl and SL-1 were steam explosions caused by a prompt-criticality event—not a nuclear explosion.

Nuclear reactors: There are two basic types that we know of: fission and fusion. Fission reactors operate by the splitting of heavy atoms. Gross power level is controlled by inserting and removing control rods from inside the core. Fine power level is controlled by a natural feedback process involving the density of water. Basically, the hotter the water gets the less power the reactor produces. This 'negative feedback' allows the reactor to be easily controlled. Fusion reactors generate power by smashing very light elements together. This is how the sun produces power. Fusion reactors require some way of heating the fuel and keeping it confined. This is usually accomplished by magnetic fields or lasers. Neither type of reactor can explode in the nuclear sense of the word. If a fusion reactor is damaged it will simply stop operating. If a fission reactor is damaged and not kept cool the fuel will eventually overheat and melt. The extreme heat of the melting fuel will cause water to be split into oxygen and hydrogen resulting in a hydrogen explosion which is what happened at Fukushima and Three Mile Island.

The bottom line is this: If you use a nuclear reactor to power something in your story and that reactor experiences a problem, you should do the research first to find out if the accident you describe can actually occur. When in doubt, talk to someone who understands nuclear power. There's a lot of people out there who think they know how this stuff works but who really don't. Talk to someone in the industry—most people are glad to talk about it.


Feedback on the contents of this blog are welcome. If you would like additional details or would like to see a specific subject covered please let me know. I can be reached at: author at dougfarren dot com 

2013-08-05

08-05-2013: Peacekeeper editing is done

Today I finished my editing of Peacekeeper (book 4 of the Galactic Alliance series). Now it gets turned over to my wife for her grammatical check. Having worked at a newspaper for 27 years she has a good eye for misspellings and wrongly used words. My friend's wife in Minnesota is working on the cover. If all goes well, the book should be ready for release in about 2 or 3 weeks.

I have received some very good news concerning Launch Pad--the week-long science class given by Professor Brotherton in Laramie, Wyoming. I will be returning again next year. Professor Brotherton is thinking of having me give a lecture on nuclear reactors and possibly one on indie publishing. I'm thrilled!

The old fence was hauled away the other day and everything is now cleaned up. The fence project is done. You can see photos of this project at:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/64567572@N08/sets/72157634940466137/

I've been thinking about the content of my blog of late and I think I should begin writing about other things other than what's been going on in my life. I work at a nuclear power plant as well as being an author so there's lots of stuff there for me to blog about. As an indie author, I've thought about focusing on that. If anyone is out there reading this and has a suggestion for a topic please let me know.

That's it for this entry. I'll keep you informed about Peacekeeper.

2013-07-28

07-28-2013: Very Productive Day

Today was a very busy as well as a productive day. Over the past few days, I've managed to get some editing done on Peacekeeper. I got some more done today. I'm about a third of the way done with my second editing pass and I'm managing to find some things that really needed fixing. I'll be in training next week which means I'll have lots of time to edit in the morning as well as during breaks. My goal is to finish the first editing pass by the end of next week. I'll then do another editing pass but this time it will be quick as I'll only be looking for inconsistencies. Then it's to my wife for proofing and then a final editing pass to make sure it all works together.

I also set up a new computer for my wife. Her old machine was running into memory issues and slowing down to a crawl. The new machine, of course, came with Windows 8. I hate Windows 8 so I wiped the hard drive (had to because it uses a strange formatting, and installed Windows 7. This entails having to deactivate the new BIOS and activate the legacy BIOS. After 7 was installed I ran into some major issues like no internet and no USB ports. I solved this problem by going to the HP website and doing a search of my computer to determine who makes the network interface. I then went to their website, downloaded a driver installer, burned it to a DVD, put the DVD into the new system, and ran it. A few seconds later I was on the internet. From that point it was easy. I installed the 148 (first pass) updates, then another 38 updates. I downloaded a driver updater program and updated all the drivers which gave me the USB-3 ports back. Next, I installed Office 2003 and had to install another 56 updates after that. This morning I used the easy file transfer facility built into Windows 7 to move all the settings and files from the old machine to the new one. As soon as I have time I'll make some minor tweaks and then she'll have a new computer.

Now I've got to figure out what to do with her old one - maybe turn it into an Ubuntu box?

I've also been working on my fence project. Today I tore down the rest of the old fence, sanded the remaining poles, stained them, and started putting up pickets. There's only 5 sections left and I'll have that project completed by the end of the day tomorrow - provided I don't run out of wood. That will free up some time to finish my wife's computer, reorganize my computer room, complete a couple more outside projects, and (you thought I forgot, didn't you?) work on Peacekeeper. There's some other projects on hold like reorganizing how I store things on my computers and get things prepared for when I turn over the backups to CrashPlan.

That's it for today. Time to Skype with my friend in Minnesota and bug his wife about getting a cover for Peacekeeper.