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A Quick Update

I’ve been rather inactive on updating this page, but I’ve had a lot going on lately. I should have a little more time now to catch up and to get back to posting here. In no particular order, here is what I’m going to be working on:

I should be back to posting some reviews for books, comics, and television shows.

I’m getting back to writing some fiction, so I may have an occasional update on that.

I’ll be back at fencing practice next week, preparing for competitions as the spring nears. I’m also training for my first triathlon, which will be easier when the weather warms up.

converted PNM file

Mars – Photo courtesy of NASA

Lastly, my main focus for the next few weeks is to work on submitting my application to NASA for the upcoming astronaut selection. The requirements to apply are straightforward, but the odds are very long. I may post an update on that process here if I hear anything more than the standard “thank you for applying, but no” postcard.

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Looking for a Few Reviewers

Is anyone out there interested in becoming a book reviewer? I’m looking for a handful of new reviewers over at Book Spot Central for genre novels. The site covers mainly fantasy and science fiction, but books with some mystery or romance elements are fine. You can also review graphic novels.

Benefits include the ability to get a Net Galley account where you can find e-book advance review copies of the latest books. If you may be interested, fill out the form below explaining why you want to write book reviews and a link to anything similar that you’ve written (or paste it into the other box if it isn’t available online).

Inside the World of Longsword Fighting

This video from the New York Times has been making the rounds on Facebook, but I thought that it also may be of interest here.

Inside the World of Longsword Fighting

If you are writing a story with this style of fighting, this group may be able to give you some invaluable practical tips about what it is like to practice this style of sword fighting. I didn’t know that this existed, and while the clothing and armor are not intended to be historically accurate, it sounds like they are trying to faithfully recreate the techniques out of the fencing manuals that we still have.

Video

A Positive Outlook – On Sexism in SF/F

There has been a lot of controversy and commentary in the SF/F writing community of late centered around the last few issues of the SFWA bulletin. I am not a SFWA member, so I have only heard about this second-hand and have not been able to find the cover art in question or all of the articles. Jim C. Hines has a nice summary of links here, but it centers around accusations of sexism in the SF/F publishing industry over the course of three recent issues of the SFWA bulletin. I’m not going to rehash the details here because others have already done a more informed and thorough job than I can. What I do want to say, is that most of the writers and editors that I have met at conventions or through the internet have not shown any overt sexism or unprofessional behavior. Perhaps I’m lucky. Perhaps I’m just unobservant. But whatever the reasons, I wanted to share some of my positive experiences that, I think, illuminate how much progress has been made for women in recent decades.

First off, I work as a veterinarian in my “day job” and veterinary medicine is a field which has experienced a dramatic gender shift. From the early 1900’s through most of the 20th century, veterinary colleges admitted primarily male students, citing reasons such as a woman’s lack of physical strength required for work with farm animals and the concern that women would leave the field to start families. I’m sure that at that time, some of this reflected the applicant pool. But from the late 1960’s up to the past decade, the ratio of female students admitted to veterinary colleges in the United States has flip-flopped, going from approximately 11% to 77%. The data from 2009 showed that for the first time, women outnumbered men among practicing veterinarians. This shift in gender in the profession is not completely understood, and there are still gaps in pay between women and men in the field, but I take it as a sign that such a shift could occur in other traditionally male-dominated fields. For more information on this change in veterinary medicine, here is a good summary article.

I grew up a tomboy, playing street hockey and manhunt with my brother and the neighborhood boys. I never felt singled out as the only girl among them. I was bigger than they were (for most of the time), and I played just as hard as they did. Even in college, if I showed up at the local roller-hockey pickup game, I might have received some odd looks, but I was never told that I couldn’t play. At a purely physical level, sure – I was at a disadvantage, being only 5’2″ and lacking testosterone – but we weren’t out there to play professional hockey. I could skate and stick handle better than some of the men. In any group activity there will be players of different skill levels, and this was not an elite group, just a group of friends enjoying the day.

When I began fencing, this was also a male-dominated activity. In my event (saber), there weren’t even competitions held for women. It wasn’t until the 1998-99 season that the NCAA added women’s saber to collegiate competition, followed by the first Olympic individual event in 2004. In fencing, afficianados of a particular weapon are usually ecstatic to have more people train and compete in that weapon. I never experienced anything I could verify as sexism from any competitors, coaches, or tournament staff. Like I said before, maybe I’m oddly fortunate. I’m sure there are others who have had a different experience.

I’m also a PC gamer, and I did have one recent experience that could be loosely called sexism. My cute blond human female character in Guild Wars 2 was busy pursuing quests in a pastoral area of farmland, cows, and peasants. I had just finished one task and was headed off to fight some monsters, when another character began to follow me around. The game allows you to pick up buckets of water and dump them out – presumably you would do this in the correct place to fulfill the quest goals. Instead, this other character asked me, “Do you want a bath?” and proceeded to dump the water on my character repeatedly. I ignored this, never engaged the other player in any conversation, and when I had decided to move on, teleported to a different location. That ended it. Was this a sexist attack on me? The other player had no reason to know that the person behind the character was female. I think rather than label this sexist, I would prefer to call it “being an asshole”. People are going to behave like this at times, and if there is a hint that the target’s gender plays a part, it may be sexist or discriminatory, but I would venture that when you’re being an asshole, you don’t stop to think about those facets of your behavior. There will always be individuals who act out in a malicious way against others, but this shouldn’t be accepted as normal by our modern society.

I don’t want to discount or discredit the experiences of those who have endured serious discrimination. There is still work to be done, and I don’t think that comments on a female editor’s appearance in a bathing suit belong in a commentary about her work. The research studies and case reports that I read in my professional veterinary journals don’t relate information about the author’s bra size or shoe size, be they male or female. Why would they? It’s not relevant. I just want to say that if veterinary medicine and sports can show a willingness to change and be more inclusive to women, then surely SF/F, the field that purports to speculate on the possibilities of the future and imagination can also make progress in this regard.

When Stories Have a Mind of Their Own

The past few weeks have been taken over with holiday recovery, that icky sinus crud that has attacked everyone in the area, and this one persistent story that seems to have a mind of its own.

First, a little news. I have two short stories that will be available in the near future. “Those Magnificent Stars” will appear on February 12 in Perihelion SF. This is an online magazine and is free to read. It focuses on hard sci-fi, so there’s no fantasy to be found here. My piece is a story about a teenage girl whose only birthday wish is to take an excursion outside the dome to see the stars.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) - ESA/Hubble Collaboration

NGC 602 and Beyond. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) – ESA/Hubble Collaboration

The second story to be published is “Princess Thirty-Nine”. This is a fantasy tale and will appear in the Universe Horribilis anthology from Third Flatiron Publishing. This is a themed anthology about an uncaring or hostile universe. My story follows a captive princess and her struggle to understand the world from her limited perspective.

Now back to that story. It started out as a fun exercise. I wanted to take a break from trying to craft a “more serious” story. I decided to write a short adventure tale about space pirates. Somehow a plot device involving nuclear physics crept in. It never managed to get beyond the opening pages, but it was fun. I put it away and went back to other tasks.

A couple of months ago I resurfaced from a writing hiatus after Hurricane Sandy swept across our area. My husband and I were lucky that we only sustained minimal damage with a few downed branches and buckled siding. I rewrote a fantasy story and kicked it out the door (submitted it to an online magazine). I needed a fun project again, and that silly space pirate story called to me. It needed to be written from a different point-of-view, perhaps with an added complication to the plot and more depth to the characters. Maybe it would end up at novelette or novella length. I started typing.

Last week I found myself floundering as the plot branched into avenues that I had not fully considered. I decided to outline the plot threads to help extricate myself from this mess.

Now I have a novel synopsis.

I don’t need another novel idea, but there it is. All laid out in pretty synopsis format. Half the science behind the fiction is physics, half is biomedical. The main character is clear in my head and the secondary ones are lining up to tell me about themselves. So I guess I’m writing a novel. Maybe I’ll finish this one since it seems to have developed a mind of its own.

For any writers out there, do you ever find that one of your stories takes off like this? Do you ever have the opposite experience in which a novel turns into a short story?

Many well-known novels began as short stories (Anne McCaffrey with Weyr Search/Dragonflight; Orson Scott Card with Ender’s Game). Do you ever read a novel and wish that you had only read a short section of it? Is there a particular short story that you would love to see extended into a novel?

Goals – Do You Set Them?

It’s a new year, and also a time at which many of us think about goals and accomplishments. This may be retrospective – thinking about your activities over the past year. Or if you look forward, then it’s more about making new goals for the future. It can also be both.

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For myself, I had several different goals that I had set for 2012. I’m not sure that I met any of them. BUT – I worked at these goals. For one example, I decided that I would participate in a 2012 reading challenge over at Goodreads. I set a goal of 50 books. I think I read 28. I blame George R.R. Martin and his long, long books for slowing me down on this one. But you know what? I still read a lot of books. More than I probably did for 2011. I’m trying it again in 2013 and I have a better idea of what it will take to read all 5o.

One of the larger goals that I had set was to write the first draft of a historical fantasy novel. I did manage to start much of the research, outline characters and some of the plot, and write a few chapters. I took a break from it, but instead of halting all my writing, I went back to short stories. I wrote at least eight of those through the year. So while I finished other tasks that weren’t my original goals, I still feel like I’m making progress on my writing.

I also try to constantly fling rejected stories back out to other potential markets. I had done pretty well with this in 2011, but mid-2012 I slacked off. My rejected stories would linger in my files for weeks before I would research the markets and send them off again. I regained my focus around August, and now I have two stories that have been accepted for publication and will be out in 2013.

So, as a writer, do you set goals for the upcoming year, next month, daily? Do you go back and assess how you did? What are your plans for 2013?

Fencing Travel and Fiction Research

This past weekend, I had the fortunate opportunity to combine both fencing and fiction research together in one trip. I traveled to St. Louis, Missouri for a North American Cup (NAC) event. This is a series of tournaments run by the United States Fencing Association (USFA), held all over the United States, and on occasion elsewhere in North America. From October through April, these events are held once a month. Each NAC is comprised of different levels of events and age groups. This year’s schedule can be found here. The final event of the season is a combination of Division I National Championships and Summer National Championships. This is held over about a ten day time span from the end of June through the first week in July. It is a massive affair, with events for every age group and level.

St. Louis – Gateway to the West.

The October event was a Division I, Division II, and Cadet event. Division I is the highest level of national competition. If a fencer finishes in the top 32 of a Division I event, he earns points that go toward a national ranking. The Cadet event is for fencers under sixteen years of age and is also a point event, but with a separate tally for national rankings. I fenced in just the Division II event. This level restricts entrants to those with a C, D, E, or U rating (leaving out A and B fencers). If you missed my earlier post on ratings and rankings, you can find more of an explanation here. The Division II event awards no points, but rather awards new letter ratings depending on how high you finish.

Fencing venue. For most of the day, these strips were full of fencers. But earlier in the day, I was busy fencing so this was taken toward the end of the day’s events.

A NAC is an immense and overwhelming thing to a first-time competitor. The venue is usually a large convention center exhibit hall. Fencing strips stretch as far as the eye can see. Scoring machines buzz and beep, fencers scream and shout, and blades clash together on all sides. The bout committee runs the event and is sequestered on an elevated platform in some central location. Equipment vendors, merchandisers, equipment check-in, equipment repair services, and stenciling services can be found around the periphery of the hall.

The bout committee. The section to the left is for referees to gather and rest.

When I first arrived at the event, I had to check in. Everyone has to pre-register for a NAC event. Walk-in competitors are not allowed. At the posted time, the competitors for a given event line up at a booth which is usually in the hall outside the venue. They scan your USFA membership card and then you’re confirmed for the event.

Instant replay station.

The next step is the equipment check. This is within the venue and the line can vary from non-existent to a 45 minute wait. This is where your mask is checked for safety, and the conductive pieces of equipment are verified to be working.

This tournament had several instant replay stations, more than I’ve ever seen before at an event. But despite all the technology, each fencer has to cluster around a simple bulletin board to find out which strip her bouts will be fenced on.

One of several bulletin boards around the venue where important details are posted.

Overall, it appeared to be a well-run event. If you knew where to look, you could even glimpse some of the recent Olympians in action.

At the end of the day, I did not fence as well as I had wanted to, but after my injury and surgeries I was happy to be able to even compete again. I’ll likely enter the Division II NAC in the spring.

The Missouri Historical Society Research Library.

The rest of my trip was spent working on research for my novel, Badge of the Black Dragon. Since this story is set in St. Louis, I figured that this would be a great opportunity to explore the city’s history. The first day of research was spent at the Missouri Historical Society’s research library. I delved through old photographs and books, taking notes on a variety of topics.

This was the type of library where you need to come in with a specific area of interest. I had to request specific files of photographs, and a little research about this ahead of time had at least prepared me as to what was available. The librarians were very helpful when it came to my other topics. They suggested several approaches to search for what I was looking for and brought me about a dozen books. My favorite item was a reproduction of a map of St. Louis showing which blocks were destroyed in the fire of 1849. The library also had newspapers from the mid-1800’s which were filled with fascinating headlines and advertisements.

A section of the map showing the extent of the fire’s destruction in 1849.

On the last day of my trip, I traveled to a local cave system and then returned to the city to explore the St. Louis arch and the Missouri History Museum. These excursions were less specific for my novel research, but sparked some ideas that I hope will add to the depth of my worldbuilding.

I finally returned home with some additional books for study. My favorite is The Prairie Traveler: A Hand-book for Overland Expeditions – a reprint of a guide to pioneers that was originally published in 1859. I’m not sure that I would have found this small publication if I hadn’t investigated the local museums.

Also this week, I was interviewed by Michelle Carraway over at Reality Skimming about my writing process, ideas, and influences. Please go check out her page here. I’ll even tell you a little more about Badge of the Black Dragon in the interview.

Are there any readers out there who are thinking about taking a trip to research for a novel or story? Have you already done this? If you could do it again, would you prepare any differently?

Fictional Fencers – Conditioning and Athletics and Zombies

Oh hey, it’s time to return to a post about fencing! Today, I’m going to talk about what types of athletic activities a fencer might participate in outside of regular practice. Or another way to look at it would be – what athletic feats might your character be good at if he has done some fencing? What would he struggle with? And most importantly, would he be able to effectively run from zombies?

First off, any character has motivations and goals. How often is she fencing and why? If your character is obsessed with swords and uses every opportunity to train at fencing or other martial arts, this person will have a different physique and abilities than one who runs daily, trains for marathons, or perhaps picks up a fencing weapon only once a month. Maybe your character used to fence ten years ago, but hasn’t picked up a blade or made a lunge since then? What skills would this character retain?

What other types of exercise would a fencer do?

I think it’s easiest to group our fencers into three types. First off, you would have the novices. This group would include those beginners that may have aspirations for competition, but are still trying to figure out the footwork, rules, and proper blade positions. You could also put those who fence more as a hobby than a sport in this group. These fencers would have some degree of fencing skill, but since they either have not been working at it for long, or perhaps pick up a blade once a week or less, their physical condition can vary greatly. Fencing alone at this novice level is unlikely to give this character much additional strength or endurance for other sports, running from zombies, or trying to fight off a serious threat.

The second group of fencers will be those who have the basics down and attend practice regularly (or at least seasonally). This type of character will have more muscle development in the legs and the weapon arm. She will also have some degree of cardiovascular conditioning from footwork drills or bouting practice. However, since fencing uses a lot of fast-twitch muscle fibers, this character may have limited endurance for a long day of competition or running further than a few miles from those zombies.

The last type of fencer is the elite athlete. This fencer will be attending regular practices, but will also work out in other arenas. Weight-training and conditioning are critical to a fencer who wishes to compete and win in anything other than a local tournament. This article gives a great overview of the types of exercises that are helpful. Some competitive fencers may work with a trainer to maximize the benefits of training and to minimize the risk of injury. This type of fencer may be able to lift heavy objects, run several miles, or sprint short distances faster than an average person. Any athlete that has done cross-training in multiple types of activities will be more coordinated and could tackle unexpected obstacles with more success than the average person. One caveat to this would be that the elite athlete would be more likely to have sustained injuries due to the intensity of the training. So while your athlete may have the cardiovascular fitness, coordination, or mental toughness to survive that run from zombies, at the end of the day, she may also have caused an old knee injury to flare up to limit her activity the next day.

The elite athlete cannot be good at everything, and fencing is still more similar to a boxing match than a marathon. If you need your character to be able to run a marathon for your story, then the training associated with fencing will contribute less to this and he had better be doing a lot more running than fencing.

An additional category of fencer that could be involved in a story would be the character that used to fence, but has not done so much as a lunge or a parry in several years. I have seen many high school and collegiate fencers that stop training and competing once they have graduated. What if one of these fencers picked up a sword after a long absence from the sport? What would he remember and what would be tough?

Unless this former fencer was physically active in other sports, his footwork would be awkward and clumsy after such a break. He might remember how to do a lunge, but his legs and core would not cooperate in the same way that they used to. The bladework would be more easily remembered. The muscle groups there are more localized to the fingers, wrist, and elbow, and there is less overall balance and muscular strength needed for these motions. Of course, if he fences for very long at all, he will certainly have muscle soreness afterward. This would be most pronounced in the legs, but could also involve the forearm or back.

Lastly, for a specific example. What do I do for my training and conditioning? I practice specifically fencing three times a week, for an average of two hours each practice. I lift weights at the gym at least twice a week, although on occasion I manage it three times. Cardiovascular conditioning is split between short runs (1 – 3 miles) and cycling (5-11 miles). I throw in interval training and sprints, yoga classes, other cardio (elliptical machine, rowing machine, etc), jumping rope, and footwork drills, depending on my energy level, schedule, and any soreness or injuries.

Could I outrun the zombies? I don’t want to find out, but I think I’d have a better chance than others.

So, what type of feats have your characters performed when forced to it? Have you written a zombie chase scene? You don’t have to outrun the zombies, right? You just have to outrun everyone else.

Short or Long, One or Many?

How do you structure your writing time? By this, I mean do you work in several short spurts scattered through the rest of your daily schedule? Or do you have a longer block of time to devote to your craft? Do you write early in the morning or late at night? Do you write every day or only on certain days? I think that much of these are individual quirks but also a subject that I’ve had to revisit recently.

I’ve always had difficulty concentrating on more than one writing project at a time. Whether it’s the initial draft of a novel chapter, a revision pass on a short story, or a blog post like this, it is tough for me to shift gears. I am easily distracted.

One of my cats tries to help me write.

I think this ties back into the question about how to structure writing time. With full-time work hours, fencing practices and training, personal commitments, and cat wrangling, my writing time is haphazard at best. It is very rare to find more than two hours of uninterrupted time. Often, it is a fraction of that. So when I battle to carve out a block of time and to focus in the first place, trying to shift between plot points and characters is more disorienting than herding those cats. When I try to hop between several tasks all that I end up with are several unfinished projects.

But here I am writing a blog post when I’m in the midst of the first draft of a new short story, as well as the ongoing novel. How is that possible?

Magic? Nope. That would be awesome though.

It comes down to discipline. It’s one thing to think about writing, read books and articles about how to write, or to make to-do lists or goals. In the end, it’s that butt-in-chair effort that is important. Oh, and stop clicking on the nifty internet games, articles, and twitter feeds. I’m getting better about that. Small steps…

The short story draft has a deadline at least. I’ve always been a procrastinator, but when there’s a deadline, I’ll get it done. Although perhaps with only five minutes to spare.

Another cat helps me write.

In other arenas I multitask very well. Perhaps it’s just the written word that unleashes the more scatterbrained parts of my personality. I’m often reading multiple books at the same time. Is this another symptom of the same problem?

So, how do you manage your writing time? Do you set goals by word count or time?

Do you juggle several projects at once? Do you have any tricks or tips to help keep your focus? Do you have to stop to herd cats?

Do You Write What You Know?

This week, I decided to take a break from the posts about fencing. Don’t worry, I’ll get back to that soon – I’m obsessed with swords and there are many fencing topics that I can still write about.

Maybe you’ve heard the oft-muttered writing advice to “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW” or perhaps you haven’t. But either way, I’ve read several debates on this idea. The gist of it is this: if you fill your writing with settings, subjects, scenarios, or technology that you personally have experienced, then that will give your work greater authenticity. For example, if I’m a  professional chocolate weevil exterminator and I write about a character that is an exterminator, I’ll bring my personal knowledge of that trade to the story. There are details about my life that will infuse the plot and character with some sort of intangible credibility.

The opposite to this would be to “WRITE WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW” which for any author of fantasy or science fiction becomes a necessity at some level. I mean, how many of us have been to another planet? How many of us have worked magic or slain a troll? At some point in our craft, we have to extrapolate and do the best we can with this sort of thing. There is a subset of this that encompasses those subjects or places with which you personally are not familiar, but perhaps thousands or millions of other people are. To me, this is the most difficult type of story to write. This is where the research becomes key. Sure, you can write what you don’t know, but if you do a terrible job of it, someone will pick up on that and that can take them out of of the story. It can ruin their reading experience and cause the story to fail at all other levels.

So writers, do YOU write what you know? It turns out that I usually don’t. Professionally, this is what I know:

Chocolate dog vomit. With wrappers.

That’s vomit.

Dog vomit.

Chocolate dog vomit.

In my day job, I make dogs vomit. I work (nights actually) as an emergency veterinarian. If dogs didn’t eat things that they shouldn’t be eating, I wouldn’t have nearly as much to do. I have to induce vomiting quite often on poor pups that ate a sock, a bottle of medication, or…chocolate.

I don’t often write about dogs, cats, or veterinarians, however. This occurred to me as I started to write a story last week that DID involve dogs, cats, and a veterinary office. Of course it also has a zombie and one of these guys in it:

This little alligator was left in a box on the doorstep of the hospital.

I don’t see alligators very often at my job. I went to school in Florida, where I saw them sunning themselves besides drainage ponds while I walked to class. But here in New Jersey?

I have noticed that there seems to be more hard science fiction written about extrapolated physics, astrophysics, and technology than there is advanced biology, genetics, or medicine. Some writers blend the hard sciences and the life sciences in their fiction, but usually one field has a greater influence in the story than the other. Is this a side effect of authors writing what they know?

What do you think? Do you write what you know? Have you tried to write what you don’t know? Have you ever found an alligator in a box on your doorstep?

Oh and hey, I’ll be at ChiCon this weekend (at least the first half of it). If you see me wandering the con, come say hello.

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