Category Archives: Fiction Writing

Participating in the Narrative: Tell Your Story

Third in a series from guest writer Joi Weaver in preparation for NaNoWriMo. This post exemplifies why Mars Artists exists. NaNoWriMo may seem like a hokey gimmick, but it teaches discipline and ruthless time awareness. Give it a chance. 

Joi Weaver:

It’s always tempting, when talking of influencing culture, to buy into the “magic bullet” theory, the idea that a single cultural item will change the course of the society. “Oh,” we might say, “if only someone would make the perfect movie about space exploration, or write the perfect novel, or create the perfect painting, then everyone would understand!”

Of course, these “magic bullets” never actually work. You may get millions to see a movie like Apollo 13, but only a small percentage will become fans of space exploration because of it. Books like Roving Mars will convince a few of the need for further exploration, but only a few.

Influencing culture turns out to be more like creating a stalagmite than hitting a target. Trillions of drops of water, over thousands of years, slowly form a beautiful, lasting pillar inside a cave. In the same way, thousands of stories, in every medium, over decades and centuries, will slowly build up an idea in a culture, the picture of space as our playground, our backyard, our home.

The stories that will inspire the human race to reach for the stars cannot come only from the experts and the big-budget movie makers. The stories that will change the world have to come from us, the stories we tell our friends and neighbors as we point out the ISS in the night sky, the stories we dream up as teenagers and scribble into notebooks in college.

In this case, even a poor story may be better than no story at all. The poorest space story is still another drop of water, another point of data, another element in the construction of the narrative.

So what are you waiting for? It may not matter if you’re the next Ray Bradbury, or if only your mom reads your story: you can still influence someone.

Signups have begun for National Novel Writing Month, a free online challenge in which participants pledge to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. If you finish the month with 50,000 words, you win. There are thousands of winners every year: your prize is the satisfaction of having written a novel. Thousands of people are already telling their stories, and now is the time to contribute ours. Sign up, write a book about Mars colonization, or space exploration, or anything that you think will move the culture forward even the tiniest amount. It may be only a drop in the ocean, but we need every drop we can get.

Anticipating Advancement Into a Frontier Now, on Earth

“Make our ambitions in space so tasty, so seductive, so enticing, that people will be beating down the door to get into the science classroom. That people won’t be mindlessly disconnected from the advancing frontiers of science and technology because those discoveries will be writ large in the daily papers.”
“Tips on Presenting Complex Scientific Ideas to a General Audience: Sure you can say spatial and temporal, but why not just say space and time?”

Sylvia Engdahl "Planet-Girded Suns: History of Human Thought about Extrasolar Worlds"

“In a brisk, engrossing account Engdahl traces the theories and speculations concerning the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligent life throughout history.” —ALA Booklist

“Engdahl has marshalled an impressive and fascinating selection of primary sources. . . . [She] has shown how deep this vein of speculation runs . . . and reminded us that our ancestors entertained a view of the universe that was larger and more imaginative than the history books lead us to believe. Challenging and original.” —Kirkus Reviews

“It’s commonly assumed that belief in other inhabited worlds, especially worlds in other solar systems, is a relatively modern idea, which didn’t become prevalent until the 20th century — many today even think it was originated by science fiction. But in fact, from the mid-17th century through 19th almost all educated people believed that the stars are suns surrounded by inhabited planets. This belief wasn’t seriously questioned until the late 19th century, and was out of favor with the majority only for a short period roughly corresponding to the time between World Wars I and II.”

“In the early 1970s, while doing research for my nonfiction book The Planet-Girded Suns, I collected quite a bit of poetry from earlier centuries that reveals what was thought about other planets. Much such poetry is by writers — many of them didactic writers — who are forgotten today, so a few stanzas by famous poets are often cited as if they were rare exceptions displaying prophetic vision.

Actually, these familiar ones are typical of the vast amount of such verse that appeared in popular publications of their day. In many cases I’ve seen only fragments of poems, quoted by scholars of literature; in others I’ve taken brief passages from long (sometimes book-length) works that are particularly relevant. This collection has been stashed away in my files for 30 years — I’m posting portions of it now in case others may find them as fascinating as I do.”

“Why do these views of the past about the universe matter today? Because, I think, they demonstrate that people have been aware of planets beyond Earth, and have been deeply attracted to them, for a very long time — long before travel between worlds was considered even a remote possibility. The desire for knowledge about them appears to be an instinctive human longing.”

“In the 18th century, of course, it was assumed that there could never be actual contact with other worlds; but the people who believed in their existence couldn’t bear to think that nobody would ever find out more than could be learned through telescopes, and so they envisioned the souls of men like Newton — and eventually, their own souls — voyaging through space and seeing those worlds at close range on their way to Heaven. A great many poems were written on this theme; it was the first form in which space travel was seriously imagined by the public (stories of trips to the moon in that era, though popular, were either fantasy or satire on earthly affairs). People felt deep emotions about the idea. The late 19th and early 20th centuries, when literal belief in an afterlife declined, coincided with the time when belief in many inhabited solar systems began to fade. I’ve always felt that this was a kind of “sour grapes” response — or rather, a perhaps- comforting conclusion that there aren’t any grapes on vines beyond our reach. It’s significant that the conviction that millions of extrasolar planets exist didn’t become widespread again until radio astronomers began to have hope of receiving messages from them, and that as time passes without evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, the pendulum seems to be swinging again toward theories that Earth may be unique.”

“In any case, a strong sense of our kinship with a vast inhabited universe has prevailed during most of the decades for the past 350 years, and these poems are evidence of its existence before the 20th century. Dozens of poets — and no doubt more whose works aren’t accessible, as well as those who wrote in languages other than English — referred briefly to planets circling other suns, usually in a religious context as evidence of God’s power.”

Keep the Momentum Going, Roald Dahl

One of the vital things for a writer who’s writing a book, which is a lengthy project and is going to take about a year, is how to keep the momentum going. It is the same with a young person writing an essay. They have got to write four or five or six pages. But when you are writing it for a year, you go away and you have to come back. I never come back to a blank page; I always finish about halfway through. To be confronted with a blank page is not very nice. But Hemingway, a great American writer, taught me the finest trick when you are doing a long book, which is, he simply said in his own words, “When you are going good, stop writing.” And that means that if everything’s going well and you know exactly where the end of the chapter’s going to go and you know just what the people are going to do, you don’t go on writing and writing until you come to the end of it, because when you do, then you say, well, where am I going to go next? And you get up and you walk away and you don’t want to come back because you don’t know where you want to go. But if you stop when you are going good, as Hemingway said…then you know what you are going to say next. You make yourself stop, put your pencil down and everything, and you walk away. And you can’t wait to get back because you know what you want to say next and that’s lovely and you have to try and do that. Every time, every day all the way through the year. If you stop when you are stuck, then you are in trouble!


Jonah Lehrer "How Creativity Works"

Predictors of Success (creative or otherwise):
  1. How committed are you to this goal? Is this a goal you take seriously, always wanted to do?
  2. How do you react to the inevitable frustrations and failures along the way – are they interpreted as a sign by you to try something else, or, that you should double down.
“The grittiest win. Creating something new is always going to be hard. If it were easy it would have been done already. It’s always going to involve lots of frustration, lots of failure, lots of edits, lots of drafts, iterations, and that’s why it takes grit. That’s why grit is such an essential component of creative success. Woody Allen has this great quote, ‘Creative success if eighty percent about showing up.’ Well grit is what allows you to show up, again, and again.”

“Everyone says, ‘Make the company bigger, grow the bottom line.” So they get an expensive bureaucracy, lots of fixed costs, but they’re no longer able to innovate at the same rate so they become more reliant upon their old ideas, for their new ideas they’ve got to invest in expensive acquisitions, but eventually those old ideas no longer work. They’re no longer useful. And those acquisitions don’t pan out. And that’s when companies go belly up.”

“Because cities don’t try to maximize creativity they end up doing exactly that. Companies on the other hand they try to micro manage the process. These well paid CEOs say, “I know how to do this, I know how to get the most out of my employees.” So they tell you which problems to work on, and they tell you who you can talk to, they tell you were you can go, they tell you not to drink a beer in the afternoon – they tell you to focus, focus, focus. Stay in your cubicle all day. Tell you to brainstorm when brainstorming absolutely doesn’t work. And all these things – many of which are done with the best of intentions – they actually get in the way.”

“Imagination has always seemed like a magic trick, but, the good news is, by finally understanding where new ideas come from, we can hopefully have more of them. The science of creativity can make us just a little bit more creative.”

Catalyzing Empathy with Factual Fiction: Steven Pinker on The Surprising Decline of Violence

“Empathy may be catalyzed by exposure to histories, journalism, memoirs, and realistic fiction, travel, and literacy – which allows us to project ourselves into the lives of other people, who formerly we may have treated as subhuman. And also to realize the accidental contingency of our own station in life – in the sense that “There but for fortune go I.”. It helps us imagine what it is to be someone else. Anything that makes it easier to imagine trading places with someone else, may increase your moral consideration to that other person.”

Story of a Writer: Ray Bradbury on Storytelling and Human Nature in 1963 Documentary

“The first year I made nothing, the second year I made nothing, the third year I made 10 dollars, the fourth year I made 40 dollars. I remember these. I got these indelibly stamped in there. The fifth year I made 80. The sixth year I made 200. The seventh year I made 800. Eighth year, 1,200. Ninth year, 2,000. Tenth year, 4,000. Eleventh year, 8,000 … Just get a part-time job! Anything that’s half way decent! An usher in a theater … unless you’re a mad man, you can’t make do in the art fields! You’ve gotta be inspired and mad and excited and love it more than anything else in the world! It has to be this kind of, ‘By God, I’ve gotta do it! I’ve simply gotta do it!’ If you’re not this excited, you can’t win!

I’m a storyteller — that’s all I’ve never tried to be. I guess in ancient times, I would’ve been somewhere in the marketplace, alongside the magician, delighting the people. I’d rather delight and entertain than anything else.”

Neil Tyson’s Advice to Young Science Communicators: Write

Tyson’s central point: the pathway will be different for different people–but it all comes back to knowing how to write.

Point of Inquiry interview, from about minute 28:15, with some ellipses:

“It’s not a predetermined path….Look at for example Phil Plait. Phil Plait is a professional astrophysicist, and then he had a blog, and the blog became a book, and a lot of interest in the book, and he saw the need for skepticism to be addressed in society, and he became a big part of that movement–you don’t pre-script that. It’s hard to prescript it.

My career path–you just don’t pre-script it. You do what you do best, and what you like the most, and you figure out along the way how that best fits into the opportunities of culture and the greater society.

So in graduate school, I wrote a question and answer column for StarDate magazine, out of the University of Texas, and that became a book, and when you have a book, TV shows want your views on things–one thing leads to another. But in all cases, the common denominator is that it starts out by writing.

So my advice to someone who wanted to be a science communicator is, you write. Writing is the excuse you can give yourself to organize ideas in coherent sentences in ways that make sense not only word to word, but sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph. And that is the art of communication, being clear and succinct. And the proving ground for that is writing.

Today, blogs–if you get a popular blog, you can gain some weight in that way, and in an earlier day, I would have said you write op-eds, letters to the editor. A way to get your name out there with your point of view, that others might not have.

But regardless, it’s writing. And initially, you’re not paid for the writing, you’re just writing because you can’t not write, or because the urge is so strong you just have to. And eventually, people take notice, if you say interesting things and you say them well, or humorously, or perceptively, then others take notice of it, and one thing leads to another.

So you can’t pre-script it, you just have to do what feels right, and express what inspires you, and then watch where the chips fall at that point.”