Writing About Titan and Giant Bugs

Cirsova’s Fall 2019 issue is out, and included in the collection is a story I wrote about life on Saturn’s moon Titan! It’s meant to be a hard SF (with regard to the territory) mixed in with the charm of a monster movie from the 1950’s, sans the damsel in distress. (The heroine is more competent than her male companion, whom she is always saving.)

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Fall 2019 Cover

I spent a year researching Titan for a novel project I trunked. After doing so much work I was determined to put it to good use, so for a bit of fun I wrote Titan in an evening. I tossed it to a few beta readers who told me one thing: more giant bugs! I heeded them and sold the story right after those edits.

It was important to me to depict Titan’s treacherous surface accurately. There’s quite a bit of research available, including video from Huygens’ descent that shows us the moon’s surface. Scientists know quite a bit about the moon, so I spent the year trying to visualize what it would be like to walk around (well, bounce) on the surface. Titan is covered in tholins (Gk. Θολός, meaning “hazy” or “muddy) which combust in an oxygen environment – a bit of a problem for humans who would need to build habitats with oxygen to breathe! Colonists would have to be meticulously clean or risk disastrous fires. Hydrocarbons are abundant, meaning that Titan’s surface organics far surpass oil reserves on Earth. This moon has a dingy sky and is covered in ice and carbon-bearing materials. While all of this is technically interesting to scientists, I wanted to depict the drama of living in such a place.

I’m certainly not the only SF writer to attempt this. There are novels such as Ben Bova’s Titan and Michael Carroll’s On The Shores of Titan’s Farthest Sea, both written with great attention to the terrain and how colonists would likely live. One of my favorite short stories about Titan is Michael Swanwick’s Slow Life which is available to read in Lightspeed Magazine.

After all of this reading I added the giant bugs. Why? Because it’s cool, that’s why. I’ve been fascinated with Cicadas since my childhood. I used to collect their perfectly preserved exoskeletons and put them around the house: on curtains, on my cardigan, etc. (Sorry, mom.) I lived in Ohio during a 17 year emergence cycle and the bugs were so abundant that the grass in my front yard moved like undulating water. The air was full of their screams and they hung like bats from the trees above us, their white bodies dotted with thousands of bulging red eyes that seemed to observe us as they let their fleshy wings dry. The birds could not keep up. I remember walking to the bus stop with glee as the ground crunched under my feet. My parents were upset about the trees being ruined but I was unable to fathom those adult concerns.

Once I decided on Cicadas, it was only natural that I give them the only predator that made sense: wasps. And so the poor colonists in my story not only have to fight to survive on an inhospitable moon, they find themselves caught up in a war between giant insects.

Titan has been reviewed by Tangent Online and is available on Amazon. Consider giving it a read!

 

Sources to Check Out

  1. Infrared Images of Titan (Cassini) from NASA
  2. Maps of Titan’s surface pieced together from images collected by NASA
  3. Let’s Colonize Titan: The Scientific American
  4. Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix
  5. Entomology: An Aid in Archeological Studies

In Anticipation of Reluctant Spring

So I hear it’s March. I’m still writing “2018” on checks and school permission slips and paperwork at doctor’s offices, even thought I know intellectually that it has been 2019 for several  months.

I am tired.

March solidifies everyone in amber. Time stops. Normal life seems inadequate. “Never make life decisions in March,” an old friend once told me. Wait it out. I understand that now. This time of year makes me impatient. I feel burdened by my lack of progress, my goals far outpacing my actual abilities.

I know it’s not just me. My Latin students forget their declensions. They look at ut clauses and offer feeble interpretations, and mix up all the ablative uses because really, there are too many of them. They are smart, and they do good work, my students. They are merely tired. I announced no homework over the weekend, and the collective sighs of relief confirmed I’d made the right call.

I feel kinship with them. I finished revisions on a novel draft of 100k words  last month. I feel as if the life has been sucked out of my bones. I now stare at that blinking cursor in Word, and will myself to write anything before closing the laptop an hour later. My art studies have hit a similar wall. I’m working in charcoal, and there’s no rushing it. I spent weeks on a color study that should have, by my standards for myself, taken an evening.

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There’s nothing to do but wait. Replenish. Shovel the snow even when the sun is out, even when it feels like winter has overstayed its welcome. Clean the house again. Make some tea. Read a book for fun, for pure indulgence. We Catholics started Lent this past Wednesday, and so I’ve imposed upon myself a routine of prayer and reflection that I find regenerative.

I am learning to give myself a break. To wait for spring with hope instead of frustrated dissatisfaction.

You should too.

In Art, Failure is Good

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The back of my head as I work diligently to paint my model.

Art is a discipline. Like every other subject worth studying, like every skill worth honing, it’s possible to fail.

For some reason,  the average person treats the arts (take this to mean writing, painting, sculpting etc.) as a a vehicle for their own personal validation. If one bothers to paint, praise is expected no matter the result.

The Italian painters in Florence have no time for such sensitive souls. If a student botches the drawing stage and moves on to paint over the top of it, they accuse that student of “polishing a turd.” Vulgar and harsh, but true. Drawing does all the work and painting gets all of the glory. The artist I studied with these past two weeks revealed to us that each of her paintings went through several rough drafts before she got it right. She’s an award-winning realist oil painter, and she fails all the time. The analogy to the writing process deserves some bearing out, I think: each story goes through multiple drafts, feedback is sought out and absorbed. In the end, the result is a work of art, or something set for the trunk.

Failure.

There’s such a stigma around failure. It’s so painful, but so necessary. I think the confusion is here: we conflate artistic skill with individual creativity. The skills involved in painting, the ability to think three steps ahead, to compose and set the color are tools set to the purpose of the creative vision. There are tools and there are standards, and these things must be learned. What each artist does with these skills is what’s unique.

Criticism is personal because my art isn’t something I can objectively separate myself  from. It’s ironic that this discipline requires a thick skin while demanding that I rip my heart out, splatter it all over a canvas or a page, in order to show others a vision I think is worthwhile.

Now I come to it:, I failed to complete my first portrait from a live model. I don’t feel bad about that. I know more than I did two weeks ago. My brain is exploding with new information: I’ve developed instincts, learned how to solve problems, learned how to be more deliberate with every stroke. I’ve learned how to fail.

And I feel just great about that.

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Stages of the portrait: Drawing, Underpainting, First Pass, Full Color

Art and Writing and Latin, Oh My!

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“After the Bacchanal” 9 x 12 Oil on linen

I’m prepping for an eventful summer full of painting, writing, and Latin translation!

I finished a still life (pictured above) in oils this week, hit 30k on the Fantasy novel (planning for 100k), and secured a Latin teaching position starting this fall that I’ll be prepping for.

Fiction writing is a slow business, but I have some good news to report on that front. I recently signed a contract with The Daily Science Fiction, and have a piece forthcoming this year. Every other story I’ve sent out is being held for consideration, so here I sit. Nothing to do but research for the novel and add to the word count! Wait, write another story, you say? HA!

I’m still reviewing short fiction for Tangent Online, and this May I reviewed Beneath Ceaseless Skies’ May 10th and May 24th stories. That magazine is one of my favorites. I envy people who can weave pretty prose.

I’m still painting, and the gallery is updated with recent works. I’m thinking about selling prints soon, and it’s turning out to be a rather complicated pursuit. This July I will be painting my first full size portrait under the tutelage of an artist who studied in Florence. I am intimidated but eager for the challenge. Excelsior!

In personal news, my children are growing like weeds. I gave them no such permission, the curs. My youngest turned 2 this month, and now I fight a trembling lip whenever I see her baby pictures. I was in a car crash yesterday, and while unhurt, I’m reminded keenly of my mortality.

It all goes by so quickly. Onward in virtue.

What I learned from Ursula K. Le Guin

Some writing books are for beginners, but I found myself hungry for a book about narrative prose that assumed I was already working hard on my craft and needed the next step. Lots of authors write books about writing: they give financial advice, formulas they use to chart plots, etc.

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Thing is, some of that advice didn’t work for me, and I found myself buffeted by a fusillade of opinions I had no ability to judge. It was Ursula K. Le Guin’s book that I found immensely helpful.

When I decided to try to write fiction professionally, I picked up Orson Scott Card’s book and did a write-up on this blog to internalize what I learned. I’d like to do the same for Le Guin’s book here.

So here’s what I learned from Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story :

Rhyme isn’t rhythm; and your prose should sound nice when read aloud. Narrative momentum and pacing are very important to story, and a key way to achieve this is rhythm. Read your writing out loud! Does it sound right? Trust your ear a bit, and if you suspect your own ear then read good writing to get a sense of how a good narrative sounds. Onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, dialect, just write paragraphs practicing these without using a meter or a rhyme, and see how you do.

Grammar is beautiful! Punctuation tells the reader how to hear your writing. Pauses have to be in just the right spots. The wrong choice alters the meaning; punctuation choices should be deliberate.

Don’t be afraid of repetition. Don’t run to the thesaurus all the time; skillful repetition gives power to prose and gives the themes of a story solid ground. Repeat words, images, and phrases to drive a dramatic point home. If writing humor, repetition can be a tool that sets up reader expectations and consistently delivers catharsis over the course of a long work.

Try some self-editing that removes all adverbs: Figure out what your bad habits are. A first draft is always terrible, reading like a surreal fever dream on the second pass. So deliberately practice wording things in different ways. Are you using adverbs or adjectives as a crutch? Using superlatives too often? “She’s very pretty and so nice!” is weaker than “her eyelashes caught the light as she helped the child off the ground, dusting his jacket while telling him he was brave for not crying over a scraped knee.”

Imitation isn’t plagiarism. Imitate great writers in order to learn. Artists and musicians copy the masters, so writers should too. Just remember that imitation is for practice, and an essential learning tool! If you show it to someone else, say the piece is “in the manner of so and so” and that’s fine.

The book is full of exercises and assignments that can be completed on your own or with a peer group. I’ve done a few of them twice, three times, and learned something new every time. I’m still a “baby writer” in the sense that my latest work is better than my earlier stuff (as is natural), and I’m just starting to break into publishing after a few years of hard work and several failed attempts. The hard work is paying off! One of my short stories was recorded for an episode of Starship Sofa last year, and I have a few short pieces forthcoming with other outlets. (Hopefully published this year!)

This book is going to be a staple of my writing diet. I can’t recommend it enough!