Archive for August, 2012|Monthly archive page


A few years ago, the International Astronomical Union formally defined the term planet and reclassified Pluto. Instead of the last-discovered, smallest, coldest, and pretty much least of the planets, they decided Pluto is the first-discovered, innermost and one of the largest of the Kuiper Belt objects, a dwarf planet.

There was a gigantic uproar, because the media presented the change as Pluto being demoted from planet status. The truth is that Pluto wasn’t demoted, simply classified correctly.

The reclassification took Pluto from last, smallest, and least of the planet to first, possibly the largest, and innermost of a whole new class of planetary bodies — Plutoids. Just typing that word makes me happy. Plutoids: smile.

The Hayden Planetarium in New York, headed by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, was the first institution to notice that Pluto doesn’t really fit in with the planets, but until the discovery of actual bodies in the theoretical Oort cloud, we didn’t have anyplace else to classify it. But Pluto looks a lot like Haumea (2004) and Makemake (2005), not to mention Eris (2003), who started the whole mess.

Eris is a dwarf planet about the same size as Pluto, but apparently about 27% more massive, which would imply it’s denser than Pluto. It’s also quite a ways farther out, about 3 times as far away from the sun as Pluto. It even has a moon, called Dysnomia.

Eris (originally dubbed Xena) was considered the 10th planet in the Solar System for a few years, until that 2006 IAU meeting, when the world’s astronomers actually defined what a planet is (about time, people). They also defined dwarf planets, Plutoids, and Plutinos (objects which have a 3:2 orbital resonance with Neptune). It was a busy meeting.

And then the hate mail started, almost all of it from the US. Dr. Tyson received so much of it he compiled it all into a book called The Pluto Files, published in 2009 — which hit the NYT extended bestseller list.

We Americans love our Pluto, king of the underworld (and Mickey’s dog!), first among the Kuiper Belt objects, with two classes of solar system objects named after it. Now isn’t that more interesting than being a lowly planet?

The Query Letter

This is another post primarily for writers, but about the business end of things.

Yesterday, @saramegibow mentioned in her #10queriesIn10tweets Twitter feed that she passed on a query, in part, because the writer said agents are crazy. This boggled my mind: Why would anyone put that in a query letter? It’s a business communication, not a manifesto.

Your first introduction to your editor or agent is most often a query letter. When you’re introduced to a person for the first time in real life, you don’t say, “Hey, I’ve heard you’re not as big of a [bleeeep!] as other people in your field.”

At least I hope you don’t. It’s insulting. And a little on the crazypants end of the spectrum.

Okay, quite a bit on the crazypants end of the spectrum.

There are four parts to a query letter:

  • Salutation (why I’m sending this to you in particular)
  • Manuscript statistics (word count, genre, the fact that it’s done)
  • Blurb (enough of the story to make sense and get the reader interested in the rest — not a synopsis)
  • Bio (something about the writer’s writing background)

For the salutation, you might mention you follow the person on his or her blog, or you met at a conference, or you know he/she has bought/sold books in your genre.

You don’t say anything about traditional publishing gatekeeper trolls; it’s not relevant, it’s not polite, and it isn’t going to make this person disposed toward working with you. Period.

For the statistics, all you need to say is “Best Book Evah (your title) is a [genre genre], complete at [computer wordcount] words.” That’s it.

And please don’t say “fiction novel” — you can get away with “science-fiction novel” or possibly “womens-fiction novel” if you hyphenate it. Otherwise, they will giggle at your redundancy; these are word people, and we word people find that sort of faux pas amusing.

The blurb is where you put your version of back-cover copy. Beware, you want to sweat over this, because a) it can make the difference between a request and a pass, and b) when you sell, the production team might just use it as the basis for the real back cover copy. I have had that happen to me. I suck at back-cover copy for my own books, so this is a little worrisome.

Please note that a blurb is not the same as a pitch or a synopsis. A pitch is generally one sentence, something you can blurt out between floors in an elevator, particularly if you’re terrified at the time.

A synopsis is a high-level summary of the entire manuscript (including the entire plot, character arc(s), and voice of the manuscript, if you’re good), usually 3-5 pages long.

It won’t fit in a one-page query, but many editors and agents would like to see it with the query, so write it to go with the query. Sweat over this one, too. It’s how you prove you can write a character and structure a story. Again, when you sell, the publisher is going to use the synopsis in production, giving it to the cover artist, the blurbist, the sales force.

The last part of a query letter is the writer’s bio. This is the place to mention that you have an MFA, or you’re a member of a professional organization such as RWA, or if you’ve had books published. You can also mention self-published titles, particularly if they’ve sold well.

Agents and editors will do an internet search on you if they’re interested in your work, so if you put a link to a professional-grade website or blog, or a social media handle, that’s okay, too. You might want to skip the Facebook profile with naughty photos or the twitter handle @gross-stuff.

Once upon a time (the 1980s), I was the college student who copy-edited and typed a children’s book manuscript for a lovely senior citizen. She also asked me to look at her query letter; I was appalled, because she was sending her checking account number to Vantage Press (a venerable “vanity publisher”). In a query letter.

Please don’t do that; it scares me. Yes, I talked her out of it, but it wasn’t easy. And it was in the vicinity of 30 years ago, so probably slightly less dangerous than it would be today. Still.

Be careful with those query letters.

Valmont Contingency Excerpt — Meet Captain Rick

Garrick checked the ping on his long-range sensor array, flagged it for identify and smiled at the results. Corinth 6.0, flagged Port Hazard, ident: Trouble’s Here. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw one member of his bridge crew flinch, and two others grinned in response. That meant he’d shown a few too many teeth.

“Charlie, get me an intercept with our bogey. Joss, send a standard hail, hold for inspection.” He pulled out his control panel from the armrest lock. “Shak, get the boarding party ready. We’ve got tail.”

Tail was freighter parlance for the trail of ionized particles a starship engine left behind between jumpgates, probably an allusion to a comet’s tail of similar particles. Bogey was a word so old nobody knew what language it came from, but it meant an unknown sensor contact. And in this case, it was inaccurate. Garrick knew exactly who was out there, and Trouble’s Here was on his List of Marque, flagged out of Port Hazard, a station on the boundary of the Republic and the Reich that changed allegiance with every watch shift. Its last port of call had been Dorrigan, which was a much higher dock zone than Trouble could afford unless her captain was running something off manifest. Something that would shortly belong to Garrick Yusuf ben Khalid and the crew of Direwolf.

Damn, he loved this part of his job.

Next came schematics, complete with his personal notations of every likely hidey-hole on Corinth Model 6.0. He forwarded that to Shakiro Nobinata, who would be leading the boarding party. The departure manifest was light, showing only high-value pharmaceuticals with very specific handling instructions. Garrick frowned. Not bloody likely that the Blaine cartel would be shipping on a tramp. It had to be a cover, and whatever it was covering was now up for grabs. And he had big hands.

“Intercept in two hours, thirty-six minutes and four-point-two seconds.” Charlie wanted to be Vulcan when he grew up, and as a result he was overly precise about, well, everything. If he hadn’t been the sector’s best navigator, he wouldn’t have gotten away with it.

“No response to hail.”

Did they have comm turned off to save power, were they ignoring him, or was Trouble about to be somewhere else?

“Bogey jink, forty-five degrees absolute vertical with fifteen percent velocity increase. New intercept two hours, forty-six minutes, thirty seconds.”

Charlie must be busy if he’d left off a decimal. “Boarding, I’m on the way. Intercept in two and forty-five.” He glanced up and Charlie was glaring. “Give or take.” He swung the computer back into the armrest of his chair. “Gentlemen.”

“Yeah, we know the drill,” Misha said from the copilot’s station. “Go play, Rick. Bring back something pretty.”

His new space armor rubbed his right shoulder when he put it on and he made a mental note to have Shak or Misha adjust the pauldron’s curvature. The new umbilical homed perfectly on the freighter’s personnel hatch and connected atmosphere-to-atmosphere without manual override. Inside, Trouble’s Here had that special kind of corner-grime that he only saw in all-male ships.

The captain and watch crew were white-lipped on the bridge, everyone else herded into the wardroom and locked down. And then it was time to search.

Everything was going according to plan until, “Rick, we have a passenger.” Shak’s comm unit squelched. “In a closet in enviro. She…you’d better come take a look.”

“Did you say she?” The plan had turned left without him.

There were no passengers on the manifest. No females in the crew. And Trouble was the kind of ship that gave steerage a bad name. He turned right at the next corridor intersection and took the lift to the mechanical deck. Enviro was normally as far away from crew quarters as possible, because it always had a certain smell to it, no matter what kind of seals and scrubbers tried to contain it. In his experience, this also tended to make it a desirable place to hide contraband in his experience. Nobody in his or her right mind would go rummaging around in there unless sealed into an environmental suit.

For a woman to hide in enviro, she had to be serious about not wanting to be found. He frowned at the deck indicator. What in the known worlds was she hiding from?

“Rick-san, you’re not going to believe this,” Shak told him on the command channel when he stepped into the room containing the environmental control systems. It was barely bigger than a closet. “If I weren’t looking at her, I wouldn’t effing believe it.”

He edged past Shak’s armor and looked for himself. She was pretty enough, in a grime-encrusted sort of way. Wearing practical clothes for stowing away, nothing-colored ship knits, her hair pulled back in a medium-brown braid. There was something familiar about her eyes, but he couldn’t place it. The rest of her face might have been anyone’s, features the symmetrical dead average associated with good genes and good nutrition. “What won’t I effing believe?” he asked on the same private frequency as he watched her stare back at him.

“She’s got a chip passport. Give it a standard scan.”

Garrick sighed and brought up his scanner display, checking the readout for the woman’s implanted identification. Text scrolled up his visor as he skimmed for a name. When he found it a couple of updates back, he blinked, in case it had been a mistake. And blinked again.

Publishing News – Audible picked up my book

The Carina Press Executive Editor (the magnificent Angela James) sent out an e-mail this morning on the latest audiobook deal, for October and November titles.

The Valmont Contingency was the first title on the list! Probably only because its release date is October 1st, but still…Squee!

Okay, that’s enough celebrating. i have a book to finish.

Modern Physics & Magic: A Few Words

This originally appeared on the Fantasy, Futuristic & Paranormal RWA chapter blog.

I’d like to take a few minutes today to talk about modern physics and magic (or magick,  if that’s your preferred spelling).

Now I know you already think I’m crazy, but hang on for a minute. Because I have a few words that I think you might find interesting.

The first one is “Fields”

Specifically, the electromagnetic fields of protons and electrons. They’re why we perceive matter as solid, even though the average atom is mostly empty space.

The not-empty part is a nucleus of protons and neutrons with some number of electrons wandering around at various distances and configurations that can be predicted via quantum mechanics.  The number of electrons depends on the number of protons in the nucleus and the ionic state of the atom.

Molecules are atoms linked together with more empty space between, but they can also merge the fields of their individual atoms to create even stronger fields.

If you’ve ever tried to stick two “North” ends of bar magnets together (or ridden a mag-lev train), you have an idea of what I’m talking about. The closer together you get the magnets, the stronger the fields become.

What happens when you can negate the EM field of matter? You walk through walls and sink though floors, unless you can also negate a gravitational field and fly. Magic.

The second word is “Phase”

When light bounces off a surface, the wave (light is both waves and particle streams), the phase of the wave is shifted by 180 degrees.  Now, if you mix two waves of opposite phases, they cancel each other.  From this we get noise-canceling headphones and the possibility of invisibility.

But wait, there’s more.

If you expand the thought to quantum phases, you can end up with the multiverse – different realities that could exist alongside ours, but instead of having possible electron spins of Up and Down, their quantum phase has electron spins of Left and Right.

What happens when two universes occupying the same space but with different quantum phases experience quantum phase drift? Maybe we start seeing things that aren’t really there. Almost like ghosts.

The third word is “Entanglement”

Say you have a pair of big particles, like electrons (or even as big as microdiamonds, according to some people), that interact and are then separated.

Now the electrons have a description that is indefinite in terms of stuff like position, momentum, spin, and even polarization; when they interact they adopt opposite spins. Until you look at one to determine its spin, you don’t know what it is. And if you change the spin of an electron that is entangled, you can change the spin of the electron it interacted with, even if that other electron is at the other end of the universe. Magic.

Those are only three of the words that link modern physics to magic. If you want to know some of the others, I’m teaching an online workshop in August through FF&P that explains the concepts without going into the math.

Footnote: The math is weird; it doesn’t use numbers because pretty much nobody knows what the numbers are. Einstein, in his general relativity derivation, divided by zero at least once, which was found by someone else. And he still came up with his famous equation relating energy to mass.

In closing, I want to leave you with a few more words, these from Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction writer (which is a bit like calling Einstein the patent clerk). This is Clarke’s Third Law, written as a footnote to Clarke’s Second Law in the essay “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination” in the collection Profiles of the Future (added, I believe, in the 1973 edition):  “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

And, lastly, the Roberts (that’s me) corollary to the Third Law: “Why choose?”

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