If You See a Flying Humvee, You’re Not Drunk

Flying HUMVEECue the Flight of the Valkyries music from Apocalypse Now. Here come the flying Humvees. At least if DARPA (the U.S. Defense  research organization) gets its wish.

Designs for the so-called Transformer (TX) Program have already entered the prototype phase, with ground and flight demonstrations slated for 2015.

Not only will this baby be a roadworthy aircraft, it’ll need to be able to stop on a time for vertical takeoff and landing; be light enough to fly but strong enough for heavy road duty (and resistance to small arms fire); and be as easy to drive and pilot as a car.  Now we’re talkin’

Hey, if it doesn’t work out, they can always use the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang design. I’m sure Dick Van Dyke wouldn’t mind.

chitty-chitty-bang-bang

Kronos Interference Named to Kirkus Best of 2012

2012 BestOf LOGOEd and I are pleased to announce that The Kronos Interference has been named to the Kirkus Reviews Best of 2012 list!

The prestigious Kirkus Reviews has long been an authoritative voice in the literary trade, giving literary and film industry professional a sneak peek at books before their release. Since publication began in 1933, Kirkus has brought to the attention of the reading public countless classics by then unknown books, including Gone with the WindThe Caine MutinyThe English PatientAngela’s Ashes, and thousands more.

Kirkus Reviews also gave The Kronos Interference the coveted Kirkus star, calling the book “impressively original” and “{a} tour de force.” For those who missed it, here’s a link to their full review.

Kronos Cover- FINAL - Hi-Res

It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

It’s incredible how far and wide-reaching misconceptions can spread, and certainly the Mayan “end of the world” prophecy for December 21st, 2012 is no exception. I know from my nonfiction writing (much of which is based on history) that falsities run rampant, even in history books and, dare I say, TV shows. So I shouldn’t be too surprised.

The first hint that you’re being misinformed is when you come across an article or website that highlights the classic circular sun stone calendar that looks like this:

Aztec Calendar

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a perfectly legitimate calendar. It’s just that, well… it’s NOT MAYAN!!!  It’s Aztec! The Mayans never even saw this calendar.

So, anyone passing it along as the Mayan calendar and then making predictions of the end of the world, is not exactly starting off on a credible foot. Unfortunately, about 90% of the websites I’ve seen on the Mayan calendar mistakenly reference the Aztec calendar (and even the popular cartoons, like the one below).

maya_cartoon

In actuality there are three Mayan calendars, the civil calendar (the circular Haab calendar, pictured below, which covers about 52 years — the average lifespan of a person at the time), the ritual/sacred calendar (Tzolkin, which is also circular and interlocks with the Haab calendar), and the one in question, the long count calendar. Below is a picture of the Haab calendar (note the Disney-esque cartoon-like center, which easily differentiates this from the Aztec sun stone):

mayan-calendar

 

This is the long count calendar, which is the one everyone’s been talking about with regard to the apocalypse. It’s a column — not circular.

Mayan-Calendar-300x200

 

Now, as for that pesky 12/21/12 reference. To understand that, it’s important to understand how the Mayan long count calendar works.

One B’ak’tun is 144,000 days or about 394 years. 20 B’ak’tuns make up a Piktun.

There are higher orders as well (20 Piktuns make up a Kalabtun, 20 Kalabtuns make up a Kinchiltun, and so on), all of which are referenced in Mayan tablets when depicting events in the distant future.

We are currently nearing the end of the 13th B’a’ktun (which began in the 15th century). The next B’ak’tun starts December 21st, 2012. The current Piktun doesn’t end until the year 4772.

The only mention of the 13th B’ak’tun (the end of which correlates to December 21st, 2012) is on the following stone tablet.

tortuguero_2012_1

The section highlighted makes reference to the 13th B’ak’tun as a time when a new god, dealing with change and wisdom, will reign, and generally a big celebration occurs at the change of a cycle. There is no reference to the end of the world or anything remotely resembling an apocalyptic event.

Overall, the Mayan calendar depicts 5 columns that work sort of like an odometer, with the leftmost column representing B’ak’tuns (it starts at zero and bumps up one cycle every 394 years), then, moving left to right, the next four columns are …

Katuns (cycles approx every 20 years), Tuns (cycles approx yearly), Uinals (cycles every 20 days), and Kins (cycles every day). There is some debate whether the B’ak’tuns reset to zero after 13 B’ak’tuns or 20, but most scholars say 20.

So, on December 21st, the Mayan calendar would look like:  14.0.0.0.0. On the 22nd, it would look like 14.0.0.0.1, and so on.

Keep in mind, there are higher orders than B’ak’tuns, as I mentioned, and these are references on other tablets, but they’re not part of the Mayan calendar per se. Why?

The same reason our computer systems in the last century only had two digits for the year (the famous Y2K problem). It seemed good enough at the time.  Either that, or they ran out of room, like the cartoon says (albeit showing the wrong calendar).

For those familiar with Y2K, when we hit the year 99, every computer programmer in the world was scampering to change their systems to a 4 digit year (though some people kept a 2 digit year and coded their systems to bump up the century if the year was less than 40 — which means we’ll have the same problem again in 2040). But I digress.

In any case, what we have is the Mayan equivalent of the Y2K problem. Nothing more, nothing less. Of course, people into new age science may talk about the alignment of the planets and stars, and there may be some some truth in that (the Mayans, after, all, were brilliant astronomers), but I’ll leave you to decide what that does or doesn’t mean for world consciousness.

As for the rise of a new Mayan god, keep in mind, the ancient Mayans also believed in bloodletting and human sacrifice.

Meanwhile, let’s all have a Mayan-like party (minus the human sacrifice) and celebrate the end of the 13th B’ak’tun and the beginning of the 14th on December 21st!

Why Writing is Like Fine Wine

Writing and WineIt dawned on me that writing is very much like a fine wine. A fine wine needs time to age. It may be okay earlier, and even drinkable, but a great pinot noir or claret needs time before its tannins settle, the tartness goes away, and its true flavors come out.

At the risk of mixing metaphors, stew is the same way. You may be tempted to eat it just after cooking it, but don’t. After it’s refrigerated overnight, the flavors blend and it makes an incredible difference in the taste.

And finally, we come to writing. Whenever I sit down to write, I usually re-read the previous chapter to get immersed in the story again. And, no doubt, I find little tweaks or changes, and the inevitable “Wow, it sounded so good when I wrote it the first time” feeling takes hold, shortly followed by, “What was I thinking?”

Well, at the completion of your manuscript, magnify that tenfold. By that time, when you review your story from the beginning, you’ll find countless changes and you’ll undoubtedly catch things you didn’t notice before. You may even find a few major elements that need changing.  Like the heavy tannins in a young wine, the flaws are masking the true flavor–the feeling you want readers to have.

So then, after the needed edits and rewrites, you finally feel you have a solid manuscript worth pitching. You might even be tempted to send it to some test readers. DON’T!!!!

To do so would be the equivalent of eating the stew just after it comes out of the pot (there I go again mixing metaphors). Except with a book, you can’t just wait to the next day to do another  final read-through, much like you can’t take a wine that’s best served after ten years and drink it after two, expecting the same results.

How long should you wait?  By my experience, in both nonfiction and fiction, I’d say a month at least. Longer if you can afford it. Let the manuscript sit. Find something else to do. Start working on another book. Read a book. Whatever will take your mind off the manuscript.

When you finally come back to it–that wonderful manuscript that you felt so amazing about–I guarantee you’ll find countless edits you’ll want to make. Trust me on this. THEN, after you make them, and do the requisite editing passes, you’re ready to send to test readers for feedback (and make sure they’re critical test readers, ideally that match your target audience — not your friends and family).

So, to summarize, when you’re finished what you think is your perfect final manuscript (even if you’ve already done rewrites and edits and a full read-through), be sure to let it sit at least a month before doing one final read-through and edit round. Your book will be exponentially better as a result.

2000 Year-Old Computer a True Mystery

Imagine finding a sophisticated computer device from the 2nd century BC with 30-70 precision-engineered moving parts that could predict the movement of the sun, moon, and planets in our solar system?

Well that’s exactly what was discovered by a sponge diver in 1900, over a century ago, in a Roman shipwreck off of the Greek island of Antikythera. Dubbed the Antikythera Mechanism, the device still baffles modern day technologists.

It took a century to even figure out how it worked and what it was used for, and even then, the solution involved multiple nations and several disciplines of expertise.

Experts believe it was part of a cargo looted from Rhodes en route to a celebration in Rome given by Julius Caesar. The mechanism now sits in the Archaeological Museum of Athens.

Some cite its origins to the Greek mathematician Archimedes (c. 287 BC – c 212 BC), as the Roman philosopher Cicero made mention of General Marcus Marcellus taking home several of Archimedes’s machines. Whether those machines and this device are of the same ilk remains to be seen.

This begs a few questions:

  • Did this machine have some specific end goal in mind or was it merely for astronomical study?
  • Where did this technology disappear to? (we know that much technology, including plumbing, was lost with the Dark Ages).
  • Was there a higher intelligence involved or was this simply a matter of ancient peoples being much more brilliant than we give them credit for?

(For instance, the ancient Chinese had flushing toilets, as did the Romans. Yet in the 1800s, the British were using chamber pots. Indeed, toilets were literally “reinvented” at least 5 times throughout world history, the last time after the cholera epidemic in England)

  • What other advanced technologies existed in ancient Greece that were lost?

For more, check out the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project website. Also, here’s the Wikipedia entry on the topic.

 

Top Undersea Hotels – The Wave of the Future

For those who’ve read The Kronos Interference, you know that part of the story takes place in an undersea facility.

In fact, the inspiration for Jacob’s cabin was taken from the Poseidon Undersea Resort in Fiji (hey, the rates are only $15,000 and up), and the complex itself was loosely inspired by the design of the never-completed Hydropolis resort in Dubai, even though the facility in the book was completely submerged.

Meanwhile, here’s a list of the top 5 undersea hotels, for the next time you’re looking for something a little bit different.

PS: Apologies to those who suffered the brunt of Hurricane Sandy’s wrath, and probably haven’t the slightest interest in underwater hotels at the moment. Ed and I live in the midst of it, and many of our friends and family still have no power (and indeed neither does Ed). We hope and pray that all of our readers and their families are safe. 

Concept vs. Story: Turning Good Ideas into Workable Stories

People often ask how Ed and I come up with our story ideas (after, all, we have several books in the works now that The Kronos Interference has hit the market).

Well for one, we’re always batting around concepts. But then we need to see which ones we can turn into a compelling story. Because there’s a big difference between a concept and a story.

Here’s an example. Let’s say we wanted to write a book about aliens invading Earth.

That’s a concept, but not a very good one. What we want is a high concept, one that has a unique twist that engages people in a single sentence. We can usually come up with one by asking one of two questions: Why? and What if?

There are lots of additional methods for coming up with concepts as well, such as: starting with a title; changing the genre or locale of an existing story; brainstorming nouns; create an opening line; and many more. Not all ideas will be generated in the same way. But even after one of these methods leads to a concept, it’s still good to ask “why” and “what if” and see what magic it may conjure up.

So let’s ask a few questions about our aliens idea: Why would aliens be invading Earth, besides the usual, worn clichés? What if they weren’t invading, or what if we needed them for something?

Building on our aliens idea, a high concept might be the following:

In the year 2135, a desperate US government strikes a secret deal with an alien race to combat the war on terror.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Can we make this better?  Sure.

A higher concept:

In the year 2135, a desperate US government strikes a secret deal with an alien race to combat the war on terror. But the cost is high and the cure turns out to be worse than the disease.

Now we have some intrigue going. Not only would there be some interesting elements involving aliens combating the war on terror, but people will be wondering what the catch is that makes the solution backfire.

So we have a high concept, but it’s not yet a story.  To have a story, we need a lead people care about.

Turning a high concept into a story:

A story needs to be about an individual protagonist or two; something they want desperately (the external challenge), some unresolved internal issue that gets addressed by the end, and an opposing force (ideally a person) that’s standing in the way.  If there can be multiple leads whose desires are intertwined and conflicting, all the better.

As you can see, the concept is the easy part. It’s turning it into a workable story that’s hard.

In general, people don’t care about “the United States” or “the world’s population.” They care about individuals and their fate. It’s why Steven Spielberg always insists on keeping a narrow focus through the eyes of the lead, or group of leads, involved.

So, in order to develop a story for our high concept, we need to think of these other factors. As an example, let’s build on the concept statement by adding lead characters:

 In the year 2135, a desperate US government strikes a secret deal with an alien race to combat the war on terror. But the cost is high and the cure turns out to be worse than the disease. When CIA trainee Victoria Hawk’s parents are murdered, she discovers the truth and enlists the help of her med student boyfriend and a mysterious benefactor named Carpenter, who’s begun sending her cryptic messages.

While not perfect, this begins to open a world of possibilities for refining into a workable story. Details such as the cause of the parents’ murder, the relationship with the boyfriend, the healing of the protagonist, the status of her CIA career, and the role of the mysterious benefactor must all be fleshed out. And a compelling individual representing the opposition is vital. After all, in the old James Bond films, what would SPECTRE be without Blofeld (or Largo in Thunderball).

As for the opposition, is it the U.S. Government, the aliens, both, or some third party altogether? Or is it the benefactor, Carpenter, who just may be leading her on a wild goose chase? These are all questions that would need to be addressed in the story development process before even setting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard).

Once you feel you have a solid story, a high level outline is needed to make sure the sequence of events is compelling. That’s where story structure models can come in handy (a whole topic in itself).

So voila, we took a weak “been there, done that” concept (aliens invade Earth) and created a much higher concept, and then added the root elements of a story. And that’s how Ed and I typically bat around our story ideas. If we cant turn the concept into a good story, then all we have is a backdrop for a story, not really a story. And in that case, we ditch it and move to the next big idea.

Now it’s your turn. What other variations can you think of for the story example above? What new concepts and ideas do you have, and how would you turn them into stories?

Why Jaws is One of the Great Classics – A Lesson in Suspense

“We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

I’ve seen and studied the film Jaws so many times, I should have an honorary Masters Degree in Jaws by now. Two of my greatest story influences are Stephen Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock (luckily, my co-author,  Ed, has similar influences, among others, so that’s quite convenient).

Hitchcock famously said:

“A bomb is under a table, and it explodes: That is surprise. The bomb is under the table, but it does not explode: That is suspense.”

Surprise is great in small doses (just think of the head that pops out from the sunken ship’s hole in Jaws).  But it’s suspense that carries a story over the long haul.

What makes Jaws (and all the Hitchcock classics) so effective is the suspense that builds ever so gradually. In fact, Spielberg said up front that he’d only do the film if the shark isn’t seen for the first hour.  And indeed it isn’t. There are hints at the shark, books showing photos of sharks, floating objects that look like sharks, and deaths. But by later in the movie, you get, as Quint put it, “the head, the tail, the whole damn thing.”

And by the time the exciting scenes on Quint’s fishing vessel, the Orca, come along, you’re emotionally invested in the characters.

Spielberg even paid homage to Hitchcock in the famous Vertigo dolly zoom camera technique, when Roy Scheider first spots the Kintner boy being eaten by the shark. The camera zooms in on his face at the same time the dolly is pulling backward. The result is an “out of body” experience for the viewer.

There are countless other elements that go into a great film, of course: clever script, exhilarating cinematography, visual cues, memorable dialogue, good pacing, and fine acting.  This film has it all. Many of the other Spielberg classics, from Jurassic Park to, yes, even Schindler’s List, borrowed from techniques he mastered during Jaws.

But don’t take my word for it. Here are three fun links with some fascinating Jaws tidbits that will greatly enhance your experience the next time you watch the classic film:

Roger Ebert’s review and analysis of Jaws

20 Fascinating Facts about Jaws, from the documentary about the film

A lighthearted look at 50 reasons why Jaws may just be the greatest film of all time

And just for good measure, here’s a fourth link: IMDB’s List of Memorable Jaws Quotes

Enjoy! For now, “Farewell and adieu . . . “