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Janet Johnston at Worldcon in Helsinki

By Janet Johnston

I just returned from Worldcon 2017 in Helsinki, Finland.  It was the second largest Worldcon ever and it was wild! The crowd was so big the Program Committee had to scramble to engage extra space for the over 10,000 registrants.

Worldcon Panel, Janet Johnston, Helsinki
The crowd at one of Janet’s panels

I was on the agenda as the speaker/moderator for five panels that were attended by hundreds of fans.  Then I realized that I had also been designated as the moderator for the panel with biggest draw — the Guest of Honor.

The Big  Surprise

I was expecting to talk on panels with a maximum of 30 people in attendance but, boy, did I get surprised. There were a couple of hundred people at the “Right Stuff” panel and hundreds at the “Generation Ships Morality” panel. The other three panels had standing room only.

Janet with Brother Guy Consolmagno and Astronaut Dr. Kjell Lindgren
Janet with Astronaut GOH, Dr. Kjell Lindgren, and Brother Guy Consolmagno, head of the Vatican Observatory

Also, David Clements got sick at the last minute and I ended up moderating some of the other hard SF panels I was on without any warning.

The photo at right is small but there I am with  Astronaut GOH, Dr. Kjell Lindgren, and Brother Guy Consolmagno, the head of the Vatican Observatory. We were on “The Right Stuff” panel discussion of what it takes for space exploration.

Janet Posts on Writer’s Blog

Janet Johnston recently published a post on Friday Features for the Out of the Fog Blog on “Risk of Success: Strong Women. Fact? Fiction? Born? Made?

Our own Janet, who promotes herself as a “belly-dancing astrophysicist from MIT” (all true) often speaks at writing conferences but this is her first contribution to a blog.

Out of the Fog Blog

Writing on the subject of women in the sciences, she draws on her experiences at MIT, where “female students were just taking a place away from a man who would use the degree.”  Read Janet’s post and find out how Janet defines a strong woman and a strong person. She’ll also tell you why it dismays her when people wish they could win the lottery to do what they want.

The Out of the Fog Blog is the project of Connie Johnson Hambley, a businesswoman, entrepreneur, writer, creator of reader communities and manager of a “book business.”

Connie describes Friday Features as, “a steady presence on Out of the Fog where I explore the concept of ‘strong women.’ Who are they? What makes them strong? How do we see them in writing and/or in business.”

Read Janet’s Friday Feature “Risk of Success” on the Out of the Fog blog and get her take on the subject. Learn her recipe for talent vs. nerve.  Find out where you fit.

 

 

 

How the World Ends

“This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
Not with a bang but with a whimper.”

T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

The two books I read were, “The Dead Lands” by Benjamin Percy and “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel. The latter has been nominated for two book awards and has been on the New York Times best seller list in both hardcover and paperback editions. I have just finished reading two novels that are both in the genre of post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction, a particular favorite of mine. Reading two in a row wasn’t intentional, though. In plain English, these types of books involve a mega-disaster that destroys most of the country’s, or the world’s population. The survivors have to stay alive—no small feat—and re-create civilization from the ashes of the old world.

The two books I read were, “The Dead Lands” by Benjamin Percy and “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel. The latter has been nominated for two book awards and has been on the New York Times best seller list in both hardcover and paperback editions.

They are both good novels, but then I enjoy stories of survival because I’m fascinated by the physiology and psychology of why some people survive while others give up. And these books are excellent additions to the genre, which has existed for decades—centuries if you start counting with Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man” and a lot longer than that if you go back to Noah and the Ark.

Cultural Release Valve

Post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction distills our fears about what threatens us personally and nationally and provides a cultural release valve for our inchoate worry about what the future could hold for us and our children. Thus, decade by decade, trends appear and disappear in terms of what causes the final, fatal collapse.

Some of the books about how the world ends are optimistic, seeing a new and possibly better future for humanity once it transcends devastation. James Howard Kunstler’s novels in the “World Made by Hand” series fall into this category. Others are determinedly pessimistic, finding only the worst in human nature with no chance of redemption. Of the latter, Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” is probably the best, or most depressing, example. Here the cause of the devastation is never explained but the survivors struggle through a world turned to dust and ashes in search of something better. You can watch the movie starring Viggo Mortensen but, trust me, the book is far bleaker.

Of the latter, Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” is probably the best example. Here the cause of the devastation is never explained but the survivors struggle through a world turned to dust and ashes. You can watch the movie starring Viggo Mortensen but, trust me, the book is far bleaker.
McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic road

“It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

R.E.M.

More apocalyptic tales followed in fiction and on film. You can find a list of them in the back of “Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse” edited by John Joseph Adams. Many more have appeared since that anthology was published in 2008—possibly half again as many. Still, Mr. Adams describes the appeal of post-Apocalyptic fiction succinctly in the book’s introduction:

“Wastelands explores the scientific, psychological, and philosophical questions of what it means to remain human in the wake of Armageddon.”

Six Ways to Destroy the World

Here are a few of the reasons authors have devised for wiping out most of humanity and setting up the survival drama that follows:

Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach,” published in 1957, concentrated and popularized those fears. The book was extremely popular and two years later appeared as a movie starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. Nuclear War: In the 1950s, close after the nuclear explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, people were both intrigued with and frightened by the powerful new genie that had burst out of the bottle. We did not fully understand the effects of radiation on human beings and on the world. At the same time, we did not trust our governments to tame the genie. We found the idea of nuclear war very likely, possibly imminent, and certainly terrifying.

Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach,” published in 1957, concentrated and popularized those fears. Two years later it reappeared as a Stanley Kramer movie starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. It was appropriately in black and white and oddly rated PG.

Politics: When the Cold War ended and the threat of nuclear annihilation receded, we found other methods of destruction to fascinate and frighten us. Political tyranny and government oppression were well represented in books from Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and George Orwell’s “1984” to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” More recently we have the “Hunger Games” books by Suzanne Collins along with their excellent movie versions starring Jennifer Lawrence. Also the Maze Runner books by James Dashner, the first two of which have been filmed. Anyone watching the current campaign for the 2016 Presidential campaigns can be forgiven for accepting that politics will kill us all.

Climate Change: Ecological devastation was very popular for quite a while. Sometimes it takes the form of nuclear winter that brings back the glaciers, as in “Snowfall” and its two sequels by Mitchell Smith. Sometimes the Apocalypse is brought to us by global warming that overwhelms the earth, such as in J.G. Ballard’s “The Drowned World” and Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Forty Signs of Rain.” On screen, you can see some of these themes in the Mad Max movies and Waterworld. Going all the way back to Noah, we find a flood that destroys humanity except for a very small group of divinely favored individuals.

Zombies: Let’s not forget the Zombie Apocalypse that has surged to the fore of our cultural consciousness. From Max Brook’s “World War Z” with Brad Pitt starring in the movie version to The Walking Dead on television and 28 Days Later on the big screen we have the undead lurching through our streets and attacking our homes as they search for “braaaaiiiiinssss.” My favorite in this genre is a small novel called “Autumn” and its sequels by David Moody. It’s hard to dispute, though, that Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” is the most terrifying riff on this theme—and that was published in 1954. Possibly his zombies were all Communists.

Michael Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain” opened my eyes about the possibility of another threat to human health that would be as devastating as the 1918 influenza pandemic.
The world after the Andromeda Strain

Global Pandemic: Disease has risen as a universal fear factor even as medicine improves. We might be frightened of new diseases coming out of the Amazon jungle, bacteria evolving to resist antibiotics, SARS, MERS, or a new lethal strain of influenza but we sure are worried about getting sick. This concern isn’t new, of course. Michael Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain” opened my eyes about the possibility of another threat to human health that would be as devastating as the 1918 influenza pandemic.

In “Station Eleven” the “Georgia Flu” with a mortality rate of 99.9% strikes Europe and is borne worldwide by intercontinental flights. It kills in 48 hours, as the Spanish flu strain often did, and leaves the world nearly depopulated. Yet the entire story revolves around an actor who dies of a heart attack on stage before the flu even hits. “Station Eleven” is a good read–a page turner that you can’t put down.

Multiple Redundant Strikes: Many novels recognize that just one of the causes listed above is probably not enough to take down civilization, either in one country or around the world. A combination is required and that is the basis of “The Dead Lands.”  This re-telling of the Lewis and Clark expedition takes its less-than-heroic characters from St. Louis to Astoria, Oregon across a country devastated by a superflu, nuclear fallout, radiation-generated mutants, and massive climate change. It takes a while to get into it but once you do, the story pulls you right along.

“World Made by Hand” and its sequels also slam the country with multiple blows and they take the survivors back to the nineteenth century to relearn practical skills that will help them rebuild. If you have a real skill in Kunstler’s upper New York town of Union Grove, you have a good chance of survival. Philosophy majors and economists, not so much.

Pick your preferred apocalypse and settle down with a good book that will give you chills on a hot summer day. You can start with either “The Dead Lands” or “Station Eleven” because they’re both good stories and you’ll enjoy the trip.You will also appreciate electricity, hot water, and supermarkets a lot more when you’re done.

“Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.”

Robert Frost, “Fire and Ice”

Ghosts: An Anthology is Out!

An anthology containing one of Aline Boucher Kaplan’s short stories was published yesterday and is available for purchase online. Ghosts: An Anthology of Horror from the Beyond edited by David Tyson contains fourteen “dark and disturbing” tales including her short story, “The Broadcast Circle.” Editor Tyson says that, “With over 64,000 words that will chill your bone and keep you up all night, this anthology brings horror to a new level.”

Ghosts: An Anthology of Horror from the Beyond edited by David TysonDavid Tyson is the author of The Fifth Age: Book I: The Quest for the Stone of Power and other short stories. He is a writer of all genres, including fantasy and horror. When he is not busy with his job he writes and plans to continue releasing books and short stories.

Here’s the full table of contents:

  • “The Seventh Step” by Judi Calhoun
  • “The Hat Man” by Earl Bartel
  • “Chinese Buttons” by Aaron Smith
  • “Already There” by Jeffrey Todd
  • “The Inheritance” by Kay Glass
  • “House of the Goat Monster” by Jim Goforth
  • “Incorporeal Beings” by Jonathan Nichols
  • “Drains in the Floor” by M. J. Pack
  • “The Moat” by W. Whitethorn
  • “Cherry Creek” by Arthur Doweyko
  • “The Broadcast Circle” by Aline Boucher Kaplan
  • “Rapid Departure” by Christopher Davis
  • “The Goldfield Hotel” by David Tyson
  • “The Hitchhiker” by David Tyson 

The Broadcast Circle

Aline is thrilled to have one of my stories included in this anthology and to be part of such an outstanding group of authors. “The Broadcast Circle” is about a woman driving home after a stressful week when she encounters someone who forces her to acknowledge a talent she has hidden for many years and solve a mystery at the same time. Here’s how it begins:

              “I was driving fast down the twisty back road, trying to get home before midnight, when the woman ran out of the darkening woods and into my headlights. Abandoning the gridlocked highway, I’d taken an impulsive shortcut onto this narrow road and was driving much faster than its twists and turns would allow.  The high beams gave me only a flash impression—an instantaneous image. She was dark-skinned but washed out, like in a black and white photo. Under a mop of wet dreadlocks, her eyes were wide with shock, her mouth open in a scream—or a cry for help.  Her white shirt clung to her arms and chest. Staring straight at me, the woman raised both hands to ward off the impact.

            “I hit her while standing on the brakes.

            “When my car finally shimmied to a halt a hundred feet down the road, I sat for a few seconds, trying to breathe.  My hands shook on the wheel and my brain raced in panic, telling me to just keep on driving: no one would ever know.  But I had hit someone—I may have killed her—and I had to know.

           “I had already unbuckled my seatbelt, flung the door open, and gotten of the car when I realized that it might be a stupid thing to do.  I had read more than a few Internet warnings about scams that get women to stop on a lonely road where they became easy prey.  Except for my car, though, the road was empty.” 

Buy Early, Buy Often

To find out who she hit and why—along with what happens next—you can purchase Ghosts: An Anthology of Horror from the Beyond online. The book is available exclusively on Amazon.com for two weeks and then can be purchased through other outlets. We’ll update you when that happens. Here are the links:

Aline lives in Massachusetts and, should you live locally, she will be happy to personalize your book by signing it. Just let her know if you’d like to meet and she will come with pen in hand. Also, please feel free to forward this post to friends and family: We really want to help make this book a success so it will go into full print publication and more stories will follow.

14 Upcoming Science Fiction Movies

From The Next Phase Blog

Jupiter Ascending, Mila Kuniss, Channing TatumA low-budget science fiction movie, Project Almanac, opens today and next week we have the debut of the visually spectacular Jupiter Rising. More movies are scheduled to open during the year so this is a good time to follow up on my previous post on the Top 10 Science Fiction Movies in 2015, with a list of the lesser—but possibly even better—offerings that are scheduled to open in the first four months of 2015.

Here are the 14 upcoming science fiction movies of 2015 in chronological order.

* The Usual Disclaimer: See Below 

January 

  • Project Almanac (January 30, 2015)
    “A group of teens discover secret plans of a time machine, and construct one. However, things start to get out of control.” Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 36% Fresh, 57% Liked it. But the reviews are still coming in. Children and teenagers have been discovering futuristic technology in the movies for a long time. It’s becoming a trope of its own.
    Project Almanac Trailer
  • Predestination (Release date is January 9 but it is not yet in theaters)
    “Chronicles the life of a Temporal Agent (Ethan Hawke) sent on an intricate series of time-travel journeys designed to prevent future killers from committing their crimes. Now, on his final assignment, the Agent must stop the one criminal that has eluded him throughout time and prevent a devastating attack in which thousands of lives will be lost.” This is is based on the short story, “All You Zombies” by Robert Heinlein. It’s certainly not a new idea but the proof of the pudding is in the execution.
    Predestination Trailer
  • Vice (Release date is January 16 but it has not yet appeared in theaters)
    “Julian Michaels (Bruce Willis) has designed the ultimate resort: VICE, where anything goes and the customers can play out their wildest fantasies with artificial inhabitants who look, think and feel like humans. When an artificial (Ambyr Childers) becomes self-aware and escapes, she finds herself caught in the crossfire between Julian’s mercenaries and a cop (Thomas Jane) who is hell-bent on shutting down Vice, and stopping the violence once and for all.” Ah, Westworld, father of them all.
    Vice Trailer
  • The Phoenix Project movie, science fiction movies 2015The Phoenix Project (Release date is January 16 but not yet in theaters)
    “Four young scientists work to craft a machine to reanimate deceased organisms. As the project develops, the machine exceeds their wildest expectations, creating boundless possibilities that challenge the very nature of human existence. However, success with this experiment comes at a price, as ulterior motives and reckless abandon lead to consequences none of them could predict.” This could equally have been called The Lazarus Project. Are we going to see a scientific basis for zombies or a science-fiction Flatliners?
    The Phoenix Project Trailer
  • Alien Outpost (January 30)
    “Two documentary cameramen embedded in an army unit in the most hostile place on earth, an outpost surrounded by the last remaining alien fighters (Heavies) of an invading attack force. The world may have forgotten about the Outposts, but the Heavies are planning the second invasion of Earth and the soldiers are the only ones who can stop it.” The Battle of Los Angeles goes to Afghanistan to fight aliens that look like they migrated from Edge of Tomorrow. It looks gritty–and not just from sand blowing around.
    Alien Outpost Trailer

February

  • Seventh Son (February 6)
    “In a time long past, an evil is about to be unleashed that will reignite the war between the forces of the supernatural and humankind once more. The sole remaining warrior of a mystical order travels to find a prophesized hero born with incredible powers, the last Seventh Son.” This fantasy film is based on the novel “The Spook’s Apprentice” by Joseph Delaney, which is the first book in The Wardstone Chronicles series. That gives the production companies lots of room for sequels.
    The Seventh Son Trailer 
  • Absolutely Anything (February 13, 2015)
    “Monty Python alumni John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, and Eric Idle reunite for this sci-fi comedy directed and co-written by Jones (along with Gavin Scott), and centering on the story of a group of mischievous extraterrestrials (voiced by the Python crew) who grant embittered schoolteacher Neil Clarke (Simon Pegg) extraordinary powers in order to see how he will use them. Subsequently seeking the wisdom of his loyal canine companion Dennis (voice of Robin Williams).” I hate to see Robin Williams go out as the voice of a dog but, hey, he could make any role outstanding.
    Absolutely Anything Trailer
  • Ejecta (February 27)
    “The story of one night on earth that changed everything we know about the universe.” That’s a pretty short description for such an enormous topic.
    Ejecta Trailer

March

  • Chappie movie, Chappie, Hugh Jackman, Neill Blomkamp, Sigourney Weaver, Sharlto CopleyChappie (March 27)
    “Every child comes into the world full of promise, and none more so than Chappie: he is gifted, special, a prodigy. Like any child, Chappie will come under the influence of his surroundings — some good, some bad — and he will rely on his heart and soul to find his way in the world and become his own man. But there’s one thing that makes Chappie different from anyone else: he is a robot. The first robot with the ability to think and feel for himself.” Ah, the thinking, feeling robot. Calling Mr. Data. Wait, he’s busy watching a double feature of I Robot and Wall-E.
    Chappie Trailer

April

  • Monsters: Dark Continent (April, 2015)
    “An American platoon stationed in the Middle East is thrust into battle with a new breed of Aliens in this epic sequel to Gareth Edwards’ cult sci-fi hit, Monsters.” If you liked Monsters you’ll probably want to see this. I missed it so I’ll have to catch up.
    Monsters: Dark Continent Trailer 
  • Ex Machina movieEx Machina (April 10, 2015)
    “Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at an internet-search giant, wins a competition to spend a week at the private mountain estate of the company’s brilliant and reclusive CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Upon his arrival, Caleb learns that Nathan has chosen him to be the human component in a Turing Test—charging him with evaluating the capabilities, and ultimately the consciousness, of Nathan’s latest experiment in artificial intelligence.” Thanks to The Imitation Game, people actually know who Alan Turing was and what he accomplished. This seems to be a science fiction sequel with a dark “what if” scenario.
    Ex Machina Trailer
  • The Moon and the Sun (April 10, 2105)
    “Follows King Louis XIV (Pierce Brosnan) in a tale of how the French monarch tries to achieve immortality by stealing the life force from a mermaid.” I can’t believe that I just typed that sentence. The movie is based on the Nebula Award-winning novel by Vonda McIntyre, the book that beat Game of Thrones for the award in 1997. We get to watch Pierce Brosnan and William Hurt stride the halls of Versailles. What could go wrong?
    No trailer available
  • Z for Zachariah (April 16, 2015)
    “In the wake of a disaster that wipes out most of civilization, two men and a young woman find themselves in an emotionally charged love triangle as the last known survivors.” Somehow I think that survivors of an extinction-level event would be more concerned with survival than love triangles. You know, the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: food, shelter, clothing, heat. Oh, and not becoming an easy source of protein for other, fiercer or less ethical survivors. Love, not so much. it’s based on the novel of the same name by Robert C. O’Brien.
    Z for Zachariah Trailer
  • The Age of Adeline (April 24, 2105)
    “Adaline (Blake Lively) ceases to age following an accident one icy night, but keeps her condition a closely-guarded secret while embarking on a number of incredible adventures throughout the 20th Century. After years of a solitary life, she finds the love and courage that enable her to fully begin living.” An immortal who isn’t a vampire–what a concept! It’s got romance without a bloodbath.This could start a trend.
    The Age of Adeline Trailer

That covers January through April although debut dates move and shift. that’s why the list has only 14 movies instead of 15 I’m not promising to see and report on all of these films, mind you. A lot depends on quality, reviews, and availability.

Again, for more information on the biggest science fiction movies of the year, see my post on the Top 10 Science Fiction Movies of 2015. I’ll follow up with another post later in the year that lists science fiction movies opening in the summer and beyond.

* The Usual Disclaimer
The list does not include superhero or comic book movies, anime, animated children’s movies, movies based on video games, horror (including poltergeists, haunted mirrors, creepy children, etc.), James Bond, fairy tales, Bible movies, paranormal romance and (with a few notable exceptions) monster movies. These films either fit into their own separate genres or I don’t consider them true science fiction.

Writing Tips for Finding Your Creative Place

From The Next Phase Blog

 

One of the members of my SpaceCrafts writer’s group recently asked us a question: “What are your suggestions for finding your ‘creative place’ when you sit down to write?  It elicited a variety of answers that I want to share because they might help other writers who struggle with the same issue. Many people have told me that they have “always wanted to write a book” but they just can’t find the time. That’s no surprise: we’re all busy and finding time for anything is a challenge. Here are some writing tips that will help you to find your creative place, get started writing, and keep on going.

Set a Focus 

You can find time to write or make time to write but focus works better than just expecting the creative writing muse to arrive on her own schedule. Calliope is fickle and not to be trusted. Part of this discipline is physical: schedule your writing time and make sure that you’re sitting in front of the computer when you’re supposed to be there. Part of it is mental: create the intention to write and reinforce it daily. Here are some ways you can do that:

  • man meditating, meditating man
    Getty Image

    Meditate: At a specific time each day, sit down and clear your mind. Focus on your breathing. This is much more difficult than it sounds because your mind wants to be busy. It likes being in charge and resists being told that it has nothing to do for the next 30 minutes. So it will keep throwing thoughts at you. Meditation is the process of clearing those thoughts away and returning to a focus on your breathing.

I meditate every morning and, in the process, set an intention for the day. If your intention is to spend a certain amount of time writing, you have already prepped your brain for the activity. You brain will like this because the intention gives it something to do and it will get to work when you’re ready—and sometimes even before then.

  • Avoid distractions: You know what I mean. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, email, Pinterest, texts, the book club book, errands—anything that will seem more interesting and/or important than writing. If you get sucked into this time sink before you start writing, you may look up and find that half your writing time is gone with nothing productive to show for it. I sometimes wish I had a computer dedicated to writing with no other programs on it. But I know that my other computer, the one with all the distractions, would also be calling out for me to check in. A writer can run but not hide.
  • Clear everything: Failing a second computer, close all the programs on the one you use to write except for the ones you programs for writing or for research on the writing. Shut down email, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, YouTube, etc. That way you can’t just click over and get lost. It will help you focus on the one task at hand, which is writing.
  • Homer Simpson with a chocolate doughnutSet a timer: This works for some people but not for me because it would make me feel constrained and stressed. It’s like going on a diet and immediately getting a craving for something you don’t normally eat or even want. (Chocolate doughnut!)  A timer does work for some people, however. You can try it and see if it works for you.
  • Reward yourself. When you have written for the specified amount of time, or filled the requisite number of pages, take a break and give yourself a small reward: reading a few chapters of a book, drinking a cup of coffee, doing some gardening, working through yoga stretches. Have a piece of chocolate or a beer (but just one!). Do whatever floats your boat and makes you feel good about yourself. You’ve earned it. Enjoy.

Just Write

Getting started each day is usually the hardest part. There are so many distractions to lure you away and destroy your focus. These steps will help.

  • Write every day: Form the habit of putting words down on “paper” every day. That way you will get accustomed to doing it and writing will feel like a normal part of your day. After a while, the habit will take hold and you won’t feel right if you don’t write.
  • Take notes: When you’re into the story your characters will begin talking to you. You don’t want to lose those valuable dialogues. Also, you will notice things around you that stimulate descriptions or even whole scenes. Sights, smells, tastes, sounds, snippets of overheard conversations, all provide fodder for your writing. If you have nimble thumbs and a smart phone you can jot down notes so you don’t lose those observations. If not, keep a note pad and pen handy.
  • Read over and edit what you have already written. This refreshes your memory of the story so far and gets you into the story so that you can continue it. Tweak a sentence here, delete a few words there, rewrite an awkward phrase after that. By the time you get to the end, your brain will be in the game and it will be easy to keep going. Adding just one more sentence will lead to the next, etc.
  • Download any notes that you may have taken about the story, plot, characters, motivation, etc. Put them at the end of the file or in a separate notes file and erase them when they are added to the story. Typing the notes will also get you into the story and percolate some ideas about where the information fits and how it will make the story better.

Clear Your Head

When you are stumped by what to say next or what a character will do next, don’t sit and stare at the screen. That just makes you feel dull and stupid. The best thing is to take your mind off the problem and free up your subconscious to jump in. Get up, step away from the desk, and do something else.

  • Take a walk; this frees up your mind to be creative. Use the walk to focus or meditate on the different things that can happen in the scene. By the time you get home, the sentences will flood out of you and onto the page.
  • Do a household task. It’s amazing what putting in a load of laundry or emptying the dishwasher can do for creativity. I have had whole scenes just stream into my head while in the laundry room. (Maybe I should write in there.)
  • Swoman swimming laps, swimming pool, lap laneswim if you can. Swimming is great for creativity because it turns you horizontal and suspends you between two mediums, air and water. If you’re doing laps, your brain has nothing to do but count them and that frees it up to wander, drift, roam, ponder “what if” and come up with new ideas without interrupting anything it considers more important. It’s hard to take notes in the pool, though, so you need to write your ideas down as soon as you hit the locker room.
  • Forget perfection. This is, in some ways, the most important point I can make. No one writes a perfect draft the first time. Or even the perfect first sentence. The truth is that writers create multiple drafts. You can go over your work once, twice, or many times until you’re happy with it. You can rewrite that first sentence over and over if you like. Just put some words down and then keep going. Perfection is a pipe dream.

I hope you have found these tips for finding your creative place helpful. You can also read my previous post on Seven Ways to Become a Writer for additional information. Now go write your own story.

10 Top Science Fiction Movies in 2015

From The Next Phase Blog

 

January is here and it’s time for my blog’s annual roundup of science fiction movies that will be released in 2015. It was originally posted in The Next Phase blog and is re-published here. Some of these movies are eagerly anticipated while others will be complete surprises. Of the six, only three are original stories, not franchise sequels, reboots or re-imaginings of previous movies.

Jupiter Ascending, Mila Kuniss, Channing Tatum, Sean BeanIn today’s post, I’ll cover the ten biggies, movies that are receiving all the hype and social media buzz. As per my usual rules, the list does not include superhero or comic book movies, anime, animated children’s movies, movies based on video games, horror (including poltergeists, haunted mirrors, creepy children, etc.), fairy tales, Bible movies, paranormal romance and (with a few notable exceptions) monster movies. The reason is simple: I don’t consider those genres science fiction.

Here are the top ten science fiction movies in 2015 in chronological order of their release dates:

  1. Jupiter Ascending (February 6, 2015)

This is the movie I’m most looking forward to as it is an original story that offers a spectacular dose of space opera with lush sets and amazing special effects. It’s a Cinderella meets Harry Potter story that takes us out into space and beyond to another planet. “In the future, a young destitute human woman gets targeted for assassination by the Queen of the Universe, and begins her destiny to finish the Queen’s reign.” This is a movie for those of us who have ever looked at the stars and felt we belonged there.

Jupiter Ascending looks like a big, wonderful story that, in print, would take up at least 400 pages. @JupiterMovieUK stars Mila Kuniss with Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Channing Tatum, and Gugu MBatha-Raw. I hope Eddard Stark is more politically savvy here than he was in Game of Thrones.

Andy and Lana Wachowski both wrote and directed, bringing their experience from the Matrix Trilogy to bear. It’s a big budget spectacular ($175M) and it will give the Wachowskis a chance to regroup after the disappointing box office of Cloud Atlas. To fully appreciate the lush visuals of Jupiter Ascending, you have to watch the official trailer. It’s better on the big screen, though.

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road, Charlize Theron, Tom HardyMad Max: Fury Road (May 15, 2015)

I enjoyed at least two of the earlier Mad Max movies but I have severe reservations about this one. Having seen the trailer, I know that @MadMax4FuryRoad includes a truly horrific level of violence. What I saw in just a few moments of coming “attractions” instead totally repelled me. It reminded me of the second half of 28 Days Later, which started as a good, creepy, post-apocalyptic zombie movie and morphed into a psychopathic blood bath that physically turned my stomach.

The tag line for Mad Max: Fury Road is, “A world without hope . . .  without law . . . without mercy.” It also appears to be a world in which big burly men commit a lot of murder and mayhem. Which raises the question, “Where do law, mercy, and hope come from?” Mad Max movies have always been pretty violent but if Director George Miller (who produced Beyond Thunderdome) has ramped this re-vivication of the franchise up to bloody carnage levels, I’ll pass.

  1. Tomorrowland (May 22, 2015)

Although this movie comes to us from Brad Bird, creator of Ratatouille and The Incredibles, it is not an animated movie. Starring George Clooney, Hugh Laurie and Judy Greer, Tomorrowland tells the story of a magic button that instantaneously transports anyone who touches it to another world. This is a world “somewhere in space and time” that looks really cool—at least from a distance. Imagine traveling into a book cover designed by Michael Whelan and you get the idea. Or just watch the trailer for @Tomorrowland.

There have, of course, been good trailers for awful movies and bad trailers for excellent movie so it’s difficult to get the whole picture from this snippet. Still, Tomorrowland is an original story—not part of a movie franchise—so I’m inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt.

  1. Jurassic World (June 12, 2015)

This is another franchise reboot and it takes place 22 years after the events of Jurassic Park. The park’s novelty has worn off, and visitor rates are declining. What to do? Get a new attraction, of course—something really big and nasty. What could go wrong? Just ask Seaworld.

The trailer for @JurassicWorld replicates the sense of wonder combined with sheer terror that we got from the original movie. Our eyeballs weren’t accustomed to visions of the impossible made real as they are now. I left the theater with the amazing feeling that I had seen real, live dinosaurs. Special effects and CGI have come a long way since, so the idea of seeing dinosaurs in the flesh isn’t as shocking. But Jurassic World has possibilities. The cast is good and competent—including the marvelous Irrfan Khan—but not really A-List. Director Colin Trevorrow, who is also one of the writers, has mostly documentaries and TV movies under his belt. The success of this movie is a tossup. But, as the tagline says, “The park is open.”

  1. Terminator Genesis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emelia Clarke, Sean Bean Terminator Genesis (July 1, 2015)

Once again we go back to the future with a new time line in which Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese join up with the original Terminator to stop Judgment Day. In this installment, we get Emelia Clarke—Khaleesi of the Dothraki tribes—as Sarah Connor. This is an interesting swap as Lena Headey, who once had same the role in the TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles, currently plays Evil Queen Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones. If only Director Alan Taylor had hired Jason Momoa as a new Terminator. Khal Terminator—now there’s a thought.

I really want this installment in the franchise to live up to several of its predecessors and the trailer rocks. It could go either way. Arnold returns in his original role and James Cameron has taken the unusual step of explaining why the cyborg has wrinkles. Do we care? I’m keeping my fingers crossed for @Terminator5News and hoping that it turns out well.

  1. Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (September 18, 2015)

“The Gladers have escaped the Maze, but now they face a new set of challenges on the open roads of a world ravaged by solar flares and disease.” That’s all I need to know. We enjoyed the first movie, based on the novel by James Dashner, and were intrigued by the ending. Now we get to move out into a dystopian world that is willing to sacrifice the lives of teen-aged boys in a twisted trial of intelligence and endurance. The survivors have returned in their previous roles. I’m in, too.

  1. The Martian (November 25, 2015)

I wrote enthusiastically about this book in a previous post and I’m seriously looking forward to the movie. Put Ridley Scott together with Matt Damon and the planet Mars in a high-tension story of survival and you’ve got some serious science fiction. Better yet, even people who are allergic to SF can watch this one because, like Gravity, it’s not set that far in the future. This story of an astronaut, part of a Mars landing team, who is accidentally stranded when his team is forced to evacuate is riveting. It could happen. It could happen in our lifetimes. Be prepared.

If @TheMartianMovie does the book justice, science teachers across America should make going to see the movie a class assignment. They’d be fools not to. The science is fascinating—I found it the most interesting part of the story—and even Neil DeGrasse Tyson shouldn’t be able to find fault with it.

  1. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (November 2015)

It’s a good thing this film ends the franchise because the titles are getting too long to handle. If you read the books and saw the previous three movies, you’ll see this one, too. If you didn’t, you won’t because Part 2 won’t make any sense. I expect Jennifer Lawrence to do her usual superb job of acting supported by the same cast of good guys from the Districts and bad guys from the Capitol. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman is listed in the credits as Plutarch Heavensbee so I assume they are using footage already in the can to patch him in.

I found the book rushed and crowded, with author Suzanne Collins cramming an awful lot of action between those covers. So I was glad when Producer Nina Jacobson and Director Francis Lawrence decided to break the book into two parts. Part 1 spent a lot of time on Katniss’s angst at becoming the Mockingjay so @Mockingjaypart2 will get down to the action of destroying the Capitol. The big dramatic theme is, “Let’s go get Snow.”  Us girls get to watch Katniss kick butt and boys of all ages can watch a lot of stuff get blown up. May the odds be ever in our favor.

9.Insurgent (Undated 2015)

This is the film version of the second book in the series by Veronica Roth and starring Shailene Woodley. In this one, “Beatrice Prior must confront her inner demons and continue her fight against a powerful alliance which threatens to tear her society apart with the help from others on her side.” Controlling inner demons doesn’t make for a lot of action so the success of Insurgent depends a lot on how well the writing team of Veronica Roth, Akiva Goldsman and Brian Duffield do with the script and how well Director Robert Schwentke handles his cast of thousands.

As before, if you liked Divergent, you’ll probably see @InsurgentMovie. I plan to go.

10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (December 15, 2015)

This is easily the most anticipated SF film of the year and everything about it has made news in the science fiction world. This includes the return of stars Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, and Kenny Baker, reprising their original roles. Sir Alec Guiness, alas, has gone far, far away.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Episode 7, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels@StarWars_VII has two things going for it that Episodes I, II, and III lacked.

  • J.J. Abrams is directing instead of George Lucas.
  • Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams are writing the screenplay—in addition to George Lucas.

The official trailer went viral instantly and within days had spawned an un-official George Lucas version that added in all the extraneous stuff Mr. Lucas loves and that spoiled the three prequels—including JarJar Binks. (It’s quick but he’s there.) You only have to watch one and then the other to see the difference.

When The Force Awakens is released in December, fans will be camping out on the sidewalk to score advance tickets for opening night. It’s easier to get them online but there’s no romance in that. I fail to see any romance in camping out on the sidewalk in December, either, but it takes all kinds.

I feel compelled to note that we also eagerly awaited the first three movies in the series, prequels to the original Episode 4, and look how well that turned out. I’m guardedly optimistic, though. Which means that I really, really want this movie to be much better than Episodes I, II, and III.

More to Come

A lot more, but less-notable, science fiction movies are in the pipeline for 2015 and I’ll cover those in another post. In the meantime, mark your calendars if you like outer space, time travel, dark dystopian worlds, or dinosaurs. The Force is with us this year.

Related Post: The Martian: Survival on the Red Planet

Seven Ways to Become a Writer

From The Next Phase Blog

 

pen and paper, craft of writing, egocentric little scribbler's heartI have been writing for many years. I’m not going to tell you how many because I’d rather not think about how much ink has flowed under the bridge but suffice it to say that writing has been a large part of my life. Before I even knew my letters I scribbled nonsense on a white-lined pad with an old-fashioned pen and a bottle of blue ink. Why? It just felt good.

I published my first novel in 1988 and my second novel in 1992. At that point, I assumed I would just continue this pace and level of productivity.  That didn’t happen. My agent rejected my third novel and I needed to find out why. So I joined the SpaceCrafts Writers Group and have been a member ever since. The folks at SpaceCrafts identified the problem with my writing very quickly and I should have then rewritten that novel and moved on. I didn’t do that. Instead I shelved that manuscript and started another one.

Over the years I got caught up with my career and my family and wrote less fiction. That fourth manuscript moved to the back burner. Besides, there was plenty of writing to do in one job or another: brochures, web content, email and advertising copy, newsletters, blog posts, etc. I even won an award for a brochure that I wrote for one of the high tech companies that employed me. I say all this not to pat myself on the back but to establish my bona fides as a writer.

If I Could Only Find the Time

When my novels first came out, an astonishing number of people would confide to me that they were (1) writing a novel themselves, (2) always wanted to write a novel, or (3) planned to write a novel some day . . . if they could either [a] find the time, [b] take a sabbatical to devote to writing, [c] plot it all out on index cards, or [d] just write the perfect first sentence.

Moby Dick or The Whale, Herman MelvilleOne man even told me that he ccouldn’tget past that first sentence because Herman Melville had set the precedent with his first novel, Moby Dick. He was shocked when I informed him that Moby Dick was not Herman Melville’s first novel (it was #6) and that one could write an entire first draft and then go back and rewrite the first sentence. This had never occurred to him. (Personally, I have never thought, “Call me Ishmael” all that great as a first sentence. Lots of authors have written better ones than that.

Some of these wanna-be authors would ask me for advice on how to proceed and this is what I told them:

Seven Ways to Become a Writer

  1. Make the time: Don’t wait to find the time, take a sabbatical, get the kids into college or retire to begin writing. You have to make the time. Just as with anything worth doing, you have to put it into your schedule and honor that schedule. Don’t procrastinate and don’t find other things to do that take precedence.  They will always be there if you’re looking for them.
  2. Just write: Start putting words down on paper or your computer screen, whichever is comfortable for you. It will probably be a combination of the two because, once those words start to flow, they will keep on coming. Keep pens and paper handy in your purse, your car, your gym bag, whatever, so you can record an idea or a phrase while it’s fresh. (Don’t type it on your smart phone. It encourages brevity when you want to get that flow going.)
  3. Forget perfection: The words you put down don’t automatically move onto a printed page and get bound between covers. Writing gives you the luxury of rewriting. Don’t worry about whether you are crafting perfect words, perfect sentences or perfect paragraphs. Don’t worry about whether you have a completely clear vision of all your characters. Just start writing.
  4. Use the right tools: You wouldn’t hire a carpenter who didn’t know how to use a hammer and a level or a plumber who didn’t know which end of a wrench to hold. A writer has to have the same command of his/her tools. Those tools are words, spelled properly, along with grammar, and punctuation. If you can’t be bothered to do this and think your brilliant ideas and great creativity will make up for it, think again.  Any magazine or publisher will spot these mistakes from a mile away and chuck your brilliant prose in the circular file. Even in e-publishing, good language makes a difference. Most people will rate bad writing as the work of an amateur—and they would be right. If you want to be a professional, take the time to learn the tools of your craft.
  5. Be open to changes: As you write, new ideas will pop up, story arcs will change, plot devices will become clear and—most of all—characters will take on a life of their own. If you have ever heard an author say this and found it had to believe, well, it’s true. I once had a background character push and shove his way forward until he was one of the main people.  Good guys will turn around and give you a wink that lets you know they have shadowy motives underneath their bonhomie. Bad guys might redeem themselves at the last minute. Don’t fight it, just put it all down.
  6. Stephen King, Kill Your Darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart, kill your darlingsKill your darlings: This is a common phrase in writing and one that every author understands. Still, it can be a difficult rule for even experienced writers to follow. You write a paragraph or a chapter that you really love. You enjoyed living in that place or with those people while you wrote it. You think that turn of phrase is brilliant. You find all that detail fascinating and put in as much as you can. Then someone critiques your pages and tells you that it doesn’t work: that place is a diversion, the turn of phrase is overwritten, the detail is boring.  They tell you to cut it but you don’t want to. Cut it. Trust me. Kill it and move on.
  7. Find objective readers: Whatever you do, don’t depend on your family members to critique your work. They are your worst possible reviewers because (a) they want you to be happy, (b) they’re going to pull their punches so you’ll be happy, and (3) they don’t really know anything about writing.  They’ll tell you everything is wonderful when it’s not and that doesn’t help you. Instead, find a group of people who write, know something about the subject of your writing, or can give you expert advice, and who won’t worry about whether that’s going to make you happy. Then listen to them and take their advice to heart.

There’s more—lots more.  Many people have written whole books on the craft of writing. Websites and blogs are dedicated to it.  You can find a short list of these materials and sites on the Writing Resources page of the SpaceCrafts website.

If you know someone who fits the description above, please forward them this post. Maybe it will help them to get started and keep going.

Meanwhile, my fourth novel is sitting, unfinished on a thumb drive despite my best intentions. Over the years I got distracted by writing short stories—about 22 of them so far—but submitted them for publication only sporadically. Not until this year did I get serious about it and now have two stories appearing in upcoming anthologies with several others out for review in different magazines.  Next I have to make the time to write Chapter 34 of my novel and then keep on going. But procrastination bites me, too. Today, for example, I wrote this post instead of Chapter 34. Help!

Janet Reads at Newburyport Literary Festival

Newburyport Literary FestivalJanet Johnston will be speaking at the Newburyport Literary Festival, which is being held on April 25 and 26 in various locations around the scenic waterfront town of Newburyport, MA.

Janet is joining an outstanding group of authors that includes Andre Dubus III, Hallie Ephron, Wally Lamb, Richard Russo and Claire Messud.

On the topic of speculative fiction, she will be reading from her novella, “Lune Bleue,” which was published in October of 2013 by Analog, the magazine of science fiction and fact. In this story, astronauts on a routine tour of a moon-base get much more than they bargained for.

Come and join the fun in Newburyport and listen to Janet read on Saturday, April 26 at 1:00 p.m. at The Book Rack. You’ll find it at 52 State Street.

@NBPTLit Fest

@AnalogMag