Saturday, December 30, 2017

Dealing With Characters

If you read my other blog (, you may have seen my facebook post a couple weeks ago that I couldn’t post that week’s episode because Bugalu was being a jerk, and I had to do a major rewrite. As I did the rewrite, Mac was hostile and everybody started explaining everything! (As you know, Bob, Earth’s moon orbits around Earth, and it takes about 28 days to do it.) The only thing worse than an info dump is a completely unnecessary info dump!

I used to say that I start with a character, and they tell me their story. Well, kinda sorta. Sometimes, I start with a scene (a battleground after the battle) or an experience (being tossed off a cliff like a piece of garbage). Then I start wondering, “Who would be in this situation? How did they get here? Or, if it’s more interesting, what will they do now?”

No matter how tight-lipped a character starts out, by the time I’ve written 3-4 thousand words about him/her, they have layers of likes, dislikes, memories, experiences, hang-ups and maybe even dreams. They are no longer 2-dimensional (an apprentice wizard), they are developing some depth (Her teacher has gotten frail during her apprenticeship, so she feels she should stay and take care of him).

I get to know my characters pretty well. You’d think that would be a good thing, but... it has its drawbacks.

When they start telling me their story, they might not give all the details. We don’t know each other very well, and they don’t think their life is that interesting, usually, so I can’t blame them for editing what they give me. And I don’t usually question much while I’m getting the rough draft down. But when I start going through the next draft, I start asking for details.

“Smitty, I’m not sure I understand. Mac just came on board, and you’re already out of sorts with her. Did she do something to irritate you?”

“She stared at me from the moment her transpod opened!”

That hadn’t been mentioned before. Obviously, that scene needed expanding so the reader would know he was not - normally - an old sour-puss.

“He’s passed over plenty of hopeful subordinates who would say he is.”

“He decided they wouldn’t fit his team. Part of being an officer. Hold your peace, Drake. She’s talking to Smitty.”

Okay. Maybe I should say here that I’ve been working on Mac’s adventures on the Fireball for about 40 years. That’s a long time to have the same people living in your head. Yes, we’ve taken breaks - some of them pretty long - and they’ve had to share my head with plenty of other characters during those decades. But I think it’s safe to say that I REALLY know Mac, and the rest of the crew.

How well do you know your siblings or spouse? If you’re having a bad day, do they know it? Or do you still hide that away?

When I confronted Bugalu about being a jerk in the soon-to-be-posted episode, he responded with, “I was trying to make Mac get her temper under control. It’s not like I haven’t talked to her about that before.”

Sure enough, Mac was verging on a rampage, until Bugalu had shocked her by being a jerk. I put on my ‘director’/counselor hats, and we worked to get their moods more... settled in the story.

Oh, and the un-necessary explaining? It happens from time to time, mostly in a rough draft. I just pull my editor hat on tight and remove the unnecessary bits. In this case, 2 pages of ‘splainin’ became 6 lines. 5.5 lines. Somewhere in there.

I don’t want my characters to edit their story. That’s part of my job.

Fighting between characters? Maybe, because siblings fight. Spouses fight. After 40 years, you have to expect an occasional disagreement. But if it becomes part of the story, it needs a reason. Something other than, “I was having a bad day.”

Friday, December 15, 2017

Weird Planets 12

Good morning! This is the 12th day of your tour, and it’s the last day! So tomorrow you can either rest up or start home, it’s your choice. Now, we do have a number of planets to get through today, so everybody buckle up and let’s get going!

The first one is 51 Pegasi b. Now, don’t ask about the name; they only gave us clues about one naming method, and have completely ignored any other methods that may have been used. Anyway, 51 Pegasi b is gigantic, about half the mass of Jupiter. Yet it completes its orbit in 4 days, so it’s tucked right in close, like so many seem to be. This was the first confirmed exo-planet orbiting a sun-like star, and that’s its claim to fame.

Here is system HR 8799. We aren’t here to see any one planet in this system, but the entire system. This was the first exoplanet system that was directly imaged. As you can see, the system contains a debris disk and 4 massive planets, at least.

Now this - and I keep asking for the name, but they never give it to me - was once called the Oldest Alien Planet. It is 12.7 billion years old, so it formed more than 8 billion years before Earth and only 2 billion years after the Big Bang. Its discovery made people start thinking that planets are very common in the universe and that life may have begun far sooner than anybody had ever imagined. I’m still waiting to hear from one of those civilizations that got started so much earlier than us.

Here we are, only 420 light-years away from Earth, at the Coku Tau-4 system. See the big dusty disk going around the star? Scientists think this system has the universe’s youngest star, less than 1 million years old. They haven’t actually found it yet, but if you look closely, you can see a big hole in that disk. That hole is 10 times the size of Earth’s orbit around the sun, and they surmise it’s been made by this planet cleaning up the dust as it rolls around its orbit.

This is Hat-P-1. Huge, isn’t it? It is 1.76 times bigger than Jupiter, but only has 1/2 Jupiter’s mass. It’s lighter than a ball of cork would be! What’s holding it together? I have no idea. Known as one of the Puffiest Planets known, it could float in water, if it could find a tub big enough.

This Super-Neptune, called Hat-P-11b, is 4.7 times the size of Earth, but has 25 times Earth’s mass. If you weighed 100 pounds on Earth, here you’d weigh 2,500 pounds. Doesn’t sound very inviting to me. And it’s puny star is 3/4 the size of our sun, and cooler. On the other hand, 11b’s orbit is so close to that star, it only takes 4.88 days to complete an orbit, and the surface temperature is around 1100°F. Nope, still doesn’t sound inviting.

Now here’s a fun one. Most planets orbit in the same plane as their star’s equator. But XO-3b’s orbit is at a 37-degree angle to the star’s equator. How did that happen? The only other planet that’s been known to have such a tilted orbit was Pluto. But it got demoted to dwarf planet, and its eccentricities are of no interest anymore. So tilted orbits are an oddity. I’ve heard a rumor that one planet orbits backwards to its star’s rotation. But I don’t know where it is, or else we’d squeeze that in today, too.

Okay, watch carefully, or you’re going to miss this planet. SWEEPS-10 is only 740,000 miles from its parent star. It zips around so fast, a SWEEPS-10 year is only 10 hours long. This puts it in a classification called Ultra Short Period Planets. Those are the fastest planets, where their orbits last less than a day.

Take a good look, this is the last planet of the day, and of our tour. COROT-exo-3b is the densest exoplanet known to man at this time. As you can see, it’s about the same size as Jupiter, but it’s mass is 20 times Jupiter’s. That makes it about twice as dense as lead. But it might not even be a planet. Scientists are also considering the possibility that it’s a brown dwarf, or failed star.

Please watch your step as you disembark. Thank you for taking our tour, and for sticking with it for the entire 12 legs. I know the tour is called ‘Weird Planets’, but actually, this was only a sampling. If we had tried to show you all the weird planets out there, we could be at it for years. Have safe journeys home!

[At last! I don’t know what I’ll be doing next week, but it will probably have nothing to do with planets, weird or not!]