The Unreadable Critique

Standard

In one of those Facebook memories, I was reminded of something from two years ago that was a strange new adventure for me. Sitting at the Downtown Montrose Starbucks, where I am sitting as I blog today, I was editing a short story hours before submitting it to a critique group.  It would be the first time I would share a work of fiction to anyone I actually knew.  In fact, the group I was meeting with included published writers, and this was the first time I shared something with actual professionals.

Spoiler alert, it didn’t go well.  The most memorable critique (and it was meant and received in a supportive way) was “this is unreadable.”  That may have been the harshest critique, but it followed a majority of negative comments.

It didn’t discourage me.  Well, it did, but it made me get to work to hone my craft.  Take the feedback, and get better.  I had a sense of purpose from the process.  Picture if you will, the timeframe.  I had been living in California for a year by then, and six months into house payments the squeeze of the cost of living was starting to circle me.  While I was enjoying myself, I started to repeat a motto:

“It’s time to start turning my hobbies into profit centers.”

Okay, maybe that comes across blunt, blunter then it should.  I have hobbies, and I like to do them because I enjoy doing them.  It’s just that until recently, I never really tried to exploit them.  Which, come to think about it “exploit” doesn’t sound any better.  I wasn’t expecting to go running to the bank, I just wanted to take my free time and my investments in those hobbies and make it so they were still fun with at worst make it no longer a losing effort.  The fall before, I took long strides to expand my band judging skills, including venturing into winter color guard (something that might be a blog later this week as I get into that new season).  Trying to explore what I could do through writing was something completely different.

Honestly, I am a long way from doing anything that suggests I can turn a profit on writing.  My interest is in writing a novel-length story.  To do that first, you have to type up a novel-length story; which is way harder than it sounds.  I’ve mentioned I participate in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) every November, and have accomplished over 50,000 words on five occasions.  I can honestly say that those attempts resulted in completing one novel – and it sucks.  I’ve actually worked on four novels throughout that time, but struggled with a full plot, or put myself in situations where I scrapped ideas for a number of reasons.  As a great meme once said:

“Give a child a book and they will be happy for a month.  Teach a child to write a book and they will be tormented their whole life by self-doubt.”

Joining the critique group was my next big jump into this process.  Editing.  Let me tell you, editing is hard; especially for someone like me.  I tend to visualize a story and tell it based on what I see.  The problem I face is getting the words on the screen to match both what I visualize and what I thought I told.  I”m sure if any of you read my blogs before you have seen more than a few grammatical or typographic errors.  I obviously wouldn’t have done that on purpose, heck I might even though I wrote those items correctly.  A critique I got often early on was to read what I wrote out loud so I could hear what the issues are.  It never worked for me because when I read it, even to myself out loud, I was saying what I wanted the words to say not what they actually said.  A word speak app has helped with that, but I battle some common issues (like I wait for that “you are mixing up tenses” every time I submit to the group).   Web tools help like Grammarly has been a lifesaver — I even use that for work e-mails and reports.    As a friend I know from another writer group told me:

“When I finished my first novel in college, my professor said, ‘good job, maybe in 10 years you will be done editing and be able to publish’,”

All of this is what comes before the final stages of preparing a novel, which is honestly more of a dream than a step along the way.  There are editors who do the hard sweep of everything.  There are beta readers who look at the whole of the book for feedback.  Then you go into the brutal failure rich world of publishing.

I plug away regardless, putting together what I can when I can to share with the critique group.  Their varied backgrounds lead to great commentary and critiques.  Some are a prolific young adult or romance novelists.  Some are short story specialists.  Some are into SciFi, some into fantasy.  Some focus on the hard details of what I submit, picking away at each inconsistency that needs to be resolved.  Some look at the conceptual flow to see if the story is entertaining or interesting.  Some focus on pacing.  Some focus on character.  Some just tell me “you’re mixing up your tenses”.  In return, I do my part and give my feedback to what they submit when I can.

I’d like to sit here and say that the person who found my work to be unreadable at my first submission had changed his heart, but I can’t.  Sadly he had a sudden illness and passed away just before New Years.  Before then, I had consistently shared my thanks for his feedback, which remained honest – good and bad.  That’s all you really want from a critique, honesty.  Because if you know what works and what doesn’t you’ll always get better.  Because as I say all the time in my real job:

“It’s not what we do wrong, it’s what we do about it.”

A Rover’s First Miles

Standard

Sometime either in the near future or the near past, JPL’s next rover will begin its journey to Mars.  For over five years, JPL has been planning, designing, building, and testing the Mars 2020 mission; the target towards launch this upcoming July.  It is essentially a redo on the continued successful Mars Science Laboratory rover commonly known as Curiosity.  Mars 2020 (which will get it’s own fun name soon) has been our flagship program for as long as I have been here.  I even blogged about it last June:

Mars 2020 is Coming

The assembly took a few months a mid-last year, testing a few more months until the beginning of this year, and now they are ready for the next stage.  A cross-country road trip.

Mars 2020 will launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on a date yet to be made public but likely around mid-July.  To get the mission to Florida, they boxed everything up and put the mission on the smoothest rides they could get.  The mission’s departure date, arrival date, route, and progress isn’t made public just in case there are security risks; however, here on the lab, we are pretty aware of the increased activity in the high bay where it was assembled and the funny looking trucks coming and going from the area.

Getting the mission to Flordia isn’t as easy as you might think.  For starters, there’s a lot to it.  The rover, which is the size of a small SUV, is pretty bulky even when it’s in a stowed condition like it is now.  There are three other components that have to go with it.  The heat shield attaches below the rover for entry into the Mars atmosphere.  The rover will be slowed to the surface using a unit called the ‘sky crane’; which uses a series of parachutes, a lowering crane, and thrusters to place the rover gently on the Martian surface undamaged.  Then the cruise stage, which is essentially the propulsion system used for course corrections between Earth and Mars.  When the mission arrives at the Cape, all of that hardware would need to be tested and checked out before the final assembly begins.  The testing and assembly require fixturing and other hardware, so there are trucks and trucks just full of ground support equipment.

I say trucks, but that is just a guess.  There would definitely be trucks leaving JPL because nothing else would work around here to carry anything out of the lab.  The challenge with any spaceflight hardware is that they are pretty sensitive to vibrations.  That’s why it likely won’t go by plane.  Flying, whether you notice it or not, is constant shaking even when there is no turbulence.  Sure, the mission will see a fair bit of vibration on the launch, but that’s a couple minutes – not four or five hours.  Usually, the hardware is only flown in its final assembled condition if there isn’t a better option (like flying overseas).  Sometimes, the hardware is transported by boat simply because even that is less of a stress on hardware than by car, but that’s usually just amongst the gulf states.

I guess I like to picture that the mission is riding in a truck there because it makes for a great visual.  A convoy of space hardware in containers running hard across the open road.  I could even see it being like Mad Max: Fury Road complete with a guy strung up playing a guitar shooting fire from its end.  Then again, I still love the idea of The Great American Road Trip.  I’ve personally driven coast-to-coast five times and driven in every state in the country, love what I see when I do it.  I’m even considering making the drive myself to watch the launch this July, with the pup but without the flame-thrower guitarist.

Adventure awaits for our Rover.  This trip is the first of many many long miles passing by thousands and thousands of people who will wish it well on it’s journey.  Sure it will be on the back of a vehicle, but soon enough it will be on the top of a rocket.  After that, he ventures out on his own on a planet that we can only dream about standing on.

Expecting LA’s Best

Standard

Here’s a hint, when talking to kids about NASA, expect the unexpected.

There are a couple days now that I list under my “favorite JPL Days of the Year”, and one just passed.  About a week ago, I volunteered to present at a local elementary school as part of the Los Angeles School District’s LA’s Best program.  This afterschool program funds and supports afterschool clubs in the areas of interest that 3rd thru 5th graders may be interested in.   Honestly, the kids that are in attendance a fair big distance from picking where they end up, but our involvement does seem to spark a heck of a lot of excitement over space and science.

This is the third year I volunteered, and what really kicked this event off that separated it from the previous two was that  … I got training before I walked in the door.  The last couple of times, I had to miss the training and didn’t know what to expect.  Now that I  know what to expect, I got told what to expect.

And still, things went unexpected.

The process always goes – I walk in, I say I work for JPL, then I ask if anyone has any questions.  The following half-hour is nothing but hands in the air and randomness.  Most of the time, they are asking fundamental space questions – for instance, each year I was asked what was in a black hole, and how many planets are there in the universe. – both questions with weird answers and I am not the one to ask, but I’m the one in the cool JPL shirt.   I tend to get the kids focused on JPL missions — what’s coming up, what’s going on, that sort of thing.  That’s easy for me to do because that’s the stuff I get interested in.  Where things go off the rail is the intangible questions.

I mean, I like that I had engineering minds trying to figure out how they could throw a camera down a black hole,  I like that the scientists from the year before were debating what constitutes a planet.

This year, they got personal.

They asked me why I wanted to work for JPL.

They asked me what I wanted to do with my career … 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders asking this.  Sometimes my own management won’t ask me that question.

They asked me what was the biggest failure in my life.  Not what NASA or JPL’s failure. … mine.

Then came the question that forced me to think fast, but had the greatest reaction:
Girl:  “How much money does JPL pay you?”
Me:  “Enough that I can afford a dog.”
Whole-Class:  WWWOOOOOOWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!!!!!

As much fun as answering questions was, we spent a little time watching a rover drive over a speed bump on my IPad before building straw rockets and making a mess.

In many ways, what I was doing could come across dumb or goofy., and I am already rolling my eyebrows at whatever my dad (the retired teacher) is going to say about inspiration and junk.  Then again, I walked into that event with someone in mind.  My high school chemistry teacher, the one person I can point to that would have led me down an engineering path, passed away the day before the event.  It’s still etched in my memory the day he taught us about Avrogado’s Number (aka a mole, aka 6.02 x 10^23) by sitting on top of the bench at the front of the class.  I thought of that and I thought, there are stranger ways to inspire people.