Monday, June 29, 2020

Handling the Loss of a Very Special Pet (and What it has to do with Writing)

Those of you following me on Facebook know what we had a particularly painful loss this past week. She was a very special feline in our lives named Serenity.

Let me tell you a little more about her and you'll understand why this was such a blow, and what the subject has to do with writing.

Serenity (top) and Sugar (at bottom)
from approximately 2010.
In 2004, Serenity and her litter mate sister Sugar, who we still have, were given to David as kittens by his Little Brother (as in Big Brothers/Little Brothers) so he wouldn't be lonely when he was deployed away from home.

And they certainly did their job well!

They'd be waiting for him by the door when he came home each night to what would have otherwise been an empty house. There antics kept him entertained and their companionship made his time away a lot more bearable. David was deployed for five years--all but six months of it at Ft. Bliss--and these two feline characters became his best buds.

Serenity (left) and Sugar (right)
Although both calicos from the same litter, the similarities of these two sisters ended there. Serenity was always a robust, healthy, happy individual. Sugar was smaller, thinner, less friendly and seemed to fall more into the "failing to thrive" category. She has very short, very fine hair and has never been able to grow whiskers. She's much more standoffish than Serenity, as well as many pounds lighter. We worried about Sugar's health for most of her 16 years...but never did we suspect it would be the boisterous and hardy Serenity that would leave us first.

When David drove home to the ranch for the weekend, he'd bring the two cats home with him. We used to joke that he was bringing them to visit their country estate. It was probably a good dress rehearsal for their later years, because when David retired from the military, the kitties came home to live at the ranch for good. That was the beginning of 2010.

Serenity with the "real" Maura, who
inspired StarDog #3 (about 2017)
Sugar continued to be standoffish, and as our pup population grew, she remained aloof. Serenity, on the other hand, always the cuddler, was more than happy to curl up on the couch or in a doggy bed with the "pack" all while purring loudly.

She was a wonderful companion to all the dogs--but especially to our puppy, who became her playmate in the last year. They'd run and chase each other for hours then curl up together and sleep.

Serenity just before going
to the vet last week.
A little over two weeks ago, we noted a sudden change in Serenity. She stopped coming to sleep at the foot of our bed at night, and was no longer playing with the puppy. After a few days, most of which she spent sleeping in one of our kitchen chairs, we decided we'd better take her to the vet for a checkup.

She ended up staying at the vet's overnight. And that stretched into a week. In spite of a battery of tests and treatments, she wasn't responding and continued to decline. We'd hoped to bring her back home, but it became apparent she was much too ill. We finally had a long chat with our vet, and though it was a heartbreaking realization, we knew it was her time.

Though 16 years is a pretty long life for a cat, we still wished she could have stayed with us for many more years. She is very missed, and not just by us. Our pup, Zoey, who just had a vet stay herself, is especially missing her, as is Sugar, who still calls for her.

And her loss hit us very, very  hard.

All of these emotions got me thinking about pets in fiction, especially since several books in my series were originally part of the Pets in Space anthologies and included special animal companions called StarDogs. The stories tend to follow these companions while in their youth, and while their character/owners are off on big adventures.

But what comes later? When writing a series that involves important animal characters, that's really something to consider.

Maura--the star of SpyDog and the
third StarDog in my series. StarDogs
are bioengineered -- part dog, part cat,
but also carry weasel and mongoose DNA.
As David and I talked through our loss of Serenity, we realized having these special fur babies is like having kids who you know will never live to see 20.

In the case of my fictional StarDogs it's more like 25, but the point is, someday the characters that love them are going to have to deal with the loss of their amazing little buddies.

Since I have (at least) one more StarDog story planned after Juggernaut--the upcoming story in Pets in Space 5--this is something I'll be facing with my fictional pets. That story is tentatively titled "The Last StarDog." Will it need to at least touch on the fate of the other four StarDogs that came before, as a continuation of the previous books?

That's a loaded question.

Many readers may not want to know about the StarDogs' eventual demise, but on the other hand, can their fate be ignored in a final wrap on the StarDog saga? Many played important roles in the overall arc of the series and in the lives of some of the main characters. How can I honor the memory of each of these smart, brave and resourceful sidekicks without the final edition becoming a depressing downer?

My experience this past week has shown me that I need to give a lot of thought to how I'll handle the wrap on these previous adventures...before I delve into that final StarDog chronicle in my series.

Have a good week.

Friday, June 26, 2020


The coronavirus pandemic has thrust us into the future in some ways whether we like it or not. Forced to stay at home, even those of us who might have been ambivalent about our phones or satellite/cable connections or social media now depend on our technology much more than we had before. We Zoom and Facetime with our families and friends, work at home, meet with our doctors online, devour whatever is on Netflix or Prime Video, order food from whatever app we can on our phones, buy anything and everything from Amazon to deliver to our doors. Resistance is futile.

But the trend that the virus has accelerated at warp speed is education, with classes from kindergarten to college being held online. The problem is, as I’ve heard anecdotally from my just-graduated-from-high-school grandson, his first-grade sister and their mother, and according to the evidence stacking up from school districts around the country, online learning can be challenging in a multitude of ways. Even for kids who are bright and self-motivated, it can be boring. For kids who are struggling, it can be confusing and frustrating. For those without Internet access, computers or workspace at home, it can be impossible. And for teachers who have never learned to teach using the technology, it can be the last straw.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, the experiment to educate more than 50 million K-12 students online during lockdown this school year “just didn’t work.” Teachers found the transition away from the classroom difficult, and students found the transition from what they do every day on their phones, tablets and computers for gaming and communication to what they have to do for school to be a lot harder than anyone anticipated.
Ugh! So bo-o-o-ring!
Part of it may be the way online classes are structured, though that may vary widely from teacher to teacher, subject to subject, and school system to school system. For example, my six-year-old granddaughter struggled with most subjects online but loved the online math games. She had never succeeded in math in a classroom setting. My grandson was a dedicated classroom student in English and history and was also good at math and science. He started online classes before lockdown as part of a special work/study program to finish his high school degree. He found the classes tedious, the equivalent, he said, of completing electronic worksheets. (I admit most work training courses I’ve had to take online have been similar—and deadly boring.) Few teachers have yet learned to really use the technology to advantage in getting lessons across. Too often they’re just translating their lectures to video, which lack even a human connection.

Many students nationwide complain that teachers give too much work with their online classes. This, apparently, is a function of not understanding fully how long it takes to complete a task on the computer, or maybe just being too enthusiastic about the new technology. It’s clear many assignments don’t take into account the circumstances many students find themselves in—a distracting environment, sharing space and computers, parents that may be working at home (or not home at all, due to work requirements), and the need for individual attention from the teacher, which may or may not be possible.

Some students do well with classes that are recorded for playback at a later time, with teachers available at set times for questions. Other students might never watch the recordings at all. Classes held on platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, with all the students present in a virtual classroom setting have their own problems, according to one eighth-grader from New York City in an opinion piece in the New York Times. Not surprisingly, Veronique Mintz observes, the same teachers that “struggle to manage students in the classroom also struggle online.”

In a suburb of Washington D.C., Fairfax County schools have had problems with two separate online platforms, first the commonly-used college system Blackboard, then, when students flooded that platform with obscene, racist and homophobic messages, the newer Google “suite” of tools, including Chat and Meet. Now students are receiving unwanted personal bullying messages from Chat, presumably authored by their virtual classmates. The school system’s IT staff are outclassed by the bullying students, who, according to Tim Schaad, a Fairfax parent and cybersecurity specialist, “are running circles around administrators.” 
A chaotic classroom can happen even online.
That’s a rich people’s problem, of course. Thornier still is the problem of those many students who don’t have access to computers or the Internet at all. A recent story in USAToday relates how one mom saw a teenager sitting on the curb outside a Subway in Starke, Florida with a Chromebook in his lap. She turned her car around to check on him. Turns out he was using the restaurant’s WiFi to do his homework. He had no Internet access at home. The article goes on to detail the lengths to which the Jacksonville, Florida school district has gone to provide computers and mobile hotspots to more than a third of its 110,000 students. Still, over 200 students remain without access.

Here in Madison County, in the mountains of Western North Carolina, funds are not available for such an effort. While we’re still in lockdown, kids can sit outside the library or in the parking lots of schools if they don’t have Internet at home, and some computers have been made available, but not nearly enough. So, like in years far past, the children of Appalachia will be falling further behind the longer we remain in lockdown.

At least they can remain blissfully ignorant of the cruelty their peers can deliver via Google Chat or the Comments section at “school.”

Virtually, Donna

*Information for this post provided from:
"The Results Are In For Remote Learning: It Didn't Work," by Tawnell D. Hobbs and Lee Hawkins, The Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2020. 

"Why I'm Learning More With Distance Learning Than I Do In School," by Veronique Mintz, The New York Times, May 5, 2020. 

"'Mama is tired': After school closures, some families burn out on online classes, others thrive," Emily Bloch, Florida Times-Union/USAToday, May 5, 2020.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Prox Transmissions #review #scifi

In the past few years, I have really struggled to read. Up until my 30s, I was a voracious reader - as a kid, I would read pretty much anything and everything, even my mum's Mills and Boon or my dad's Ian Fleming and Alexander Kent books, when everything of my own had run out. It was in my teens that my preferences fell into the scifi and fantasy genres predominantly, and later a definite leaning to SFR (though at the time I didn't even know it was called that).
In my 30s parenthood made it difficult to find time to read. I'm not a person who likes to be pulled out of a book once I'm in - I'm more a 'devour in one sitting' than a 'chapter a day' kind of reader - so having children meant I'd rarely get through a story. I'm not sure if it was the constant disturbances that broke my ability to stick with a book, or just that real life was a lot more demanding. Whatever, as the years went by, even when I got time to devote to a book I found it increasingly hard to settle to one. Publishing didn't help because it meant I started to analyse even old favourites with a much more critical eye, unable to switch off editing mode even when not in the middle of edits of my own. I became increasingly picky, only liking a very specific area of SFR. Finding new ones became harder as authors either ignorantly or wilfully mis-classified their books' genre on Amazon, and Amazon's own insistence on stuffing sponsored posts into searches, making it too hard a slog. When I did have a hankering to read, I went back to old favourites rather than risk anything new despite the dozens of free reads sitting untouched on my Kindle.

So reading a brand new book is a rare occurrence. But this book I've chosen to review today is different. In the normal scheme of things, I probably wouldn't have picked it up myself. I'm not really into Earth setting conspiracy theories, and the cover wouldn't have caught my eye. It was bought for me as a Christmas present.

SETI radio astronomer Dr. Stephen Browning wakes disoriented and confused in a dingy gas station bathroom. He stumbles home trying to put the pieces of his night back together, only to learn that new tenants have been living in his apartment for over a month. They can offer no explanation, only a letter, written in his own handwriting with three simple words:
Shave your head.
Desperate to understand what is happening, Browning follows the instructions and is shocked to discover a string of numbers concealed beneath his hair--a series of coordinates tattooed upon the side of his head--coordinates which lead him to the Allen Telescope Array, where he becomes the unwitting recipient of a mysterious signal originating six light years away.
His world slowly unraveling, Browning sets out on an epic journey to decipher the meaning of the cryptic transmission, quickly finding that he is merely a helpless pawn in a much bigger game.
He soon learns that the secret transmission holds not only a message from the far reaches of the galaxy but a dire warning from the future.
Little does Browning know that unless he can protect the transmission from falling into the wrong hands, not only will the warning come to pass but a far greater threat awaits mankind.

I'm going to straight up admit to some instant bias here, because this isn't just a book. This is the origin story for my favourite band, and as such that made it really difficult to review as a normal book. If I was reviewing it as an actual stand-alone story, I'd say this was in need of an edit to tighten it up, or at least a proof-reader to fix the most obvious errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and formatting. The story can feel somewhat disjointed as it's presented as a collection of an individual's account mostly but interspersed with journals, security reports, observed data, and intelligence files. It also has a rather jarring switch of perspectives right at the end as it changes from the main character we've followed throughout to a secondary character. As conspiracy theory stories go, this still manages to spring a few surprises and twists, while running along believable lines of a huge cover-up. It follows the creation of the Starset Society (the 'authors' of the book), who have now turned to music to spread the message at the heart of the story - a transmission from the future warning of a disaster ahead for humanity. If you're familiar with the band's songs, it ties in quite seamlessly with their concerts, or demonstrations as they prefer to call them. Warning - if you're off to a demonstration and haven't read the book, please be aware there are spoilers during their performances, something I sadly wasn't expecting before seeing them live in February. That's what I get for not reading it when I got it, lol. It's another nice touch though, which adds to the book and the music.
Although the style of writing is a little dry and a touch emotionless (one reason I switched from straight SF to SFR which tends to have more emotional impact for me), there's a lyrical edge to it. One minute the author has written a somewhat sexist description of the female lead, the next he's describing a kiss like he's writing the lyrics to one of their songs. And despite this not being my typical type of book. I got really attached to the main character and his computer hacker female partner. The twist at the end was shocker and I think was a bit like getting to the end of a book and being told it was all a dream (but not exactly that because I'm trying to keep this spoiler free).

In conclusions:
Normally I wouldn't have even picked this type of book up, but despite the need for at least proof-reading and not being my typical thing, it definitely had something because I'm still thinking about this book and the characters weeks after finishing it. I'd love a sequel but I guess really that's their music. Overall, I enjoyed this book and happy I stuck with it because really I needed something different and this was certainly that. Would I recommend it? Yes, I think I would, but if you aren't a fan of their music it may lose some of its meaning taken just as a book alone. And that at least gives it a unique feature.
These trials make us who we are, who we are, we are
We're motivated by the scars that we're made of
These trials make us who we are, who we are, we are
We take our places in the dark
And turn our hearts to the stars...
Book Update
I am currently procrastinating over the first round of edits returned to me but will have them sent back soon. *looks shifty* Meanwhile I'm debating if I want to spend money on editing for two further stand-alone pieces, a scifi novella and an angel themed short. Do or do not...

Monday, June 22, 2020

On 'Trying Too Hard to Sound Sci-Fi'

Can we talk?

Over the years, I've been pretty happy with my reviews but I have had a few zingers and there's one I'd like to address in this blog. It is known we're not supposed to respond to reviewers directly, but as a writer, I feel a need to present my explanation for why I did what I did.

Trust me, I agonize over these stories long enough that nothing I say is random or thrown in for effect.

So here are my thoughts.

A reviewer said (I'm paraphrasing because I'm not calling anyone out directly, just this particular line of thought): "I had a problem with all the sci-fi words. If something takes an hour, why doesn't the author say "hour" instead of inventing a new word? All these strange words really took me right out of the story."

I think the problem here might be reading about space or other planets without really letting your imagination leave good ol' Earth.

Here's my take. Time...and years, hours, minutes, we know them are based on the rotation of our Earth, or the rotation of our Earth around our sun. They don't even call a day a day right next door on Mars, they call it a Sol. So when we're talking about a SciFi Romance of the future, with a setting involving multiple planets, other solar systems, etc. our "hour" (meaning a 1/24th measurement of our Earth turning on its axis) is not going to make any sense and it will have no correlation on the multiple planets we may choose to inhabit.

I recognized that when I wrote Inherit the Stars and other books in the Inherited Stars series. In order to have commerce, conduct business, communicate, etc. between planets, they'd need a standardized system of time, and that new system wouldn't be measured in hours, minutes and seconds as we know them, because those measurements only make sense on Earth. Indeed, the first planet colonized in my series had a very different calendar based on the rotation cycle of that new world. Earth was a fading and all but forgotten legend in the era Inherit the Stars takes place, so naturally it wouldn't utilize a system of time based on a forgotten world they'd left millennia in their past.

So taking this into consideration, I created the standard interplanetary time format and the reference words to refer to these standardized units of time. So....'calendars' is used instead of 'years.' 'Tempas' instead of 'minutes.' 'Sectas' instead of 'seconds.'

Ironically, 'day' I left 'day' because 'day' doesn't always refer to a distinct measure of time on Earth, and "Some zarth my prince will come' just loses something in translation.

One of the imaginative things SciFi Romance does is lets the reader experience other places that are distinctly not Earth. So in my mind it was important that I didn't create a story that sounded like the characters were still grounded right here on this planet. Some may not agree with that line of thought. I get that. But for me, taking the story elements off our little blue marble is a big part of writing space adventure.

Have a great week.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Going somewhere else without leaving home

In these pandemic days reading is good way of going somewhere else without leaving home. So, I've picked up a few cheapies and freebies to add to the library. This post is about me as a reader, not a writer.

I riffled through the titles in my library and picked out a fairly new acquisition.

It was well-written, with an interesting premise but the author seemed to think I needed to know, in considerable detail, what everybody was wearing. Okay, I went along with it for a short while because people had to dress for the occasion. Think Cinderella's ball. You know how your brain bookmarks things? It might be a certain word repeated too often, or lots of sentences beginning with 'He'. And when you hit another one of those, your brain nudges you out of the story to say, "There's another one!" That happened in chapter four when a new character was introduced with a paragraph on the clothes he wore. Jolted right out of the story, I rolled my eyes and moved on.

This one I might go back to when I'm feeling more tolerant.

Back to the library.

I picked out another book and dived in. After three paragraphs I kicked myself for not using the 'look inside' feature before I downloaded. I had to keep stopping to work out whose point of view we were in. It switched within paragraphs. I had to stop, re-read, think about it. Is that her? Oh no, I think it's him. Pass. Won't be going back to that one. Too much like hard work.

Back to the library.

What about that one? It looked like a good mystery. The book started with an action hook, a fairly common ploy where something dramatic happens to hook the reader, in this case a gun to the back of the head. I confess I don't much like this approach. Something happens but I don't know who to and why, therefore why should I care? This was no exception. The next page or two was devoted to why this individual had a gun stuck to her head and I had a hard time processing the time line. After that, the next few pages were back story disguised as thoughts but very little action. I wasn't sucked in, you see. I was being asked to work too hard before I was completely engaged. I might have another go with this one. It was well-written, with a good voice but certainly didn't suit right now.

Back to the library.

By this time I wanted a sure-fire success, so I went back to books I'd already read. I ended up with Linnea Sinclair's Finders Keepers, one of her early SFRs. I'd read it so long ago I'd forgotten the story. Hurrah!

I loved it all over again. It's absolutely my kind of read. A spaceship that wouldn't have been in good enough condition to even make it into Star Wars's Rebel Fleet, a gutsy heroine and a hunky hero. The premise – he crash-lands on a planet where she rescues him – has been around forever. But the scene where he comes back to consciousness hasn't. It's nothing short of brilliant 😊.

The opening scene which sucked me right in introduced Trilby and placed her into a setting. I got to meet her spaceship, her obsolete droid, and the dangerous planet where she was sheltering. Then she watches the fighter crash through the atmosphere and into the nearby jungle. It's an alien ship and, expecting the pilot to be dead, she goes to the site to scavenge some parts. But the pilot is not alien and he's not dead. She brings him back to her cavern hiding place. It's all so tactile you can close your eyes and see it, smell it, feel the sweat on your skin.  

Like any romance, you know how that part of it will end, but it was so much fun going along for the ride, through the highs and lows of fights, a space battle or two, and a possible relationship. It's action-packed, filled with twists and turns – the perfect read to take me out of myself.

Here's the blurb:

Independent trader Trilby Elliot is making some not-quite-legal modifications to her starfreighter, when an unexpected visitor falls out of space. Literally. He’s crashed onto the uninhabited planet of Avanar in a crippled ’Sko fighter–the last place you’d expect to find a Zafharin military officer because the ’Sko and the Zafharin have been at war as long as Trilby can remember.

Rhis Vanur is your typically arrogant Zafharin. But to Trilby’s surprise, he doesn’t look down on her or her slapdash ship. Still, Trilby’s learned the hard way that even though she found Rhis, she can’t keep him. She’s just a low-budget jump jockey as far as men like him are concerned. She’s not falling for his offer to help…until Port Rumor reports her best friend missing and Trilby learns that the ’Sko are hunting both her and Rhis. Now they’re in it together for better, for worse–or till death blasts them to oblivion....

I had so much fun reading Finders Keepers I might go back and read Gabriel's Ghost. It starts off with one of those action hooks I don't like, but I persevered the first time. I might like it better this time around.

And in one of those remarkable cases of serendipity, no sooner had I written this post than I came across an ad for an online class - run by Linnea Sinclair. Here's the link. Scroll down to find the course.It's $15 for non-members, free if you join. I've done some of Linnea's courses. She's good.