Writing About Aeroplanes: You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

I started writing stories about pilots before becoming an actual pilot myself, which is kind of an interesting contrast to Timothy Gwyn, who started writing after establishing a career in aviation. I imagine he didn’t make a lot of the silly mistakes I did.

Part of the problem is when you start researching planes and flying, there’s lots of talk about design, and neat things like, I learned early on how the radial engines gave way in design to the sleeker in-line positioning of the pistons to reduce drag, and I’d learned how many crew were needed in a Lancaster Bomber and what their positions were from when the Lanc visited Winnipeg last. But when it came to the basics, I had learned about the Bernoulli principle, and I understood the control surfaces and how they worked, that the rudder was controlled by pedals, while the elevator and ailerons were connected to the stick or control column.

That was…it.

So I go off on my merry way writing my novel, and then I bring it to a critique group where one member had got his private pilot’s licence many years before, and he pointed out some of my incorrect assumptions about how planes work.*

Oh. Well that is very helpful. It was one of those things, I just would never have thought to ask.

I tried to do more research, but I kept finding that the basics were hard to find resources on. The information online about aviation tends to be geared towards people who already know how to fly a plane and the info presented only builds on that. I could have looked up the answers to specific questions, but I didn’t know enough to know what questions to ask.

Fast forward to where I had decided I was seriously going to make a go of becoming a commercial pilot and I’m out at St. Andrews for my first ever flight, and we’re doing the walk-around, and my instructor is pointing out all the plane parts. I’m like, I can tell you all the things I know about airplanes – ok, propeller, fuselage, rudder, elevator, ailerons. That’s it. Oh, wheels! Yep, those are wheels.

Good job, she says, except those aren’t the ailerons, actually, those are the flaps.

The what? In all my reading about aeroplanes, this term had not come up. Or if it had, it wasn’t explained, and I just assumed it was some kind of auxiliary fancy thing that the big planes had. I’d been on jets, you know when you look out the windows at the wings and there’s these little squares that lift up on different parts of the wing?**

I had always intended to hunt down a pilot to help me edit my story, and it turned out I didn’t actually do that badly – fixing my mistakes didn’t break my novel’s plot, it was just touch-ups here and there.

But as a pilot now, the amount of knowledge I have to pour into a novel about pilots affects the type of stories I’m telling now. It’s not just a mode of transportation, or a mount to ride into combat anymore – they’re complex and I have a way more detailed understanding of how I can use these things to almost, but not quite kill my characters.

That and an understanding of the diversity of aircraft and features available, and enough knowledge to not put a feature on an aircraft that’s unrealistic. I mean, a Cessna 150 is not going to have autopilot installed. It is possible to have a plane without flaps, but I know enough not to make it a large one, and know what that means for the plane. I know the differences in ground handling between tricycle and conventional landing gear now and can throw that into a story, or simply portray it accurately. I know enough to describe accurately the characteristics of a good versus a bad landing.

I know what’s dangerous, and what seems dangerous but isn’t actually a big deal. Like, you see videos of WWII planes being started by hand-swinging the prop so often you’d think that wasn’t big deal, but that’s one of those things that kills people or takes limbs if you aren’t careful. Whereas, doing spins was something so easy to do and recover from, I was doing it in my first week of flying, and doing it solo in my first hundred hours with my instructor’s blessing, but it’s something that people think must be horribly dangerous.

There’s just so much to know about aviation, and I’m still a rookie low-hours pilot looking for my first job.

So how do you get that base level of knowledge if you want to write about pilots without becoming a pilot yourself. Well, there will be snobs who will say, just go get your private license, but not everyone has that kind of money kicking around.

One great way would be to take a ground school course. Most schools offer it in a classroom setting, but there are online versions as well – my school’s online ground school is Transport Canada approved. There are textbooks available too – the one my school uses is called “From The Ground Up”. It starts assuming no knowledge of aviation. There are others, and this one is specific for Canada, though that’s mainly only relevant for the air law side of things.

The other thing you can do that’s not horrifically expensive is most schools offer a “Discovery Flight”, which is just an introductory flight that goes over the basics, they take you up in the aeroplane and let you fly it, show you some of the basic maneuvers. There’s some real danger in going this route though – huge risk you might realize you love it and need to get your licence. Take precautions.***

On that note, I can confirm my attendance at Keycon this year. Timothey Gwyn will be there too, and I hope to do at least one panel covering a lot of these sort of topics for writers who might be interested in writing about aviation. Hope to see you there!

 

*Apparently, planes taxiing are propelled by their propellers, same as in the air – there’s no power transfer to the wheels to move them on the ground. Who knew.
**Ladies and gentlemen – those are spoilers. The flaps, incidentally, are the things that extend and curl downward in preparation for landing.
***Just kidding, do it, it’s amazing!

Perseverance is nine tenths of any art

Not that it helps to be nine tenths an artist, of course.

Or so says Mabruk, in Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. Reading the graphic novel reminded me of that – it’s one of my favourite quotes from the story, though I have many.

I think it’s true. But I also think that 99% of people have that one tenth of being an artist that we call “talent.” The creativity, the ideas.

I roll my eyes when someone says “I have this idea for a novel/movie/TV series, but I have no talent to make it into anything.” They may not have what it takes to make that into something, but it’s not talent, it’s passion and perseverance.  The just don’t want it badly enough.

Which is fine. Those are those people they’re talking about when they quote “Anyone who can be discouraged from writing, should be.” It’s just not rewarding enough to bother, if you don’t have the passion that drives writers to do what they do.

But if that person really wants it, that other nine tenths, can be taught and learned. It takes time, and dedication, yes, but it can be learned.

So, if you don’t have the passion for it, fine, don’t bother. It’s okay. But if you have a passion for ideas and creativity, don’t let a bullshit “lack of talent” be the thing that holds you back.

Thoughts on Receiving Critiques

With critiques coming in, and one beta reader nearly finished reading the novel, I’ve been thinking about how I receive critiques. Partly because I’ve also been watching others receive critiques, in various face to face groups or partnerships. Some people handle negative feedback better than others.

The way I look at it, is the whole point of this is finding out what’s still broken that I can fix and make the story better. In which case, the negative feedback is useful and much appreciated, and I try to let my critiquers know how much I appreciate it. Because getting the feedback is a means to an end – the point is making the story better.

It’s different from a review – a review is when you get the book published and people say what they think sucked and what was good and whether or not other people should bother spending money on it. It’s a reflection of what someone thinks of your writing skill. A critique, on the other hand, is not supposed to be a reflection of your skill, but a tool to improve. A stepping stone to better writing, so that when those reviews come in, they won’t be as disappointing as they could be.

One big factor in how I see people receiving critiques is the writer’s perception of how good they are. Most people in critique groups think they’re a lot better than they are. I won’t say most writers, because the writers who think they’re worse than they are, generally are too embarrassed of their work to join a critique group. But, especially with a newly formed critique group, with members who don’t know one another well enough to want to spare one another’s feelings, there is often that first time critique that’s received with a disappointed frown.

Sometimes the person has had much more positive feedback from a more supportive, but possibly less honest environment (my mom says she liked it/my fanfic is well received by my following).  It can be hard for those people to hear a more honest opinion from a less invested stranger.

I find it’s never a good idea to have close friends or family critique your work. I did give my novel to my mother in law to read, but I didn’t expect her to offer a lot of negative feedback with the honesty of an actual critiquer – she just wanted to read it. The reason family and close friends are a bad idea is because the relationship will get in the way of the feedback – the person giving feedback will be afraid to hurt the writer’s feelings, and if they value the friendship, they are very likely to hold back. On the other side, if the writer values the friendship, their feelings are likely to be hurt even more than if the feedback were to come from a stranger.

I do have one very close friend with whom I trade critiques, and we are brutally honest with one another. When we started trading critiques though, we weren’t friends yet – just fellow writers who met at the day job and who made a mutually agreeable arrangement. The friendship grew out of that, but the brutal honesty in critiques remained, because we both know the other has a very thick skin and can handle anything we say.

We also know that critiques are only opinions. She’s a great copyeditor, but every once in a while, she makes a suggestion of a style change that would change my style to hers. I just ignore those. I appreciate the suggestion, and sometimes her more formal style would suit the character I’m writing, and I’ll make the change anyway, so I’d just as soon she point it out as not, so that I can make a choice. But we have very different styles, and not everything I suggest is going to be something that works for her either, and we both respect one another enough to not get hot under the collar if we disagree on a point.

But in closing, if you’re one of those people who’s heartbroken at receiving a critique that points out weaknesses in your work that you didn’t realise were there, don’t be. It’s not a review – the work isn’t published yet, and it doesn’t have to be perfect yet. No one expects brilliance in a critique group. Take that feedback as it’s intended – as a tool to help you become a stronger writer.

Writing vs Career vs Writing Career

One of my blog readers and (beta reader :)) brought up an interesting topic, and I think it was worth it’s own blog post.

So this is only vaguely connected – but I’d like to hear people’s opinion and it has a bearing I think on Lindsay’s situation. I think a serious writer who is earning a living from other work (not writing) can have a job but not a career because there is only so much emotional commitment and energy to go around and you have to put it in to one thing.

I think this is true for nearly everyone – there are a tiny number of people who are so exceptional they can do anything fairly brilliantly – for the rest of us there is this choice.

Andy

Agree? Disagree?

I agree with part of this – that if you want to be serious about writing and aim to make a career out of it, it’s very difficult to balance that with a career outside of writing. I have a job – it pays the bills, barely. And by barely, I mean, my husband and I have just moved in with my mother in law because they jacked up the rent on our ghetto apartment, and we can’t find an affordable apartment that will allow us to keep our cats, and doesn’t require me to have a car.

But part of the decision to do that was, I admit, that I don’t want to have to get a second job to survive, because if I did that, then I would seriously have no writing time. And that would kill me. I’ve been in the have-no-time-to-write situation before, and the frustration and depression that led to was crushing. I ended up quitting, once I found another job that paid better. I don’t want to do that again, ever.

My husband knows what happens to me if I don’t have time to write. When I get grumpy sometimes, he’ll take care of supper and tell me to go write.

I could move up in the company I work at if I wanted to. I’d even be interested if I wasn’t so busy getting my manuscript together right now. The elation of having finished the revision has sunk in, by the way – haven’t been in such a good mood in a long time.

I don’t know about these fabled people who can do both, though. They say no man can serve two masters. I’ve never heard of such a person in real life. Anyone I hear of does choose one or the other.

Lots of people write as a hobby, and there’s nothing wrong with doing it just for yourself. It’s no different from taking piano lessons, or ballroom dancing. People do it because they enjoy it, and develop a skill worthy of praise. As opposed to say, spending that time playing video games. Bragging about working on endgame content in World of Warcraft just doesn’t garner the same respect and sense of accomplishment as bragging about a dance or musical recital – or writing a novel.  These people may not aspire to getting published. They might, though, and some do, and they might be happy with getting a book or two out there in their lifetimes, but these aren’t people who aspire to make their living writing. They likely find themselves fulfilled by their primary career.

Then there’s the people who want to make a living writing. I don’t think you can really do that and work on developing a career at the same time. You could already have a career, and work on building a writing career, but there will come a point where, if you want to really get somewhere and accomplish enough to have a chance at making a living writing, you’ll have to decide which is going to come first – the other career, or the writing career.

You can spend twenty years revising a novel to perfection, and it could be a great novel at the end of that, and sell passably well. But that won’t make a career in writing. Most writers who support themselves writing, they’re saying you have to have at least one book out per year, to survive, and now they’re saying even that’s not enough. That takes discipline, and it takes more passion than the hobbyist writer needs to give it.

There’s a lot of people who say they’d love to make a living writing. There’s a lot of statistics saying the odds of getting published professionally, are pretty low (the most common one I see: 1/100), and the odds of getting published a second time are even slimmer.  But there’s also a lot of people who say they’d like to get published and don’t really try, or don’t try very hard. Or they try, and then they can’t handle rejection. Or they try, but shoot themselves in the foot by not doing their research on the importance of following submission guidelines. I love those people – I don’t have to compete with them. If those statistics include all those people who won’t get published because of something they don’t do, then that means whether or not I eventually make it, is far more in my own control than the statistics would make it seem. The question becomes “How badly do you want this?” Because if you want something badly enough, you’ll do whatever you need to, to get it.

You put enough quarters in the machine, eventually you’ll get that winning black gumball.

Keycon 29, Query Letter and Synopsis Panel

Keycon is my home con, here in Winnipeg, and I’ve gone every year since I learned of it’s existence. They’re always encouraging people to do panels, so this year, I’m jumping in to do one.

With only minor publications to my credit, I haven’t felt qualified to do a panel on anything that mattered to me, in the past, but over the last few years, I had the opportunity to participate in a proposal package focus group as I prepared to submit a novel I’d managed to get to final draft. I learned a lot from that focus group, and came out with a query letter and synopsis that got me a request for the manuscript from a managing editor at one of the Big Seven, and another from one of the six or so agents I sent it to – one of the top agents in the industry.

I haven’t got representation thus far – I’ve decided to go back and revise the novel since, but that’s not what a query and synopsis is for. It doesn’t sell the novel, it gets you the request for the manuscript, and my query letter and synopsis did that with a very good ratio. And so I finally feel like I have proven I know something legitimately enough to teach it.

My panel is tentatively scheduled for 1-2pm on the Saturday of Keycon 29, May 19th, 2012, at the Radisson hotel. I’ll have pens and paper for anyone who doesn’t have them, and there will be exercises. It will be most useful to anyone with a finished novel, ready to submit, but anyone is welcome, of course, at any stage in the writing process. I’m very excited about it, it’s the first time I’ll be running a panel – and on that note, I shall go and finish my notes for it!

Bad for Characters, Good for the Story

Sometimes I brainstorm with my husband, throwing ideas around, and often his response to a random idea is “Yes, but then (insert complicating factor that he knows he knows more about than I do.)”

He’s not a writer, so he sees this as a problem. I look at him and blink, and explain that that’s not a problem, that’s delicious new potential source of external conflict in the story. There are the times when I see a complication and realize right away that it’s going to side-track the story in a direction that I don’t want to go, but at the brainstorming level, when I haven’t started writing the story yet, or solidified the plot, it’s not a problem.

The times when it’s a problem are when I’ve written the story and have a plot hole that needs to be filled, and I’m trying to think of a way to fill it. Then, those are the times when I want something uncomplicated – a simple thing to throw in to pull things together.

At the developmental level though, hey, anything goes. Ideas toss around in my head, and eventually they settle into something coherent, but until something’s been put on paper, my mind is open to all ideas. I mean, sure, it wrecks my characters’ lives, but who cares about them? (By the way, I hope I never ever meet any of them in person, because most of them would kill me. Especially Michel, and he would enjoy it.)

Though, to be fair, he’s learning. At first, he would hear my half-formed ideas and say he didn’t like them, that it didn’t sound interesting at all. I would be frustrated at his reaction, knowing that he didn’t see the story in it that I saw. But after a while, he realized what half-formed ideas meant, and realized that there would be more to the story that what I could convey at that stage in the development. He’s told me he’s become fascinated with the process of the creation of a story, and thinks it’s neat to have seen it happen from the first ideas, all the way to final draft. He has faith in me, and because he’s always been honest with his opinions of my work, I know it’s real faith, not a pat on the head. My husband is awesome, and I am blessed. 🙂

The Art of Bad Titles or Words I Swear Never to Use in a Title

There are certain words that make catchy titles, and certain words that make my eyes glaze over if I see them in the title of a book. Basically, if one of the following words is in the title of the book, you’ve got one strike against you in convincing me to read it:

  • Heart
  • Moon
  • Star
  • Crystal
  • Blade
  • Shadow
  • Quest
  • Dream
  • Dark/Darkness

If I ever am tempted to use two of the before mentioned words in a title, somebody please shoot me.

I mean, I’m not the best at titles, but skimming over a list of amateur fiction titles in a workshop, I found at least four to seven titles containing each of those words. I read a couple out to my husband, and he said, “I think I’ve read that book. Like, five times.”

Really, if the best title I can come up with for a story is The Crystal of Dreams, or The Moonblade, or Heart of the Whatever the Hell, then maybe you need to rethink your story. If that really, honestly is the most appropriate title, then, well, I don’t know what to say.

But chances are, it isn’t. Chances are, there’s something more unique and intriguing to your story than the name of the object of power that’s going to save the day when your hero acquires/uses/destroys it. What titles like that tell me, is that this story is about a thing, that’s probably some kind of gimmick that makes the story go, and little more than that. Doesn’t tell me about characters, or anything like that.

Titles that attract me are ones that have more, you know, unique words. Actually, I think the word I’m looking for is specific. Words that refer to something specific, rather than vague ideas. The first thing that comes to mind is the one I keep looking at, and I’m not sure if I’ll read, but the title grabs me, is “Whitechapel Gods.” Whitechapel is a district in London. It has meaning to me. It gives a lot of context to the word “Gods.” The words in my list, they could mean a hundred million things, in context, and paired with another one of the words in the list, it’s even worse, because then you have no context provided by the second word.

Which reminds me, there’s a clause in my vow never to use those words that states that those words may be used freely if they are being used literally. Peter S. Beagle’s story “Two Hearts” refers to the two hearts that a Griffin has, in the world of the story, because both must be pierced to kill it. If a character’s actual heart has been replaced with clockwork, then I’m good with a title like “Clockwork Heart.” I reserve the right to use “Moon” in my title, if the characters are actually traveling to the moon. “Star” and “Dream” would be reserved for sci fi only. The rest, I can’t really think of a good excuse for.

Just my two cents, and just my opinion. Anyone else have anything that makes their eyes glaze over when they see it in a title?