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NASA’s Billion Dollar Thriller on Mars

Sunday night at 10:31 California time, NASA will be running a high-stakes thriller, live from Mars, with billions of dollars at stake.

There’s no room for error. The one-ton Mars rover Curiosity is traveling right now toward Mars at 13,000 miles per hour. Within a seven minute window of time, it has to come to a clean stop, exactly on the surface of Mars, at a precisely determined spot inside the Gale Crater.

How do you go from 13,000 to zero in seven minutes? It’s complicated.

The ship doesn’t carry enough fuel to slow it down, so it’s going to fly through the thin Martian atmosphere, using a heat-shield as a giant brake. At 13,000 mph, a ship flies like a brick, but it does fly — if you steer it on a needle-sharp course.

If you go in too steep, the atmosphere doesn’t bleed off enough speed and you go splat on the ground.

If you go in too shallow, you bounce off the atmosphere and skitter off into space, with no way to turn around and try again.

You must fly at exactly the right angle, letting the atmosphere bleed off your speed, using your heat shield to keep you from frying to a crisp.

But that only slows you down to 1000 mph. Seven miles above the ground, you open your parachute. The atmosphere of Mars is less than one percent the density of earth’s atmosphere, so the parachute has to be huge. Even so, it can only slow you down to about 200 mph. Still way too fast to land.

Now you release your parachute and fire off your rocket engines. You don’t have much fuel here, but you have enough to slow you down to 2 mph.

Can you land safely at 2 mph? Yes, if you happen to be inches above the planet when you reach that speed. But there’s a catch.

Those pesky rocket engines are blasting out hot gases to slow you down. If you’re a few inches above the ground, those hot gases are going to blow up a massive cloud of dust that will mess with your rover’s instruments. You can’t safely get inches away from the ground with your rockets.

Here’s where it gets crazy. You use your rocket engines to hold you steady a couple of dozen feet off the ground while you lower your rover on a cable down to the surface.

As soon as the rover touches down, you cut the cable and zoom your landing ship away to crash land somewhere safely far from the rover.

It’s never been done before. NASA has spent over $2 billion on this project, and now we get to find out if it succeeds. If everything goes right, the rover will be sending back photos and scientific data for the next decade.

And if it fails? Don’t even talk about failing. There was a mission planned in 2016, but it’s been cancelled. There was a mission planned in 2018, but that’s been cancelled too.

If the Curiosity mission fails, it’s going to be a long, long time before NASA gets the money to try again.

Here is a YouTube video, “7 Minutes of Terror,” showing how it’ll all play out:

And why spend all that money going to Mars?

It’s good science, for one thing. It’s great science, in fact. I’m a physicist, so don’t get me going on that or we’ll be here all day.

For another, the challenge of exploration always has unexpected benefits — from the 15th century exploration of the New World up to the Apollo missions to the moon that began in the 1960s.

More importantly, taking on difficult challenges gives mankind a vision. Yes, $2 billion is a lot of money. But the US government spends $2 billion every 4 hours and 52 minutes of every day. Vision is a precious commodity, and we need all we can get.

The rover Curiosity is a robot. Why send a robot? Why not send humans?

If a robotic mission fails, that’s bad but nobody dies.

With humans on board, everything changes. As Dave Akin noted many years ago, “Space is a completely unforgiving environment. If you screw up the engineering, somebody dies (and there’s no partial credit because most of the analysis was right … ).”

Someday, we should send humans to Mars. It costs more, because humans need to take life-support systems with them and they need to return home. Every life-critical system needs a backup and a fail-operational option. That adds weight, and every pound you send to Mars costs money. Every extra system costs money and adds complexity.

As my Loyal Blog Readers know, back in 2001 and 2002, my buddy John Olson and I published a couple of novels about the first human mission to Mars. We set those missions during 2014 and 2015, the earliest time-point that we could envision for a human mission to Mars. But the first novel OXYGEN actually begins on August 14, 2012 — just a couple of weeks from now.

Why 2012? Because when you’re sending humans to Mars, one of the hardest tasks is finding people with the right psychological makeup. You’re sending people on a three year mission in which they might die, they might see their friends die, or they might have to make an agonizing decision using “the calculus of suffering.”

Not everybody’s head is screwed on right for that kind of a mission. If you send the wrong people, if you make just one mistake, you could kill everybody.

Oxygen, a NovelIn our novel OXYGEN, things go horribly wrong and it’s up to the humans to make the hard choices about who gets to breathe. That is doubly hard when two of the four crew members are in love. Read more about OXYGEN on Amazon.

The Fifth ManIn the sequel THE FIFTH MAN, an unexpected hazard is waiting on Mars. NASA thought it sent a crew of four — but is it possible that a “fifth man” has come to Mars? How is that possible and what is his mission? Read more about THE FIFTH MAN on Amazon.

The virtue of sending humans to Mars is that humans are still much smarter than robots. If you have to make a split-second judgment call that weighs human values against each other or calls for imagination, then a human is still far better than a computer.

The virtue of sending a robot to Mars is that a robot doesn’t need oxygen, water, or toilet paper. Robotic brains are fast and never get tired. A robot is tough. Just don’t expect it to use imagination or make human value judgments.

Sunday night’s mission belongs to a robot named Curiosity. Good luck, Red Rover! May you arrive safely, make great discoveries, and pave the way for some of us to join you someday!

Perfecting that Pesky Point of View

Can you write a story using both third-person and first-person point of view? Will the POV cops arrest you if you do? Will you confuse your readers?

Sanhita posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Sir, I have recently written a short story christened ‘Remembered’. In this story I wrote initially in third person about a family with a missing mother, then after putting three asterisks I wrote about what actually happened to the mother in first person.

Critics say that since I was writing the fiction in third person, I should not have changed it to first person.

Is it necessary to write the whole story in either third or first person? I am now in a fix whether to change it to third person or not. Kindly help.

Also I have put the story about the mother in such a way that she, at first, tells how she left her home and why(in past tense) and then (in present tense) commits suicide. Some of the critics have commented that since she is dead she can’t be telling the story.

Kindly guide me whether and how to change the story. I would highly appreciate if you kindly spare a few minutes to read it. I will be awaiting your reply. Thanks.

Randy sez: I don’t know who your critics are, but they are wrong. There is no rule that says that all parts of a story must be written in the same POV.

Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling novel Dragonfly in Amber mixed first person and third person POV throughout the story. The reader was never confused.

And that’s what matters — you want your reader to never be confused. If you execute your story well, you can switch between first person and third person smoothly.

The second part of the question was whether a dead person can narrate a story. Sanhita’s critics say he can’t do that.

I say he can. Alice Sebold’s bestselling novel The Lovely Bones tells the story of a 14-year-old girl, Susie Salmon, who is raped and murdered in Chapter 1. The rest of the novel is narrated by Susie from heaven. Nobody is confused by this. Not one reader ever said, “Wow, that can’t happen because, you know, Susie’s dead.”

Readers are generally pretty smart. They aren’t confused by dead narrators, omniscient narrators, or for that matter, cat narrators.

This highlights an important question that all writers should constantly keep in mind: Should you take advice from just anyone?

I’ve phrased the question in a way that makes it obvious that the answer is no.

Be careful in taking advice. Not all critiquers are created equal. And some of them, even when they are giving sound advice, don’t know how to make it clear just how certain they are of being correct.

I often hear novice novelists complain about the “rules.” These “rules” are allegedly fixed in stone and nobody can violate them.

That just isn’t true. There are very few unbreakable rules in fiction writing. There are many rules of thumb. Some of them work so well and so often that you should be wary of ignoring them.

But most of these “rules” can be broken, if you know what you’re doing. You’ll know when you can break one of the “rules” after you’ve learned them so well that you can follow them without thinking.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Why James Scott Bell Chose to E-Publish

Today, I’m interviewing James Scott Bell on why (and how) he decided to self-publish his latest book as an e-book. This interview ran in my e-zine earlier this week, so if you’ve already read it, there’s nothing new here. But not everybody reads my e-zine right away.

The e-book revolution is roaring in even faster than predicted by e-enthusiasts. A few facts will make clear what I mean:

A-list novelist David Morrell recently self-published his novel THE NAKED EDGE on Amazon, in Kindle and audio formats only.

A-list marketing guru Seth Godin is due today, March 1, 2011, to self-publish his next book, POKE THE BOX, simultaneously in hardcover and e-format.

In January of this year, self-published e-novelist Amanda Hocking sold a reputed 450,000 copies of her books on Amazon. She is 26 years old. Less than a year ago, she posted her first novel on Amazon. Now, she’s a superstar.

In view of these, I wasn’t surprised when one of my writing buddies, Jim Bell, recently self-published a new e-book, COVER YOUR BACK. The book contains a novella and three short stories. If the words “film noir” and “femme fatale” ring your bells, then COVER YOUR BACK might well be a book you’d enjoy.

Jim has not abandoned the world of traditional publishing. His venture into e-books simply allows him to do things that he couldn’t have done with a paper-and-ink publisher that thinks a year is a short period of time.

I asked Jim to tell me about his venture in an interview for this e-zine. Here’s a blurb about him and his writing:

JAMES SCOTT BELL is a bestselling thriller author and served as the fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine. He has written three popular craft books for Writers Digest Books: Plot & Structure, Revision & Self-Editing and The Art of War for Writers. Jim has taught writing at Pepperdine University and numerous writers conferences. On June 4th and 5th he is teaching a seminar in Los Angeles for novelists and screenwriters. Information can be found at

On to the interview. Let’s see what motivated Jim to take the e-plunge.

Randy: You recently self-published your first e-book, after more than a decade of publishing paper books with a number of traditional royalty-paying publishers. What prompted you to take the plunge into the e-book market?

Jim: Because there is absolutely no downside to it, and plenty of upside. The e-market is exploding and I had several stories and a novella that didn’t have a home. E-book publishing allows me to bring new material to my readers, and introduce me to others. I’ve always admired the old pulp writers of the mid 20th century, who had to write a lot for a penny a word, but created some of the best suspense ever. That’s what I always wanted to be able to do, and now can via e-publishing.

The nice thing is that the royalty for these works is great and I get paid every month.

Randy: Let’s talk a bit about the process.  You decided to write a novella and three short stories.  You wrote them in Microsoft Word just as you normally do.  Then what happened?  How did you take the book from a Word document to its final published form on Amazon and the other online retailers?

Jim: I hired a person to do the conversion for me. There are many people out there who will do this, and the cost is relatively low. You should be able to find someone for between $50 – $100. It may be a bit more if the document needs more work. I toyed with the idea of doing it myself, but was advised by others to let a professional handle it. So I provided the Word document and the person I hired converted into a format for Kindle, for Nook, and for Smashwords, should I expand to that.

Randy:  Many fiction contracts have “non-compete” clauses in them.  Tell us about those and what they mean for the already-published author who wants to venture into the electronic self-publishing world but doesn’t want to alienate his publisher.

Jim: Well, publishers are investing money in writers and trying to build them. So a standard publishing contract has a clause that says the writer cannot sell a book that might compete with the one they’re publishing. Usually there’s language about potential “harm” to the sales of the contracted book. That could mean that a self-published e-book, at a low price point, could be viewed as competition with the published e-book, which might have a higher price point.

On the other hand, a low priced, self-published e-book can be seen as a marketing tool for the other books. This should all be discussed with the publisher, and a written understanding hammered out.

Randy: Any predictions on the near-term future of publishing?  As we speak, Borders is circling the drain and Barnes & Noble is battling to reinvent itself, while dozens of previously unknown writers are earning thousands of dollars per month.  Where do you see the world of publishing going in 2011? What are your plans to deal with the massive change?

Jim: I do think the traditional publishing model is undergoing great stress now. There are fewer distributions points, less revenue coming in as consumers turn to lower priced e-books. The old guard will have to be experimenting with new ways of doing things, but that’s hard for a big, established business to do.

Meantime, there will be a veritable tsunami of original material self-published. Most of it will be bad. A writer still needs to sweat and strain and get better. The old model provided a filtering system. But for those who learn to write well, the self-publishing avenue has great potential.

I don’t think anyone can predict what the landscape will look like in five years. I have been surprised at the rapid rise in e-readers (as was predicted by one Randall Ingermanson). As a writer I’m taking advantage of the opportunity. Others will do the same. And word of mouth will continue to help the best works get the attention they deserve.

Randy: You probably couldn’t have traditionally published your novella WATCH YOUR BACK and you almost certainly couldn’t have published your short stories in paper format.  Tell us a bit about those stories and why you wrote them.  Isn’t it enough to be a successful novelist?

Jim: I love the short story and novella form. It used to be we had a thriving short story market in this country, lots of pulp and slick magazines. But that all dried up except for a couple of little magazines, through which it is impossible to make a living. And yes, short story collections are rarely published in print form.

So, here is a way for me to write short form suspense fiction and publish it. As I said, there’s just no downside to that. I can provide entertainment for readers at a low cost, and everyone’s happy.

Randy: I bought COVER YOUR BACK last week and read through it in a day. Great read! Lots of fun for those who like darkish fiction. What advice do you have for someone contemplating writing exclusively for the self-publishing market?

Jim: First, always be about getting better as a writer. That should never stop. I started in this business 20 years ago and have kept on studying the craft all that time.

Second, be sure to have your story vetted by several “beta” readers, and even consider paying a freelance editor to go over the manuscript. Readers do notice if the text is sloppy.

Third, hire a good cover designer. You have to make a good first impression with your book cover.

Finally, make some long term plans. What kind of writing will be your specialty, your “brand”? As you build readers, they are going to expect some continuity in your work. That’s not to say you can’t be flexible and try new things, but an audience is grown largely by coming to rely on the type of story you produce. Think of Stephen King and John Grisham. Even they did not deviate from their genres until they were well established in them.

Randy: Great advice, as always. Thanks for telling us about your adventures on Planet E, Jim!

If you’re interested in checking out what devilish games Jim plays on his lead characters, have a look at the Amazon page for WATCH YOUR BACK. Priced at $2.99, it’s a darned good deal.

(Standard full disclosure: The above link contains my Amazon affiliate code.)

Must You Have an Agent?

Do you need an agent? Is it still possible to get published without one?

Jason posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I enjoy reading your novels very much. As an aspiring writer, I have completed my first novel. How important, if at all should a writer have a literary agent? Your advice would be much appreciated.

Randy sez: That depends on what your goals are.

If you want to publish your novel with a traditional, royalty-paying publisher, then you desperately need an agent. It’s possible to sell your book to a publisher without one (by pitching your novel at writing conferences), but even if you sell your novel, you still need to negotiate the contract. My agent friends tell me that a lot of publishers have changed their contracts massively in the last year — in a way that is far more favorable to the publisher. This has forced agents to spend a lot of time negotiating terms to get a decent deal for their authors. If you don’t have an agent, you probably won’t have any idea what’s important and what’s not. Even if you have great negotiating skills, those will do you no good if you don’t know what to demand.

If you decide to self-publish (either in print or in e-books), then you don’t need an agent — yet. However, if your book does well as a self-pubbed book, then eventually you’ll want to publish it with a traditional, royalty-paying publisher. In that case, (see above), you’ll need an agent. When you need one, get one.

A quick note on the obvious question — what’s the advantage of working with a traditional, royalty-paying publisher? The answer is that those are the people who will get you into Barnes & Noble, Borders, Costco, and all the other bookstores. Good luck doing that on your own.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.