Category Archives: Brain From Outer Space

The Story Behind the Story: The Spider Strikes

The Spider Strikes is the third story in Atoms for Peace (available for purchase at Amazon in paperback and multiple retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble as an ebook). Like the others in the collection, I wrote it with an eye to setting things up for (the still-unfinished) Brains From Outer Space. Specifically, this would introduce Steve Flanagan, my primary protagonist, and introduce him to Gwen Montgomery who appeared in the initial story in the collection. It proved a lot of work, because there was a lot to introduce.

For one thing, in the two years since Atoms for Peace, Gwen’s becoming a science investigator for the Technology and Science Commission. The federal government has decided that to avoid the kind of mad-science research that figured in the first story (or in movies such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf or Fiend Without a Face), researchers must apply for a federal license. The TSC reviews them, deciding thumbs up or down. This can be based on potential risks (nuclear research is very unlikely to pass muster) or the character of the applicant (will they follow the rule). The guys behind the TSC (Senators Jack Kennedy and Richard Dorman pushed the bill that created it) realized that some researchers might just go ahead unlicensed, or start exceeding parameters once they got the license. Someone needed to investigate and prevent that, so the TSC suddenly acquired an investigating arm.

While I don’t go into a lot of detail, I had to explain the basics. And then there was Steve, whose backstory is a lot more complicated than Gwen’s or Dani Taylor’s. He and his brother Tommy grew up in a tenement, got taken away by social workers (this was largely accepted practice until decades later when it began affecting middle-class Americans) and raised in an orphanage (their parents, by the 1950s, are both dead). Tommy was a good, quiet kid; Steve pushed back against bullies, including the bullies on the staff. He got beat up a lot and went for  couple of short stays in reform school. After he realized the orphanage doctor was putting something bad in the shots he was giving the kids, he tried to smash all his equipment. That got him a long stay (what was in the injections? Well, that’s a key part of Brain).

Tommy got adopted by two Soviet agents who were caught working against the country. He disappeared. Steve, now all grown up, is determined to find him, somehow. While following up a trail in Philadelphia, he winds up helping Gwen against a killer robot spider. He doesn’t know it but his life path just changed …

One of the reasons Gwen recruits Steve to help her is that while some branches of Science Investigations allow women agents, they all insist on pairing them with men who can handle “the rough stuff.” Gwen is perfectly capable of handling trouble, but rules are rules; with her partner hospitalized early on, the only available alternative is a sexual harasser, so no. Telling her boss she’s found someone to handle the “rough stuff” so the harasser can stick to his current investigation solves that problem.

Throughout the book I’ve tried to acknowledge the sexism of the time without making it unpleasant to read. Hopefully I found the sweet spot (I feel better after reading  Robert Jackson Bennett’s argument that “realism” isn’t a good reason to show lots of rape).

*A minor alt.history point is my reference to the computer company Eckert-Mauchly. It’s named for the inventors who built ENIAC, the original computer, but wound up losing control and credit for their work. In this timeline they hung on to both. Philadelphia’s “Engineers’ Row” will wind up becoming the Silicon Valley of this timeline.

*A true history detail is the derogatory “slopie” for the North Koreans (Steve’s a Korean War vet). It occurred to me people might think it’s some kind of mutant, but no, just racist slang of the day.

#SFWApro. Cover by Zakaria Nada, rights are mine.

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The Story Behind the Story: Atoms for Peace

Woot! Atoms for Peace and Other Stories is available for purchase at Amazon in paperback and other retailers such as Barnes & Noble as an ebook. Unlike Atlas Shagged, the stories in this one are all tied together, part of an alternative 1950s in which movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, Creature With the Atom Brain, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Them! were all real. While I’ve covered most of the stories in early Story Behind the Story blog posts, I started this blog after the first story had come out. So here’s the odd tale of how the book and the first story came to be.

Back in the 1990s, Clinton’s Secretary of Energy, Hazel O’Leary, declassified the reports about U.S. radiation experiments on unwitting patients (they weren’t told what the doctors were doing, or given an option to consent). That started me thinking (at least I think so, the exact chain of reasoning is a bit blurry after so long) about how that mirrored so many SF films of the 1950s, like I Was a Teenage Werewolf (and gives the lie to every How To Write SF article that declares mad scientists experimenting on innocent people could never happen in real life). And then it hit me: what would the US be like if those movies had been real? If by the end of the 1950s we’d been under attack by multiple aliens, radioactive mutants, pod people and reanimated dinosaurs?

Hmmm …well scientific research would be tightly regulated, of course. With investigators to double-check nobody was doing illegal experiments on the sly. The National Guard would be busy fighting mutant horrors. And maybe we’d have made it into space years earlier than we did. Now if you throw the effects of one of those radiation experiments into the mix …

I liked it. But back then I had a day job, so The Brain From Outer Space took a long time to work on. Finally I had it in reasonably satisfactory shape around 2008 or 9. Then it hit me the first chapter, written to show investigators Steve Flanagan and Gwen Montgomery on a case and so introduce my world, worked pretty well as a standalone short story. So I tweaked it a little and sent it out.

The Big Pulp website liked it and accepted it. Then they suggested I write a series of stories leading up to it, showing how my world came to be so different. I jumped at the chance. The stories are still up there, if you’re curious. Unfortunately some of the elements and relationships in the book no longer fit the backstory. I’d also discovered problems in the story that really needed fixing. The book needed a major overhaul … and to date, I haven’t been able to fix it.

But the stories are still worth it.

The first story, Atoms for Peace, takes it’s name from the post-war slogan: sure, the a-bomb was terrifying but nuclear energy, turned to peaceful uses, was our friend! Wonderful things would come from it (check out the book Nukespeak for a look at the sunny nuclear utopianism of the era). The Atomic Energy Commission (now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) was supposed to both regulate and promote the industry; it usually came down on the “promote” side and did its best to minimize the risks of radiation.

I decided that would be the basis for my story: the first documented case of “rogue science,” using ordinary people as guinea pigs. My protagonist would be Southerner Gwen Montgomery, former OSS agent. As the story opens in 1954, Gwen thinks she’s done with adventuring. But then she found the strange half-man half-lizard under the street light …

It’s a good story and I think it’s a good book. It’s a lot whiter than I’d do it today (I hope), but I know from Southern Discomfort that simply switching some of my characters to black or Latino would take lots of work, especially in a world where segregation is still the norm. As I wrote this to reuse old work, not start fresh, I kept it as it was. Though I’m pleased with my female representation as Dani, Kate Meara, Gwen and Claire all get a good share of the adventure.

I’ll have more to say about the book next week. Hopefully you’ll all have bought it by then.

#SFWApro. Cover by Zakaria Nada, all rights are mine.

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Filed under Atoms for Peace, Brain From Outer Space, Short Stories, Story behind the story

Iron, Blood and Backstory

Unless we’re writing about the birth of time, our worlds always have a backstory. There are several different ways to deal with it.

The backstory is reality. For example in Fritz Leiber’s The Wanderer, a planet-sized space shape crosses hyperspace and emerges in orbit around Earth. The moon is ripped apart, tidal waves and earthquakes ravage the world and the characters struggle to survive. Plus, of course, there are aliens.

Up until the starship appeared, the world was normal. We don’t need to know what it was like before the start of the story because we were living in it (we do get some backstory later on the spaceship and its inhabitants). The backstory is irrelevant.

I come close to this with Atoms For Peace: even though the world is slightly off-kilter (recovering from a Martian invasion) it still seems like that was one crazy fluke. Then Gwen Montgomery discovers a mutated lizard man dead in her street …

The protagonist is a newbie. This is one specfic uses a lot: the POV character is thrust into a new situation knowing nothing about the backstory. This excuses them asking constant questions and sitting through infodumps in response. This is painful to read if the info dump isn’t interesting (it usually isn’t). One of the things I hated about Charles Stross’s The Family Trade was the constant stream of infodumping directed at the protagonist. It doesn’t have to be a problem, though, if it’s done well: Mur Lafferty introduced a newbie to the supernatural world in The Shambling Guide to New York City without leaving me feeling dumped on.

In media res. This is the one I tend toward in my own writing — the protagonists aren’t newbies and whatever’s going on has been going on a while.

I’m not so much talking about starting in the middle of the action (which I do sometimes) as much as establishing that the weirdness pre-existed the events of the book. In No One Can Slay Her, for instance, magic’s a part of every day life in the 1950s. Jennifer Armstrong has been dealing with supernatural threats since her teen years (her wyrd guarantees it); her Beatnik wife Kate has the gift of wild magic. When I wrote Brain From Outer Space (the as yet uncompleted novel that inspired the Atoms for Peace stories), alien invasions, pod people, mutants and mad science were just “Tuesday” for my cast.

It’s common in urban fantasy, which Gail Z. Martin writes, so it’s not surprising she and her husband went that route in their steampunk fantasy Iron & Blood (cover by Michael Kormarck, all rights remain with current holder). Jake and his partner Rick have been relic-hunting for a while (mostly stealing antiques from people whose ownership claim is dubious). Steampunk tech is taken as normal, magic is middling (not everyone believes). And the events that trigger the plot — Jake’s father acquired a rare item that someone wants enough to kill him (and they did) — have been accomplished before Page One. We get some exposition about the characters along the way, but not much about the setting.

I enjoy that approach. Like I said, it’s one I use a lot myself. Although I found having the two federal agents “Sturm and Drang” already hunting a Jack the Ripper type as the book starts made it a little overfull (perhaps it’s because the Martins are going to spin them off into their own adventures). I still really enjoyed the book (and that is my honest opinion, even though Gail’s a friend of mine).

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The upside of returning to the mean

I’ve mentioned the Law of Return to the Mean several times in this blog: If I’m performing way above average, sooner or later random chance will bring me back to my norm. The upside is that after a crappy pair of work weeks like Christmas and New Year’s, the odds are things will improve. And behold, they did.

The big news is that I finally finished the next-to-last draft of Southern Discomfort. I will clean it up a little before the end of the month and send it out to two friends who volunteered to beta. Later this year I will print the whole thing out and do the final final draft fix.

I can’t tell you how good it feels. Brain From Outer Space has languished for years because every time I rewrite it, I get to the last third and the plot falls apart. I was really afraid I wouldn’t be able to wrap up Southern Discomforts successfully, or I’d wind up doing endless redrafts. Apparently not. This is very good news.

And as if that wasn’t enough:

My new Screen Rant is out, spotlighting 9 embarrassing final roles for talented actors (e.g., Boris Karloff in House of Evil) and nine that were awesome farewells (Carrie Fisher in The Last Jedi). Below we have a photo from Lon Chaney Jr’s miserable last film (Dracula vs. Frankenstein)

And a shot of Marilyn Monroe working on The Misfits (a good final film for both her and Clark Gable)

I also finished a new draft of No One Can Slay Her. It still needs work, but I got enough of the ending worked out, and enough of the villain’s plan, that I think I can rework the whole thing much better on the next draft. It never hurts to know where you’re going.

I finally sorted out my cover issues with the paperback version of Atlas Shagged. I ordered a print copy to check everything is kosher; it’ll be here next week. Assuming it all checks out, the book will go live by the end of next week (it is, of course, already available in ebook).

And I’ll be a guest at Illogicon in Raleigh this weekend, which is always fun. My voice is still a little strained from last week’s sickness, but I think I’ll be able to manage.

It’s so nice to be productive!

#SFWApro, all rights to images remain with current holder.

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Filed under Atlas Shagged, Brain From Outer Space, Nonfiction, Screen Rant, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, Story Problems, Time management and goals, Writing

Given Mum’s death, I’m doing surprisingly well (#SFWApro)

I wasn’t quite sure what I’d feel like after Monday, but I’m doing okay. Frequent moments of my guts clenching up. Occasional sniffling. But having a clear path — we have the service date set, I have my tickets booked — is very reassuring, compared to heading down to Ft. Walton Beach with no idea when I’d be back.

And more than that, people talking about her on FB has helped me recover memories of her when she was young and healthy. Most of my memories of Mum are dominated by her illness. Increasing listlessness. Worry and nervousness as she becomes more and more helpless. Going up to help her with one thing or another when she was in Maryland (these were rarely fun trips). Mum spending all day sitting in front of the TV. All of that added a level of misery to my thoughts of her that I now seem to be getting past.

I imagine there’ll be more tears at the service, but we’ll see.

I didn’t attempt to put in a full week’s writing, which was wise. It’s not just that I sometimes had difficulty focusing, it’s that I just lost too much time on practical stuff. Helping my sister with the obit. The travel to the airport Monday and back. A long session with Delta transferring my Monday ticket to a new date (they were very helpful once I explained the situation).  So not enough time, and I didn’t want to do anything with a deadline (Screen Rant knows I’m out of action for a couple of weeks).

That meant getting ahead on blogging, which requires less effort than fiction. I also wrote my first post for the Atomic Junkshop blog, which I’ll link to once it’s up. I’ll be following up with more semi-regular posts.

I also finished polishing the Applied Science collection for reprinting, probably under a different name. Next up: find a cover. This one I’ll probably have to pay for as I doubt there’s existing art as appropriate as the cover for Atlas Shagged.

I rewrote No-One Will Slay Her and got the draft almost finished. Unfortunately the ending still needs work. I know the broad outline but the details — why don’t the cops show up? Just what does the villain anticipate Jennifer (POV character) doing? — need sharpening. I’d hoped to accomplish that today, but my brain

I’d have liked to work on Southern Discomfort but that didn’t happen.

I’ll leave you with a shot of Mum (l.) and our cousin Mary from a long time ago. Looking at the photos from when she was healthy helps too.

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Filed under Atlas Shagged, Brain From Outer Space, Personal, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, Story Problems, Time management and goals, Writing

One thing pretty much dominated the week (#SFWApro)

My mother is about to die.

From my sister’s reports, it’s not that her health has gotten worse (as long-time readers may recall, it’s been bad for a while), it’s that she’s just tired. She doesn’t want to eat. Doesn’t want to take her meds (they’ve dropped all of them but the absolute life-saving ones). And the latest estimate is within the week. My sister’s theory is that after she saw my brother and his daughter at Thanksgiving (the first time since my wedding), Mum was ready to let go.

So at some point soon I’ll be traveling down there. TYG and I are figuring out the details (doggy boarding options, is it feasible to go before she passes?) and some time soon I’ll be off (TYG too).

At the moment this mostly feels like when TYG has a serious health problem, an odd, unpleasant, but very recognizable (to me, anyway, as I’m the one experiencing it) discomfort that makes it next to impossible to focus on work. I got my Screen Rant in (film actors who flopped on TV but not much else done once I got the news. A little bit of work on No-One Can Slay Her. Some revisions to my Applied Science short story collection.

Plus I spent Wednesday cleaning house (writer’s group Christmas party this weekend — and yes, it’s still on) and Thursday dealing with a structural inspector. Good news on that front at least: the house has some physical problems but we’re not at risk for it collapsing under us. That’s a great relief (fixing a major foundation crisis is high priced stuff).

And my short story End of the World on the Cutting Room Floor will be out next week. That’s very good news.

Mum’s imminent death outweighs everything else though. Though it doesn’t stop the selfish personal thought about how this will affect my schedule or my plans and how inconvenient it is. I believe that’s fairly normal. We’ll see what happens when I’m actually there and dealing with the death.

As I write posts in advance, things should continue as normal on this blog. Expect future personal updates sooner or later. Probably sooner.

At least if she’s going to go, it appears it’s by choice. That’s a good thing, maybe?

Below, Mum and her partner from a happier period.

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Filed under Brain From Outer Space, Personal, Screen Rant, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort

Uncertain and Unfinished (#SFWApro)

51-zssisf7l-_sx348_bo1204203200_That’s sort of how I’m finding the challenge of deciding what to work on while Southern Discomfort sits with the beta-readers and the galleys for Now And Then We Travel In Time are still with McFarland (all rights to cover and to the image reside with current holders)

The uncertainty is that, as I’ve joked before, I’m at the level where nothing I do is particularly more successful than anything else. This does give me a sort of freedom — I never have to choose between the magical realist story about Dadaists in Zurich that I really want to do or the werewolf raunch comedy I can sell for serious money. But right now knowing that one story would be more profitable or marketable would make it easier to focus. Normally what I’d do is go whichever story was in best shape, but at the moment everything is still in relatively early drafts. So nothing’s going to get down soon, even if I do prioritize it.

And of course, I spent a lot of Wednesday and Thursday distracted by the election aftermath. Now my feelings seem back to normal, pretty much. Though for various other scheduling reasons I didn’t get much done. Plus Trixie is getting a little upset at times that Plushie gets the prime snuggle position in my lap. She’ll stand at the far end of the couch, wagging her tale in the tentative “don’t you want to play with me?” way, and I’ll have to stop and arrange things so both dogs are happy. This isn’t always the best position for me, but I’m getting better at it.

I worked a little on Brain From Outer Space, then some on Let No Man Put Asunder. Neither got very far. I did get quite a bit done on the next draft of Trouble and Glass. This required changing a lot of stuff — the villain’s plan really didn’t make sense — and I haven’t got the whole thing worked out yet. For example at the point in the story I reached when I stopped for the week, I can’t see any reason not to smash the McGuffin (the thing everyone’s chasing after) to keep it out of the bad guys hands. But that’ll come.

And I did get some more done on Martinis, Girls and Guns (soon to be renamed Sex for Dinner, Death for Breakfast) — watching one of the Bond films was about the most I could do Wednesday morning.

Bring on the weekend.

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Filed under Brain From Outer Space, Nonfiction, Now and Then We Time Travel, Sex for Dinner, Death for Breakfast, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, Time management and goals, Writing

Moving towards the goal posts but no actual goals (#SFWApro)

I real feel like I needed some sort of milestone this week — a sale, a story finished — but outside of getting my next And column in (on the alleged threat of Latino cultural supremacy), I didn’t have one. Not that the work was bad, it was just that everything’s in an intermediate stage.

So here’s a picture of Trixie to make everything better.

img_0908Yeah, that helps.

Part of the dissatisfaction is that I took Monday morning off so TYG and I could go out bicycling for the first time in a while. I’d planned on doing a regular day’s work when I got back but it was the first time in a while and I was too sore to do anything very complicated. So while the work I put in on Southern Discomfort was good this week, I didn’t get as far as I’d expected.

I did get quite a bit of work done on Martinis, Girls and Guns. And some further replotting on Brain From Outer Space, though now I’m up to the point at which the plot always goes off the rails—and I’m not quite sure how to keep it on the rails.

I put in a lot of work on Farewell my Deadly which I’ve retitled Trouble And Glass. As it’s shaping up to be not as much a hardboiled detective fantasy as it started out, I think the change is good. And the story is shaping up surprisingly well for a first draft — hopefully that’s a good sign.

And there was some market research, and one query submitted, all of which may produce results, but not this week.

Plus I took care of yet another couple of repair people (locksmith and gutters) and ran the car in for a quick fix of a problem. So a productive week, it just doesn’t feel like it.

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Filed under Brain From Outer Space, Personal, Sex for Dinner, Death for Breakfast, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, Time management and goals, Writing

Remember, remember the third of September … no, that’s wrong (#SFWApro)

nichols2Normally I’d be posting from DragonCon (where last year TYG and I got the photo with Nichelle Nichols, left) but our scheduling didn’t work out. So this week and next will be pretty much as usual.

Despite taking Wednesday off, I had a productive week. The biggest accomplishment being that I finished the latest draft of Southern Discomforts and I don’t feel any of the qualms I had with previous drafts—it’s far from finished but it holds together. Next up, I spend this month polishing it, then put it up for beta readers in the writing group. I’m tentatively confident I can get it finished by the end of next year for submittal in January 2018.  We’ll see.

The biggest surprise was that while I had doubts about the personal arc I charted for one of the supporting characters, my brain keeps defaulting to it. So unless I get contrary feedback during beta, I’ll stick with it.

•I did another draft of Making a Famine Where Abundance Lies and I think it’s as good as I’m going to get without beta-reading. So that’s next.

•I also completed a draft of Oh the Places You’ll Go. Though it’s not as far along, it is showing steady progress.

•I got a little further along on Farewell my Deadly, though not as far as I’d hoped. But I have a better idea of the characters and where the story is going, much better than I normally do for a first draft.

•My work on Good Morning Starshine really crawled (which cut into my Farewell my Deadly writing time). Although the previous draft was pretty good (for a second draft) some of the changes I’ve made are forcing further changes, of course. For example, my protagonist, Brian, is now a rather self-serving management type rather than military security; that’s the right call for the story, but it limits the way he’s going to act and the authority he has.

•I resumed replotting Brain From Outer Space for the first time in several months. To my surprise, it went a lot better. Perhaps the story’s not dead yet. I also read over what I have for Let No Man Put Asunder and that was in worse shape than I remembered. Those are both second-tier projects at the moment—we’ll see how they go as I keep chipping away at them.

I hope everyone has a great Labor Day weekend without too much actual labor. Back tomorrow with reviews.

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Filed under Brain From Outer Space, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, Story Problems, Writing

In Spite of His Rage, Plush is Still Just a Dog in a Cage (#SFWApro)

(With apologies to Smashing Pumpkins)

IMG_0791So Plushie has still been on cage rest this week, but TYG made some changes while I was gone. As you can see, she’s set up one cage around our couch so Plush can sit with one of us and Trixie. He’s much happier being with his pack, and it’s easier than sharing his cage, then moving out to sit with Trixie, then back, but it does have some drawbacks:

•It’s much easier for them to get in a tussle.

•He’s even more likely than usual to try climbing over me as there’s no other way out.

•It’s a big disincentive to me getting off the couch myself (even to pee). Wednesday I pretty much took no breaks in between meals, and that left my mind foggy as hell by the day’s end.

And then last night Plush tried jumping from the floor onto the couch over the cage (or through the cage, who knows), fell back and landed hard on the edge of the coffee table. Doesn’t seem to have set back his recovery any (he’s had plenty of falls before) but we’ll be watching him closely today. Trixie meanwhile has been needier than usual, probably because she doesn’t have Plushie to play with and our routines are all out of kilter. Today, for example, I sat with Plush in his cage (after the all we wanted to restrict him until it’s clear he’s better) and he curled up so close I couldn’t bring myself to move for a long while. When I did get out and sit on the couch, Trixie was ecstatic to have her daddy back sitting with her, so I’ve been letting her snooze next to me for more than an hour (fortunately Plush dozed off).

These working conditions didn’t exactly hone my mind, particularly when I was doing plotting and outlining for rewrites (as this requires a lot of staring into the distance and thinking, it’s very easy for me to get distracted). I was really surprised after we took the dogs in for daycare how much I was able to work on outlines—I’m not turning into an idiot after all! I may reserve any outlining for day-care days in the future.  I think I’ll also start adopting “work on Southern Discomfort” as a default strategy—at this point it’s one I can work on even if I don’t have the focus for other stories (I tried that this morning, it worked well)

So what did I get accomplished?

I did redrafts of It’s Never Jam Today and Button, Button. I finished redrafting The Glory That Was (subject to reviews from the writing group) and submitted it to a new market.

I continued working on my rewrite of The Impossible Takes a Little Longer, which is coming along better than expected (I’ll go into detail at some point).

I’m a long way from having an outline for the next draft of Brain From Outer Space but I’m starting to at least identify the problems from earlier drafts that need fixing.

Having had two stories come back earlier this month, I sent them out to new markets. Everything publishable is now out.

I wrote my new And column, which is now out.

I read Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, which I’ll probably discuss next week.

And due to the lack of breaks, and the shorter walkies for Plush, I’m now done for the week. Time to relax.

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Filed under Brain From Outer Space, Impossible Takes a Little Longer, Personal, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, The Dog Ate My Homework, Time management and goals, Writing