In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


Meet The Winners: Leena Likitalo!

Continuing our interviews with 2013’s Writers of the Future winners, this week we have third quarter winner, Leena Likitalo.

Stuart:  Welcome, Leena, and again, Congratulations! Why don’t you start off by telling us a little about yourself.

Leena:  Well, hello there! I hail from Finland, the land of thousands of lakes and at least as many untold tales. I have a delightfully twisted imagination and a real talent for breaking things – I earn my living by doing quality assurance for computer games.

Stuart:  And how did you get writing?

Leena:  I think I skipped the phase where one is supposed to stop listening to the chattering of one’s imagination – stories come to me and demand to be told. I started writing “seriously” only about four years ago. That is, I decided that I really, really want to see my work published one day. Now I’m addicted and there’s no turning back.

Stuart:  So how have you evolved along the way?

Leena:  First there was no patience, only persistence. I used to think grammar and correct spelling happened to other people, not me. Through piles and piles of rejection letters, I’ve come to realize that I have to nail both, lest my super-awesome stories remain unread.

Stuart:  Do you plan out those stories or go the organic route?

Leena:  After an epic fantasy novel that after 800 pages still wasn’t ready, I realized that I should try to control the creative chaos. I’ve learned from my days in the software industry that agile methodologies work quite nicely. These days, I create a detailed outline for both novels and short stories and then divide the work into tasks. I also set myself achievable deadlines.

Stuart: Tell me a little more about  that.

Leena:  Oh my, how to explain all this without resorting to a plenitude of buzzwords…

Basically, it’s all about managing my writing time and maximizing my productivity. I build iteratively around an existing outline. This helps me to concentrate on one part of the story at the time. It’s so much easier, so much faster, to polish one chapter than a whole novel. And this way, I know how much I still have to go before a story is ready for submission!

To begin with, I try and plan how I use my writing time. Then, I chop my work-in-progress into pieces of manageable size (chapter, section, paragraph) to see what I can get ready in the given time frame.

All my chunks go through three passes: design=outline/plot, implementation=writing, qa=poke holes into the stories, check spelling, etc. I repeat the cycle as many times as necessary to make the chunk shine.

Stuart: I see. Just like software. And where do you apply these principles? Where do you do your writing?

Leena:  I can write practically anywhere. Me and my darling dear husband live in a rather tiny, positively crammed apartment where table surface is scarce. We had a party at New Year’s Eve and we haven’t quite got around to properly cleaning afterwards. As a result, my sacred writing spot at the kitchen table is occupied. Right now, I’m writing in the kitchen with my laptop propped atop of a box of champagne glasses!

Stuart:  Ha ha. Kind of appropriate! Do you have any unusual hobbies?

Leena:  For some reason, I always end up picking up the strangest hobbies – at the moment, my favorite sports are underwater rugby and polocrosse.

Stuart Underwater rugby? That sounds like a scene from a James Bond film!

Leena:  Ha ha haa! Underwater rugby is a lovely team sport played at the deep end of the pool. The objective is to take the ball to the opponent’s basket at the bottom of the pool. The ball sinks slowly and the opposing team will do their best to stop you. We wear fins, masks, and snorkels. And swimsuits of course. And yes, you have to hold your breath. And no, I’m not a terribly fast or good swimmer! I love the sport nevertheless!

Stuart:  Sounds like fun. If you had a superpower, what would it be?

Leena:  Who says I don’t have one already? It’s been whispered behind my back that I have a destructive Midas touch.

Stuart:  Ha ha. If, like Doctor Who, you adopted a unique wardrobe tag (scarves, fezzes, bow-ties), what would it be?

Leena:  Give me a set of merino wool garments, waterproof boots, and a jacket that keeps me warm and I’m good to go anywhere! Also, pen and paper would be nice.

Stuart:  Practical wins every time, in my book! Any closing thoughts?

Leena:  Thank you for the interview, Stuart!

Stuart:  Thanks for being here, and I look forward to seeing more of your work.


You can learn more about Leena and read some of her work at

What is Success?

Recently, a writer friend asked how I define success as a writer. After all, anyone can write, and these days, anyone with a credit card can publish. But not every putative writer can get others to pay for her work. And let us be clear: the numbers here are crushing.  Most literary agents consider only a fraction of a percent of the submissions they receive. Only a fraction of those are ever published, and only a fraction of those could possibly be stocked in the ever shrinking bookstore market. And if you think ebooks are a solution, consider the steep competition from public domain and pirated works and for reader’s time and attention.

Further, if you’ve ever read slush or critiqued, you know that Christopher Hitchens was right: everyone has at least one book in him, and for most, that’s just where it should stay. How then is the poor aspiring writer to know if he’s wasting his time and energies?

Well, let’s start with a sample size of one:

I started out doing technical writing because, well, the world needs good technical writing. I got better and better and did a stint writing for an online magazine. Then I resumed my childhood love of storytelling purely as as a lark with no real expectation of being published.

36,000 words later, I realized I had several novels in me that had been knocking around for years and more coming to mind. I started one of these, and 300,000 words later, realized I wanted to write, to be published, and to be read, and that to do that I would need to be a lot better at a great many things.

I went back to school. I wrote another half million words, pantsing through progressively tighter, better drafts of my novel. A few short stories. A few essays. I won a small award. Earned almost all “A”s. An instructor who’s taught at UC Berkeley for forty years told me my essays were among the best he’d ever had. And with that and $3, I can get a cup of jo.

But my writing is truly leaps and bounds better than it started. I still have much to learn, areas to work on, and I’m working on them.

And as I started learning about the business, I learned that an anthology I had enjoyed as a kid (L Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future) was a contest I could enter. I figured I had as much chance of winning as of being Pope, but I entered, hoping to get some feedback. I got none, but earned an honorable mention on my second try. I kept learning. I was long listed for the James White award. I made my first sale. Then in December came the call that my third submission to Writers of the Future had finaled. Then that I’d won.

Sweet. Heady stuff. People try for years and never win WotF. People get close for years and never win. Unbelievable? Yes. Fortunate? Yeah.  Lucky? Surely. Vindication for hard work? That to.

Clearly, this is success by a certain measure. All of a sudden I have momentum and followers and I’m meeting people who can help me learn more and go further than I’d ever imagined. I get to blow my vacation this year flying to LA to soak up all I can learn about a profession filled with moonlighters and paupers. And at the end of the day, chances remain good that I will NOT be the next JK Rowling, but will retire doing just what I’m doing now and be grateful for it, and maybe a little less satisfied than I was when I spent my weekends goofing off watching the squirrels instead of plotting out my next novel and studying dramatic structure and writing short stories that I cannot possibly sell for enough to recoup the time I have in them.

Which gets, finally and with apologies, to the crux of the question. How do I define success? Doing what you love well enough that you can continue doing what you love.

And by that standard, I’m one successful son of a bitch.

Apples For Teacher

As she stood in front of her 5th grade class on the very first day of school, she told the children an untruth. Like most teachers, she looked at her students and said that she loved them all the same. However, that was impossible, because there in the front row, slumped in his seat, was a little boy named Teddy Stoddard.

Mrs. Thompson had watched Teddy the year before and noticed that he did not play well with the other children, that his clothes were messy and that he constantly needed a bath. In addition, Teddy could be unpleasant. It got to the point that she almost delighted in marking his papers with a broad red pen, making bold X’s and then putting a big “F” at the top of his papers. She was required to review each child’s past records, though, and she had put Teddy’s off until last. When she reviewed it, she was in for a surprise.

Teddy’s first grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is a bright child with a ready laugh. He does his work neatly and has good manners… he is a joy to be around.” His second grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is an excellent student, well liked by his classmates, but he is troubled because his mother has a terminal illness and life at home must be a struggle.” His third grade teacher wrote, “His mother’s death has been hard on him. He tries to do his best, but his father doesn’t show much interest and his home life will soon affect him if some steps aren’t taken.” Teddy’s fourth grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is withdrawn and doesn’t show much interest in school. He doesn’t have many friends and he sometimes sleeps in class.”

By now, Mrs. Thompson realized the problem and was ashamed of herself. She felt even worse when her students brought Christmas presents wrapped in beautiful ribbons and bright paper, all except for Teddy. His was clumsily wrapped in heavy, brown paper taken from a grocery bag. She opened it along with the others, and the children laughed when she found a rhinestone bracelet with some of the stones missing and a half-empty bottle of perfume. To stifle the children’s laughter, she said how pretty the bracelet was, put it on, and dabbed the perfume on her wrist. After class, Teddy stayed long enough to say, “Mrs. Thompson, today you smelled just like my Mom used to.”

She cried for what seemed like an hour.

On that very day, she stopped teaching reading, writing and arithmetic, and instead, began to teach children. She paid particular attention to Teddy. As she worked with him, his mind seemed to come alive. The more she encouraged him, the faster he responded. By the end of the year, Teddy had become one of the smartest children in the class and, despite her lie that she would love all the children the same, Teddy became one of her “teacher’s pets.”

A year later, she found a note under her door — from Teddy — telling her that she was still the best teacher he ever had. Six years went by before she got another note. He had finished high school, third in his class, and she was still the best teacher in his life. Four years after that, she got another letter, saying that while things had been tough at times, he’d stayed in school, stuck with it, and would soon graduate from college with honors – and she was still his best and favorite teacher.

Then, four years later, a letter explained that he had decided to go a little further. It was signed, Theodore F. Stoddard, MD. Another letter arrived that spring. Teddy was to be married. His father had died a few of years earlier, and he wondered if Mrs. Thompson might agree to attend the wedding and sit in the place usually reserved for the mother of the groom.

Of course she did, and she wore that old bracelet, the one with the missing rhinestones. She even dabbed on a bit of the perfume that had reminded Teddy of his mother. After the ceremony, Teddy gave Mrs Thompson a hug. “Thank you,” he said, “for believing in me, for making me feel important and showing me that I could make a difference.” Mrs. Thompson whispered back, with tears in her eyes, Teddy, you have it all wrong. You were the one who taught me that I could make a difference. I didn’t know how to teach until I met you.”


This story, reblogged from, is a total fabrication, originally broadcast by Paul Harvey on April 4th, 1998. The following story is true:

My mother was a third grade teacher her whole adult life. She said there was a child like Teddy in almost every class. Most of them you missed or simply couldn’t reach. Every once in a while, you had one you thought maybe, just maybe, you’d made a difference for, but the odds were stacked so high against them, you tried not to think of their futures. The years wore on, and you did your job as best you could, and you tried not to let the bureaucracy or the complaining parents wear you down. And soon, despite the Mayberry stereotypes and your own best intentions, you could no longer remember their names.

My mother was a bit of a recluse, with a dog and a garden and a large cache of books — and only a few close friends. When I delivered her eulogy, I only recognized a handful of those in attendance, and the fellow teachers and aides were mostly recognizable by their dress and time-worn demeanour, so I asked by show of hands how many had been her students. She taught for thirty-three years. There were at least that many hands.

Before I left, I was handed a thick binder stuffed with notes and clippings from well-wishers all over the country who had not been unable to attend. Each had a story like Teddy’s. To this day, I’ve never made it past the first few pages.



Meet the Winners: Liz Colter

I’m just getting to know my fellow winners in this year’s L Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest, and it seemed natural to facilitate the process with a series of blog interviews. Last week, the 2012 Gold Pen Award winner, Tina Gower, was kind enough to drop by. This week we get to meet 2013’s second quarter winner, Liz Colter.

Stuart:  Welcome, Liz, and thanks for joining us. To start us off, why don’t you tell me what got you into writing?

Liz: Genetics, I suspect. I already knew that my maternal grandfather (a doctor and Church of England minister) wrote and had a novel published, and that my brother wrote non-fiction. It wasn’t until I was partway through my first novel, though, that I found out my aunt had published, my brother secretly wrote fiction as well as non-fiction, and my mother had written stories just for herself off and on much of her life (she’s since been published as well). I am, however, the lone speculative fiction writer of the family.

Stuart: Deep roots! Now I’m curious to look up this Grandfather.. So you got started, and now you have the considerable validation of the Writer’s of the Future win. Along the way, how have you evolved creatively?

Liz: I set out to learn writing as a craft part way through my first novel due to some feedback from a local author. I joined a 10-week online workshop and have continued to learn ever since, brazenly utilizing better writers than myself as mentors and beta readers.

Stuart: Good writers borrow, great writers steal, eh? And the best learn from everyone and everything. So are you more pantser or plotter?

Liz: Definitely pantser! Can’t write an outline to save my life, especially on longer material. I start with an image more often than not, then get a rough idea of a setting, character, beginning and ending. At that point I have to start writing. Unless I set the characters in motion, the creative process just puts on the brakes. The characters more or less write their own story from there, I just transcribe for them. I’m glad I’m a pantser. I love being surprised by the story elements that evolve as I write.

Stuart: I hear you. I was very much the same way at first. So when you are out their discovering, where do you do work? What’s your writer’s cave like?

Liz: A small spare bedroom where my desk and my husband’s desk are so closely adjacent, they almost touch. I daydream of a property with a writing studio separate from the house. A little one-room, cabin-style cottage with a kitchenette, a gas fireplace, and large desk. And, yes, I’ve wasted a lot of valuable writing time thinking about this.

Stuart: Ha! I deny that a writer’s thinking time can ever be wasted – by Grapthar’s hammer I say! I know the draw though. Once I saw a London attorney who works in a tiny “sphere” in his backyard. So aside from writing, what’s your background?

Liz: I have a pretty varied work history, including being a paramedic, attending the San Diego fire academy and farming with a team of draft horses. I’ve also worked as an athletic trainer, Outward Bound instructor, dispatcher for a concrete company…hmm, what else?

Stuart: What? No warp drive mechanics? That’s a pretty robust resume, and you know, I just read one of L Ron Hubbard’s writing essays in which he proposed going out and getting a job just to gain material for writing. You may be further ahead than you imagine.

Star Trek or Star Wars?

Liz: OMG, both. I’m such a geek. Watching the original Star Trek series with childhood friends along with reading The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy at 10 were what got me started down this life-long path of loving speculative fiction in all its forms – movies, TV, and prose. Have to say, though, that some of the later incarnations of both disappointed.

Stuart: Well, now we have the chance to infuse the genre with out own ideas, don’t we?

Speaking of which, do you ever dream about writing?

Liz: Not often, but I do get daydream-like flashes of odd images, which frequently become the genesis for a story. I also occasionally dream really great speculative plots that I think “wow, that would be a great story” when I half-wake, and then can never remember them later.

Stuart: Oh I HATE when that happens! When you were a kid, what was your favorite toy?

Liz: Stuffed animals. Never was into dolls.

Stuart: Interesting. I’ll bet those animals went on some wild adventures! Well thanks, Liz. I can’t wait to meet you in person in April, and I know we’ll all be watching your career.


In addition to her short stories, Liz has two completed novels out making the rounds and a third still in progress. She blogs at

The Day Science Fiction Stood Still

Harry Bates was the creative founder and an early editor for Astounding Science Fiction. He also edited Strange Tales and Weird Tales, and authored countless science fiction stories and essays of his own.

He once related that his view of science fiction was informed by a single, early copy of Amazing Stories! “What awful stuff I found in it! Cluttered with trivia! Packed with puerilities. Written by unimaginables! But now at the memory I wondered if there might be a market for a well-written magazine on the Amazing themes.” He also wrote that “science fiction of the early writers had little relation to science of the scientists.” What science fiction writers did was to “extrapolate” and not “relate” because “almost all of what is called science fiction is fantasy and nothing else but.”

Those of us who, decades later in the seventies, cut our teeth on Star Trek and second-hand anthologies forgotten by our parents, were heavily influenced by Bates, though we never knew it. But his influence did not stop here. He also wrote the story that inspired the 1951 classic, The Day The Earth Stood Still. A movie still unsurpassed in the power of its story, even by a forgettable, big budget “remake” starring Tom Cruise. Why? Because of Bates’s focus on story, science, and theme.

Here then, in it’s entirety, is Harry Bates’ gift to the future, his story, Farewell to the Master, linked from the Nostalgia League library:

Enjoy, and remember, “join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.”


Meet the Winners Begins!

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be presenting a series of posts to introduce my fellow winners in this year’s L Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. To kick things off, last year’s Gold Pen Award winner, Tina Gower, has graciously agreed to lend a hand.

Stuart:  Welcome, Tina, and thanks so much for agreeing to be here. You’ve been a busy beaver since your first place win and later Gold Pen grand-poobafication. How has WotF changed your life?

Tina:  Other than the mail order elves that do my bidding and the fact that I can now fly, WOTF introduced me to Mike Resnick. So far he’s published three of my short stories and we’re working on a Stellar Guild Project together. Plus the guy publicly bashes and humiliates me (in the most loving way possible!), so it keeps me on my toes. Most of my other accomplishments I can’t directly trace back to the contest. For example, I won another contest this year for my yet unpublished novel—this led me to a lot of great opportunities like a great agent who’s awesome.

Stuart:  Wow. Yes, thick skin and an abiding love for humiliation are certainly keys to success in this biz. What got you into writing?

Tina:  I love how this question is phrased—Like I got tangled up in it, or it’s some sort of trouble I need to get out of–which is a pretty accurate way to describe how any writer gets into this sort of mess. I’m dyslexic and I spent a lot of time in school being told how much I suck at written communication. Obsessed with why, I found myself still choosing to write a middle grade novel for my eight grade project, wrote and illustrated a children’s book for my senior project, and for my graduates thesis? I researched the way teachers grade writing and how we can do it better using rubrics as a scoring system.

Stuart:  I hear you. My mother worked with dyslexic children for decades. She said the biggest obstacles they faced were being labelled instead of being helped to adapt.

Tina:  I spent my first career (as a school psychologist) trying to figure out how to help students who also sucked at things (learning disabilities and other brain problems) and helping them to overcome it—or improve above what was expected. I researched techniques on how to fix these sorts of brain hiccups, and at the same time worked on my own. I took writing classes after graduate school and continued to work on it.

It wasn’t until I had my son that I seriously considered submitting and trying to really do what I wanted. I’d experienced a rare kind of paralysis after having my son and after months of physical therapy I sort of had this “I can do anything” feeling people get after coming out of situational depression. That feeling hasn’t gone away after seven years. I went from being told I’d never be a writer because of my specific type of dyslexia issues to winning the largest science fiction contest in the world. Oddly, rejections don’t sting when you have that sort of perspective.

Stuart:  Wow! That’s quite a turn. I’m glad you stuck with it. So, let me ask you, Pantser or Plotter?

Tina:  Both. It depends on the project. Usually a plotter—if I know the end and certain emotional points before I start, the story always turns out better.

Stuart:  Plan the work and wing the plan, eh? Do you have any unusual talents?

Tina:  I can sound exactly like a monkey. It unnerves my friends and family so I’ve sworn to never do the impression again.

Stuart:  Ha ha! I’ve got to get you on YouTube with my daughter. She actually IS a monkey. Star Wars or Star Trek?

Tina:  Yes.

Stuart:  Yeah…should’a seen that one coming. If you adopted a wardrobe tag like Dr. Who, what would it be?

Tina:  I look amazing in hats.

Stuart:  (Feigns English accent) “I wear a hat now. Hats are cool.” A quotation that inspires you?





Patience. Patience. Patience. Patience. Patience.


–Martin L. Shoemaker (If you don’t know this person you should Google him!)

Stuart:  Good one! Well thanks for joining us, Tina, and for getting us off to such a good start. I know we’ll be hearing more of you, and best of luck to you in the new year.

Tina:  Thank you for inviting me on your blog for the interview!


Tina Gower’s story, Twelve Seconds, appears in volume XXIX of the anthology, L Ron Hubbard Presents: Writers of the Future. She’s also been published in Galaxy’s Edge and has an upcoming book in Mike Resnick’s Stellar Guild series. She blogs at and you can learn more about her work and her many other accomplishments at

Business Cards for the New Age

With my Writer’s of The Future win, I’ll be going to Los Angeles in a few months and there’s no telling who I may meet at the workshop. It’s therefore a logical time to order the new business cards I’ve been putting off. But what is a business card in this day and age? When I meet someone new, it still makes sense to hand them a card with my contact information and a little space to jot a note. Sure, why not? But no one is going to file that card away like in days of yore–I certainly wouldn’t. And no one needs the info bloat that has become common today, what with websites and screen names and sometimes icons jockeying for real estate. No, I only need the card to do a couple of things, but I need those things done well–and one of them is giving my new found acquaintance machine readable contact information.

What then, are my new design requirements for my new business card?

To list basic contact information, phone, address, email, and linked-in profile.
To contain a vCard, encoded as a QR code for easy smart phone scanning.
To highlight my web presence and brand.
To be free of clutter and professional in tone.
To have a sleek design by a professional graphic artist.
To be free of the cost of a professional graphic artist.

Okay, so my first stop was to visit and create my quick response codes. I created one encoding my basic contact info as a VCard and another encoding the URL to a landing page under my top level website,  It’s important to put as little data as possible in a QR code because the more data you cram in, the smaller the picture elements and the harder it is to decode. We do NOT want our new business contacts futzing around with balky QR codes! So the VCard is minimal, and the link is to a landing page that may contain more information along with anything that changes or that I decide to add later.

ImageNext stop was Moo, a well-regarded printer with a robust online card designer featuring lots of stock, graphic artist-designed templates to choose from. After sorting through this for a few interminable forevers, I found a design I liked. It did not allow me to put the QR codes where I originally planned, but it did allow me to upload a graphic for the back of the card. So with a little editing in Pixlr, that was easily sorted.

The final design, I think, is spot on. It’s clean. It’s clear. It highlights brand and essential contact info. On the reverse, the QR code for the landing page has a little icon to make clear that it’s a website (such icons are a free feature of QR Monkey, but y themake the code more complex so I elected not to add one to the vCard).

If you’d like to try out Moo yourself, follow this link and you’ll get a small discount if you decide to order:

So that’s that. And now, I think, it’s off to work I go.

The Saturn V Main Engine Returns!

Check out this very cool article about how laser 3D scanning and 3D printing are being used to fully understand, resurrect, and improve upon the giant engines that carried us to the moon. Cool factoid: The fuel pump for the F1 engine consumed 55,000 shaft HP, more than the main propulsion system for a modern ultra-deep-water drillship.

Writers of the Future Win!


I’m an L. Ron Hubbard, Writers of the Future winner!

I don’t normally get too excited about awards. Writing is a long-haul proposition, and the payoff comes from years of slogging away more than from any one event.

But this is a big deal, the big enchilada, the American Idol of Scifi. This is the best known, most highly-respected award for genre short fiction, and one of very few opportunities for beginning authors to garner national exposure. Moreover, it means I’ll be flying to Los Angeles for a week-long workshop with some of today’s best authors.

I’m now an alumni in the company of Stephen Baxter, James Alan Gardner, Dean Wesley Smith, Dave Wolverton, Nancy Farmer, and David Zindell, to name a few. There’s no way I’m not getting excited about this!.

I will have to find my bow-tie, thought, but that’s okay. Bow-ties are cool.