Questions About Writing #7: Will You Write It For Me?

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This one pops up every once in a while—in fact, it happened again not long ago. Someone emailed me saying, I’ve worked out this great idea for a story. Would you like to write it for me?

Well, actually, no. I wouldn’t.

The polite explanation of why I wouldn’t, to which I always refer correspondents, is on my web site at

It used to surprise me when people did this. I’m not surprised anymore, but I still find it very odd that someone who has an idea he or she is proud of or finds compelling would even want to turn it over to a complete stranger—even if the stranger were willing. Of course, most people who propose this think they’ll hand the idea to you, you’ll do all the work, and then split the vast earnings fifty-fifty. Right. (Of course, they probably also guess that writing is a lucrative business. Anyone want to take a second guess?)

Like most writers, I have files full of ideas for stories, things I might get to someday if inspiration strikes, and if I live long enough. Given that writing is very hard work, and very iffy in terms of financial payback, why would I want to take time away from my own stories to write yours?

Unless you’re offering to front the money, of course. And that’s why writers are willing to set aside some time to do things like write movie novelizations or spin-off novels (set in the same universe as a movie or TV show). It’s because there’s a certain amount of guaranteed income, because it’s fun if you enjoyed the original, and because it’s almost certain to sell well and be really good advertising for your own books. It’s not like everyone who reads your Star Wars or Star Trek (or Galactica) novel is going to run right out and buy your other books—but some of them will. And you’ve gained a lot of visibility.

But back to he-who-would-have-his-story-written… my bottom-line response is, don’t you want to write it yourself? It’s your idea, your passion. Don’t just talk about it, get in there and do it! Give it your voice, your personality. That’s what writing is all about. Yes?

Writing Question #6: What’s It Like to Write a Movie Novelization?

Battlestar Galactica: the Miniseries was my first movie novelization, and a refreshing experience. First off, it gave me a welcome breather from working on the long-delayed Sunborn, coming as it did just as I finished the first draft of that book. Secondly, I enjoyed the miniseries and loved the acting (Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell were terrific, and so were the others). It was just plain fun to work in that world and sort through the details of the story. (Sidelight to that: my daughter Julia is homeschooling, and we made it an assignment for her to watch the DVD with me, and compare the action onscreen with the written script. Many differences.) Third, it forced me to work at a fast and furious pace, which was good. I didn’t have to make up the story—it was already there. Many of you have probably already seen it. If not, I recommend it, from the SciFi Channel.

But that doesn’t mean it was all easy-sailing, either. I found some unique (to me) challenges in writing this book. Turning a story on screen into a novel is not a simple matter of transcription, even though I was working from the actual show on DVD—and even though I tried hard to be faithful to the story as it appeared, including the dialogue.

When you’re writing the novel, you have to flesh out things that go by quickly onscreen, or get left out altogether, perhaps due to time constraints. This was a 4-hour miniseries—3 hours, without commercials. They had to work very hard to squeeze the story into 3 hours, and a lot wound up on the cutting room floor (either literally, or figuratively—in scenes not shot or perhaps not even written). This meant writing new material to bridge gaps or abrupt transitions, and there were many. Or to fill in background.

What surprised me more was the amount of… how shall I put it?… re-imagining needed to tell on the page a story that’s already been told on the screen. Things happen fast onscreen, and as a viewer, you don’t always have time to think about what you’ve just seen, and whether or not it makes sense. I’m not talking about large plot elements, so much as details and pieces of dialogue and motivation. The show’s writers are trying to compress the action, and sometimes the results—which might be perfectly acceptable to a viewer—are less persuasive when you see them laid out on the page. (This is not a criticism; it’s a fact of life.) Things have to be explained. Motivations for even small actions have to withstand a reader squinting at the page and going, Hmmm.

The challenge, then, is to tell the story without changing it (much), reproduce the dialogue without changing it (much), and tweak it or bolster it in just the right ways to make it work on the page as well as it worked onscreen (or better, if possible). It’s not always easy. But it’s generally pretty interesting.

Oh—and it gave me an excuse to write about flying. I always love writing about flying.

Galactica’s Done! Plus Other Cool News

That’s all she wrote: Battlestar Galactica: the Miniseries: the Novel is finished and turned in. Big sighs all around. Initial reaction from my editor is very positive. (He’d read the whole thing less than 24 hours after I sent it to him—a first for either of us.) The book is going into an accelerated production schedule for publication next winter. I’ll post more definite details as they become official. The publication stuff is all tentative right now.

Meanwhile, the other cool news is that my younger daughter, Julia, just won national ranking in the middle-school category of an international SF short-story writing competition. The competition is sponsored by Eurisy, which as far as I can tell is an educational consortium of many European space organizations, including the European Space Agency. Students in 18 nations are submitting SF stories depicting life in space, each to go through a selection process at the national level, with each nation’s top two in middle school and high school going on to the international competition. The U.S. entries were judged through the National Space Society. Julia’s story is one of two selected by the U.S. judges to go on to the international competition. Excited she is, yes. And so are we.

Home Video to DVD: Capturing to Your Computer

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Okay, I promised a long time ago to write about how to turn home videos into DVDs. Now I’m going to do it.

First off, a disclaimer. Everything I’m going to say is Windows-specific. I’m sure you can do all the same stuff, maybe more, with a Mac (maybe even Linux, for all I know). But I don’t know the Mac software, so I will just assume that it’s pretty similar, but a little different. Okay? And I’m not a pro, but I’ve done quite a bit of it, and learned some things the hard way.

I got started doing this a couple of years ago when we bought a digital camcorder. At first, we just started shooting video, then sticking the tape cassettes in a box to gather dust—just like the old system. But one day I saw a sale at Circuit City that let me get a 200 GB hard drive and a DVD burner for a good price. So I bit. And thus began my odyssey, which leads me to sharing the following tips:

1. It really helps if you’re starting with a digital camcorder (mini-DV), rather than an analog one (8 mm, VHS, etc.). You can do it with the latter, but then you need a capture card for your computer that can convert the analog video to digital.

With the mini-DV, all you need is a Firewire (also called IEEE-1394 or i-link) cable and a port to plug it into your computer. Most newer computers have a port. On mine, I found it on the back of the sound card.

2. It helps if you have a REALLY BIG hard drive with a lot of empty space. A single hour of uncompressed video takes up about 13 GB. And that’s before you start editing and converting to DVD format. If you’re doing any real editing, and then burning to DVD, you could easily gobble 30-40 GB on your drive just making a 1-hour DVD. That’s why I put in a 200 GB drive basically just for video stuff.

So…if you can, start with:

  • digital source
  • Firewire cable
  • big honking hard drive

3. You need software. There are a number of packages out there: Sonic MyDVD, Nero, Adobe, etc. You can read reviews on I use Sonic MyDVD for the final DVD production—and for the video editing (but only if the editing is minimal).

For the actual editing, if it’s anything more than a bit of trimming here and there, I like Windows Moviemaker—which comes free with Windows XP. (You might have to update to SP2.) That’s right, it’s freeware! And it’s a powerful program. You can use it to cut and paste video clips, add transitions, titles, credits, and mix in music in a very flexible way.

I’ve used Moviemaker for many things, but the most complex was creating end-of-season music videos for the wrestling team. Each video, about ten minutes long, involved about a hundred video edits and multiple music edits, plus titles and credits. (If you’re creating a complex piece like this, Moviemaker is a bit crash-prone. So as you add complexity, save more and more often.)

4. Now get your video onto your computer. Plug in your camcorder, crank up your software, and tell it to “Capture Video.” You can do this from MyDVD or from Moviemaker. Both allow you to control the camcorder playback right from your computer. If I know I’m grabbing selected “good parts,” not a whole tape, I like Moviemaker because it lets you skip and grab, skip and grab, all in one session.

  • It’s going to prompt you to save the file, and ask you what format. If you’re going to edit, save it to .AVI or DV format.
  • If you’re just copying a tape to DVD with little or no editing, you can capture it from within MyDVD, and save it straight to MPEG, which is the format in which it will be burned onto the DVD. This will save you a lot of steps.
  • Be careful where you save the file. The software always seems to want to save it under Documents and Settings, no matter how many times I redirect it to over to the other hard drive. Put it where you have a lot of room, and where you can find it.

Tomorrow, editing.

Intelligent Design in the New Yorker

Fortunately, someone around here is awake at the switch. Rich emailed me to point out that the latest issue of the New Yorker has an article about Intelligent Design. No, not whether the New Yorker (or New York itself, for that matter) is intelligently designed, but about the ID movement and evolution. I had actually read the article and intended to talk about it here, but then I didn’t because of those deadlines I mentioned.

Anyway, it’s a good article, and you can read it at You might not like it if you think ID is good science, but it does respectfully lay out some of the main arguments for ID, and then give a science-based critique of them.

The author, H. Allen Orr, also talks a bit about the sometimes rocky relationship between evolution and faith:

The idea that Darwinism is yoked to atheism, though popular, is also wrong. Of the five founding fathers of twentieth-century evolutionary biology—Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright, J. B. S. Haldane, Ernst Mayr, and Theodosius Dobzhansky—one was a devout Anglican who preached sermons and published articles in church magazines, one a practicing Unitarian, one a dabbler in Eastern mysticism, one an apparent atheist, and one a member of the Russian Orthodox Church and the author of a book on religion and science. Pope John Paul II himself acknowledged, in a 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, that new research “leads to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis.” Whatever larger conclusions one thinks should follow from Darwinism, the historical fact is that evolution and religion have often coexisted.

And then, in conclusion:

Biologists aren’t alarmed by intelligent design’s arrival in Dover and elsewhere because they have all sworn allegiance to atheistic materialism; they’re alarmed because intelligent design is junk science.

I’ve just started reading Kenneth R. Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God, written by an evolutionary biologist who’s also a person of faith. I hope to say more about that later. (But at the rate of 10 minutes a day when I’m on the exercise bike—minus the times when I’m reading my daughter’s Zits cartoon collections instead—it’ll take me a while to finish.)

Icon Wars

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See what computers do at night:

(Thanks to my brother for sending that one along.)

Meanwhile, back in the Star Wars universe…

While granting tsmacro’s point that Star Wars is really space fantasy, not science fiction, there’s still no reason why they have to get just about everything scientific wrong, whether they need to or not. (I think most of us are willing to accept the eternally-fueled spacecraft, and even the zooming sounds in space. But there’s a lot of other stuff that just seems like careless thinking.) A really fun way to read up on all that is on, which is always worth looking at anyway. (Thanks to Chet for the suggestion.)

Lest it seem like I’m only interested in cavilling, however, I should say that I really liked General Grievous’s giant speeder wheel. If someone wanted to get me one of those for my birthday (a working model, of course), that would be cool.

Revenge of the Sith

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So last weekend the whole family went to see the new Star Wars, and we had a rousing good time. To my surprise, the theater wasn’t particularly crowded (a rainy Saturday matinee show, just 2 days after the movie opened). We got good seats without knocking ourselves out. Trusty light sabers in hand (younger daughter had been busy custom-manufacturing props), we settled in for the show.

Definitely a major improvement over the last two, and a mostly satisfying completion of this part of the circle. (Satisfying enough that we sat down that evening with a tape of the original and picked up where the new story left off.)

Quarrels and observations:


(It’s not like anything I’m about to say will surprise anyone, because we all know the ending; but still…if you’d like to see it before I talk about the crucial bits, you should stop reading now.)

Aside from the stilted dialogue and predominantly wooden acting (even from the good actors), the only two things that really bothered me…

(I thought you were going to stop reading now. Oh, never mind.)

…were Anakin’s easy conversion by the other Darth, and Obiwan’s leaving him alive in agony on the hot lava (not just stupid, since Obi was trying to make sure the galaxy was rid of the danger, but unJedi-like: he should have finished him off as an act of mercy.)

As for Anakin’s turning, I thought they did a good job of laying the groundwork: fear that he would lose Padme the way he lost his mother, guilt over Windu’s death, distrust of the Jedi, etc. But the final, actual conversion, where he went from “What have I done?” to “Yes, master,” was much too facile. They missed a chance for a really powerful scene, I thought.

Having said all that, you don’t go to see Star Wars for the sensitive acting (not since Alec Guinness, anyway), you go to see it for the larger-than-life story and the visual imagination and the music. And there it delivered.

The political undercurrent was interesting, if unsubtle. The Boston Globe reviewer thought Lucas was making an anti-Bush statement, and that’s definitely one possible reading. The gradual accumulation of power through preying on people’s fear for the safety of the Republic…the fake humility while engaging in deceit…Padme’s comment that this is how democracy is lost, through wild applause (Patriot Act, anyone?)… the war based on pretext…. It could also be seen as a retelling of Hitler’s rise to power (and that real-life similarity is probably the most chilling thing).

One satisfying side note: in the end, Lucas did answer one of the most nagging questions of the series: Why did C3PO not remember Anakin in the original trilogy?

Deadlines, Deadlines

I’ve got deadlines looming, particularly with the Galactica book (oops! I didn’t say that!), so I probably will be posting less for the next few weeks.

But let me leave you with a few cool links. In preparation for the new Star Wars, you should all first watch Store Wars.

And you must, by all means, see George Lucas in Love, if you ever get a chance. (I don’t think you can watch it online, unfortunately.)

Finally, for a more serious look at real space travel—the current state of the U.S. space program, and prospects for the future, there’s an excellent recent article from the Washington Post. (You might have to register to read this. But that’s worth doing anyway.)

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