Category Archives: Inspiration

Children’s Author Brings Love of Space to Young Readers

sue_100daysinorbitThere’s something captivating about space exploration that ignites the imagination. I felt it as a child watching Star Trek, and it’s evident in the public interest in the ISS, NASA, and in space visionaries like Richard Branson and Elon Musk.

That’s why I am so excited to feature Sue Ganz-Schmitt, a talented children’s book author, sue_nasa-launchmother and philanthropist. Sue has also served as a NASA Social correspondent, an experience that I enjoyed for the first time last April at the SpaceX launch to the ISS. She has taken insights from her behind-the-scenes tour of NASA and the launch pad and applied them to her children’s books.

Her third book, Planet Kindergarten, out this past August, earned a Kirkus starred review:  “A genius way to ease kids into the new adventure that is kindergarten.”  The Mommy Reads blog included this positive plug from a young reader:

“T is in love with Planet Kindergarten by Sue Ganz-Schmitt and Shane Prigmore.  We have read it 38 times…..so far.  It has been our bedtime story night after night.  This book is ABSOLUTELY perfect for my guy and I feel like maybe, just maybe, it was written just for him.  I love the rich vocabulary and comparison between outer space and the classroom.planet-kindergarten  Seriously-one of our best reads this summer!”

Below, Sue shares her unique background and how she has applied her love of the stars to touch children’s imaginations, and offers tips on how to connect with readers and with fellow writers.

Q. You have such an interesting background, Sue, with your interests in helping children all over the world. You also love space. How were you able to combine these passions as a book author?

Sue: My first book, Even Superhereos Get Diabetes, was inspired by a play-friend of my then sue_superheroesbookcovertwo-year-old daughter who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.  I wanted to reach out and help the family facing the shock of diagnosis.  I tried to find an empowering picture book they could read to him.  When I couldn’t find what I was looking for I decided to write my own book.

I watched the family become like superheroes in a blink – waking up several times a night to blood test their toddler, counting every bite of carbs he ate, injecting him several times a day.  Exhausted and worried, none of them complained – they just rose to the occasion with grace and strength.  I wanted to help them feel supported with this new unknown looming over them, and I wanted other kids to understand the medical challenge that their friends with diabetes face.

As a kindergartener, I watched several rocket launches that culminated in the Apollo 11 moon landing.  I was very inspired by NASA and had a fascination with space.   Almost subconsciously, a NASA reference found its way into this story where the hero discovers that his doctor has diabetes-related superpowers and a secret lair that looks like NASA’s mission control.

Q. What inspired your Planet Kindergarten book series?

Sue:  In my third book, Planet Kindergarten, I watched the kids from my daughter’s pre-school make the transition to kindergarten.  One of her best friends was having a really rough go of it and had to act as brave as an astronaut to get through it – but I could see lots of days he just wanted to abort this mission to kindergarten. A storyline came together and I wrote a book that I hoped would both inspire kids to be interested in space while easing their fears about their school journey.

Q. How did you incorporate real-life science and facts about space to make it engaging to such a young audience?

Sue: I cut my teeth on space-themed family TV shows like “Lost In Space” and “The Jetsons.” I visited NASA’s Kennedy Space Center while writing Planet Kindergarten and picked up some books on the Gemini/Apollo programs.  I poured through them, as well as lots of space fact books from Barnes and Noble.  One day I was online and found an article about hsue_illustrationsue_illustration2ow our earth is encircled by space trash (human created space debris).  I was so disturbed that not only are we polluting our own planet ­– but the orbit around our planet.  I had to include a nod to containing our trash in the first Planet Kindergarten book.

I love watching space-themed movies.  For my just released book, Planet Kindergarten: 100 Days in Orbit, you may pick up on some influence from the movie “Gravity” (spacewalk scene).  And the cover/last page image is modeled after a key scene in the movie, “The Right Stuff. ”

Q.What was the most challenging aspect of becoming a children’s author? The most rewarding aspect?

Sue: Great question, Anne. I think the most difficult part in pursuing a creative dream like becoming an author is perseverance.  There were many obstacles and self-doubts that I had to face.  I nearly gave up being a writer just two weeks before Planet Kindergarten went into a bidding war.

Being in a creative field, you are required to get feedback/critiques to make your work the best it can possibly be and that can cause you to question your abilities.  Also the road to get a publishing deal is fraught with rejection.  Even the best known authors have faced this (yes, you J.K. Rowling!).

As a sensitive introvert type – this has challenged me to grow. I have learned not to take rejection personally, but to get back to work each time to learn where my manuscript fell short, or to accept when the market isn’t timed right for my story.  I have learned when to let go and move ahead on a new project.  I often remind myself of the NASA themed line from Planet Kindergarten, “Failure is not an option!”

A reward for perseverance is when you hear from parents about how your book has helped sue_princessbookcovertheir child.  I have heard from parents with food allergies how The Princess and the Peanut helped their child not to feel alone; I heard from one parent who shared that their child decided to become a doctor to help other kids with diabetes, after reading Even Superheroes Get Diabetes.  And from lots of parents how Planet Kindergarten helped calm their children’s nerves over their first days of school.

Another rewarding part of this journey has been getting to go to NASA rocket launches and NASA Social events, behind the scenes tours at JPL, space lectures at CalTech, and spending time with the great folks at the Planetary Society.

Q. What one tip would you offer authors who want to reach a young audience, from pre-school to elementary ages?

Sue:  If they haven’t already, join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (scbwi.org).  I learned much of what I know about the craft of writing for children and the business side of publishing and promoting your work from them. They are an incredible resource for all levels of writers from those who are thinking of writing to those who have published numerous books.  A writing teacher once told everyone in our class to join, so I did.  It was the best career move I have ever made!

Q. How important is social media to building an author platform? How can parents find you?

Sue: Authors often spend their workday in solitary – we need ways to connect with our audience and others.  Social media keeps us in the face of the public. And while you shouldn’t over-promote your book on social media, people will build an impression of you and hopefully remember you when they see your book in the stores or featured online.

Don’t try to be everywhere, and if you aren’t keen on social media, just find the platform that you are most comfortable with and show up there often.  I tweet throughout the day.  I love Twitter as a newsfeed to learn more about science, technology, and space and to share that with my followers.  I also love using it to reach out and connect with space fans and other authors so we can support each other.  And – I met you there!  So lots to gain from it.

Q. What is next for you in terms of writing?

Sue: I just won an award for my new manuscript Space Cow.  So stay tuned for an adventure with a brave bovine heading to Mars!  I am also making a plan toward getting my Master’s Degree in Fine Arts (Writing for Young People).

About the Author  

sue_authorpicSue Ganz-Schmitt is a children’s book author, mother, musical theater producer, and philanthropist. Sue is passionate about helping children and families. She is co-founder of an AIDS orphanage in Haiti, has traveled to China to help medically-challenged orphans and set up a birthing clinic in rural India. She has performed on Broadway, run a marathon, and pursues other improbable challenges – as often as she can. Sue has authored four picture books found here:  http://www.sueganzschmitt.com/. She has served as a NASA Social correspondent and as a volunteer for the Planetary Society. You can often find her with eyes to the stars. She tweets at @planetkbooks and @royallyallergic or connect with her on Facebook under key words:  royallyallergic and planetkindergarten.

 

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For the Love of Star Trek

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This month marks the 50-year anniversary of the classic Star Trek series.  The story of the starship Enterprise, first envisioned by Gene Roddenberry, and its five-year mission to “explore new life and new civilizations” has endured for five decades – spurring numerous TV series, nine movies (and counting), and a throng of Trek conventions. It’s also inspired a new generation of people to pursue the stars as scientists, astronauts and engineers.

As a writer born in the year of the Apollo landing, I have pursued my own passion for space, covering technology and space trends for the satellite industry. In April, I watched from Cape Canaveral as a SpaceX Dragon  rocketed into orbit on its mission to resupply the ISS. Within minutes SpaceX successfully landed the first phase on a drone ship.

Organizing a Birthday Worthy of a Vulcan


Fortunately for me, I married a Trekkie who had the good fortune to turn 50 recently. I marked my husband’s special day around our beloved series, complete with a “Live Long and Prosper” birthday cake, Spock ears for the guest of honor and party guests who got into the spirit by wearing T-shirts and even costumes in homage to the show.

It was so fun, replacing my spouse over the face of Kirk in the famous Spock death scene in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” when he utters the famous words, “I have been and always shall be your friend.”

I pulled together a Captain’s log for everyone to sign, and handed out “irradiated tribbles” as party favors for the youngest celebrants.

Meeting Captain Kirk

The next weekend was Dragon*Con, the world’s largest fantasy/SF convention, held annually in

William Shatner speaking at Dragon*Con 2016.

Atlanta, and whose guest of honor the last day was none other than Captain Kirk himself – William Shatner. My sister and I attended his standing-room-only talk, where he shared some of his recent activities, including working on “The Truth Is In the Stars,” a feature documentary   currently in production expected to be out by the end of 2016. The program poses the question of whether our society has the capacity to live up to Star Trek’s optimistic, inclusive vision for humanity’s future.

Shatner examines the impact of Star Trek on popular culture, human innovation, discovery and creativity through one-on-one interviews with famous innovators, celebrities and politicians. He told Dragon*Con attendees about his conversation with Stephen Hawking, the world’s most famous theoretical physicist, who also is a big Star Trek fan.  A sufferer of ALS, Dr. Hawking has no muscle control, so talks using a small sensor activated by a muscle in his cheek. He uses this sensor to ‘type’ characters and numbers on his keyboard.

Shatner recalled how when Hawking asked him to share his favorite episode of Star Trek, his first reaction was to admit that he hardly remembers individual  shows, but then he thought more and realized that it was “the ones that expressed those brilliant ideas that tackled social issues like the stupidity of racial hatreds.” Shatner pointed to the episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” when two aliens from the same planet are differentiated due to one being black on the left side and white on the right and the other being the opposite.
“These stories appeal to our senses – these are the most powerful because they are based on something human,” he says,

Shatner then asked Hawking to share his favorite episode, to which he responded not too surprisingly, “Anything to do with black holes.”

Star Trek TNG character Data (played by Brent Spiner) with Stephen Hawking.

Interestingly, Hawking is the only person to ever play himself on Star Trek. In the Star Trek: TNG episode, “Descent,”  Data, Albert Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton, and Stephen Hawking are playing poker.

Shatner demonstrated his humor and seemed to really enjoy his interplay with the fans during the Q&A session. When asked if Kirk had ended up with one woman in Star Trek, whom would she be, he responded, “Given Captain Kirk’s proclivities he would have liked to have ended up with all of them.”

leonard-book-jacketWhen the Q&A turned to his long-time collaborator, Leonard Nimoy, Shatner shared that he, like many men, struggled to have close male friends, and how their relationship grew over many years.

“He was my best friend,” he said, recalling how a heartfelt friendship developed and grew when the two actors’ paths continued to cross even after Star Trek was cancelled but then gained new life in syndication, which led to films and convention appearances.  Shatner said he wrote the memoir, Leonard,  in honor of their 50-year friendship, soon after Nimoy’s death in February 2015, to get as many memories down as he could.

 

Watching Spock Documentary

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My husband and I capped off our month-long Trek lovefest by heading to the screening of “For the Love of Spock,”  a documentary and moving tribute to Nimoy written and directed by his son, Adam, which he funded through Kickstarter.

The screening, at the Plaza Theatre, Atlanta’s landmark and the city’s longest continuously operating movie theatre, was the perfect backdrop given its vintage feel. The documentary shed light on Nimoy the man, including his work ethic and family struggles.

I found the interviews with the elder Nimoy toward the end of his life especially moving as well as the many tributes from the original show and present-day cast of Star Trek, including filmmaker JJ Abrams.  Walter Koenig, who played Chekov, recalled how Nimoy stepped in when Koenig, Nichelle Nichols and George Takei were not cast in the 1973 animated Star Trek series.  Noting that the spirit of Star Trek was embracing diversity, and that the very cast members who most signify that diversity were being excluded, Nimoy refused to participate unless they were included.

There were many other behind-the-scenes tidbits revealed during the film, including the origin of the Vulcan greeting, which Nimoy devised from a letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

I knew how hard Nimoy worked throughout his career, how seriously he took his craft, and the long hours spent on set and doing appearances.  Nimoy was the only actor kept when NBC rejected the original pilot, “The Cage,” as “too intellectual.”  NBC was interested enough in the concept to give Roddenberry the go-ahead to try again with a new cast that included Shatner as captain in place of Jeffrey Hunter.

During the documentary viewers see an excerpt of Nimoy laughing as he read the original Variety review of the show, which dubbed “Star Trek” a “dreary mess of confusion” and called Shatner’s performance “wooden” – hardly the description people use to describe Captain Kirk.  Overall, this documentary is definitely worth a viewing for those who loved the series and the character of Spock.

As for me, after catching up on some of my favorite episodes on the Star Trek marathon shown on the BBC America channel, I have resumed my normal routine with many fond Trek memories.

Thanks, Roddenberry, for your brilliant storytelling vision. It’s been quite a voyage!

 

 

 

 

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The ‘Atlanta Beltline Guy’ Talks Future of Cities in Where We Want to Live

Where+We+Want+to+LiveToday, The Writing Well is celebrating Earth Day a few days late with this insightful interview with Atlanta urban designer Ryan Gravel, author of Where We Want to Live: Reclaiming Infrastructure for a New Generation of Cities, a book that will inspire anyone who has grown up in the sprawl of America’s suburban areas where communities were designed around cars instead of people.

I first met Ryan while researching my own book, Moving to Atlanta: The Un-Tourist GuideI couldn’t write about living in Atlanta without quoting the “Atlanta Beltline guy,” as he’s known around town. The Beltline today is a $4 billion infrastructure project that will add 40% to the city’s green space by converting Atlanta’s abandoned 22-mile-long freight rail corridor into a  transit greenway.  It’s also, as I was to learn while researching Atlanta’s many intown neighborhoods, a cultural phenomenon that is redefining the fabric of the city, bringing people and institutions together and fueling economic growth.

“The Beltline has its own culture,” Eric Champlin of AtlantaTrails.com said, and his enthusiasm for the Beltline was echoed by dozens of other residents I interviewed.  For Ryan, it was his graduate thesis while an architecture student at Georgia Tech, and his vision of what he would love for Atlanta to be, inspired by what he’d seen firsthand after living for a year in Paris.

“His book is part memoir, partly an argument about what’s wrong with suburban sprawl and partly an argument about how infrastructure shapes our society and how – from roads to rivers – it can be thoughtfully repurposed,” writes Alex Bozikovic in his March 18th review of Ryan’s book in The Globe and Mail.

I am inspired by Ryan’s passion for Atlanta, but I agree with The Globe and Mail reviewer that Where We Want to Live has a much broader perspective, with examples of what other cities here and abroad can do to make their communities more livable, more equitable, and more sustainable.

Ryan holding both our books.

Ryan holding both our books.

In my book, he credits the people for Atlanta for making the Beltline happen, saying, “The only reason we are doing this is because the people of Atlanta fell in love with a vision for their future.” He predicts Atlanta will be a very different place in 20 years — “redefined.”

Our books’ were published a month apart, and we exchanged signed copies last month at his office in Ponce City Market, a short walk from the Beltline’s Northside Trail. During our meeting, I asked him about his writing journey, including his goals for Where We Want to Live and what he’d like to be doing in five years. Here’s what he said.

Q. Why did you write Where We Want to Live?

Ryan: There were several things I wanted to accomplish — one, I am fascinated with the role of infrastructure. It is the foundation of our culture, our social life,  I am fascinated with that relationship. I see it as an under-the-radar kind of tool for social and cultural change, which is exciting. The other thing is I know the reason it [the Beltline] is happening is because the people in Atlanta fell in love with this vision for their future. They empowered it and made it. They obligated their political leadership to build it. They made it happen — people did it. But if you’re 25 today, you were barely a teenager at the time we were doing that. So you might not see the Beltline that way. I wanted people to see it that way. We’re still in the very early stages of it. Its successful implementation requires them to remain involved to maintain that sense of ownership of the project.  I think that’s the only way we’re really going to be successful.  It has to be done well and right and be done for everybody  — it has be done in a way that fulfills the vision.

Q. Were you surprised by how residents of Atlanta have embraced the Beltline — did it become something much bigger than you thought it would ever be?

Ryan:  Yes. I was just a kid [when I first envisioned and began working on getting support for the Beltline].  I understood this from a technical side and an architectural side of what it would do.  It is doing that but the degree to which people have fallen in love with this thing has been just insane. It’s great. I’m in love with it because they’re in love with it.

Q. How is your book different than other books in your genre?

Ryan:  I think it’s different because it’s a narrative — it’s a story. Most books about planning and cities are bulky technical books. They’re sort of case studies and best practices. They’ve got a catalog of ideas outlined that are helpful but are more technical. This really tries to tell the story of the role of infrastructure in our lives and that it matters,  and that we might want to think more carefully about it. I think people could fall in love with infrastructure more broadly. If people fall in love with the places that they live in, they would be much more careful with some of the decisions we make.

Q. How has the Atlanta Beltline fueled your passion for reclaiming infrastructure? Did it happen before that?

Ryan on the Atlanta Beltline's Northeast Corridor. Photo by Anne Wainscott-Sargent

Ryan on the Atlanta Beltline’s Northeast Corridor.       Photo by Anne Wainscott-Sargent

Ryan:  Our success [with the Beltline] has definitely fueled my fire. The other thing that it’s allowed me to do is travel and share our story nationally and increasingly internationally. I see that not only are people fascinated by what we are doing, but they also are doing some pretty interesting things themselves. The Beltline is part of a much larger story. Another thing I wanted to accomplish with the book is to put the Beltline in a much larger context– that this kind of change is happening everywhere. Atlanta is definitely a leader in this space, but it’s happening everywhere. This is part of a much larger cultural movement — in 30 years, we will have completely reshaped the way that we build cities.

Q. What are some other cities nationally or internationally you’ve been inspired by?

Ryan: The one we’ve had some real success with is the LA River.  It started as a grassroots  movement in the 1980s to reclaim this concrete channel as some kind

A new generation of Los Angeles residents have rediscovered their river and is fighting to reposition it once again as a central part of a more sustainable future for Los Angeles. Photo by Ryan Gravel.

A new generation of Los Angeles residents has rediscovered their river and is fighting to make it part of a more sustainable future for LA. Photo by Ryan Gravel.

of life-affirming waterway. And they’ve been working at it a long time, but just within the last few months they’ve made enormous progress. The Army Corps of Engineers, which channelized the river in the 1930s, literally paved 80 percent of a 50-mile river with concrete just to approve a $1 billion restoration of one short short section of the Glendair Narrows  [along the Los Angeles River], so it’s not just the physical transformation, which changes not only people’s lives, but changes the way agencies, organizations and businesses relate.

If you look at urban sprawl — it wasn’t some big conspiracy; it was millions of people over an extended period of time making the best decisions that they could for their families with a lot of unintended consequences.  It also was a cultural momentum and, in the process, it fundamentally changed the way we built the world around us. For one, it created entire forms of bureaucracies and business models for new types of housing and new types of food was completely revolutionized.  It was part of the cultural transformation in the 60s.  People separate it out but it was very much tied together in the same way that this is the beginning  of a similar cultural shift that is going to have both intended and unintended consequences.

I’m excited about what is happening — this kind of change — but we also have to be thoughtful, deliberate and intentional so that it supports everybody — that everybody gets to be a part of it.

Q. What do you want people to get out of this book at the end of the day?

Ryan: I would love for people to see the role of infrastructure in their lives. We have a lot of

The Beltline in Fall by Linda Coatsworth

The Beltline in Fall by Linda Coatsworth

conversations with the Atlanta Beltline Project around equity, affordability, environmental justice, mobility and all these things, and it’s great and it’s right and we should. I think we have those conversations around all the infrastructure that we build — all the big highway interchanges, all the things that we do — the big chunks of projects we spend money on.

You look at all the big highway projects — we are spending billions of dollars on massive interchange reconstructions and highway widening and managed lanes, and all those are only for people who drive cars. They are not for people who walk or ride trains, or ride bikes or move around in other ways. They are very limited in their impact and there is no dialogue around affordability. There is no dialogue around what it will do economically to communities. It will support some communities — it will expand economic development in some communities but it will do the opposite in others. I would like to shift the public dialogue so when we make these big public investments that we would have that dialogue. I think it would change a lot of the decisions we make.

Q. What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book? 

Ryan: The book was a real discovery. I knew there was something to be discovered and I didn’t know what it was. There was a lot of figuring it out. It was my first book. I can tell when I read it that the first two-thirds of the book has been reworked — a lot of chapters shifted around.  Between first pitching the book and the final format a lot of those pieces have been moved around a lot to frame this larger story. The last five chapters were not conceived until all those decisions were made. They were written much faster and read much better — they make more sense. It was a learning experience for me. I became a better writer in the process.  I had a book outline but it kept changing. The transition between things and the logic had to be rewritten several times and it was painful, but I think it was the right thing to do. It made a better book. For example, the Beltline is in the middle four chapters but previously it was told more piecemeal across the book.

Q, What did you learn during the process that will help other writers? What would you advise other non-fiction writers?

Ryan: I had a good editor at a high level and she helped me edit — we cut a good 100 pages out of the book. It was really redundant — partly because I was shifting things around and saying things twice. I would advise writers to get a good editor — someone who can see your story with a broader perspective. I was so in the weeds I couldn’t. I had a couple of readers who gave me different feedback on different topics. One of them helped me with the Beltline section — I wanted to tell an honest story because I wasn’t the only part of the story. 

Q. Have you been surprised by the reception to Where We Want to Live?

Ryan: I was blown away by the launch event. I didn’t know how many people were going to show up. The Carter Center had seats for 470 people, and I thought there is no way we are going to fill it up but we had people sitting on the steps, which was pretty amazing.

Q. What’s next for you? Do you have another book planned?

Ponce City Market, photo credit: Sarah Dorio

Ponce City Market, photo credit: Sarah Dorio

While I was in the middle of it I said there was no way I would write another book — it was so much more work than I ever thought it would be. But, I learned a lot and I became a better writer so I think the next book would not be so torturous.  I love the idea of writing a children’s book. Obviously the key to that is finding a good illustrator. I also have an idea to create a more of a coffee table kind of image book. I have a ton of images from all these other projects around the world. It would be sort of a visual addendum to Where We Want to Live.

I also would love to do an Instagram book of other people looking at infrastructure in a similar way or targeting these projects. That would be a cool way to organize people who are into the future of city-building and graphically hold it together across a lot of different photography.

I have talked to people about doing an online show about infrastructure where we would share stories — such as the work going along the LA River and talking to people who can envision what that space might become. I think that would be a lot of fun and I think you could do it in a way that would be really interesting for an audience.

Q. What’s your ideal job in five years?

Ryan: I want to research the future of cities. I want to pitch ideas for what that means and host forums and discussions about everything from storm water to automated vehicles — that is, start a real civic dialogue around the infrastructure that we build and that it matters.  One of the projects I am doing is called the Atlanta City Design for the City of Atlanta. We are figuring out how they are going to grow — to become something they want to be. The City of Atlanta is only a tenth of the regional population and they are going to more than double in size in the next 20 years so where is that population going to go?  How do we protect things like the tree canopy and neighborhoods so that we become more of who we are and not less, and we still like it at the end of the day? We are just now starting this — it’s going to roll out over the course of the spring,summer and fall.

About the Author

RYAN GRAVEL is the founding principal of Sixpitch and creator of the Atlanta Beltline, the reinvention of a 22-mile circle of railroads that began as the subject of his master’s thesis. A designer, planner, and writer, he is increasingly called to speak to an international audience on topics as wide ranging as brownfield remediation, transportation, public health, affordable housing, and urban regeneration. Gravel lives with his family in Atlanta, Georgia. Visit Ryan’s author page at: https://ryangravel.com/ or follow him on Twitter @ryangravel.

Experiencing SpaceX ‘s First Launch of 2016 Live with NASA Social

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SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket sits on its launch pad on Friday awaiting liftoff at Cape Canaveral.

The Writing Well celebrates storytelling in all its forms, and I am thrilled  to post a unique blog  with some of the social media “storytellers” invited by NASA to observe and report online during the April 8th SpaceX  launch of its Dragon Falcon to the International Space Station, SpaceX’s first launch of 2016.

Of course, it was SpaceX’s experimental drone ship landing  of the first phase — a feat that had been attempted before but succeeded for the first time last Friday — that created just as much excitement and with good reason: it paves the way for developing reusable, lower-cost spaceflight since future missions in deep space will depend upon a sea-based landing.

“It’s another step toward the stars,” said SpaceX founder Elon Musk during a post-launch press conference at Kennedy Space Center.

For those of you who are not space enthusiasts, take note:  NASA and private-sector space innovators are entering into a new and exciting chapter, one that fosters collaboration and hopefully successful outreach beyond low earth orbit to Mars and beyond.

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Here I am at the countdown clock a little over an hour before launch.

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Inside NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building, which is 520 feet high.

I was one of several bloggers and tweeters invited to take part in a “NASA Social,” a special behind-the-scenes opportunity sponsored by NASA’s social media team to experience the launch, tour key facilities and talk to some of the space agency’s best and brightest.  On Friday afternoon we found ourselves on the NASA Causeway  a little over two miles from the launch pad as the Dragon rocket roared into a perfect blue sky – and made history minutes later with the historic landing at sea of its first phase.

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A breathtaking view of Cape Canaveral and the launch pads from the roof of the VAB.

Before the launch we had the opportunity to tour Kennedy Space Center’s famed Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB, where engineers assemble large space vehicles. We headed several stories up to the roof where we enjoyed a breathtaking view of Cape Canaveral and took video and pictures of the launch pad.

NASA Crawler

NASA Crawler

We also got up close and personal with NASA Crawlers, the 50-year-old giant transporters that have carried shuttles and rockets since the Apollo era from the VAB to the launch pads at Launch Complex 39. We learned how they are being upgraded to handle the additional weight requirements of future launches.   We also heard from scientists, engineers and astronauts who are shaping NASA’s next chapter and the future of space exploration.

We gained a richer appreciation of the agency’s focus on supporting private partners like SpaceX to build the capability to support space exploration beyond low earth orbit. Who can’t wait to see the first launch of Orion in 2018 and follow its mission to take human exploration to Mars?

Below is a snapshot of a some of the bloggers, tweeters and YouTubers from across the country who I met and who are helping tell the new story of NASA and SpaceX to an increasingly excited public.

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Accuweather sponsored Brian's attendance at the NASA Social event.

Accuweather sponsored Brian’s attendance at the NASA Social event.

Brian Lada, Meteorologist and Journalist for Accuweather

City: State College, PA

Social platform of choice:    Twitter  / @wxlada

“I loved space as a kid. Growing up I wanted to be an astronaut. I loved watching all the rocket and shuttle launches on TV, but when it came time for college, I decided to go for meteorology because my other passion is the weather.  Fortunately, I can pursue my passion for astronomy as well. I help to manage our astronomy Facebook page and I talk about space all the time on my Twitter. Down here I am fulfilling my childhood dream of seeing NASA, meeting NASA, watching a space launch while still being in my weather world. I was sponsored by Accuweather and am reporting live from the ground for the company.”

“The one message I want to leave with my social media followers is Just how much weather can affect launches. I’ve been nervous the last few weeks about the winds and the probability of postponing the launch. Everyone is down here for this one day and if the weather is wrong, a lot of people are going to miss out. Fortunately, it is looking good.”

 

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Matt plays video games for a living. Here, he’s streaming live on his Twitch channel during our briefing at the VAB.

Matt Anderson, Live Broadcaster, Twitch Interactive, Owner, Bad News Gaming

City: Dallas, TX

Social platform of choice: Twitch   @thebadnewsbaron

“What excites me most is seeing people get excited about space.  It’s been amazing. There’s been so little energy around the space program for a long time in the U.S. and it seems like that’s starting to come back again. SpaceX is starting to kick that into gear again a little bit, and a lot of entertainment media has brought that back, and what we saw with the Orion project I think will be absolutely astounding when it’s finished.”

“The one message I want to leave with followers is that the future of the space program is so incredibly bright – there is so much to look forward to with the technology that they are working on.”

KelleyRowe_MadisonChildrensMuseumKelley Rowe, Data Integration Specialist, Madison Children’s Museum

City: Madison, Wisconsin

Social media platform of choice: Facebook

“The most exciting part about being here is just getting to see the rocket launch in person and also I’ve heard that the roar from the engine you can feel even at this distance is kind of indescribable and can’t be experienced in any other way than seeing and feeling it for yourself.  That being said, everything we’ve done – the exclusive access to  the Vehicle Assembly Building, everything we’ve seen on our tour,  getting to go on the rooftop, getting to see the crew module being worked on for Orion, how can I pick a favorite from these really incredible and amazing experiences?”

“My one message to my followers is that I hope that they become aware of what’s out there – of the opportunities that especially STEM presents of what the U.S. and our space program is capable of, what they are capable of.  We’ve had some amazing interviews with NASA staff people who talked about dreaming of being involved in the space program since they were 5, 8, 10 years old. I hope our followers who are children are exposed to maybe something that they didn’t realize existed before, or hadn’t understood the scope of before and that somehow galvanizes or inspires them.”

 

Kayla, 19, has always dreamed of being an astronaut. Her tattoo by Martin Buechler includes the Neal Armstrong quote: "Humanity is not forever chained to this planet."

Kayla, 19, has always dreamed of being an astronaut. Her tattoo by Martin Buechler includes the Neil Armstrong quote: “Humanity is not forever chained to this planet.”

Kayla Robinson, College student majoring in engineering /insurance agent

City: Virginia Beach, Virginia

Social media platform of choice:  Instagram  @kaylajdr

“My dad had me into space since I was a kid. This is what I want to do. It’s been great, meeting different NASA workers, getting the inside scoop on what it takes to work here in the future.  For the past few months I’ve been thinking about going to school around here. Just being in this area and around this kind of environment makes me want to come even more.

“It’s really important for the general public to get into space and science – the American people are the ones who will be funding the federal program and will support all the private industry efforts—and that kind of broad support is going to get us to where we want to go.”

Jake Counselbaum

Jake Counselbaum, social media consultant

City: Chicago, Ill.

Social media platform of choice: Twitter /@jakecbaum

“What excites me most about space is the thought that we are not alone! Being at the SpaceX launch was an incredible opportunity to see the next generation of space travel, sustainably, reusability and exploration.”

“The one message I’d leave with my followers is this: keep using social media to impact people, not to just impress them.”

 

Brandon carrying a model of a Dragon rocket sent to him from a former engineer with SpaceX.

Brandon carrying a model of a Dragon rocket sent to him from a former engineer with SpaceX.

Brandon Thonen, Photographer, Disney Digital Marketing

Orlando, Fla.

Social platform of choice:    Twitter   /  @HipeRFin

What excites me about space is [the idea that] we have yet to reach the farthest we can go. There’s always going to be a further point.  The best part about being here today is being the closest I’ve even been to a previous launch. I usually watch from the crew ships.”

“My one message to social media followers is how impressive and massive every different part of NASA Kennedy Space Center truly is – no matter how many photos I take, it will never make up for it.”

Ashley Demers - Copy

Ashley, a NASA software developer and new hire, is spending eight weeks with groups outside her department. She was lucky to be assigned to the social media team and be part of the NASA Social on April 8th.

Ashley Demers, Software developer, Application Development Branch, IT, NASA Kennedy Space Center

City: Titusville, Fla.

Social Media Platform of Choice: Twitter /@ashley_demers

“What excites me about space is the ability to inspire and the ability to do research that you can’t physically do on the ground, the ability to learn more about our universe – there’s nothing you can’t love about space exploration.  I am very excited to be a part of this group, see the launch and go on the Vehicle Assembly building roof. Going on the roof is not something employees can easily do.

“The message I want to leave with my social media followers is that NASA is active, alive; we’re doing amazing things and all the science that’s going to be accomplished on this payload is going to be amazing. We’re doing really cool things.”

JeffDunn_Google

Jeff Dunn, Education and Outreach Manager, Google

City: Mountain View, Calif.

Social platform of choice:   Google+ / @googleforedu

“The best  part about space is it’s our future whether we like it or not, and there are both for-profit companies and governments working together to develop an actual future that we can all live in and keep us safe and not extinct.

“The best part of being here is that I got to meet a lot of interesting people both from NASA and via social media — I look forward to keeping that conversation going. Just seeing the passion from everybody has been overwhelming…you see it on webcasts, you see it on hashtag chats, but it’s nothing like seeing it in people jumping up and down as a rocket blasts off in front of you.

“My one message to social media followers is to get excited about the new opportunities for invention and exploration.”

Carter, 18, hopes to study computer science in college.

Carter, 18, hopes to study computer science in college.

Carter Dempsey, High school senior

City: Orlando, Fla.

Social platform of choice:   Twitter /@carterdemp

“What excites me about space is Just the idea of people living there every day and the possibility of being to another planet and just being self-sustained and getting to the point where there’s constant missions back and forth.  The commercialization of space is really cool — seeing people get more interested in space.

 “My one message to my social media followers is that I hope they would be more interested in the future of space – and just in science in general.”

 

Scott with his telescope equipped with a custom software program he developed for closed-loop tracking of moving objects, including satellites and rockets.

Scott with his telescope equipped with a custom software program he developed for closed-loop tracking of moving objects, including satellites and rockets.

Scott Ferguson, Neuroscientist, software developer and astronomy hobbyist

City: Tampa, Fla.

Social platform of choice:   YouTube

“I grew up in Titusville and saw a ton of launches.  I’ve seen some bad launches and some good launches.  I was sitting on my front lawn when Challenger exploded. That was a bad day, but today was a great day. It was the best launch I’ve ever gone to.  Another highlight was getting to stay on top of the VAB – I’ll probably never get to do that again. That was an incredible experience.  That was just an amazing view – words can’t do it justice. 

“In terms of social media, I hope to inspire young people to pursue math and science, and show what human effort can accomplish – and what we can accomplish when we work together. I think [the launch shows how far America can push the space industry and push forward with new innovations – when we unleash unbridled capitalism into the space program. What’s SpaceX is doing is really incredible and [their latest launch] proves they are really leading the competition in lowering space costs and that’s going to change the whole ballgame, I think, for spaceflight in the future.”

____

NASA Social Group

The April 2016 NASA Social Group (photo courtesy of NASA Social)

More Reading

Check out my blog Q&A interview with “Orphans of Apollo” filmmaker Michael Potter.

Read my Via Satellite article on the ‘SpaceX effect’ in the launch vehicle market.

Check back with The Writing Well for more insights from my time at NASA Kennedy Space Center.

A Day of Renewal, New Friendships & Writing Connections

 

HeronHouseMainImage

Heron House in Mountain Park.

Counting my blessings today.  My book, Moving to Atlanta: The Un-Tourist Guide, went to press today and I should have plenty of copies for my Feb. 21 book launch party.

Writing Group

I also met with a great group of women as we kicked off a new Writer’s Group. Heron House, a nearby venue, in Mountain Park, is  a 501-c3 non-profit center for sacred studies nestled in a wildlife refuge on the dam between Lake Cheerful and Lake Garrett in the City of Mountain Park. Upon walking into the space it immediately feels restful and spiritual, and definitely lives up to its name as a “Sacred Earth Sanctuary.” 

This is just the setting I’ve been hoping for to return to writing and editing my debut historical novel, Torrential.  I’ve missed immersing myself in my characters, including Kieran, a traumatized Irish sailor who must confront his past when a massive flood threatens his life and those he cares about.

My group includes old friends Mari Ann and Carolyn, who I’ve known from our writing group days HeronHouseDoorEngravingwith Jedwin Smith, and three new friends:  Kathleen, June and Marla.  Our group’s philosophy and approach honor writing mentor Rosemary Daniell and her Zona Rosa (meaning the “Pink Zone,” or the “Women’s Zone” in Spanish) workshops. In fact, Rosemary plans to offer a one-day writer’s workshop this spring in the Atlanta area (I will provide more details on my blog once the workshop date is firm).

A writer and a teacher of writing, Rosemary is known for her provocative poems and personal memoirs. Rosemary’s book, The Woman Who Spilled Words All Over Herself: Writing and Living the Zona Rosa Way, grew from her teaching

Rosemary Daniell

Rosemary Daniell

and writing experiences. “Support, stimulation and standards of excellence are the three attitudes that make Zona Rosa work,” Rosemary writes. “Make sure that you receive all three in any writing group in which you participate and in any discussion of your work. Insist that your strengths be supported, your weaknesses, while you are still conquering them, be treated with respect. Remember that what is commonly called criticism can be positive, and experienced as support.”

Each member of our writing group brings  different life experiences and is at a different phase in our writing journey. We all, however, share a common hope — to HeronHouse1connect and grow in our craft while making a genuine connection. The quality of the readings today bode well for our group. I’m going to learn a lot and am thankful to once again have a supportive circle to share my writing with, especially as I tackle the hardest part of my manuscript revisions around voice and pacing.

As we finished our first session, I asked each person to share one word that most describes how she felt about being here. Here’s what each woman said:

  • Marla – Courage
  • Anne – Sacred
  • Carolyn – Inspired
  • Mari Ann – Peaceful
  • Kathleen – Flying
  • June – Leaping

These are powerful sentiments and are indicative of feelings of friendship, acceptance, growth and excitement that can lead to transformative writing! As Kathleen notes, referencing a Walt Whitman quote from the movie, “The Dead Poet’s Society”:  “The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.’ What will your verse be?”

I can’t wait to see where we go from here  and the stories we will share.

 

Finishing Book Projects Top of My New Year’s Resolutions

M2A-050_AuthorPhoto

It’s a new year, and a time to reflect and make resolutions. For me, 2016 will be the year I finish my book on moving to Atlanta and my historical novel. Both of these projects are special for different reasons. I last wrote a book in 2005, after losing my mother to lung cancer.

 From Mother-Daughter Memoir to Moving Guide to Historical Romance

A Breath Away: Daughters Remember Mothers Lost to Smoking, my anti-smoking memoir, was A Breath Away cover (hi-res)written while grieving the loss of my own mother as I was becoming a mom.  I find myself saddened that many of the daughters in my book have been stricken with cancer, including my friend  Jackie Graff, who passed away last month from lung cancer.  At the time my book was independently published, and it it didn’t benefit from today’s social media environment, where you can create an author platform and connect with your readers.

My next book is called Moving to Atlanta: The Un-Tourist Guide, It came about by a chance meeting with Newt Barrett, publisher of Voyager Media in Estero, Fla. We met through a mutual friend right before my family’s move back to Atlanta this past June. I learned that Newt, a fellow Ohio buckeye, was a successful publisher of city moving guides, mostly in Florida and other Southeastern cities. Why not Atlanta?

High Res M2A coverWe agreed that I would be able to tackle this since I was moving back to a city where I’d lived for 16 years — and also the place where I had met my husband, had a family and started my writing company. I’ve enjoyed researching what makes Atlanta such a cool place to call home…and have met and interviewed some amazing Atlantans along the way, including Ryan Gravel, the visionary behind the Atlanta Beltline.  

I included a spotlight on key intown and suburban communities, where I interviewed residents on what makes their neighborhood unique. I believe these firsthand accounts set my book apart from other guides. Expect to see Moving to Atlanta: The Un-Tourist Guide on bookshelves this spring.

Author Page Header

I also intend to finish my historical novel, Torrential, set in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio, at the time of the 1913 flood. The last year of relocating to one city and coming back made it difficult to do the final editing of this turn-of-the-century love story focused on an Irish seaman who survived the sinking of the RMS Titanic only to find himself facing a catastrophic flood after moving to Dayton to start a new life.

I fell in love with this story, partly because it was loosely inspired by my grandmother’s family, who owned a boarding house in Dayton at the time of the flood. My grandmother met and fell in love with a boarder, a theme that I bring to life in Torrential I wrote this manuscript in 2013 and 2014, received feedback from numerous advance readers and even had it evaluated by a professional editor. Many people think this story is made for the Big Screen, including a screenwriting coach who I’ve consulted with. I will begin the final content edits for Torrential this month.

One thing the last few years has taught me is that I am happiest when I can write stories about people and events that resonate and inspire me. Atlanta is fertile ground for this exercise, and so is my historical novel.  What a great time to be a storyteller!

Author Bio

A native of Dayton, Ohio, Anne Wainscott-Sargent moved to Atlanta in 1998. She is a writer, blogger and strategic storyteller specializing in the tech and education sectors. An avid history buff and movie-goer, she loves following Atlanta’s growing film industry, connecting with other writers in the Atlanta area, and enjoying the natural beauty of the Chattahoochee River’s many bicycle paths.  She and her husband live in Roswell with their two children. She hopes to finish her first novel, a work of historical fiction, in 2016.

Visit Anne’s consulting website at: http://annewainscott.com/writing-consulting-services/ or her blog, The Writing Well, at: http://annewainscott.com/blog/. Connect with her on Twitter: @annewainscott.

Paying Tribute to Purdue’s Music Maker: Chuck Coe

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“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”
— Arthur O’Shaughnessy, British poet (1844-1881)

The Writing Well is delighted to pay tribute today to a special music maker — my husband’s 99-year-old grandfather, Charles (Chuck) Coe.

Last week, he received a lifetime entertainment award from Second Wind Dreams®, a non-profit devoted to granting a dream to those living in eldercare communities or in hospice care. The organization, begun in 1997, has fulfilled more than 10,000 dreams nationwide since its founding.

ChucUniformk, a World War II vet and graduate of Purdue University, earned his way through engineering school as a band leader and musician, playing clarinet, flute and saxophone. His group, “Chuck Coe and the Purduvians” performed at dances and special events, and even made three cruises to Europe and back entertaining passengers. When the war came, Chuck served as an Army captain in the 2nd Armored Division’s Hell on Wheels, where he was part of the D-day invasion + 3. He was head of communication for the battalion, making sure all the radios worked.

I could feel the love and regard for Chuck as residents, staff and family members came to pay their respects at his assisted living home in Roswell. His three children and their spouses were on hand, as well as my husband and our two kids, who are his great-grandchildren.

“Wow, sure appreciate it,” said Chuck, after receiving the award.

Sue Hamilton hugging Chuck -- she coordinated Chuck's musical tribute.

Sue Hamilton hugging Chuck — she coordinated Chuck’s musical tribute.

Sue Hamilton, the healthy lifestyle coordinator for the facility, planned and executed the entire event, serving as liaison with Second Wind Dreams and securing entertainment. She  hugged Chuck and showed everyone a lamp he fashioned from his old clarinet.

A special lamp Chuck made from his reetired clarinet.

A special lamp.

She then introduced Amber, who transported everyone back to the big band music of the 40s, kicking off her tribute singing Billie Holiday’s “What’s New?” before delving into countless Glenn Miller tunes.

Linda Coatsworth, Chuck’s youngest and a hammered dulcimer player, said she was so happy with how the event went. “We weren’t real sure how well he was going to do with a surprise, but I think he’s done quite well for 99 and a half.” Added Linda: “What’s so wonderful about this event is that dad was able to enjoy the tribute, whereas these kinds of tributes usually happen after the one honored has passed.”

Asked what she is most proud of about her dad, Linda said, “His example – to stay calm, don’t get excited. I don’t think I ever heard him raise one loud voice to mom in his 75 years of marriage to her. He’s such a role model.”

Chuck with his kids (L to R) Linda, Larry and Carol.

Chuck with his kids (L to R) Linda, Larry and Carol.

Carol, Chuck’s oldest, who plays the piano as well as the hammered dulcimer, said, “Seeing the good in others and being grateful no matter what,” is the quality of her father that stays with her the most. “It’s cute that the people who work here say he is so special to them. They would like him for a father if I would share him.”
Carol was only two years old when her father went off to war, and was in kindergarten when he returned. Her brother, Larry, was just an infant when he returned home.

“I remember when he came home after the war. We had this little house in Lafayette, Indiana, and he had his uniform on and just stood there. Mother said, ‘This is your father. He’s going to live here,'” recalled Carol. “Chuck_PosterI was somewhat stunned. He was so peaceful. He smiled, he went out in the backyard and saw trees, bushes and grass, and he just looked like he landed in heaven. That was how I remembered really, really knowing him.”

Larry, who bears a strong likeness to his dad, told me that Chuck never spoke much about his experiences during WWII. He followed in his father’s footsteps as an engineer but didn’t take his career advice. “He advised me to not go to work in the steel business, but I did anyway.” Larry said, chuckling. “I remember us working underneath a ’47 Buick, rebuilding the engine. He had a cigarette in his mouth and ash about that long coming off the end of the cigarette until it finally fell on his face.”

Chuck with Amber after her musical performance.

Chuck with Amber after her musical performance.

I caught up with Amber after her music performance concluded, and she shared that this was the first time she ever performed Big Band songs for someone. “This was fun for me because this is the music I sing in my car, the music I love and that I’ve been singing for years and years.”
Amber explained that Chuck told her he played the saxophone and the flute and pretty much any woodwind in his orchestra. She notes that all the Big Band songs have a specific order– first you sing two verses, then a chorus, and then there is a dance break before you come back to do a chorus again.

“During the dance break you’re almost always have a piano solo or more often than not, a woodwind solo. So, I could imagine Chuck standing up during the dance breaks to play his solo saxophone. When I was putting the set together, that was what I was imagining.”
Chuck_Tribute

Doreen Scascitelli, CEO of Second Wind Dreams, seemed visibly moved by Chuck’s response and the outpouring of people at the celebration. “Seeing the community come out and everyone supporting him – that’s the principle   this organization was founded on. It’s not just the dream – it’s actually about unity and everyone being involved in the dream, from the people who provided the champagne to the people who provided the cake, to the person who did the poster. The dreams, whether they are simple or sublime, all have an amazing meaning for the elder and for the community.”

Dragon*Con 2015 — Memorable Moments

StormTroopers

300 BC

I attended my fourth Dragon*Con this past weekend after a two-year hiatus and it didn’t disappoint. The event – dubbed “the wildest geek convention on the planet” by TripAdvisor – drew 65,000 fantasy and scifi fans to downtown Atlanta.

Sherrilyn Kenyon and I.

In honor of the annual Labor Day weekend spectacle, The Writing Well is sharing a few pearls of wisdom from some of the literary set of speakers who I heard present on author and writing panels (see last section of post).

Touching Tributes to Nimoy, Lee

Before going there, I want to pay homage to some of the entertainment panels I attended this year. As a fan of classic Trek, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, I was thrilled to attend the tribute to Leonard Nimoy and iconic British actor Christopher LeeChristopher

Lee, who passed away in February and in June of this year, respectively. A few interesting notes about Lee I learned: he spoke seven languages, made a heavy metal album and was the only Lord of the Rings cast member who actually met J.R.R. Tolkien (and read the books every year).

Nimoy
As for Nimoy, I could devote an entire blog to my favorite scifi actor. He was much more than the token alien cast opposite Captain Kirk on Trek; he was an accomplished director, photographer and poet with seven books under his name. He touched all of those outcasts in the world who were nerdy before nerdy was cool.

He also had a record album produced named appropriately, Highly Illogical. He was well liked and respected by his cast members – he was accepting of certain cast members who were not well liked.

He hated being typecast as Spock in the early years but grew to appreciate the character and what Spock symbolized well beyond the series– a half-human and half-Vulcan who struggled to balance his warring halves and to belong. His final tweet to followers before his death on Feb. 27 reflected his wisdom and humanity: “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory.” He signed the tweet off with “LLAP,” a nod to his famous Spock moniker, “live long and prosper.”

Snodgrass and Star Trek TNG
Vendor_StarTrekArtworkI also attended Melinda Snodgrass’s highly entertaining session on her early work as a screenwriter for “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” A good friend to author George R.R. Martin, Melinda got her break when she penned “A Measure of a Man” on spec.

Many fans consider it one of the greatest episodes featuring the android character, Data, as well as one of the best of Star Trek – the inspiration for the episode was the famous Dred Scott case. Data goes on trial and Captain Picard must prove he is legally a sentient being with rights and freedoms under Federation law when transfer orders demand Data’s reassignment for study and disassembly.

“Trek had never shot an episode like this that was very dialogue-heavy – it was a court room drama. When they finished shooting, it was 13 minutes too long so they cut 13 minutes out of it,” recalled Snodgrass. She was snuck a copy of the director’s cut with the full footage. She kept it until CBS Television decided to do a Blu-ray version of the series and requested her copy back.

One of the scenes in the extended version was between Picard and his first officer, Wil Riker, played by Jonathan Frakes where the two men were fencing. While Patrick Stewart was an accomplished fencer, Frakes wasn’t given time to learn technique for the scene and had to settle for doing the voiceover as an acting double fought Picard.

“I like the scene because I always thought Riker was overlooked and not given proper stature. He often ended up seeming weak,” Snodgrass said, pointing out how the character turned down the chance to command his own ship, preferring to remain on the Enterprise. “I wanted to see some rivalry. Jonathan nailed it – he said, ‘I’m going to beat you. I’m going to win.’ I like what they did in that moment. There was some power there.”

Six - BSGThe long queue line was worth it to attend the celebrity panel of “Battlestar Galactica,” the 2004 to 2009 remake of the 70s hit by Ronald D. Moore. Who doesn’t love Cylons – including BattlestarGalacticathe six impersonators of “Six” in the audience and Commander Adama (played by the incomparable Edward James Olmos)?

 

A few of my favorite costumes:

StarWars_Beauty Outlander The ShiningDragonCon_Constume2 DragonCon_Costume Avatar Mother and ChildSuperman_WonderWomanWeepingAngel_Dr Who

Writing Wisdom from Dragon*Con’s Wordsmiths:

NYT Bestselling Author Panel (L to R) Laurell K. Hamilton, Peter Hamilton, Michael Stackpole and Jim Butcher.

NYT Bestselling Author Panel (L to R) Laurell K. Hamilton, Peter Hamilton, Michael Stackpole and Jim Butcher.

#1 “I think my English literature degree set me back two years – telling a story is not the kind of thing you learn in an English class.” — Jim Butcher, author of The Dresden Files

LaurellKHamilton

Laurell K. Hamilton

#2If I over-outline it takes away the impetus for me to write.” – Laurell K. Hamilton, author of The Anita Blake Series

#3 The characters I have the most fun with are the ones whose views I never share.” – Peter F. Hamilton, Dragon*Con Literary Guest of Honor

 

Carol Barrowman

Carol Barrowman

#4 “When you’re done with your novel, put the whole book on a page, then a paragraph and then a tagline; you should be able to talk about your book in 30 seconds.” – Carole Barrowman, co-author of children’s book series, Hollow Earth, with brother, John Barrowman

#5 “I love drawing on real people. Writers are eavesdroppers and peeping toms (without looking through blinds). A lot of my characters are often amalgamations of real people. I knew a Quaker and I made him a pornographer who does snuff films. He loved it!” — Jonathan Maberry

#6 “[When using beta readers] one of the things I found helpful is to have them assign ABCD to passages – A is for awesome, B is for bored, C is for confused and D is for don’t care.” – A.J. Huntley

Lane and Ruckus Skye, husband-wife filmmakers

Lane and Ruckus Skye, husband-wife filmmakers

#“7How do you write realistic dialogue? How do you make it ‘real?’ Think of what the world would say – eavesdropping on people talking. One trick: they don’t talk in compete sentences – words drop.” – Lane Skye, independent filmmaker

Lou Anders

Lou Anders

#8 “Story begins with a character who wants something – you boil it down to what they want most and what’s the worst thing that can happen to them? And it does.” – Lou Anders

AJ Huntley and Jonathan Maberry

AJ Huntley and Jonathan Maberry

#9 “Books are organic. I allow for organic growth – which often calls for changes in storytelling.”
– Jonathan Maberry

#10 “Characters come to life when I know their voice – I know how they will respond to certain situations.” – Naomi Novik

#11 “Story has to come first.” – Delilah Dawson

#12 “Never give up.” – Sherrilyn Kenyon

 

 

Connecting with God through Prayer: One Author’s Journey

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More than 75 percent of Americans believe in the importance and power of prayer. But, how many enjoy it, look forward to it, and feel equipped for the task?

That’s the primary question Atlantan Tawana Lowery wants to answer with her new spiritual self-help book, Five Easy Steps to Life-Changing Prayer.

Based on her own struggles with faith and personal tragedy, the book serves as a heart-felt and engaging guide for those who want to pursue prayer practice using a proven process.  Tawana believes people first must give their burdens to God – and in the process, they will liberate their hearts and minds.

The part memoir, part spiritual coaching guide is chocked full of practical tips and inspiring stories targeted at “people who want to pray but don’t feel equipped or don’t believe their prayers matter,” explains Tawana.

“It’s for anyone who is hurting, wounded, exhausted and confused and need a way to connect with their creator for answers and solutions, or who feels lost, forgotten or disconnected and simply wants to connect with someone who cares about them,” she adds.

prayereaglesTawana frequently speaks at conferences and to groups about her book. The PR-trained entrepreneur and former single mother started her own company, Prayer Eagles, to provide team effectiveness training, community outreach strategies and prayer skills coaching.  In early August, she was a featured author at the She Speaks women’s conference in Atlanta.

Below she shares more detail on her tightly interwoven faith and writing journey and what she hopes readers will get out of her book.

Q. What made you decide to write this book?

Tawana: In less than 10 years, I endured two bankruptcies, the loss of all my investment property, watched two business go belly up, dealt with years of unemployment, gave up three beautiful homes, moved 8 times, was blindsided by betrayal and experienced the death of  both parents. I like to describe it as a Financial Tornado, followed by an emotional Hurricane, followed by a personal Tsunami.

During those tumultuous years I was desperate to connect to God. Being a very practical, bottomline person I didn’t want to wait for someone else or hope that a minister might accidently say something remotely related to what I needed to hear. There were days when I neede to experience God in less than 10 minutes or die. I seriously thougth about killing myself on numerous occassions.

Through that experience I began to notice ways I was sabotaging my prayers and what I could do to reverse it. Once I began to incorporate the principles I share in my book, dramatic changes took place in my life and my relationship with God. Soon I was able to hear God’s voice with clarity, and experience his grace that enabled me to carry on. But it came about from doing what I share in my book on a consistent basis.

As I began to share what I had learned, others were also experiencing dynamic changes. So much so I was asked repeatedly to write a book about it. I even had one person tell me to quit my job and write a book so other people could know how to pray.

The truth is, most people want to pray. But they feel so ill equipoed they stop before they even get started.

What we pray about is already difficult. So why make the act of praying equally hard? My goal for writing this book was to offer an easy-to-understand prayer-coach approach to the most important and deeply personal activity of our life. I’ve tried to make it as easy and as simple as possible. I even included several plug-and-play tools that are easy to understand and easy to implement. Meaning you can apply what you learn to effectively pray about anything, any time, any place for yourself and others.

Q. What does success in prayer mean to people?

Tawana: For most people success in prayer means:

  • Ending the cycle of uncertainty and frustration that often describes most people’s prayer experience.
  • Being able to improve your ability to hear God’s voice and enjoy a stronger relationship with the person who loves you most.
  • Having insight to understand what brings about transformational thinking, rest for your mind and peace for your soul.
  • Knowing how to pray in a manner that produces lasting healing for wounded emotions and relationships.
  • And learning how to notice divine invitations for prayer you might be missing out on.

Q. Have you found that the topic of prayer is something that is a big issue for people? What has been the response to the book?

Tawana: The response has been very positive. So many people tell me that the book and my writing style have helped them cut through the complications of religious rhetoric so they can experience an easy, enjoyable connection with God. They tell me the topics and illustrations in my book address issues and problems they have struggled with. It gave them clarity and hope. It gave them a sense of being connected and understood.

Those answers don’t surprise me at all, because the research supports the feedback I hear.  According to a 2012 Pew Research survey, more than 75% of Americans agreed that prayer is an important part of daily life. Surprisingly, that percentage has remained consistent over the past 25 years. Even among those who say they don’t believe in God, 12 percent admit they pray, as reported in The Washington Post in June, 2013.

It seems a lot of us believe in the importance of prayer. The question is how many of us actually enjoy it? How many look forward to it? How often does prayer strengthen our relationship with God or make us feel more intimate with our Creator? As I said before, most people don’t feel equipped for the task.

According to an Ellis Research survey for Facts & Trends, less than 20% of church leaders say they are satisfied with their prayer lives. That means close to 80% are either completely or partially dissatisfied with prayer. That’s an astounding figure, yet probably very representative of most people.

I just don’t believe it has to be that way. I found something better and my goal is to help as many people escape from Prayer Fail Jail as possible.

Q. What did you learn in the process of producing this work?

Tawana:  One of my biggest challenges while I was going through my seasons of difficulty was trying to make sense of it. I was plagued with the thought that my trials would be in vain unless something beneficial came out of it.

During the process of writing the book, I began to see the upside to all the downside. What I learned about God and prayer during those painful dark days laid the foundation for my book.  My prayer is that it will strengthen the foundation of other people’s lives as a result.

Sometimes we try to put as much distance as we can between ourselves and our painful experiences. That’s what I was trying to do. And moving forward is important. But the trials are important also. They have value because they show us what where we have need, and that’s a good thing. It makes us human.  It makes us real. It makes us relatable. It gives us a story to share.

Q. What lessons learned can you share with other writers of non-fiction/memoir type writing?

Tawana: My advice would be to share your story because it’s yours to share. It means you value your own journey enough to write about it.

Q.What was the hardest part of this experience? The best part?

Tawana: Because I also work a full-time job, I had to write on weekends and holidays. My schedule was very strict so as to maximize the time. But it was something I always looked forward to.  It was also a challenge to curate years of experience in to something simple and consumable.

The best part was knowing that I was giving others something to help them; knowing that I was making a positive impact on the world and sharing my struggles with others in hopes of inspiring them to persevere.

 

I’m often referred to as “The Prayer Chick.” It started by praying with a porn operator who had no hands.

The truth is I love to pray with anybody about any issue. I’m not easily offended. People trust me because I can relate to their pain and struggle without judging them. I truly believe that comes across in the book. People feel connected to me and they know I understand their struggles because I’ve lived them.

Q. What’s next for you?

Tawana: I am considering investigating the possibility of hosting a women’s conference of my own in the fall of 2016.

About the Author

TawanaTawana Lowery is following her true passion as a writer, inspirational speaker and prayer coach. Her debut book, 5 Easy Steps to LIfe Changing Prayer, was published in May 2015. As founder and director of Prayer Eagles, she enjoys helping others succeed with prayer and in their relationship with God.  Visit Tawana on her website, www.PrayerEagles.com, or follow her on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/@prayereagles/. 

 

The Art of the Book Review: A Conversation with Elaine Newton

By Anne Wainscott-Sargent

Every month starting in November through March, Naples, Florida, book lovers are treated to the insights of Elaine Newton, creator of the Critic’s Choice book club. This is no ordinary book club, and Elaine is no ordinary reviewer.

The self-described “compulsive researcher” and retired Toronto-based university professor in literature, humanities and psychology has taught people of all ages since the 1960s. She brings a lifelong love of books to her Elaine Newtoninterdisciplinary approach to her craft, which in essence is a master class in the art of the book review.

Her audience walks away with an entirely new appreciation for a work and a hunger for more. Elaine’s chosen books include critically acclaimed bestsellers and many of the most talked-about books of the last few decades, from Memoirs of a Geisha and Cold Mountain to The Goldfinch, The Help and The Paris Wife.

This past spring marked the 25th anniversary of her popular lecture series  (check out a list of all the books she has reviewed here). She frequently fills all 4,000 seats in Artis — Naples – the city’s Philharmonic Center for the Arts – making Critic’s Choice arguably the biggest book club in the world. Building on the success of her book series, Elaine now does film reviews, too.
“Once you’ve been to one, you never want to miss one,” says one loyal subscriber to her series.

The Writing Well caught up with the Phil’s “popular professor” in early June, after she’d left Naples for the cooler climate of her native Toronto. Below in a heartfelt Q&A, Elaine shares what she looks for in a great story, her critique process and what keeps her reading and engaged as a critic and lecturer year after year.

Q.  What do you look for in a book to tackle it in your lecture series? Does it have to meet a certain set of criteria of powerful storytelling?

Elaine: The final selection of the six books for the series is the end result of a long, but rewarding process that first produces the 35 novel Summer Reading List selection that I give out in April. I create that list with the help, over four or five months, of several key readers at Barnes and Nobles. Then I re-read about 12 novels from that list, chosen because I already have a sense that they would be fine choices for my audiences to read, and at the same time be novels I can live with, and think about, and respect over the many hours it will take to prepare the lectures.

My chosen novels must be extremely well-written, engaging, skillfully structured, peopled by characters who come off the page and are alive. But above all, I look for the human dimension, the moral wisdom. A book worth reading a number of times….I also want diversity in subject matter, authors, style, for the series.JoyofReading
The truth is…I would like each book we read in Critics Choice to be a masterly example of why we all read at all. Of the joy it gives us. The way it gives us perspective on the world we live in, and on ourselves in that world. Why would I ever ask anyone to read a novel if I didn’t think it was worthy of his or her time.

Q. What is your “process” for a typical book review in your lecture series? How long does it take from the moment you select a work to delivering your lecture? What is the most time-consuming part of the process?

Elaine: You really don’t want to know the work behind the “craft” do you? Untold hours. I am a compulsive researcher, and an obsessive re-reader. I need to know everything I can about the author, the subject, the publication path, and my own responses to all aspects of the novel itself. My husband will tell you that I “live” with the book and its author for the month of lecture writing. I write for four or five hours most days when I am in preparation mode — longer if I am nearing the presentation. I write in long hand, re-write in longhand, edit in long hand, and then a day or two beforehand, I rewrite a “clean” copy. Now you see why I must truly appreciate the novels I choose.

Q. Have you ever heard from an author, whose work you reviewed?

Elaine: Yes, a few times and from filmmakers too, after the movie reviews. Phillip Roth was in The-Human-Stainthe audience for The Human Stain. Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood were in the lecture hall when we taught courses together, and I lectured on their novels.
And of course, we have now had seven authors with me in our once-a-year Authors Dialogue at the Phil and we have spoken together of their work. So, in effect they have heard me review their work.  I also worked as book critic for The Toronto Globe and Mail for over 10 years. Any author who wished could read my reviews.

Q. What one thing makes your approach to reviewing books unique?

Elaine: I am a professor – this is what I am committed to do –to hopefully help people discover how to read happily, wisely and with the skills and insights that educators tutor others in. I also want to help everyone become better readers, and really able to understand the art of literature because that enriches one’s reading immeasurably. It’s like tennis, the more you play, the better you get at it, the more you enjoy playing.
Q. What has made you continue to do this year after year? Do you have a close connection to your audience/book aficionados?

Elaine: I am always so excited and delighted to bring a fine book to my friends and to classes and to audiences. To share my own insights with others. And I do believe that in these 25 years, we have” grown” a wonderful, engaged cadre of readers in Naples…what Gabrielle Zevin called in her thank-you note to me: “an amazing literary culture.”

Q. What prompted you to begin your film review series? How is reviewing a film different than reviewing a book? What makes a film great in your mind?

Elaine: The film reviews were a natural extension of the literary ones, we all want to discuss the movies we see, in the same way as we talk about the books we are reading. A good movie doesn’t end for us when we leave the theatre. And, the way we see the world, learn about ourselves and others though movies, is very much part of our society now. Film may well be the new literature.

Tickets for the movie series are sold-out very soon after the purchase dates are announced. But

Artis-Naples

Artis-Naples

tickets ARE available when returns occur…and can be purchased at the door about an hour or so before the lecture. The Thursday Book series is all sold out …again, last-minute tickets are available at 9.30 a.m. if there has been returns. BUT: Saturday morning is ALWAYS available. We use the large hall, and everyone is welcome. It’s best to buy tickets ahead if you can because the last minute line-ups are often large. But we open the box office a half hour before a performance.
All tickets are available to out-of-towners by calling the box office, or buying on the internet at the Artis Naples site.

Q. What are your favorite genre and your favorite author(s)?
Elaine: I love them all. I am grateful for the gift of their creativity and talents. But everyone will IanMcEwantell you, I am an Ian McEwan groupie  (who wrote Atonement) …..as I was a Phillip Roth devotee. I treasure so many writers that I could not ever make a list.  The password for my computer is the title of a contemporary novel….

 

 

Read popular Elaine Newton book selections on Goodreads.

Check out the selected works for the upcoming Critics Choice 2015-2016 season that begins in November:

The Children Act by Ian McEwan
Euphoria by Lily King
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer
Us
by Dave Nichols
Circling the Sun by Paula McLain