How I Outline Stories?

Because I Like to Plot

story mountain plot

I previously wrote a blog post titled ‘The Writer’s Dilemma: Outlining versus Pantsing’. I came out as a plotter. I like to see where I am going and plan in advance (perhaps too much) before I start writing. I need to know the ending before I figure out how to get there. As a matter of fact, I will be honest with you reader, most times I know the ending and the beginning of my stories but I have zero ideas how to get there. Hence, I need to brainstorm. And then brainstorm some more. I am not the fastest writer out there, or the most prolific. I do try. I need to try harder.

Today I want to share what works for me. First, it all starts with a general idea. For me, science fiction is about ideas and big events. The idea is followed by a logline (one sentence summary of the plot).  For example, character + descriptor + followed by an event. Here is the logline for one of my unpublish stories: Father Duffy who does not trust Japanese people since Pearl Harbor attack is called into a Japanese internment camp to perform an exorcism, with no success.

But a logline is an oversimplification. Let’s break down the plot step by step.

Name a Problem

What is the event, action? What is going to happen? What is the problem/conflict? Why is it a problem to being with? In genre fiction, something must usually happen.

Create a Character Who Has the Problem

Who is the main character? The protagonist? (not always the point of view character) Why the problem matters to this character? What are the stakes? What does it matter? Why should the reader care?

What is the Obstacle? Antagonist?

Who or what opposes the protagonists? What holds him or her back? What would create the tension and conflict. Remember: no conflict, no plot.

Narrate the Attempts to Solve the Problem

You have the character, the problem, the setting and the villain. Now tell the conflict. Let them go at it. Really go at it. Keep raising the stakes. Let the villain win a little, let the hero suffer a lot. Play with your readers’ expectations.

Create a Critical Turning Point

This is what they call the climax, the point of no return. This is the final confrontation between hero and villain. This is it! You show what they both want, what is a stake and what are the willing to sacrifice to get it. Now is time to bring the conflict head on.

Show What Happens Next

In other words, write the resolution. If you are like me, you would go for a happy ending. Or a terrifying, sad, unhappy ending (gulp!). Regardless of your choice, please give your readers a resolution of sorts. There is nothing worse than read through hundred of pages and the story just end. It’s okay to not answer all questions and leave some subplots dangling for future material. But the main conflict needs to be resolved or your readers would be rightfully mad with you.

This is how I usually outline a story. Of course, I am oversimplifying. But it gives me a road map. You may have a different method. Or you may be pantser or some other type of creative genius. Feel free to share what works for you.

 

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Heroic Fantasy: Heroes Wanted

Because Not All Heroes are Alike

Heroic fantasy image from Babelio.com

Heroic Fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that shares plenty of similarities with epic fantasy and sword and sorcery. However, it is its own thing. For example, the focus is on one hero, who is the one that can bring justice and save the land. The hero (or heroine) embodies the characteristics of a true hero. Whereas sword and sorcery deal with wanderers righting wrongs and opposing a villain, heroic fantasy is about the hero and his or her quest.

Obviously, not all heroes are alike. Unlike dark fantasy and its anti-heroes, heroic fantasy’s charm lays on the hero being a truly good guy. The hero or heroine will embody all the noble traits we associate with the term. We want to root for him or her.

Heroic fiction is older than speculative fiction. The Iliad gave us Hektor and Achilles. The Odyssey gave us Ulysses. The Argonauts have Jason. The Bible have Samson, David, Noah, Esther, Jonah, and Daniel, among others. The Mahabharata gave us Lord Krishna and Arjuna. And who can forget Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Aeneas or Hercules?

What Makes a Hero?

A hero by definition is someone who is admired and idealized by his noble qualities and outstanding achievements. A hero or heroine are brave, fearless, selfless, caring, honest and confident. We trust them. We want them on our side. A hero or heroine is bigger than life. We want to be them or like them. They do the right thing even if it cost them their lives or personal sacrifice. Superman is a hero. Hektor is the ultimate hero (sacrificing country and duty over personal safety and glory).

Heroic fantasy’s hero is typically humble, unassuming, sometimes reluctant. He or she may be of noble lineage and may have magical powers. Regardless of his or her origin, he or she would do what is right and protect the weak and punish the wicked. Surely, it may sound like a cliche, and almost boring (characterization wise) but they are the good guys and good guys and girls do not have faults. And if they do, they rise above them.

We Need More Heroes

As stated above, heroic fantasy follows a centuries-long trend of heroic tales. And yet, it is not as popular these days as it used to. It saddens me to think we live in a world where Deadpool is more popular than Superman. What does it say about us? I would like to think we are not that cynical. Fiction, either fantasy or science fiction, needs its heroes.

Why? Isn’t it more fun to read about bad guys and anti-heroes? Aren’t the villains more interesting? Isn’t real life full of examples in which the good guys finish last? Perhaps, yes and yes. However, because we read fantasy to escape reality, we need heroes that are bigger than life. Since real life can be cruel and dark enough, we need heroes and heroines to show us there is another, better way. And we need authors that are willing to create heroes we want to root for and succeed. Writers, show us heroic fantasy does not have to be boring.

If you want to try heroic fantasy with epic tones, read The Sword of Truth novels by Terry Goodkind.

Finally, what kind of heroes do you prefer in your fiction?

 

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The Weird: Mix and Match Genre

Anything Goes

Weird Tales magazine cover

What do you get when you mix horror and fantasy and even include scientific tropes for good measure? You get a subgenre of speculative fiction called The Weird. In this genre, anything goes. By anything, I mean anything. There could be a ghost story, a tale of the macabre, dark fantasy full of black magic, the supernatural, weird western tales, cyberpunk mixed with steampunk, the fantastique, etcetera. As strange as it sounds, the list of authors who can make this strange receipt work is quite great. Weird indeed.

The Weird by definition encompasses surreal narratives while disdaining more traditional ones. It seeks to break with the establishment. To go beyond what is widely accepted. Consequently, it abhors Tolkien style fantasy with its middle European sensibilities and Asimov’s optimistic view of science fiction. Vampires, werewolves, and zombies are disregarded for newer, stranger monsters. The Weird and its more contemporary version, the New Weird, want to create a new mythology, making stories that break the mold.

The New Weird

As transgressive and boundary pushing as a genre is the Weird, I guess writers were not comfortable enough and created what is known as “the New Weird.” What is the New Weird? In my opinion, is the old weird but repackaged for modern times. Or not. Authors who categorized themselves as ‘new Weird’ argue they are crossing genre boundaries and combining elements from them to create something new and undefinable. Nonetheless, if you ask me, that sounds a lot like the ‘old Weird’ to me. However, whereas the ‘old’ Weird seeks to confuse reader’s expectations to create terror, the ‘New Weird’ seeks to deconstruct them.

I am not a fan of deconstructionism as a literary movement. Not my thing. However, some of my favorite authors, like Clive Barker, China Mieville, Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman, (to mention a few) can pull it off.

A Style or Way of Writing?

Finally, there are some who argue The Weird is not a literary genre or subgenre but a writing style? Hence, it is not about what the stories tell, but how they are told. A sensibility, a particular voice or way of writing. Despite there being some merit to that argument, I will argue otherwise. A style is something you can learn and teach. A style is something that can be adapted and developed. A genre is something that can be classified as such. The Weird is about breaking the rules of writing and setting and still making it believable and unsettling.

Unsettling is the key to describe what the Weird is. As a matter of fact, in The Weird, the world is very unstable. In regular science fiction and fantasy, aliens are aliens and the speed of light is constant. Dragons and elves remain dragons and elves. Wizards, trolls, and golems are just that. Robots and AIs likewise. Not so much on The Weird. A planet may be sentient; dragons may turn into giants who may turn into golems; laser rays can turn into invisible particles. The rules of the fictional world are there to be broken and reinvented.

Do You Dare Read It?

You should give it a try. Besides HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, the classic Weird Tales and other pulp magazines, the authors mentioned above, there is the excellent compendium edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer titled The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. Take a chance. It is good once in a while to take a walk into the strange and unusual.

Do you like The Weird fiction? Do you prefer New Weird? Are you indifferent? Leave a comment.

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Splatterpunk: Graphic Horror

Nothing Left to the Imagination

Splatterpunk Anthology Cover Image from Goodreads

Have you heard about splatterpunk? This is probably the most extreme, gory and violent subgenre of horror. Somewhere between graphic violence and torture porn lays this unsettling subgenre. Unlike cyberpunk (which I love) or steampunk (which I adore), splatterpunk does not evoke any positive feelings from me. So why discuss it? Because people like it and it has its fans. Because speculative fiction is about what could be. And is not like there are no murderers, cannibals and serial killers in our society. Jeffrey Dahmer, anyone?

The best way to describe splatterpunk is a horror of an extreme nature. Hardcore, graphic, full of blood and severed limbs. With nothing left to the imagination. Repulsive even. Definitely not for the faint of heart.

A Cult? A Movement?

There are literary critics who view splatterpunk as a movement. Indeed, it does have a cult following. But a movement? As a matter of fact, it is “a revolt against the traditional horror story” where the terror is suggested rather than graphically described.

The question is then, would you rather be scared or disgusted? Is it more important to create terror or nausea? What feeling would you rather provoke in your reader? And finally, what does it says about us as a society? Do we crave more violence and body mutilation in order to feel frightened? Are we that unsensitized to blood and gore? Is it healthy? Without judging, I can see why people can be attracted to it? Similarly, just like cyberpunk speaks to our anarchist desires, splatterpunk looks to disrupt genre conventions and push the limits. Splatterpunks is rebellion without a cause. Or perhaps the cause is how dehumanizing modern culture can feel that we desperately need a shock to the senses.

Sex, Blood and Rock and Roll

Finally, splatterpunk’s anarchic and graphic nature speaks to counterculture’s elements. Those you feel marginalized and ostracized. Those who feel forgotten. Or left behind by economic progress. Consequently, the rock and roll and punk rock scenes are tailor-made for it.

Splatterpunk is not my thing. I am too weak-minded and too conservative for it, perhaps. I cannot stand the sight of blood, let alone body dismemberment. When it comes to terror, I am more of a ‘let my mind fill the blanks’ kind of guy. However, as a writer and reader, I want to understand why people likes it. The anthropologist in me wants to know what it says about our modern culture. Those are not easy answers. Even the graphic sex (I am no prude) can be too much. Nevertheless, splatterpunk is for rebels. And given the current political climate in the country, I can see it making a big come back. Not that it ever truly went away.

How about you reader? Do you love or hate splatterpunk? What are your thoughts on this hardcore horror genre?

 

 

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Natural Horror: When Mother Nature Attacks!

Terrifying Nature

Nature can be terrifying

As horror subgenres go, this one seems more popular in movies than in books. Perhaps it is because it may be easier to express in images the terrifying power of mother nature. Regardless of reasons, natural horror has its fans. Besides, it seems more grounded in reality. There is a reason Shark week remains popular and those ‘When Animals Attack’ videos sell. People understand the terrifying power of mother nature. Nature can be beautiful and soothing. However, there is this other side, wilder, feral and undomesticated that can scare more than any monster (and cause just as much damage).

Speaking of monster, I once stated every good story needs a monster. While this remains true, there is no rule that says the monster cannot be mother nature. We love horror in our speculative fiction. But horror takes many forms.

When Animals Attack

It is easy to pretend humankind has conquered nature and the modern world has an answer to any danger that lurks in the wild. Not so much so. Besides rats, spiders and snakes, who wouldn’t be afraid of a giant shark or alligator or any ramping beast coming at you? With fury in their eyes, chasing you down a dark corridor. Or what about a loose tiger or lion (name the dangerous predator) escaped from a zoo into the city hunting humans?

Mother nature is dangerous when is left out of control or provoked to attack. Not to mention, there are plenty of dangerous plants and insects out there. I am surprised writers do not milk more often the story possibilities of nature.

Another side of natural horror are stories in which there is some type of natural disaster, like a tornado, earthquake or hurricane. In fact, I predict once we start feeling more the effects of climate change, this type of stories will move out of the ecological science fiction realm into the horror realm. These are scenarios I posted about when I spoke about scary thoughts that keep me up at night.

Where to Start?

Are you intrigued by natural horror (also called wilderness horror)? Besides classic films like Jaws or The Birds, where to turn to? There is Something in the Woods is Taking People by Stephen Young; Richard Laymon’s Dark Mountain; Gerald’s Game by Stephen King; and John Krakauer’s Into the Wild. And of course, do not forget the classic by H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau.

I bet once you watch those films and read those books you would not look at nature the same way.

Do you like natural horror? Which books do you recommend?

 

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Do You Need a Pen Name?

Do Writers Need a Pen Name?

image from Helena Noble’s blog

The short answer is no. Writers do not need a pen name. Would you think less of Dean Koontz if you knew him as Anthony North? Or would you read Animal Farm from Eric Arthur Blair rather than George Orwell? Would people still love Harry Potter from Joanne Rowling rather than J.K. Rowling? Does it matter? It does not. But pen names are a literary tradition.

The question about what is in a pen name was asked before. Rather, I want to pose a different question: do writers need a pen name? No. However, having a pen name has its benefits.  In my opinion, those are 1) privacy, 2) brand identity, and 3)freedom.

Privacy

Having a pen name is almost like having a secret identity. You are still you and you can retain a level of anonymity. Particularly if your books bomb. Especially if they do.

In a more serious tone, authors like their privacy. To be able to walk around and observe people without fear of being recognized. Sometimes you put on your writer’s hat; other times you get to be yourself. Indeed, to keep your public persona and your private one separate. For some, that is a luxury.

Brand Identity

Authors are very protective of their brand. It is their livelihood, after all. In marketing, branding is everything. Branding starts with the name. For example, let’s say you write children’s book. If you were to write erotica, your readers may not accept it since it contradicts what your brand is about. Having a pen name allows you to write in a different genre. (Not that I am enticing you to write erotica. And nothing wrong with it either).

As a matter of fact, several authors use different names when writing in different genres. My feeling about it is, as long as it does not contradict your brand, one pen name is enough. I want a pen name, not multiple personality writing disorder. Is hard enough to keep track of one identity. Then again, some people manage it. Again, consistency is key.

Freedom

Last and not least, freedom. Writers need freedom. Even living in a democracy, censorship can be an issue. Hence, having a pen name allow authors to express themselves without fear of being ridiculed or censored.

As a matter of fact, having a pen name can be quite liberating. Why? Because it somehow allows you to say things in writing you would not normally say. In a way, it is no different than people using online aliases and usernames. Hence expressing behind the safety and privacy of them thoughts they would not normally express to someone’s face. On the other hand, with the freedom of having a pen name comes the obligation of using it responsibly.

Do you Need a Pen Name?

Regardless if you are a writer or not, you may need a pen name. Why? Despite the three reasons above because it is fun. Think of it as role playing. Or cosplaying. Sometimes you need to escape and forget you are yourself. Become someone else. Someone cooler. See, by combining the names of two people I admired (plus a third one by way of initials) I hold myself to high standards. Standards I may not reach. But aiming high is no sin.

So, are you a writer? Do you use a pen name? Would you consider using one? Or would you rather not?

 

 

 

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Your Name Movie Review

Anime with Heart and Lots of Cultural Tradition

Your Name, Japanese movie poster

‘Your Name’ finally came to USA’s screens after showing in Japan last November and becoming an international success. There was so much buzz surrounding this anime film I was afraid it could not live up to the hype. Fear not. Not only does it live up to the hype; it is the kind of film that stays with you after watching it. No wonder people claim to watch it several times.

Part of the charm of the film, by director Makoto Shinkai (the same director of the classic anime film ‘5 Centimeters per Second’) are its themes. There is the love story, of course. There is that millennial sense of displacement, of searching for purpose and meaning, of belonging. “Who are you?” is a question asked throughout the movie. Also, you have the contrast between the rural and urban; between the modern Japan and the tradition and culture; Shinto religion versus science.

Body Switching and Time Travel?

Without spoilers, Your Name will make you cry and get long for ‘the one who got away’. It is without a doubt, the best anime film I’d seen since The Wind Rises.

The premise finds two teenagers, a boy and girl switching bodies mysteriously. You eventually get the sense (like Doctor Who and River Song) keep meeting each other out at different timelines. As they try to make sense of their particular situation (exploited for comedy), you get a sense of foreboding disaster looming.

The artwork is breathtaking and the musical score is lovely. I cannot speak Japanese but I wanted to hear more and more of the songs despite not knowing the meaning of the lyrics. Did I mention how beautiful the artwork was? This is the type of movie you need to watch on the big screen to appreciate it.

Love in the Times of the Comet

Your Name is not simply shoujo film. There is romance and their main characters may be teenage high school students. But its themes are for all ages and genders. There is conflict in the form of impending disaster and a looming comet approaching Itomori village. Can they change the past/future? And what would be the consequences and repercussions of doing so?

In this regard, Your Name is no different from other anime with a time travel element like Orange and Erased. Although here there is a fantasy, magical quality to the time travel and body switching elements. If you love anime, and if you are reading this I am sure you do, watch this film. Now. If it is not playing at your local multiplex (it was limited released in the USA), watch it as soon as it is out on DVD.

Did I say this is the best anime film since ‘The Wind Rises’? This is easily the best film so far of 2017! I will rate it an outstanding and well deserved 10/10.

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Finding Time To Read is Hard

I Love Reading!

I love reading books since I was a child. My grandma gave me my first Bible (illustrated, of course). My father bought me comic books after school (in Spanish, of course) and I borrowed (and never returned) my titi Zory’s copy of the Iliad when I was nine. My love for speculative fiction began in high school and I never looked back. Reading is more than a hobby. Reading is a passion. Reading is as essential as breathing and my ideal home have lots bookshelves.

But I Have More Books that I Can Possibly Read

Photo from Valeriam Emar WordPress blog

My problem (and it may be your problem too, reader) is that I buy more books I can possibly read. And I keep buying even more. I tried to get to them and catch up. But finding time to read is hard. Between the work, that awful four letter word and my several family and other responsibilities, not to mention my writing, it is getting harder to find time to read. Also, with me volunteering for the Hugo Panel, my to-read list becomes second since all the Hugo nominees become a priority. (But you get free books as a member of the Hugo panel, and better yet, as Hugo nominees, they are high quality!) Finding time to read is not easy. But it is not impossible. What to do?

Make Reading a Priority

‘Too many books, too little time’, may sound like a first world problem. But guess what? It is not a bad problem to have. Don’t feel sorry for me. I rather have books around to read than not. I said before and I will say it again, good writers are avid readers and they need to read in their genre. You do that by making reading a priority. Which means, you put the remote down. And the cell phone. And the video game controller.

Read During my Commute

I don’t know how feasible this is for you reader since you may drive, but I read daily during my morning and afternoon commute. I joke that I love my job but hate my commute, but at least it gives me 30 to 40 minutes each way daily to read.

Read Before Bedtime

This is a habit since childhood. How many times have I fallen asleep with a book in my hands and my eyeglasses on? Not ideal, but there is something of cuddling with a book in bed. Extra benefit: a good book will help you relax and sleep better. Just make sure not read ghost stories before bedtime. Trust me.

Read in the Bathroom

This recommendation works better with magazines and newspapers. And do not look at me funny, I am sure you do it too!

Too Many Books, Too Little Time

Once again, ‘too many books too little time’ may sound like a cliche. However, it is not a bad problem to have. Yes, sometimes I feel I should read what I have at home before buying that novel. But I am afraid it may be sold out or out of print by the time I get to it. In conclusion, as hobbies and addictions go, I much rather be addicted to reading. Reading makes you smarter. The other stuff makes you dumb.

What about you, reader? Do you find yourself with the same problem? Too many books to read and little time for it? What are your strategies to find time to read? Please share.

 

 

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Books I’d Read Lately (Part 5)

We Love Reading

We love reading. We love losing ourselves in other worlds and live vicariously through the characters in the stories we read. The main purpose of this blog is to preach the benefits of reading speculative fiction. Writers need readers (and book reviews too!). Readers need to discover new writers and book series. I had posted four parts so far, but it has been a while since the most recent one (here). As usual, we’ll look at three books I’d read recently I loved. No point recommending something I did not enjoy.

The Curse of the Silver Pharaoh by Tee Morris and Phillipa Ballantine

It is no secret I love steampunk and I love this two authors. I highly recommended their Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Series to anyone who loves steampunk (and even those who think they do not). Books and Braun are such great characters. Phoenix Rising is a must read for anyone. This story is more like a prequel to the Books and Braun novels and focuses on the Ministry Seven, the young orphans who help the Ministry in their adventures as their eyes and ears on the streets of London.

This short read is full of mystery, investigation, secrets and great characterization. Verity, Henry, and the rest are great leads. There are a few easter eggs for long-time readers. The ending seemed to set up a sequel. Bring it! Highly recommended.

Invasive by Chuck Wendig

 

Wendig does it again! I reviewed his novel Zeroes back in November. This is a sequel of sorts but not quite. You do not need to have read Zeroes in order to enjoy it, but certain events are referred to, and a few characters from Zeroes take center stage on this one. Honestly, I enjoyed this one even more. Hard to put down. So many mysteries. Another thriller. If Zeroes was cyberpunk,  Invasive reads more like a bioterror thriller. You have an FBI consultant trying to solve a murder that takes her to Hawaii to the reclusive island of an Elon Musk type millionaire who uses genetically modified ants to kill. The book’s pages have little ants drawn all over it. You will feel itchy and may not look at ants the same way after reading this. Horror so tiny and so discomforting. Read it now. You will be glad you did. Great read from beginning to end.

The Emperor’s Soul by Brian Sanderson

I read this book (a short novella and a quick read) on my ride to Boskone. I wanted to read something by Sanderson since he was the guest of honor and Elantris was way too long to read. What do you know? I can see why it won the Hugo award for best novella. Beautifully written and captivating from beginning to end fantasy with lots of Asian flavors. The story premise is the Emperor and his family were attacked and he is basically brain dead, but not biologically dead. A woman incarcerated for being a thief is offered the possibility of freedom if she can use soul stones to build a new soul for the emperor. Of course, it is not as simple and free of danger as it seems. This little book won me over. Read it. You will love it too.

Keep Reading

That’s it for now. Hopefully, it would not be three months before part 6. I’d been reading plenty of quality material since I joined the Hugo panel. I will be reviewing some of the nominees here. Until next time. And keep reading!

 

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Happy National Astronaut Day!

May 5th is National Astronaut’s Day

Armstrong on the Moon
by Getty Images

While some people may go out and get drunk using Cinco de mayo as an excuse to drink tequila (a made up holiday that is not even observed in Mexico) for some of us May 5th every year is something more important worth celebrating: is National Astronaut’s Day. This holiday is celebrated every May 5th.

This holiday is celebrated every May 5th. Why? To commemorate that on May 5th, 1961 Alan Bartlett Sheppard Jr. became the first American astronaut in space aboard the Freedom 7 Space capsule.

True American Heroes

Astronauts are true American heroes. No, I will take that further. Forgive my jingoism (I am American myself). Any human being who dares to navigate the star ocean beyond our atmosphere and go into outer space, regardless of gender, nationality or age, are true humankind’s heroes. So, if you are a cosmonaut from Russia, a Japanese, European or Canadian astronaut, I salute you today. Thank you for risking your life for furthering the noble goal of space exploration.

It is no secret I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a child. This is the main reason for me loving science fiction so much and reading as much science fiction as possible. I dreamed of the day (hopefully in my lifetime) in which space tourism is a reality.

We Need More Astronauts

Now, more than ever, we need more astronauts. And we need astronauts to be celebrated as heroes and role models. Why? Because children who grow up wanting to be astronauts also grow up loving science, math and engineering. They will push our government to not give up in pursuing space exploration and space colonization. I feel we as a country are becoming short-sighted and apathetic to both. Our priorities as a country are not where they should be.

If I was president, I would triple NASA’s budget and demand manned missions and exploration as a matter of national security. I will send astronauts and scientists to every elementary school to educate the younger generations. I will challenge our international rivals not in terms of warfare, but in terms of scientific discoveries and space conquests.

We need to return to the moon, Mars and eventually other galaxies. It is our legacy as a species. I love science fiction, but I hope my fictional novels one day become science facts. On the meantime, let’s celebrate our astronauts past and present.

Happy National Astronaut’s Day!

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