Marianne J. Dyson

Marianne Jakmides Dyson during STS-4, July 1982
FAO Marianne during STS-4, July 1982

WriteSpace Newsletters

by Marianne Dyson

I wrote three newsletters in 2003 which are reprinted below. The topics include: How long should a middle-grade and YA book be? What made the last space shuttle blow up? Why put aluminum foil on the end of antennas? Space University (being a writer & consultant); The Myth of the Rich Author (how much authors make); A Final Mistake (last-minute editing).

WriteSpace, July 2003

Quotable Quote

"This [discovery of oldest known planet] is tremendously encouraging that planets are probably abundant in globular star clusters," says Harvey Richer of the University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver, Canada. The planet was uncovered in an unlikely place: orbiting two captured stars, a helium white dwarf and a rapidly spinning neutron star, near the crowded core of a globular cluster. NASA Press Release, July 10, 2003.

In this issue

*Question of the Month: “How long should a middle-grade and YA book be?”

* Appearances

*Writing Adventures: Space University

*** Question of the Month ***

“How can I figure out if my manuscript is the right number of pages for a middle-grade or YA novel?”

When publishers say they want manuscripts of x number of pages, they mean 250 words to a page for a children's book. A middle-grade paperback has 200 - 250 words per page. A typical YA paperback book page has 200 - 350 words to a published page. Scholastic books are about 120 to 150 pages for middle grade and around 300 for YA.

You can set up your margins and fonts so that your page breaks come every 250 words. Or you can do what most writers do: just count the words. Most word processor programs have a tool that will do this for you. In Microsoft Word, highlight the text you want counted, and use Tools/Word Count. For a middle grade book of about 150 pages with 250 words/page, the total is around 37,500. For a YA of 300 pages, the word count would be around 75,000. Stories with lots of dialog will have fewer words/page. If your story is of this type, then use 200 words/page to estimate your page count.

The length of YA books is undergoing a change because of Harry Potter. The old rule was that they could not be longer than 300 pages. On my website’s new “Science in Kids’ Books” page (, I have posted reviews of space and science fiction books for children. One of these is Parasite Pig by William Sleator published by Dutton. This book is classified as YA and is 192 pages. It follows the old rule. However, Divide, just published by Scholastic, is 320 pages. Note that Scholastic is the American publisher for Harry Potter. The editor told a group of us at a SCBWI conference that length is not important to him. What is important is that the characters require the length to finish the story.

Therefore, I recommend that you focus on the story and not worry about the length. Once it is done, if it is longer than the average length for its age category, and you don’t think it can be cut without sacrificing story, then look for publishers that will consider longer books. It is much more of a problem if the book is too short!

*** Appearances ***

I will be signing HOME ON THE MOON at the Champions Barnes & Noble on FM 1960 from 2-4 Sunday, July 20, the 34th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing.

I will be teaching a 6-week course on Writing for Children in the Houston area starting August 18, 2003. Registration information is available at the San Jacinto College website:

HOME ON THE MOON will be serialized in the Denver Post over a 14-week period staring in September. I will be presenting at the Denver Museum of Science on the weekend of October 24-26 and also attending MileHiCon science fiction convention. More information is on my appearances page.

*** Writing Adventures ***

I am pleased to announce that I will be writing book 8 of Scholastic’s Space University series. The series begins this October and will contain 12 books delivered one each month with science kits to the homes of club members. My book is called, THE SPACE EXPLORER’S GUIDE TO STARS AND GALAXIES. I will also be the consultant on three other books in the series: one on Space Science, one on Mars, and one on Future Space Colonies.

I was offered the chance to write several of these books, but choose to only write one and be a consultant on the others. The writer gets more than twice the pay of a consultant. So why didn’t I sign up to write all these books?

In my newsletters from last summer, I explained that a series I was working on was cancelled, mostly because I couldn’t get the work done to the publisher’s satisfaction in the time allowed. I learned my lesson, and I will not sign up to write more than one book in a six-month time frame.

Also, the contracts are work-for-hire. This means I will not earn any royalties on the books either as a writer or consultant. However, as a writer, I must sign a contract that says I will not write another book on that same subject that will compete with this book. I know that I could not write a book on say, Mars, without doing my best, no matter if it were work-for-hire or not. Any book with my name on it will be as good a quality as I can make it. If I agreed to write the Mars book for this series, I would “use up” my best ideas on that topic and not be able to write a Mars book for anyone else for probably three years. I don’t know if I will write a Mars book in the next three years or not, but if I do, and I put my heart into it, I want to get some royalties out of it!

That’s not to say that I’m not going to put some heart into my book on stars and galaxies. But those topics are different for me because I researched them both for the series that was cancelled last summer. My editor at National Geographic told me last year that they were not interested in a book on either of those topics (they just did one on Stars - reviewed on my website). So here was a set of topics that I had already researched, that I enjoy writing about, and that would not interfere with ideas for a future royalty book. It was a perfect fit, and I’m glad for the opportunity.

Besides, I like being a consultant. As a consultant, I get to develop the outline and work with the writer to come up with activities. Plus, I get to play with all the great toys we are putting in the science kits!

Marianne Dyson, July 2003


WriteSpace, May 2003

Columbia astronaut Dave Brown "was really looking [forward] to coming back to Earth and particularly going to schools and talking to kids about that, and telling them to pursue their dreams and support things built around dreams.” Cliff Gauthier, Dave Brown’s coach and friend. [Ref. Houston Chronicle, 2-2-03, p. 9.]

*Question of the Month: “What made the last space shuttle blow up?”

* Appearances

*** Question of the Month ***

“What made the last space shuttle blow up?” student at Chets Creek Elementary, Jacksonville, FL.

A very long and detailed answer:

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) was created to find out what caused the loss of the shuttle on February 1, 2003, and to recommend what to do to prevent another accident.

On May 6, the CAIB released their working scenario of what happened. What follows is an expanded explanation of the scenario based on my experience as a flight controller and from following the investigation.

The problem began during launch on January 16. The Columbia took a fierce shaking as it passed through a wind shear: a sort of invisible waterfall of air. Just after this, about 81 seconds after launch, a piece of foam from the orange External Tank came off and hit near the leading edge of the left wing. A data recorder found in the wreckage showed a spike in a temperature sensor in this area just after this impact. This data was not transmitted to the ground, so neither the crew or flight controllers knew about it. They did know about the impact, but analysis showed that it wasn’t a safety-of-flight issue.

It is not yet clear what caused the piece of foam to come off. There had been other incidents of foam coming off from this same area, but none had caused serious damage. The foam came off from around a bracket that holds the shuttle to the tank. This foam is apparently applied by hand. It is also not clear whether or not the foam had ice imbedded in it. The external tank holds liquid hydrogen and oxygen at very cold temperatures. It is loaded about 24 hours before launch. If exposed to damp air, ice would form on the tank. Tiny holes had been drilled in the waterproof foam to allow gases to escape. Previous incidents showed a kind of popcorn effect when trapped gas bubbles expanded as the tank warmed during launch. It is possible that water could have gotten into the holes over time and frozen in place when the cold fuel was loaded. Hopefully the final report, expected in July, will explain how the foam came off and what can be done to prevent it happening in the future.

After launch, everything seemed to be going just fine. A military camera saw an object separate from the shuttle about 24 hours into the mission. This information was not known by the crew or flight controllers. It was found four days after the accident when the military checked standard sky sweeps for anything that might help the investigation. The object’s speed showed that it came from the shuttle and was not space junk. Radar tests have since determined that it was likely a part of the left wing called a T-seal. These seals join the wing panels together and are held on by 4 bolts. The age of the shuttle may have been a factor in loosening the bolts (from severe shaking during launches) or weakening the wing structure (from exposure to weather and space). The foam impact was then able to crack a wing seal or panel that then floated off in space when the crew fired jets to point the orbiter in a different direction.

The gap left behind when the piece floated away was not visible to the crew in space. Even if they had known to look, the crew could not have seen the wing from the windows or by using cameras in the payload bay. (The radiator doors must be open in space to provide cooling. They blocked the cameras’ views of this part of the wing.) This flight did not carry a robotic arm that could have peeked over the side. The robotic arm is used to lift cargo from the payload bay or assist astronauts on space walks. This flight was dedicated to laboratory science, and the decision was made to save the weight of carrying an unneeded arm into space.

Some people have asked why the flight controllers didn’t order photos taken from the ground. A request was made, but then rescinded because the analysis of the foam impact did not indicate any major damage had occurred. After all, no pieces were seen falling off the orbiter during launch, and no one knew about the object that floated away. If they had ordered the photos, they might not have helped anyway. The gap in the wing was a hole or a slit in a black surface that was all at the same temperature - very difficult to detect from 200 miles away through the fuzzy atmosphere. Using military cameras to take such photos was also expensive, and NASA managers were under a lot of pressure not to spend money unless they thought it was an emergency.

Assuming they had taken the photos and found the hole, what could they have done to save the crew?

Unfortunately, nothing. There were no wing repair kits on the shuttle. If they had found something onboard to try as a patch, the crew had no way to reach the underside of the shuttle. They had EVA equipment, but no jet packs or arm to use to anchor themselves while working. A tether would not be enough because for each action in space there is an equal and opposite reaction. They would have constantly floated away from the worksite.

Columbia could not reach the space station. The station is in an orbit inclined 56 degrees to the equator of Earth, and Columbia was in a 39-degree orbit. To cross from one plane to another takes an enormous amount of energy, more than any spacecraft humans have ever designed. It had nothing to do with the altitude. Going higher or lower is not that difficult.

The Russians could not send a Soyuz to pick up the crew. The Russians launch their ships from Kazikstan at a latitude of about 45 degrees. The lowest inclination that a ship can be launched into is the latitude of the launch site. This is because any object put into orbit must go around the center of the Earth. The plane of its orbit must include the launch site and the center of the Earth, and that defines its lowest inclination. It can go to a higher inclination by using more fuel. This must be done during the launch, not after the ship is in space.

If Mission Control had seen the piece of wing float away and realized the danger on the second day of the flight, could another shuttle have been sent to rescue the crew? I think it is doubtful that NASA would risk sending another shuttle without first knowing how to prevent the same thing happening to it that had happened to Columbia. Also, they would have had to be certain that the gap would cause the destruction of the vehicle and crew before taking such an enormous risk. Orbiters have returned with broken and missing tiles before, so there would have been reason to think this one could make it back. But assuming they made the decision to try, it would have taken about a month to get the next shuttle stacked (current payload removed, boosters and tank attached), moved to the pad, inspected, and ready.

Columbia had enough supplies to last 16 days plus a few extra. By turning everything off, and finding a way to remove the excess carbon dioxide, they might have survived long enough. They would not have been able to do any of their science mission.

If a second shuttle had made it, the rescue would have been dangerous. The shuttle is only designed to carry 7 people. This means the rescue crew would be limited to 2 or 3 astronauts, and some accommodation would have to be made to carry the 7 on Columbia. There is no way to attach two space shuttles together. The transfer would have to be done by flying the two ships in formation and using a robotic arm or backpacks to jet from one to the other. Only 3 people at a time can fit into the airlock, and Columbia only carried two EVA suits. Mission Control could probably have figured out a way to solve these problems, but it would have still been a risky endeavor.

However, I doubt that NASA would have abandoned a billion-dollar shuttle in orbit. More likely, the commander and pilot would have stayed onboard and tried to fly it down even if the other crewmembers had been rescued. Ron Dittemore, the Shuttle Program Manager (who has since resigned), was asked if they could have flown a more gentle trajectory if they had known about the damaged wing. He pointed out that shuttles always fly the least stressful trajectory. They might have selected a different landing opportunity (there are several good ones each day) so that in the event that the vehicle crashed, it would fall over water or unpopulated areas. Then again, a break up over water makes crew rescue and debris recovery much more difficult.

One thing they might have tried (especially if another shuttle had been there with an arm) would have been to eject the SpaceHab module from the cargo bay of Columbia. This would reduce the mass of the vehicle and thus the entry friction. However, analysis has since shown that even that drastic measure would not have been enough to prevent the breakup of the shuttle during entry.

Why do spacecraft get so hot passing through the atmosphere? To get into space, a spaceship must go fast enough to fall without hitting the ground. Think of hitting a baseball. The harder you hit it, the faster it goes and the farther it travels before gravity pulls it to the ground. If you had enough energy to make it go 5 miles per second like the space shuttle, it would go past the horizon before being bent toward the ground. It would fall around the Earth in a big circle called an orbit.

To return to Earth, the shuttle must slow down. The shuttle fires its engines into the direction it is going. This slows it down some. The atmosphere provides the rest of the braking. When two things rub together, they get hot. (The rubbing force is called friction.) When the shuttle slaps into the atmosphere, it heats the air so much it turns into red hot gas of about 3,000 degrees F. The shuttle tiles shield the vehicle's aluminum skin from this heat. Aluminum melts at about 1,200 degrees F.

All what-ifs aside, the crew and flight control team did not know that Columbia was fatally wounded. No rescue was ever discussed. A few engineers shared their worries through e-mail that the launch impact could have damaged the door shielding the landing gear. If the landing gear didn’t deploy, or one gear came down and not the other, the crew would have to bail out and the orbiter would be destroyed. They admitted later that they didn’t really think this would happen.

The crew carried out their scientific mission over 16 days, sending most of the data to the ground in digital form. This legacy of information is still being processed by the science teams. Some worms were even found alive in the debris.

Video recovered in the debris showed a joyous crew returning from space. The tape ends at 8:48 AM, just 12 minutes before they died. Although detailed detective work has uncovered the first signs of trouble just as they entered the atmosphere, there were no alarms going off or major systems failing. At 8:50 AM Central Time, the Columbia began the ten-minute period called “peak heating" with an unexpected dropout of radio communications. Comm was quickly restored, and the dropout was written off as a result of atmospheric conditions. It was actually something much more ominous, turbulence caused by the rough section of the left wing. It would become so bad so quickly that the orbiter and crew would not survive the ten-minute peak heating.

At the start of peak heating, Columbia was at an altitude of 243,000 feet (46 miles). The air at this altitude is so thin that individual sensors might not encounter enough molecules to measure a temperature. In other words, though the superheated gas was already penetrating the hole in the wing, the individual molecules of air did not trip every sensor. There weren’t many sensors inside the wing (because there isn’t usually any air in there to sense!), but there were a fair number in the landing gear wheel wells. The wheels are tucked inside the shuttle's wings during launch and while in orbit. (There is a set of tires in each wing and another set in the nose area.) The tires, which melt at very low temperatures, are shielded behind latched doors covered with tiles. Sensors in and near this area on the left side of the shuttle were the first the crew and flight controllers saw that either showed higher than normal temperatures or quit working. The first of these sensors (the left inboard elevon lower skin temperature sensor) quit working at 8:52 AM. We now know that the reason the sensors quit working was that the superheated gas acted like a blowtorch inside the wing and melted the wires leading to the sensors.

During the next few minutes, the shuttle’s jets fired to keep the orbiter’s belly “into the wind.” The orbiter’s white upper tiles cannot protect the underlying skin from the intense heat experienced by the black tiles, so it is critically important that the orbiter’s belly hit the air first. The rough section of wing caused turbulence that made the shuttle want to roll and yaw to the left. The onboard computers ordered the jets to compensate, but as parts of the wing melted and fell off, the jets could not maintain control.

The turbulence also caused the communications antenna to lose its connection to the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS). Radio signals are sent upward to TDRS and then bounced down to a receiver at White Sands, NM. From there, the signals are sent to Mission Control in Houston. The signals cannot go straight down because the superheated air prevents the passage of radio waves. Before TDRS, spacecraft were out of communication for the 10 minutes of peak heating. This time was therefore called “blackout.”

Communications with Mission Control cut off at 8:59 and 32 seconds. Columbia was at an altitude of 38 miles (200,700 feet) and moving at the incredible speed of 12,825 miles per hour. Bailout was not an option for the crew at this altitude and speed. It was so hot outside that the aluminum skin of the orbiter was melting. If the orbiter had remained intact for 5 more minutes, they might have had a chance to use the bailout system installed after the Challenger disaster. Michael Anderson was sitting by the middeck hatch and would have been the one to open it. Dave Brown and Ilan Ramon, also on the middeck, would have been the first ones out. KC Chawla and Laurel Clark were sitting behind Commander Rick Husband and Pilot Willie McCool on the flight deck.

Photos and videos taken by people watching the shuttle return provided valuable data to the investigation. They showed that 5 pieces of debris fell off over California, and a total of at least 16 pieces came off before the orbiter reached Texas. None of these pieces were recovered, probably because they mostly burned up in the atmosphere. Small pieces may yet be found by hikers or farmers in Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Although communications with Mission Control were lost at 8:59:32, another 32 seconds of “noisy” data was captured by recorders at White Sands. Mission Control does not want controllers making life/death decisions based on bad quality data, so the computers block communications once they degrade beyond a certain level. After the accident, the controllers examined this data very carefully. The first 5 seconds of this data showed that the crew received fault messages from the backup and primary computers that motors (called actuators) had failed. These actuators move the orbiter control surfaces, similar to flaps and elevators on aircraft. Just one second after loss of signal with Mission Control, the crew received a Master Alarm. A Master Alarm is the most serious alarm onboard. Red lights flash in the cockpit and a klaxon siren goes off. The crew knew their lives were at risk.

During this five-second period, the vehicle started rocking back and forth and up and down despite the autopilot’s best efforts to counteract the turbulence. The control surfaces stuck in various positions. The data stream became complete noise for 25 seconds, and then data was again recorded for 2 seconds.

The last 2 seconds of recovered data show that fluid in pipes in the wheel well had all leaked out. The pipes must have melted. Evidence this is true comes from a latch from the left wheel well door that was found in the debris. This latch was made of titanium that requires 3,000 degrees to melt. One corner melted. This latch was on the INSIDE of the wheel well, and should have been protected from the superheated air of that temperature outside.

Pipes carrying hydraulic fluid must have also melted. Hydraulic fluid is what makes the control surfaces on the shuttle move. Once the fluid vented, the only way to control the shuttle was to use the small jets. During the final 2 seconds, the jets failed. The cooling system failed. Parts of the electrical system failed. Amazingly enough, the fuel cells that provide vehicle power, were still functioning. This means the crew still had lights and computer warnings. The nose of the orbiter was still attached to the tail, and the right wing was intact at 9:00:04.

Although the shuttle remained on autopilot and under computer control, there is an indication during these final 2 seconds that either the commander or pilot may have tried to take over manually, or may have simply been pushed into the stick by the turbulence.

From the end of the 2 seconds until the orbiter was confirmed to be destroyed was only 18 seconds. I like to think that this was just long enough for them to pray that the falling debris would not harm anyone on the ground. It is truly a miracle that that large engines, dangerous propellant tanks, and all the hot metal fragments that rained down over Texas and Louisiana did not seriously injure a single person. A flight surgeon told reporters that in his opinion, the crew did not suffer. Death would have been instantaneous when the shuttle shattered at 18 times the speed of sound. The crew’s remains were recovered and returned to their families. A memorial was established at Arlington National Cemetery.

Over 36% of the Columbia’s dry weight was recovered from Texas and Louisiana by thousands of volunteers and government workers. The debris was sent to Kennedy Space Center for study. A ground track of the debris shows that pieces of the left wing all fell west of the pieces of the right wing. This proves that the left wing came off first.

Although it seems that the foam impact was the major cause of the accident, the CAIB has also indicated that the age of the orbiter (22 years) may have been a contributing factor. Studies of the debris and also an external tank that was a sister to the one used for launch, show that materials were affected by weather and stress. NASA will have to address these issues before the remaining three shuttles, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor, are returned to flight. The earliest return would be in 2004.

In the meantime, the International Space Station remains unfinished. The shuttles are needed to take up the rest of the truss sections that will support the solar arrays and radiators. The European Columbus module, and the Japanese Kibo module, and other important laboratory equipment also require the shuttle. The crew of three that were on the ISS on February 1 returned to Earth in a Soyuz capsule this month. A malfunction caused them to land about 300 miles short of their planned location, but the men were found within a few hours and united with their families. To reduce the need for supplies that are usually brought up by the shuttles, the ISS crew was reduced to two and their tour of duty lengthened from 4 months to six.

The CAIB expects to release a final report in July. Those of us who support human spaceflight are urging our members of Congress to support an accelerated development of the Orbital Space Plane. This vehicle will take over the crew transport functions of the shuttles, and allow the science mission of the Columbia crew to continue.

Personally, I also hope that once we get the space station built, that we will commit to sending humans to the Moon, this time to stay. The cost will be about the same per year as building the station, and no technological breakthroughs are needed. Ilan Ramon took a copy of drawing by a 16-year-old victim of a concentration camp to orbit with him to honor his Jewish history. That boy, in desperate and terrible times, drew a picture of hope: of a future where he would see the Earth from the moon. It is up to us to make that future a reality.

For more information on Columbia, checkout: STS-107 Columbia Quotes

*** Appearances ***

I will be signing books at NASA Ames Research Center in California on Friday, May 23 from 12:30-2 in the employee cafeteria.

I will be speaking at the International Space Development Conference at the Hyatt hotel in San Jose, CA on May 24 and signing books from 4-6 in the exhibits area. For more information on the conference, visit

I am visiting Francone Elementary in Houston on May 27.

I will be teaching a 6-week course on Writing for Children in the Houston area starting June 2, 2003. Registration information is available at the San Jacinto College website:

I will be speaking at the Northwest Library in Cypress, Texas on June 4, and the Baldwin-Boettcher Library in Humble, Texas on June 18.

New photos have been posted from my Author-of-the-Month event at the Webster, Texas Barnes & Noble on April 19, and my visit to Chets Creek Elementary in Jacksonville, FL on May 1-2. Please check for other appearances and photos at http://www.mariannedyson/authorschedule.html.

*** Writing Adventures ***

The Myth of the Rich Author

Many people seem to think that published authors are rich. How I wish this were true!

The reality is that most authors do not earn a living by writing. I once polled well-published authors at a national writers conference, asking them if they were making a living as a writer. The most common response I got after laughter was, “That depends how you define living.”

It also depends on how many books you write (and sell) in a year and how many of them stay in print. Authors get money from advances and royalties. An average advance is $5,000 for a children’s book. If you write two books a year, then your advance income is $10,000/year. Once the book is published, you begin earning royalties which are a percentage of the sale price of the book. The royalty rate varies from 3% for club sales to 10% for retail sales. The author does not get any of this money until the total exceeds the advance already paid. (That is why it is called an advance against royalties.) So, if the book sells for $10, and the author gets a dollar per copy sold, then the author doesn’t get any royalties until after the first 5,000 copies are sold in retail, or the first 16,000 copies are sold by the book club. Sales of 15,000 are considered good (and trigger a higher royalty rate if the author has an escalation clause in their contract). So assuming sales of 15,000 copies, the author earns another $10,000 for that book.

Therefore, if you write two books a year, and they earn-out (meaning they earned back the advance) plus make royalties, your annual income using the above scenario would be $10,000 in advances and $20,000 in royalties, or $30,000 a year. This is not a bad income level, but after taxes, is not likely to make you rich. If you have an agent, 15% of this goes to them. Then your income is $25,500, and after taxes… well you get the idea.

The key to getting rich off of books is to sell lots and lots of copies and write lots and lots of books that editors will buy. With editors moving around all the time, and publishing houses sticking with their already good-selling authors, it is difficult for a new author to sell two trade books a year. But it is possible. Educational houses (that sell primarily to libraries) with series provide a more stable situation, but the royalty rates are lower and the number of copies sold are fewer.

It is plain to see that getting on the New York Times Bestseller list (with sales over a million copies each!) means that the author can actually get rich.

Unfortunately, no one knows how to get on the list. All authors can do is write the best book they can and then hope for the best. Reviews in major journals help. Libraries can only afford a small number of new books per year. If yours gets a great review or wins an award, your sales will increase. Publicity also helps sales. Getting interviewed on the radio and in the paper never hurts.

What many children’s authors do to keep from having to get a “day job” to pay for food or for their kids to go to college, is to do school visits. Many teachers ask why authors charge a speaking fee. Don’t authors get lots of money from book sales? The answer is no. Most schools get the books directly from the publisher at a 40% discount. This is great for them, but not for the authors. Authors often get 6% royalty on the discounted price. So, for a book that sells for $10 retail, the school pays $6 each and the author gets a royalty of 36 cents for each book sold. The most books I’ve ever sold at a school was 100. So I’d be lucky to make $36 in book sales, and more likely $9.00 (sales of 25 are more normal). Each school visit requires many hours of planning beginning months in advance, travel time, supplies, and the actual visit. An average technical writer gets $35/hour. So even a one-day local visit that took one day of planning is worth $560. My visits take a lot more planning than that, and ones that require flying take a minimum of three days plus a day of recovery afterwards. I used website data and discovered that the average rate is $1,000/day for an author visit, plus expenses. I currently charge $800.

Most authors can’t do more than one visit in a week, and two per month and still have time for their family and writing two books a year. Most schools only invite authors in October, November, January, February, April, and May. If the author is able to get two invitations for each of these months, they can earn another $12,000 a year.

I was lucky that my first book sold lots of copies, won an award, and had a second printing. But my editor changed houses, and so there was a 3-year delay between by second and third book (and the second book was a flat fee - no royalties). The first book is now going out of print (more on that in the next issue), so that‘s the end of those royalties, and my new book hasn’t earned out yet. I have not yet sold my fourth book, so my only income this year is from a consulting job and some school visits. I am hopeful that I will sell another book soon because otherwise, I am going to have to get a day job to pay for my two children to be in college at the same time!

It is possible to earn a living as a children’s author, and I have actually had to pay taxes on my income a few of the twelve years I’ve been writing. However, I don’t expect to get rich. I do have fun. I really mean it when I thank you for buying my books and inviting me to speak. Without your support, I couldn’t afford to keep writing.

Besides, someone has to be the next J.K. Rowling!

Marianne Dyson, May 2003


WriteSpace, January 2003

Quotable Quote: "There’s an image I’ve heard people in recovery use - that getting all of one’s addictions under control is a little like putting an octopus to bed. I think that this perfectly describes the process of solving various problems in your final draft.” Anne Lamott, BIRD BY BIRD, pp. 93-94.

In this issue:


*Question of the Month: “Why put aluminum foil on the end of antennas?”

* Appearances

*Writing Adventures: A Final Mistake

*** Question of the Month ***

“If aluminum blocks radio waves, why do we put aluminum foil on the end of antennas?” 5th-grade student at Bang Elementary, Houston, Texas.


In SPACE STATION SCIENCE and during my science presentations at schools, I note that the crew of the International Space Station cannot call Mission Control anytime they want to. Sometimes the radio waves are blocked by the ISS itself. What is it about the ISS that blocks the waves? The experiment, “What Blocks Radio Waves” (page 46) dramatically shows that aluminum (in the form of foil in the experiment) makes radios go silent. The ISS modules and truss are made of aluminum. Whenever these aluminum structures are between the transmitter dish and the receiving antenna, the signal is blocked. So why do people twist aluminum foil onto the end of antennas to help reception?

Aluminum is often used for antennas because it is a rigid, lightweight, and a relatively inexpensive conductor. A conductor is a material that guides or transmits heat, light, sound, and especially electrical charges. When radio waves hit an antenna, they cause electrons in the conductor to move, passing the signal along the length of the antenna to the radio’s receiver. (Wrapping a radio in aluminum foil blocks the signal by capturing it before it reaches the radio’s receiver. Any conductor can do this, so putting the radio inside a copper pot would also work.) The best reception (strongest stimulation of the electrons) occurs when the antenna: 1) is close to the transmitter; 2) has its length “broadside” to the transmitter; and 3) is about the same length as the wave it is capturing.

To improve reception, the first thing to do is move closer to the transmitter. As the distance increases from the transmitter, the waves spread out more, causing less stimulation of the antenna’s electrons. This is why you lose radio stations when driving out of town. If your location is fixed relative to the transmitter, then try rotating the antenna into the “broadside” position. Moving the antenna outside or closer to a window may also help because walls may contain metal wires or support rods that block the waves. Most antennas are already the proper length for good reception. Adding aluminum foil to the end is not going to make much difference unless the extension gets it beyond some obstruction (aluminum or other nearby metals) that is blocking reception. The chief benefit of adding aluminum foil to an antenna is probably to make the person feel better for having tried something!

*** Appearances ***

February 8 and 16, I will be autographing SPACE STATION SCIENCE at Space Center Houston.

I will be teaching a 6-week course on Writing for Children in the Houston area starting June 2, 2003. Registration information is available at the San Jacinto College website:

Please check for other appearances and photos from my recent visits at http://www.mariannedyson/authorschedule.html.

*** Writing Adventures ***

A Final Mistake

A week after my editor told me my new book, HOME ON THE MOON, had gone to print, I discovered that what I had written in one section was not true. This is like realizing you worked a whole set of math problems incorrectly after you have turned in the test.

My error came to light during a discussion with some fellow National Space Society members about NASA's new plan to put a station at L1, a place between the Earth and moon where the gravity of the two bodies balance each other. I made the comment that using L1 got around a constraint on when you could launch to the moon and also on where you could land. A senior engineer, who had worked Apollo and is an expert on these matters, remarked that there was no constraint of the kind I’d mentioned.

I quickly sent him the section of my book where I’d discussed this topic and confirmed my worst fear: I had indeed gotten it wrong. Not just a little bit, but WRONG. Three pages wrong. I’d said that trips to the moon could only happen when the moon was in the plane of the Earth’s Equator (twice a month), and this was simply not true. I’d also said that the latitude of the launch site on Earth limited the landing choices on the moon. This also was not true.

I felt sick inside. I pride myself on being a good researcher, on going the extra mile to check my facts and interview people with the most current information. I serve as a technical reviewer for several publishers and have a reputation for being very thorough. One of my selling points as an author is that I have a physics degree. And here I had gone and written a section of a book based on my own interpretation of something I’d read. Only a handful of people would know that my assertions were not true. Most others would find them logical and assume that I had verified my conclusions. But I hadn’t! When I went back and checked the references, the facts were there, but they were not connected the way I had connected them.

I could live with the kind of mistake made in the first printing of SPACE STATION SCIENCE where one of the captions was placed with the wrong photo. People forgive those kinds of mistakes. They don’t impact the science.

But these new mistakes were not simple. A notable piece of content likely to be remembered by the reader was incorrect. It would be propagated who knows where like a computer virus of misinformation. Argh! I had to get it fixed! But I was three weeks too late. The book had gone to print.

My editors and readers had trusted me to get the science right, and I had let them down. My dream of this book being critically acclaimed as a great science book for kids evaporated. I spent Thanksgiving weekend writing replacements for the incorrect section. It could not be fixed - it needed to be deleted and replaced. If the books hadn’t been shipped yet, I would plead with my editor to let me put inserts in the books. I would direct readers to my website where I would post the new section and an apology for not verifying my assumptions. I really had no excuse.

Then a miracle happened. My editor called to say that though the book was at the printers, it had not run on the press yet. She knew how important it was to me, and to the kids, to have the book be accurate. So she agreed to pull the plates from the printers and fix the section despite the considerable expense of doing this. I had one day to get the rewrite done. I busily wrote a new draft, had my expert friend check it over, and then worked with my editor to make the new text exactly fit the same number of lines as the old text. (This was a real challenge because we could not move any of the headers or artwork.) There wasn’t time for me to see the final new layout. The book went to press.

This week I got my shiny new first copy of HOME ON THE MOON. The first thing I did was flip to that section. I let out a huge sigh of relief when I saw that the old text had indeed been replaced.

Now the only problem is the debt I owe my editor. You see, I offered either to write her a bestseller or give her my firstborn if she’d fix this book for me. I don’t have a clue how to write a bestseller. So can any of you loan me the money to buy, oh say, a million copies of HOME ON THE MOON to make it a bestseller? My son will be most grateful.

Keep praying. Miracles do happen!

Marianne Dyson, January 2003

Newsletters from 2001-02

2002 WriteSpace topics: What is the space station crew size? What is work-for-hire? Have your books been based on your experiences? Bald Cats and Writing (writing workshop experience); How Long it Takes to Write a Book (having series cancelled); Giving and Receiving the “but-ended” Compliment (critique groups). Read 2002 back issues.

2001 WriteSpace topics: Could you give me some tips on what to write about? What do I put in a cover letter? Do you have any information about space camps, especially for hearing-impaired children? Why don't they use magnets to dock the shuttle to the space station?; When were you (astronauts) first interested in space? Will NASA build space stations on planets? The End (writing an obituary); Outlining the Universe; The Making of a Moon Rock (creating an activity); Noting STS-1 (recording history); Stars in my Pocket (technical reviewing); Marianne becomes an Enslow author (signing up for a series). Read 2001 back issues.

Connect: Twitter Facebook