Tag Archives: Nathan Barra

Can’t Take the Sky From Me!

A couple months ago, I had the pleasure of introducing my girlfriend to one of my favorite fandoms — the Firefly TV series. We shared a bottle of wine and watched the first few episodes together while at her place one night. When I was getting ready to leave, she asked to borrow the DVDs so she could finish the series. Being an avid Browncoat, I of course had no problem with this.

A few days later, she returned my DVDs and we had a lively chat about her favorite characters, plot lines, and moments. Towards the end of the conversation, she smiled at me and said, “Well, I really enjoyed that. I’m ready to borrow the next season if you have it on DVD as well.”

Ooops… “Ummm,” I said, “I can’t do that.”

“Why not? Do you have a digital copy we can watch together?”

“Well darling, there’s no more.”


“What do you mean there’s no more?”

I probably shouldn’t have smiled, but I did. “Well you see, Fox canceled Firefly after a single season.”

“What? That’s stupid! Why would they do that?”

“Love, people have been asking that very question for years.”

Like many other major fandoms, we Browncoats are passionate in our love. However, unlike most of the others, our series only had 14 episodes with which to win our undying affection for Serenity and her crew. How did Joss Whedon do it? Why were we addicted so fast? Part of becoming a writer is learning how to dissect the pieces of fiction you love to find out what gives them their power. I’ve rewatched the Firefly TV series half a dozen times over the years, hoping to unlock Whedon’s secrets to addictive storytelling. I have a few theories, but here are the top seven reasons I think that Firefly was so powerful.

meet the washburns
In Million Dollar Outlines, David Farland pointed out that many of the most successful movies of the last 50 years actively transported their audience to a different place or time. The ‘Verse that Whedon created certainly checked that box. Whedon’s world was dynamic, colorful, and exciting. The juxtaposition between the advanced societies of the Core and the space cowboy Rim was both charming and filled with conflict. And come on, who doesn’t want to be a space pirate living on the Serenity?


Part of Joss’ brilliance with the Firefly series was how well he was able to blend all sorts of emotional payoffs.

Excitement — I mean, space pirates, am I right?
RomanceTell me that I'm prettyThere were three very different romantic subplots. The first, between Mal and Inara, was a reluctant attraction story all too reminiscent of modern dating. The second, between Simon and Kaylee, was more of a young love. It resonates well with our own first romantic exploits. Finally, there was the established love between Wash and Zoe. It was unlikely, yet stable and strong. Something many of us wish to find for ourselves.
HumorbonnettSometimes it was simple one liners, references to flowered bonnets or the “special Hell.” Other times it was a running gag, like when we had an entire episode about Jayne being a folk hero. Either way, there were plenty of laughs and inside jokes.
Mystery — River and Book’s back stories provided plenty of intriguing questions that have fueled fan speculation even long after the series ended.
Wonder — I mean, space pirates, am I right?

In so doing, Whedon was able to cast a wide net, both attracting and satisfying a large and diverse audience.

Big Damn Heroes
This aspect is twofold. On the onehand, there was plenty of conflict on the Serenity. Each member of the ensemble drove the others crazy at times. That special sort of insanity reserved for siblings. It kept things interesting and dynamic. It also resonates strongly with much of the audience.

On the other hand, they also fought as a family, repeatedly and selflessly putting themselves at risk for one another. Watch the episode where they assault Niska’s station or the one where the crew goes back to rescue Simon and River from hill people. They were willing to die, and kill, to save their own. They loved one another, one of the truest human emotions and an undeniable anchor for audience empathy.


The crew of the Serenity were pirates, criminals and vagabonds. They stole from the rich, sold to the poor, and were gleeful in their exploits against the Alliance. In our world of well-ordered queues and 9 to 5 jobs, we enjoy stepping out of line with them every now and then.

do something right
When it came down to the line and they had to choose between fleeing near certain death or fighting, they stood their ground and fought for what was right.


Audiences love underdogs, and the crew of the Serenity always faced overwhelming odds. The government of the Alliance was demonstrably selfish and neglectful, if not outright evil at times. Life on the Rim was brutal and occasionally cruel. However, our band of miss fits struggled to survive none the less, often escaping those chasing them by the narrowest of margins.


Each of the characters was treated as a whole person and given room to grow as an individual. They each had their own pasts, natures, and futures. Though they couldn’t all always share the spotlight, Joss allowed each their own time to shine. Throughout the series, we were able to watch them become better versions of themselves, carving out a home and a family in the uncaring ‘Verse they were born into.


March Wrap Up – Nathan’s Top 10 Take Aways

This month on the Fictorians, we’ve thoroughly explored the many aspects of balancing our writing with the myriad of other responsibilities we have in life. I lead this month by insisting that we all have to choose how we spend our time. I have the words “70 hours” written on my bathroom mirror to remind myself that I have plenty of time outside sleep and my job. It’s up to me to choose how I spend it. And I still stand by all of that.
However, the stories and experiences of my fellow Fictorians and our wonderful guest posters have helped me realize a few things about my own work-life balance. It’s not perfect, nor does it need to be! Instead of repeating their words, I’ll simply share my top ten favorite posts for the month. Do they line up with yours?

  1. I found out the secret of Gama Martinez’s awesome prolificness! The man keeps up with one of the most aggressive release schedules I know of by writing his books 10 – 15 minutes at a time when necessary, capturing every opportunity he can to do what he loves.
  2. Ace Jordyn reminded me that you don’t need to write every day to be a writer. We all have our own rhythms. Do what works for you!
  3. Kate Corcino told us about some pretty intense points in her life, how she struggled to find time to write, and those times when writing wasn’t the most important thing she had to deal with. Writing’s a marathon, not a sprint.
  4. David Heyman talked about the struggle to have your cake and eat it too. Sometimes, however, you must give up a slice to make time for your novels. It’s essential to remember that you need to take that slice out of your own portion of your time, not out of the work that pays the bills or the family that loves and supports you.
  5. No one is busier than a new momma, but Joy Dawn Johnson let us peak into her crazy, distraction filled world. And yet, she still gets work done. The trick? No matter what distractions arise, always come back to the keyboard.
  6. Speaking of distractions, there are some things that come up that we have to attend to, while others can be ignored. At least for a while. Emily Godhand talked about how to tell the difference and knowing when to remove or ignore the ones that are keeping us from getting writing done.
  7. I’ve been obsessing about making my writing a business so much over the past couple years that I’ve lost sight of the need to let the artist run the show sometimes. Like Sean Golden, I’ve recently found that my best work has been done when I’m not worried about making a sale, but rather focus on writing a good story.
  8. Nancy Green reminded us that you can’t have “it” all; you just have to decide what “it” actually is.
  9. Jen Greyson talked about the difference between balance and equilibrium. After all, it doesn’t matter if the scales are even, so long as you can be happy with where they lay.
  10. Holly Roberds’ post reminded me that you can’t be a slave to your work. Sometimes you just need to cut yourself a break and give yourself permission to do something other than writing. Seriously! It’s healthier that way.

And those lessons only represent about one third of all the insightful posts we’ve seen this month! Did you catch them all? Which were your favorites? Unfortunately the month is almost done and we need to be moving on to a new theme, but please come back for April’s topic. I promise you’ll love what Anne has in store!

Writers Are People Too!

Have you ever noticed how we tend to speak of our time as if it were a commodity? Just look at the verbs we use! We spend time, we save time, and we waste time. At work, we earn time off and are paid in terms of tender per hour or per year. Ultimately, whenever you go work for another you are leasing them your time and attention, devoting your talents to their projects rather than your own. As the cliché goes, time is money.

So, if we count and budget money, why shouldn’t we do the same for our time? As an example, let’s consider my time in round numbers. There are 168 hours in a week. I find my job to be challenging and fulfilling, and so I spend, on average, 45 of those hours working. It takes me another 4 hours a week to commute back and forth, and I usually aim for about 7 hours of sleep a night. All that accounts for 98 hours per week and leaves me with 70 hours to do with as I please.

Sure, once you start considering the minutiae of everyday life, that time goes fast. However, just because I feel that I “need” to do a thing doesn’t change the fact that I’m expressing value by doing it. I clean my cat’s litter boxes because I value their companionship as much as I appreciate having a house that doesn’t smell like cat poop. I value my personal appearance and hygiene, as well as the health benefits that come from regular exercise and eating well. I want to be free from debt, live in clean spaces, and maintain my relationships with my friends and family. It seems like a lot to do in 70 hours, and it is.

However, in and amongst all those details I cannot allow myself to forget that I also value writing. Fiction is a demanding mistress. Like many other authors, I’ve spent years practicing my craft and actively working to maintain and improve my abilities. I’ve devoted countless hours to planning, writing, and editing stories. I’ve invested all of this time because I love the act of creation. I find joy in building worlds and characters, satisfaction in a well-crafted phrase, and a sense of profound peace in the ability to control a world absolutely. Writing fulfills a deep emotional need and so it is worthy of my time.

The major difference between a professional and a hobbyist writer is their commitment. The hobbyist writes when it is convenient. When they find time. The professional chooses to carve time out of a busy life to write. The hobbyist makes excuses for why they didn’t have the time, and the professional acknowledges the reasons and makes it work anyways. This is why I leave a notecard that reads “70 Hours” taped to my bathroom mirror. My time isn’t infinite, but it is mine to do with as I please.

There are many things in this world that seem really important, genuinely urgent, and make a great case for why I need to spend my time working on them rather than having my butt in the chair and my fingers on the keyboard. And while some of them do need to be taken care of now, most can be managed to still allow room for writing time. The past is done and that time has already been spent, but I can choose my actions going forward.

Knowing and saying all this is one thing, but living the commitment to be a professional is often much harder. I’m as guilty as anyone else when it comes to making excuses. In fact, one of my friends recently called me out on this, something that I love her dearly for doing. We all need writer friends to help keep each other honest.

I can’t tell you how to strike a work-life-writing balance that’ll work for you. As far as I’ve been able to find, there’s no magic formula. However, if you got it figured out be sure to share your solution. The best I can do for you is talk about what has worked for me in the past, and more importantly the traps that have bogged me down. But don’t just take my word on it.

This month on the Fictorians, you’ll hear from a truly inspiring roster of writers who all need to balance the many demands of life against their writing time. Though they each go about maintaining their work-life-writing balance in different ways, I’m sure that you’ll find some stories and advice that resonates with your own situation. Whether you feel that you just need to make a few tweaks or perform a complete overhaul of your work-life-writing balance, know that you are not alone. Balancing the many demands of life is something that we all struggle with. Be welcome and happy writing!

Scientist or Writer? Why Not Both!

You wouldn’t believe how many times people have told me that I couldn’t possibly be a writer. NO! Nathan, you’re an engineer, a scientist. And everybody knows that those sciencey types aren’t creative. They’re ALL left brain dominant. Being creative is a completely different thing.

*le sigh*

Growing up I had two great passions: science and stories. To me there weren’t mutually exclusive. However up until recently, I’d been shaped and encouraged to follow my technical ambitions. I went to an engineering school rather than an arts school because it was what was expected of me. Now, don’t think that I was oppressed or forced into a certain path. I’m very stubborn, and wouldn’t have devoted such a large chunk of my life to science and math if I hadn’t genuinely enjoyed doing so. However, what I wish I had realized sooner was that I’m not limited by my choice of degree.

Looking back I believe that no matter what career I chose my creative nature would have always found a way to express itself. What many people don’t realize is that there are many different kinds of engineers. For myself, I have always gravitated towards data analysis and problem solving. Both of which require a fair amount of creativity. After all, if a problem were easily solved by the “normal” way of doing things, you wouldn’t need someone to devote their time and attention to finding a new solution.

My engineering training wasn’t a matter of stifling my creativity, but rather expressing and training those creative impulses in a different way. Even better, many of the skills and techniques I learned while pursuing my scientific development translated into my writing life. Don’t see it? Let me show you how.

Firstly, both scientists and writers need to be keen observers of the world and people around them. For a scientist, it’s about quantification, drawing trends, building models, and predicting the future. Writers, on the other hand, use those observations to bring their characters and worlds to life for their readers.

Additionally, both writers and scientists need to know how to manage large, complex projects. Both novels and research or design projects need to be broken up into smaller parts to be managed. Both are efforts of months or years and require significant organization, timing, and team work to pull off smoothly.

Furthermore both novels and physical machines are intricate constructs with many moving parts. If any one piece is out of balance, it throws off the rhythm of the whole. Ideally, both a novel and an engine are working at their best when the person on the other side isn’t even aware of the complexity beneath the hood. It just works.

Finally, scientists and authors are both in search of the capital “T” truth. We are trying to understand what motivates people, what makes the universe work the way it does, and use those discoveries to make the world a better place.

The truth is that science and fiction have been bedfellows for a long time. Many of the scientists and engineers I know are also avid readers, especially of science fiction. I’ve read interviews of Motorola engineers who claim that they were inspired by Star Trek communicators. I’ve also seen videos that demonstrate real world hologram technology (in progress, admittedly) that directly reference the Star Wars movies. It’s not surprising that the scientists and engineers, as fans, seek to bring the fantastic things they enjoyed so much into the real world.

The fascinating thing is that the transfer of ideas doesn’t go one way. I’m always keeping an eye on the major science news outlets for new discoveries or technologies that I can commandeer for my fiction. If I see something that catches my interest, I dig a deeper, try to understand the development as best I can, and then project it forward or sideways into one of my stories. Also, the natural world is unimaginably cool. There are creatures in the deep oceans that put fictional aliens to shame with their pure weirdness. Need some inspiration for your outer space settings? I signed up for NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day mailing list specifically to have cool visuals delivered to my inbox. More than one has inspired a change of setting in one story or another.

What I’ve come to realize is that the time I’ve spent developing my scientific half doesn’t limit my authorial half. Rather, I’d argue that my writing is enhanced by widely varied interests. I don’t need to choose between scientist and creator. Both are me, both fundamentally shape how I view and interact with the world around me, and how I tell stories. Realizing this, and using it to my advantage, have helped make me a better writer and a better engineer.

So, the real question isn’t how are the various parts of your life keeping you from writing, but rather how to use all of who you are to make better stories.