“Pure science” the biggest lie in science fiction

On the one hand, there’s an upswing in reported health issues associated with vaping, and news reporters feigning shock.

On the other hand, my wife asked me to read and discuss a book: Science Fiction Prototyping: Designing the Future with Science Fiction by David Johnson.

Somewhere between the two I hit upon a realization: “pure science” is the greatest fiction in science fiction.

Just for clarity and understanding (you can argue in the comments if you want to…), I define science fiction as fiction that examines the effects of science and technology on people’s lives.

Enders Game is science fiction; it looks at the lives of people fighting a high-tech war against aliens, that doesn’t happen without the tech. It’s a significant factor in the story. The Empire Strikes Back isn’t science fiction; you could do the same thing with horses, boats and pre-gunpowder weapons and have the same story. (Face it… The AT-ATs are discount elephants…)

Wargames can’t happen without the computers. The Terminator (the original one) can, you could omit the ‘sci fi’ trappings and tell the same main story with a couple stoners from Newark.

Note: I still like The Empire Strikes Back and The Terminator… They just don’t depend on the science and tech the way the others do… (And, like I said… If I’m wrong, leave a constructive comment)

Within science fiction (the kind where science matters to the story) we occasionally find a huge flaw called “pure science”. Somewhere, someone (I blame Star Trek) came up with the idea that scientists will “do” science for the pure and sacred sake of science, without all those silly little human traits, factors, and motives. It’s a great Utopian idea. But, like the rest of Utopia is doesn’t exist.

How could “pure science” exist? In some ways it would be nice. We could have unbiased information to work from. But, science doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There has to be some living being to “do” the science. And, since we don’t have super intelligent aliens to do it for us, that means humans are involved.

Coming from a psychology background and writing character driven fiction, in my world the characters have reasons for what they do. The “pure science” scientist is hiding from something. The scientist wanting to cure cancer “for the good of mankind” has seen a loved one die from cancer and never wants to see it again (so he/she sees it over and over while trying to cure cancer…)

Science takes time, effort, and money. People don’t invest any of those if there’s no return on investment. Companies (and companies pay for a lot of the research in real life…) don’t pay for science for science’ sake, they want something out of it.

People seek after scientific advances for a purpose.

If you argue they’re doing it for curiosity… I say, great but where’d they get the money and equipment?

If you say they’re doing it for a purpose (to win a war, cure a disease, rescue their beloved)… I’ll buy that.

If you suggest they’re doing it to see someone naked… Yeah… I’ve got to buy that one too (you’re reading this on the internet… click on enough links and you’ll find your way to porn whether you want to or not…)

The one argument I won’t buy is that scientist are conducting research and making discoveries for no benefit to themselves or someone they care about. The benefits may only be psychological/spiritual but the exist; that’s just basic human nature.

Humans and human desires are the driving forces behind human science and technology. Anyone claiming their science is ‘pure’ and untainted by human desires and motives is hiding his/her motives, or unaware of them (making her/him kind of clueless…). Understanding the human drives behind the science makes our science fiction better and more accurate (even if the underlying reasons never make it onto the finished page or into the final cut of our movie…)

It might be interesting to see ‘pure’ science, but I doubt I ever will. In reality the humans keep getting in the way.

Well, those are my thoughts dear reader. What do you think?

Think on it. Leave a comment if you’re so inclined. And, I’ll see you next post.

The 1 ½ pass pass rides again!

Well dear reader, this week I started on a dangerous task. I’m applying new techniques to old work. Recently I submitted my novel Unintended Consequences to a larger publisher. Part of my pitch was that Johnson Farm, my first novel, would be pulled, re-tuned, and updated. The idea is the entire double series will come out under one label.

Johnson farm was a first novel. It came out before I discovered the 1 ½ pass editing technique . It’s a little dated. And, I’ve learned a thing or two since I wrote it. Now, I’m re-editing and rewriting with new techniques and understanding. It will make the book better, but there are real challenges.

What challenges?

Well… I knew there would be updates for some real-world events and changes, and a few things that better tie in with Unintended Consequences and its sequel The Calm Inside the Storm.

I did not expect that I will be doing major rework on my ‘funeral’ chapter. I thought it was the most solid one in the book, and it was one of the first finished. But, I’m finding I may just have been afraid to cut into my ‘sacred cow’.

I definitely didn’t think I would rewrite the post log. When I did my initial work on Johnson Farm’s sequel Going Home the Hard Way I didn’t think the ending of Johnson Farm was a problem. I also didn’t know I would do a ‘side series’ that covered the time span in more detail.

I found those challenges reading the first 40 pages. Since then… I’m planning to split a major chapter and revise each half to better reflect themes in the book and create better tone for each piece. And, I still have the conjunction of Johnson Farm and The Calm Inside the Storm ahead of me (Monday will be fun! In a pass the caffeine and hide the sidearms kind of way…).

Next week I’ll start re-editing the old stuff while first editing the new stuff in parallel. This is where the 1 ½ pass technique will really help. It’s the point where things become really complicated.

Better techniques, better results

Johnson Farm existed before the 1 ½ pass technique entered my life. Editing the first edition would have been faster with the new technique (a lot faster…). Each pass would have taken longer, but I wouldn’t have had to do as many passes. I would have been able to work on big picture issues that crossed the whole book much sooner, because I would find them, think about them, and create better solutions all in one pass rather than taking two or three go-rounds to get them through my thick head. I could have skipped some intermediate steps that didn’t work because I could see the entire project better.

And the benefits keep rolling… Now that I will be editing the old, simple, one perspective most of the way story alongside a second text, the 1 ½ pass method helps because I need to do more meta thinking between the books and within each book. It’s hard to do that when you only work on one book at a time.

The coordination between books will make editing better and faster. It also boosts my confidence for the next step… When I resume work on Going Home the Hard Way while I’m doing the initial writing of the final book of the Unintended Consequences trilogy.

Learning new things, developing new techniques, helps us to do more, create better products, and do things we couldn’t have done before. It can be scary to open old wounds . But, sometimes coming back with new techniques helps us turn mediocre old stuff into something great.

Editing takes work and patience. Good writing takes effort and learning (not just knowledge but learning…)

It’s difficult dear reader. But, I’m doing it. And, so can you!

That’s it for this one. Good luck in your writing, and… I’ll see you next post.

The short (and the long) of it…

Years ago a writer I really respect told me I should start with short stories before I go to long fiction, that there was nothing I could learn in long fiction that couldn’t be learned in a short story. Well, over the years I’ve found that there are a few things about long fiction that are hard to learn in a short story, and a few things about short stories you can’t learn in long fiction…

Long fiction is something I love, there are lots of things you can do with it. But, a 50,000-word story doesn’t teach you how to get to the point, or how to have a complete story arc in two pages. A 50,000-word story is about as helpful in learning to write efficiently, and short, as running marathons is for learning how to sprint.

On the other hand, a two-page short piece will never teach you how to tell the long story. You can’t practice what to do on page 158 if you end on page two; that’s like thinking you’re ready for the marathon because you sprinted twice. Sure, you can think of chapters as individual stories or story arcs (and in some ways you should). But, in novel the stuff that happened in chapter two matters in Chapter 14. The magic reset button isn’t something to press between chapters (if you press it at all!).

Even larger short stories, even the big 20-30 pagers, don’t have room for the cast of characters a novel needs. You just don’t have space for all of those characters in the shorter story. But your long story might have several of them in different places doing different things and expect all those lines to link up somewhere around page 250 (or 350, or 475, or…).

Long and short stories have different requirements and are useful for different things. You may not fully understand the differences until you’ve finished a few (or at least one) of each. That said, there are some valid reasons for starting with short stories (or doing short stories if you’re struggling with that first big story…).

There are many things in common between the story types. You (usually) need characters, settings, a plot, and the other ‘usual’ pieces of a story (you just have more space to play with them in the larger story (and (usually) more characters and locations to worry about)). Working on short stories allows you to practice working on these before you try to assemble the 50,000-piece set.

Short stories also have the advantage of being shorter to write (again usually). It’s just less work to write 2,500 words than it is to write 50,000. This means it’s easier to finish the whole writing process in a relatively short time. You will probably go through the whole process in less time than it would take to write a 50,000-word first draft. And, that overview of the whole process is helpful in finishing that big story (trust me, you can get lost in there if you don’t know where you’re going).

Short stories also make a great ‘experimental space’. In Statistics we learn about a t-test, a simple two group test that allows you to determine if there is a difference between groups. Short stories are like t-tests. They don’t handle the big complicated things very well, but as a ‘quick and dirty’ test for a writing technique or a character interaction they work pretty well. Short stories can be helpful in developing the characters, places and things you need for your big story. In model building/construction terms short stories can be a way of ‘dry fitting’ parts before you get into the more complicated work.

I think my teacher of years ago was wrong, there are things you can learn in long fiction that you can’t in a short story. But, that doesn’t mean that we should abandon the short story. Our short stories are useful for practicing a lot of things we need in our bigger stories. They give us a relatively cheap and easy place to experiment. They can serve as parts and models in the big picture. They give us ‘taster’ pieces we can hand out, put in our blogs, and enter contests with, without having to do the work necessary on that one big piece.

And, not every idea needs 50,000 words! There are some stories that just don’t need, and shouldn’t have, that much of our time.

Ultimately, I think we should write both long and short fiction. And, it’s probably worth starting with short stuff (maybe build a 1/700 scale kit before trying to build a full-scale, working aircraft carrier….).

That’s my thoughts. What do you say? If you disagree (or agree!) with me, leave a comment.

Either way, I’ll see you next post.

The words will come

Shortly before I wrote this:

  • I hadn’t had a decent writing session all week
  • My schedule had been thrown off all week (first week of school, doctors’ appointments, my wife needed my help…)
  • My blood sugar was about 50 points high
  • I had a headache
  • The music in the restaurant didn’t work for me
  • There were kids screaming
  • The wierdo across the way was straight up glaring at me…

 

In other words… not a lot of writing was getting done. I mean not a word of writing, not until I took charge of myself.

I did what I could. I drank some (diet) soda. I took some deep breaths. I prayed. I got my mind together.

And then, the words flowed.

  • My schedule was still off
  • My blood sugar was still too high
  • I still had a headache (but the caffeine and stress reduction helped)

But, a different song came on. The kids found their way back to the play area. And, the wierdo found someone else to be mad at when I refused to take the bait.

The words flowed. Within minutes I wrote more than I had all week. And, I had ideas for what to write next.

Writing and writing…

There’s writing and then there’s writing…

  • There’s writing you do because you have to
  • There’s writing you do because you should
  • There’s writing you do because you want to
  • There’s writing you do because you can’t stop yourself (when you find this one, you’re a real writer and on your way to being a serious author…)
  • There’s writing that’s two or more of the above combined.

The secret to getting any writing done is to put yourself in the mental space to write. You need to put yourself into a good physical space too. You need to have your supplies. You need to do your research. But, being in the mental space to write, getting past your fears, concerns and hang-ups and into a mental place where the words will flow is something you have to learn if you want to write.

Putting yourself in the mental space to write is a management thing. It’s a self-mastery thing. You need to develop skills to deal with outside people and things, and the determination and self-control to put you into the place to write.

Sometimes we all need to break out the (hopefully metaphorical) battering ram and break down the barriers that are keeping the words from flowing. The problem may be one big thing or lots of little things working in concert. Your problems might not be my problems (or maybe they are!). But, one way or another we have to deal with them if we want to write.

That’s what this series is about dear reader. It’s a conversation (I’d love to hear from you!) about making the words flow. It’s about putting body and mind in a place to write.

There are lots of things we can talk about and not nearly enough time to cover them all in one post. So, let’s start with something simple.

Priming the pump

One of the more annoying kinds of writer’s block is fear of the blank page. This one occasionally hits even those of us with lots of words under our belts. And, it’s one you can cope with.

If you’re writing long hand (like I do) pick up your pen (pencil, crayon, whatever…) and move your hand to the top right corner of the page and write the number ONE (1) in the corner (and circle it if you want…).

If you’re writing electronically type a 1 on the first line, then hit return (or just turn on page numbers…)

Good news, your page isn’t blank anymore!

There’s still more to do. It’s time to put words on the page.

If you’re having trouble writing about what you think you’re supposed to be writing about, give yourself permission to ‘stream of consciousness’ write.

Write what’s on your mind. If you trust the process, your writing will probably “find center” and (after editing) you’ll have a written something that you can use.

Even if your something isn’t a sellable piece, you have proven to yourself that you can create a stream of words from your mind to the page. You may have written something that will help you learn and understand. You may even have created something that other people will want to read, after you clean it up a bit.

Sometimes you really need to write on a specific topic. In those cases ‘stream of consciousness’ may not be the right technique. Here we need to delve into our self-mastery toolbox and move the stream. But that, dear reader, is another post.

We all have hard days. We all have times where it feels like the words aren’t coming. But, if we do our part, they will.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Good luck with your words, and… I’ll see you next post!

Bounce back!

As writers we’re often working on one or more big projects: a first draft of a book, editing a manuscript into a book, launching a book, working on another first draft for a book… One thing we don’t seem to talk about is what to do in the time between those big projects.

Myself, I usually want to roll straight into the next one, finish what I’m working on and roll into the next big thing. Occasionally I even try to do that, even though I know it’s a mistake.

We writers have lots of reasons for the stuff we work on, and we put a lot of resources (physical, mental, time, and financial) into those big projects. We might want to plow straight into that next big thing, but there are reasons to give it a little time and space.

The ‘managery stuff’ in-between

Chances are there are some little things that need to be handled between projects. It’s a good idea to take some time to make sure the bills are paid; put away the notes, pieces, and what-evers from that last project (you’ll need some space for the next one); shovel out those coffee cups/soda cans/water bottles that seem to accumulate (and then go get new ones!); pick up the other physical supplies you need; communicate with people (you know… your agent, your spouse (maybe even your kids), that contractor who still hasn’t fixed that leak…).

There are lots of little things that need to be done. If you take time between projects to make sure they’re taken care of it helps cut down on nasty surprises while you’re working on the next one.

Resupply missions…

I already mentioned getting more soda/coffee/whatever and more office supplies, but you have other resources and reserves that need to be restocked.

Catch up on some sleep.

Read a book. (And not one you’re using for research…)

Maybe you should get a little exercise and sunlight…

We have physical (as in body) and mental resources that need to be recharge from time to time. As much as we might not want to admit it; some exercise, a couple of nights sleep, a little non-work social interaction, and/or some other physical and mental activities away from the writing desk will help us get ready for that next big push.

You don’t want to be away for too long (your skills can atrophy with non-use) but running from big project to big project without rest can be just as damaging (and worse, you could be underperforming and be too exhausted to realize it…).

Give yourself a little time to recover. To borrow from (and edit for language) the advice of an old Staff Sargent, “Grab a drink, have some fun, get in trouble somewhere else for a while!”

Plan and prepare

Chances are you learned something in that last big project. Take a little time to record and understand what you learned. And while you’re at it, put together some plans and figure out what you need for that next big push.

Are there people you need to talk to?

Is there research you need to do (that you know about)?

Does the new project differ from the last one in ways that change your approach to the project (again, any you know about…)?

Take some time at the end of the last project to make sure things are in place before you start the next one. You know more about the process and about yourself than you did when you started the last one. Use that information to help you in the gear-up process for the next one

Whatever you do, don’t give up!

Whatever you do, come back for the next one dear reader. Don’t give up. Don’t surrender. Take your time between projects to analyze what you’ve learned, recharge your resources, get things in place for the next push, and maybe even spend a little time with your loved ones (remember them?); then, come back and get started on that next big project.

If you’re a writer, you’re doing this at least in part out of love. You won’t be happy if you don’t.

That’s it for this one dear reader. If you’re still climbing that mountain good luck in the climb. If you’ve finished the climb grab a little rest. And, I’ll see you next post!

First drafts, and the mountains to follow…

Well dear reader, Unintended Consequences has been submitted. It’s in the hands of editors other than me…

In the beginning, writing a whole book, a whole 50-60 thousand word or more novel or even a shorter “how to” book, feels daunting. But, once you get the first draft done you realize (at least if you’re creating a readable book you realize) there’s an even bigger mountain beyond. It’s called editing.

Then, somewhere up the side of Mount Edit, we realize there are two more mountains to cross, submission and marketing.

Mount Submission is one of those that doesn’t seem scary until you get up close and realize that first timers don’t know the paths yet. So, first timers do a lot more free-climbing than hiking. And then, you find out you have to climb down the mountain and climb back up Mount Edit from the other side, because you left your gear up on the summit.

And, while you’re climbing Mt Edit for the second time, you also need to be climbing Mt Marketing (while the guy’s on top of Mt Submission lecture you on the reality that you should have started up Mt Marketing much sooner).

If Mt Submission surprises first timers, Mt Marketing should terrify them. It’s not insurmountable, but Mt Marketing requires your whole writer skill set plus another, the marketing skill set. And, the guys on Mt Submission, the ones ‘everybody’ thinks will tackle Mt Marketing for you, usually aren’t as much help as you wanted them to be.

The mountain is climbable, but (Gasp!) you’re going to have to do, or pay for, a lot of the work yourself (and if you didn’t know that before you got to Mt Submission, you’re already behind the eight-ball).

Yes dear reader, at the very beginning, that first draft looks like a high and scary mountain. But, it’s just the foothill.

But, the good news is: with a little work, study, and maybe a little help, you can do it.

The next question is: if it’s so much work, why do we do it?

There are lots of answers to that and we’ve talked about some of them before {link} I think there are at least as many reasons as there are writers. Among them: we get to tell a new story. We get to be the first audience for a new story, shape it to perfection, and then share it with the world. We might just make some money for our efforts (if we’re good, smart, and lucky). Mostly (I think) those of us who succeed do it because we love it; because we feel a compulsion to do it; because we can’t imagine ourselves doing anything else.

The good news is, if you’re willing to do the work, you can do it.

Unintended Consequences is at the publisher right now. My team is getting ready for that second climb up Mt Edit, and the climb up Mt Marketing is happening. It can be done. I know because I’m doing it.

And you can do it too.

Well dear reader, if you’re a writer, keep writing (and editing) and, I’ll see you next post.

Don’t give up…

Yep, it’s been a couple weeks. But, I’m still alive.

Sometimes you want to work, but life has other plans. Sometimes you just can’t put off that scary step any longer (at least not if you want to finish the project). Sometimes you find someone or something isn’t what you thought, and you have to change plans.

Yes, sometimes it’s an uphill fight.

Sometimes it’s an uphill fight featuring 100 mph winds, precision guided ball lightning, and terrestrial laser sharks.

But, if the project is worthy, don’t give up.

All success comes at a cost. At a minimum, you could have done something else instead. In the middle range, that ‘easy’ success results from learning and practice. And then, there are the successes that come only with great personal cost.

Writing and other creative activities are definitely not at the easy end of the spectrum dear reader.

So, why do we do it? Well, here are a few of my answers, feel free to add your own…

  1. Because we love it.
  2. Because acts of creation rank among the most God-like things a human can do.
  3. Because anything else that’s worth doing will also be a struggle. So, we might as well work on the one in front of us.

You might have to put things on hold.

You might have to hire a little help.

You might have to learn a little more.

But, don’t give up dear reader. If it’s worth doing, don’t give up.

Next week (I think) we’ll be talking about office supplies and gearing up for NANOWRIMO…

Don’t give up dear reader. And, I’ll see you next post…

It’s the result that matters

Recently I overheard a debate between a group of firearms enthusiasts. As a group they were ranging from vehement to butt hurt about their preferred theory of aiming over iron sights, and that there is more than one opinion on the issue. For me, the whole thing was resolved by one statement, “It isn’t the technique that matters, it’s the result.”

That statement is true.

It’s true about a lot of things. It doesn’t matter if you look down the sights with one eye open or two if you’re not hitting the target. In the same way it doesn’t matter if you’re first draft is typed, handwritten, or spoken into a recorder. The important part is you produce a story or article that fulfills your objectives in writing.

There are lots of techniques out there, and lots of people that will take your money and time while promising to teach you ‘the’ secret.

But, the only techniques that matter are the ones that help you get your words on the page and the ones that reach your audience.

All the other techniques, all that other stuff out there, is just stuff. It’s not practically relevant for what you’re seeking to accomplish.

The thing is… You have to find out what works for you and your audience. And, that means you have to do the work. Try different things until you figure out what works. No matter who you are, there will be some research and learning involved in becoming a proficient writer. There will be something you have to figure out in telling your story and reaching your audience.

There is no point in getting hung up on what ‘they’ tell you is the right way. There is also no point in sticking with something that isn’t working. If what you’re doing works keep doing it, and tune up the parts that aren’t working so well.

If what you’re doing isn’t working, find another solution. It doesn’t matter if your old teacher said what you’re doing is the right way. If it doesn’t work it doesn’t work, and you need to find something that does.

If what you’re doing is working, who cares about what ‘they’ say (unless they are your main audience…). History is littered with books, movies, and songs that critics said were garbage, but their audiences loved them!

What matters is what works for you. Anything else is a bunch of guys arguing about having one or two eyes open while shooting instead of proving they can shoot a target.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Find what works and do it, and I’ll see you next post!

Things are not all right… And, that’s alright!

As I write, as I tell the story of characters dear to me, it is sometimes hard to put those characters in difficult situations. It’s hard to see our character’s struggle and make hard choices. But, we have to do it. The story won’t good, it won’t be compelling, if we don’t.

A writer who really loves a character, feels for him or her, might not want to see that character in a hard place. Readers that love a character might want to look away and not see that character a tough spot either. But, the thing is… that’s exactly what the reader comes to see, a great character overcoming hard challenges and making gut-wrenching decisions.

And, your reader doesn’t get to read that stuff unless you write that stuff.

In some ways being a writer is like being a parent. We know our characters will make bad decisions, make mistakes, and end up in places we don’t want them to go. We have to let them go there, and we have to be working on a plan to get them back out (if getting them out is the best choice…).

There’s an old maxim that you have to suffer to write. It’s true, you have to have lived, at least enough to imagine being in a rough place convincingly. And then, you have to ‘ride along’ with your hero or heroine as she/he goes through the pitfalls of the story you’re creating.

It’s hard. It really is. But, if you want compelling, if you want a story people will read, you have to gut it out and go there. It’s part of success and part of the job description.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Some of you might be asking “how do I do that?” It’s a worthy question. It’s also a question that depends on who you are and what you’re writing. If you want me to give my answer, or if you have suggestions of your own, leave a comment. And, I’ll see you next post.