Science Fiction isn’t about Science.

I was talking with John and my in-laws about “Lucy” yesterday. None of us had seen it and John doesn’t want to because the fundamental premise of the science fiction is painfully wrong. Here’s the trailer:

The premise seems to be that some sort of trauma triggers this woman to be able to use a rapidly increasing percentage of her brain, which gives her crazy superpowers, because, dontcha know, normal humans only use about 10 percent of their brains. I understand John’s objection: that 10 percent thing is complete and utter nonsense, nonsense which is easily dispelled by reputable sources if you take 0.35 seconds to Google it.

But the myth persists and has enough appeal for a movie founded on it to bring in big names like Morgan Freeman and Scarlett Johannson. Why?

Let’s wind the clock back to the mid to late 1800s. Meet Jules Verne. He has been hailed as one of the founders of modern science fiction and admired as a futuristic prophet, many inventors crediting him for inspiring their work, including submarines and helicopters. As a kid dreaming of being a science fiction writer, I would daydream about what magical invention I might concoct that would inspired some young scientist to change the face of technology as we understand it.

As a practicing writer, however, I’ve discovered something about science fiction and the process of a responsible writer: research is a pain in the ass.

Jules Verne did his research, and it made his work great. He kept up with the scientific advances of the day and tried to extrapolate what would come next. And because the world was really only just starting to have enough science for specialization to be a thing, it was possible to gain a pretty thorough picture of a wide variety of fields without yourself being a scientist working in that field.

Let’s talk about the singularity for a moment. Personally, I think Ray Kurzweil and his ilk are guilty of bad science, bad math, and generally warping reality to fit their cockamamie dream of becoming robots instead of dying. But underlying their assurances that we will all be uploaded to the cloud within the next few decades (snort) is a notion that is useful for the purposes of considering the state of science fiction: exponential growth.

Do a quick image search on world population growth. See the curve that dominates the charts? That’s what exponential growth looks like. Now do the same search for growth of computing power. Pretty similar, although I would be wary of charts that extrapolate into the future–they make the curve look much nicer. The basic idea with exponential growth is that the larger X gets, the faster it multiplies, and I think the same principle can be reasonably applied to science thus: the more we know and the more people who have access to resources to act on that knowledge, the faster we will discover new things.

What this means for science fiction is that even if I can read an article in the latest quantum mechanics journal about a new discovery that might have implication Z, by the time I write a story about it and get it out into the world, Z may very well have been disproved or replaced with an updated notion and if the technology is carrying the story, I will have egg all the hell over my face. And that’s a best-case scenario. In actuality, I’m not even really capable of going that far: the edges of research are so wildly specialized that I can’t actually read the latest articles on quantum mechanics because I’m at least ten years of education short of having the math chops to grok anything more than the abstract and discussion…and I can often only get that much if the author is a particularly lucid writer. I have to rely heavily on second-hand interpretations of the math, which creates its own minefield of possibilities for Getting the Science Wrong.

So how do we write science fiction if the future is too close to comfortably predict, and if the coolest science is incredibly difficult to understand?

The blockbuster nature of “Lucy,” with its egregious crimes against plausibility, points to a question that I think science fiction writers need to ask. What draws the audience in? Because clearly, it ain’t good science.

The science fiction that I have generally found to be the most compelling is the stuff that says, “Let’s pretend scenario Y is true. Let’s throw this set of humans into the plot and watch how they react.” I think science fiction shines the brightest when, instead of being hung up on shiny toys, it asks interesting questions about human nature, psychology, and posits other possible ways of being. In that case, the popularity of “Lucy” makes perfect sense: of course it’s appealing to imagine that we all have potential superpowers locked away in our skulls, ready to be awakened by a little trauma. Of course it’s fascinating to imagine how the world would react if this were discovered to be true and we had no way of predicting how powerful one individual might become if that potential were unlocked.

The best of the genre, in my mind, is more and more about accepting a given “what if” as true, no matter how implausible, and thinking through the human consequences that will result from that set of circumstances. Which means, in turn, that writers who are up to their elbows in history and the study of human nature may end up praised by future generations not for their foresight of being able to travel quickly around the world, but for their discovery of elegant or useful approaches to problems like preserving cultural identity while easing the transition away from harmful practices within a specific cultural heritage (which is another fascinating conversation for another day). What is good culture building if not a sort of qualitative metanalysis of human behavior?

It’s not the easiest mental transition for me to make, reading a lot more history/philosophy/psychology and a little less of the MIT Review. I am, however, comforted by the knowledge that if my proposition is correct, I can at least get the really cool science wrong and it won’t matter much because only maybe a dozen people out of 9 billion will have good reason to be grumpy at me. :)

The Coyote’s Karma

Some couples disagree about religion or money or who has to do what chores or which team sportses the best. John and I, however, can’t come to terms with one another over robots, zombies, and now, apparently Wile E. Coyote. Before we get into the debate, let’s do a quick jaunt down memory lane, shall we?

It began innocently enough. I had commented on the fact that John’s Landmark avatar was about to be crushed by a giant box (not really, there are no physics, but there was a giant shadow over him), which made John chuckle and sigh that he had always felt bad for Wile E. Coyote.

Me: Wait…you were cheering for Wile E. Coyote? He’s the bad guy!
John: No, he’s not. He’s the clever one.
Me: *Raises eyebrow* He wants to eat the roadrunner. They show him licking his lips and leering.
John: He’s the one whose perspective they always tell the story from, the one you seeing trying new things, looking for a clever solution to the problem.
Me: That doesn’t make him a protagonist. At best, he’s an anti-hero.
John: He’s an engineer. I always loved how he would come up with some new way to try to catch the roadrunner. The cartoons were never that satisfying, though–I was always sad that he never managed to catch the roadrunner.
Me: Seriously? I’ve always loved the karmic justice. He always gets squished by his own plans backfiring. That’s why it’s funny: in his desire to hurt the roadrunner, he only ends up hurting himself.
John: But he’s hungry! It’s the circle of life.
Me: He and the roadrunner exhibit equal amounts of self-awareness, but the roadrunner is just doing his own thing. The coyote can buy things from mail-order catalogues–I’m pretty sure he doesn’t need to kill the roadrunner to get a decent meal.

This somehow devolved into a (not actually then researched) conversation about whether or not the cartoon could have been a commentary on the Cold War, John’s theory being that the slipshod engineering of the coyote could be poking fun at Russia’s notoriously sloppy space program during the fifties. He told me about the death of Vladimir Komarov, the colorful version that includes him being forced to pilot a ship that was known to be unsafe on pain of death and cursing the Kremlin as he died.

Me: So you’re saying that Wile E. Coyote is Russia during the Cold War and that you’re cheering for him?
John:  …

A little (very little) research tells a very different, less political, more existential tale of the adult themes behind the cartoon, but John still clings to his love for the cleverness of the coyote, and I’m left wondering how many other kids watched that cartoon and cheered not for the joyful, come-what-may roadrunner, but for the ultimate victory of the embodiment of hunger itself. I find myself hoping that, at least in this instance, I’m not the one with the atypical perspective on the situation…

Postage Stamp Worlds

In the course of having one of my knitting designs reviewed by a technical editor recently, I discovered that I knit wrong. Literally: my basic knit stitch is wrong, which means that everything I do has a gauge that is nigh impossible to duplicate with a normal knit stitch. The functional difference of how you end up doing what I’ve been doing versus knitting correctly is tiny. Minute. Miniscule. And apparently critical.

As I was telling this story to some friends over lunch last week, one of them mused that knitting is a postage-stamp world. Which is to say, if you look at it from a distance, it doesn’t look like much, but when you get up close, the level of detail is incredible and you can fall right through into a world with far more depth than you realized. I love that concept and I think it’s widely applicable. Most specialized labor, hobbies, artisan work, whatever, is made up of these postage stamp worlds, and recognizing that is probably the first step to developing a genuine interest in and respect for the work that other people do.

The concept of postage stamp worlds also seems like a darned good construct to keep in mind if you’re about to embark on learning something new, especially in the information age. This is a bit ironic, perhaps, but I think the information age is actually not all that fabulous for passing on expert knowledge…yet. Most beginning internet learning is happening at that flat, distance level with no help from Mary Poppins to pop the artwork into life (or vice versa). Sure, I can pull up Youtube videos and download ebooks and PDFS and even order books from my library without leaving my dining room table, and all of these things are valuable learning tools. This is how I learned to knit. Which I did completely wrong.

My point is that just because you can kajigger something to do more or less what you want it to do doesn’t mean that there isn’t a standard or more efficient way to do that thing. And sometimes the autodidactic among us end up disguising our ignorance of the underlying principles when we find those Frankensteinian workarounds, only to have that ignorance backfire on us in hilarious and stress-inducing minor catastrophes when we try to do more advanced work. Learning from an expert in person tends to call attention to such discrepancies pretty quickly, but learning from experts in a context where they have the ability to see our work, note a misunderstanding, and put us back on the path to understanding a core concept of their particular postage stamp is not an experience that is characteristic of learning a new thing from the internet.

Again: yet. I suspect that we can both make the internet a better learning environment and become better internet learners, and to that end, I’m thinking about these questions:

  • What questions should you ask when learning something new?
  • Are there general guidelines we can recommend for teachers interested in creating static lessons for beginners?
  • How do we best help n00bs find experts?
  • How do you determine that a teacher is, in fact, an expert, rather than a hack who knows a few things more than you?
  • What is the best technology for connecting teachers and students working together remotely?

I have a few thoughts about the first two after this experience, so…more on that later. The latter three questions aren’t really my forte, though. Thoughts?

 

My Friend, the Doctor

No, not THE Doctor. Not this time. My memory of children’s movies (especially musicals) from the ’60s and ’70s is, perhaps, a little unusual given the fact that I was born in the mid-80s. Hands up, all ye who can sing even a few lines of The Gnome-Mobile. No takers?

Yeah, I thought not. (Sisters and St. G cousins, y’all don’t count.)

My grandparents had an excellent collection in pristine condition, and visits to their house included frequent screenings of The Gnome-Mobile, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Mary Poppins, Bedknobs & Broomsticks, Willky Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and, my personal favorite, the 1967 Rex Harrison Doctor Dolittle.

I don’t remember the last time I had my hands on a copy, but I’m fairly certain it was college or earlier, so you can imagine I was nostalgically delighted to see it pop up on Netflix recently. When I queued it up with a cautious giddiness, I expected to be let down by the movie’s inability to hold up to expectations over time, or by a conflict in my adult ethical perspectives. You know, the sort of thing that kills our love of more than half of the movies we adored as kids? But from the moment the charming artwork played along with the overture in the opening credits, I was a kid sitting beside my sisters and grandfather in the basement of my grandparents’ old house in Waltham, the one the sold when I was six or seven.

I’ve never managed to get through the more recent Edie Murphy iteration of Doctor Dolittle, and the reason for that is apparent from the start of the movie. Murphy’s Doctor starts hearing the animals as if by magic and struggles to deal with it (as I recall…I honestly couldn’t stomach that stinkfest the last time I tried). Harrison’s Doctor, however, is something of a brilliant sociopathic Sherlock Holmes / House sort whose specialty happens to be animal linguistics and physiology. He chooses to work with animals because he finds them fun and delightful, while humans bore and distress him. His ability to speak with them is not some campy, improbable accident: it is a scholarly labor driven by a deep compassion for all living things…except for humans.

I love one particular moment in the movie where this constrast is demonstrated clearly. All throughout the movie, Dolittle speaks to animals whose language he hasn’t mastered in English, assuming that they understand him. I would chalk this up to convenient movie mechanics with a hint of Empiricism, except for the moment on Star Island where he first introduces himself to the leader of the natives who have imprisoned his ragged band. Instead of using standard English, he pulls out this “Me Doctor, you savage” nonsense. The reasons I am choosing to interpret this as an internal assumption that humans are stupid rather than a racist approach are (1) D.D.’s already eloquently established that humans are ignorantly horrible and (2) he immediately apologizes when the leader introduces himself in perfect English and proceeds to note that the Star Island community is structured around language and learning.

I’m not quite sure what this says about the writers and their perspectives on race and the problematic cultural narrative of the noble savage, but the more time I spend thinking about it, the more willing I am to just give them this interaction as a win that aptly illustrate’s Dolittle’s perspective.

Beyond the highly intelligent misanthropy that leads Dolittle to be a scholar of animals, the movie is just so darn quirky. It’s basically My Fair Lady meets The Odyssey meets The Life Aquatic meets the Voyage of the S.S. Beagle. Utterly glorious. For those of you who haven’t seen it and who doubt that it merits two and a half hours of your time (does one need to post spoilers warnings for films that are over half a century old?):

  • D.D. abandons life as a doctor for the landed gentry of England because they are cruel, self-involved, and stupid. His parrot sees his love of animals and suggests he become a vet, offering to teach him their languages. (“I speak over two thousand languages, including Dodo and Unicorn….I had a classical education.”) He devotes himself with great joy and enthusiasm to this task, with the consequence that he becomes poor (relatively speaking) and completely cut off from all human company, save that of an alcoholic Irish fishmonger with a touch of the Blarney.
  • In order to finance a search for the Giant Pink Sea Snail, a “Red Indian” (Tibetan) friend sends D.D. a two-headed llama thing called a pushmi-pullyu, so naturally, D.D., the fishmonger, and an 11-year-old boy called Stubbins run away to join the circus. In this routinely-exploitative-of-animals environment, D.D. is moved by the plight of a seal pining for her husband, and so helps her escape, which involves dressing her up in stolen clothing and throwing her off a cliff, though not before clasping her in his arms and singing her a love song and sighing, “If only you weren’t a seal…”
  • For this act of throwing what, at a distance, looks like a woman off a cliff, D.D. is brought up on murder charges, is acquitted on the basis of the fact that the cloak is verified as stolen, but is then sentenced to an insane asylum for a conversation with the magistrate’s dog (to prove he can, in fact, speak with animals), which reveals said magistrate to be a glutton. His parrot-tutor orchestrates an escape after the fishmonger and boy fail to come up with a decent idea, and all three set off on their sea voyage, accompanied by the stowaway niece of the aforementioned magistrate.
  • They set sail for a migratory island, a destination chosen by sticking a pin in an atlas, talk to many sea creatures along the way, and finally reach their destination with the aid of a storm that destroys their ship and a dolphin who understands Indiana Jones-like attachments to hats (in this instance, a top hat).
  • The storm has blown the island off course, causing the local wildlife to develop colds, which D.D. & co. deal with magnificently. Their encounters with the local folk (who are very educated due to the number of shipwrecked books they’ve recovered, but also very superstitious) teeter between godhood and death by torture, and eventually lands on the godhood side when the whale pushing the island back on course pushes them all the way back to the place where the island originally fell off the African coast.
  • The Great Pink Snail (which I like to think of as the Questing Beast for this movie) shows up on the shore with, inexplicably, the same cold that had plagued the animals on the island. D.D. cures him, for which favor the snail is willing to bring the company back to Puddleby. (“He must be the only snail on Earth with four bedrooms.”)
  • D.D. remains behind, to the sorrow of all, because he is an escaped convict in England. When news reaches him that all of the animals in England are on strike because of his sentence and the local magistrate is therefore begging to have him back, he builds a saddle for a giant lunar moth (“needs to compensate for a steep rate of incline”) and flies back home after a quick jaunt to the moon.

This movie is on the absolute best kind of crack. And in between the cracks, it makes an eloquent argument for humanity to exercise more compassion, especially to animals. It also makes a surprisingly decent, for 1967, attempt at feminism. There’s only one relevant human female, her songs are all complete crap, and she’s largely a trumped-up pivot for an ill-advised attempt to stuff a half-cocked love triangle into a story that is already overfull, BUT… (1) She has her own motivations which do not center around finding a man and (2) They have an overt conversation about gender which, though subtle and mostly squished into a montage, manages both to convey that feminism is about women being treated as competent, complete humans and to gently mock men for forcing women into the impossibly hard role of carrying a double workload before allowing them access to equal respect. The movie also manages to touch on the balance of the culture of empire vs. native culture and the question of education vs. superstition, and all in a light-handed, enchanting way that still raises interesting questions and offers perspectives without trying to achieve resolution, all without departing from quick-witted repartee and a great kindness of spirit.

In short: Doctor Dolittle is a helluva movie. And while you are adding it to your Netflix queue, I shall be pulling out my battered Hugh Lofting collection to see how the movie compares with the books. And in the meantime, because I love all my Doctors and this mashup is unbearably perfect, I shall leave you with this:

Vocal Fry and the Language of the Oppressed

A respected, strongly feminist female friend of mine shared this study the other day. It’s about the use of vocal fry by young women and how it impacts their career potentials. Quick and dirty: using the low, creaky voice known as vocal fry is bad for business.

What this says to me, as someone with a B.A. in psycholinguistics and an Ed.M. in Language & Literacy Education, is not that vocal fry is inherently bad, but rather, that it is not seen as being part of the language of power. What I’m seeing in the media, however, is a broad-spectrum condemnation of the practice as being somehow “less than” normal speech. Watching a few videos and skimming headlines after googling vocal fry, this is some of what you get:

“The Vocal Fry Epidemic”

Is vocal fry hurting women’s job prospects?

“animal like” and “Women’s affectation”

‘Vocal Fry’ Creeping into U.S. Speech Patterns

America’s young women are running out of oxygen.

So: a trend that a certain class of young women is (most likely subconsciously) picking up as a marker that connects them to their peers is a creeping epidemic with animal-like characteristics that makes them sound oxygen-deprived (code for brain-dead?). This is what the media thinks of vocal fry? No wonder it’s hard on women’s job prospects.

But let’s please, for three minutes, take a single step back and remember Paulo Freire and bell hooks. To grossly simplify and pull out the most basic of the ideas that emerged from some of their writings for me:

  • A culture of power exists. If you don’t know how to wield it, you’re going to struggle.
  • If you are part of a culture that is not the culture of power (being black, being a woman, being a poor minority, being gay, etc.), your non-power culture is undoubtedly important to your identity.
  • You have three choices: (1) Give up your identity in order to pass in the culture of power. (2) Struggle. (3) Learn to codeswitch.

While I was studying for my masters, the consensus among educators seemed to be that when you’re teaching minority kids and kids for whom English is a foreign language, teaching them to codeswitch effectively without feeling shame for their own language and culture is the best thing you can do for them. So I’d like to know why on Earth we’re treating vocal fry (and similarly, uptalk) as something other than the non-white-male-power-culture-indicator that it seems to be?

Two key points about speech patterns:

  1. They tend to be picked up and developed subconsciously--vocal fry is not something young women are doing to piss you off and odds are 10-1 most users aren’t aware of doing it most of the time.
  2. They’re generally picked up for a reason--vocal fry and uptalk may primarily be serving as social markers that promote group coherence and reinforce one’s own identity as belonging to a particular group, but they may also result from specific cultural pressures. To hypothesize a bit:

Vocal fry: This happens when our speech strays into the lower range of what our vocal cords can produce. Women tend to have higher ranges than men, so does it surprise anyone that women might end up producing this particular effect if having a lower voice means not being treated like a child?

Uptalk: Turning a statement into a question is a way of pulling back from your point, which seems, to me, an unsurprising behavior from a segment of the population that is systematically undermined from infancy.

People hating on vocal fry are hating on young women. Stop it. Stop it RIGHT NOW. You’re adding to the problem. Granted, you might be kindly motivated in wanting to see them succeed, but please, PLEASE, don’t leave it at “vocal fry will keep you down.”

The underlying problem with vocal fry is that it says “I am a young woman,” and we live in a world where being a woman (especially a young, attractive one) is criminalized. So please, if you’re in a position to speak against vocal fry, don’t. Instead, speak against the homogeneity of the language of power. Advocate for a world in which diversity is seen as a strength in a company, not just a quota to be filled. Lament that this isn’t yet the case. Don’t tell your mentees and students “Don’t be you in this way and that way and this other way.”

Instead, arm those young women, those black students, those immigrants, those downtrodden souls with the keys to power. Tell them how the powerful speak, how they dress, how they smell, how they shake hands. Empower them to be able to work for their right to be seen as equals either from within the power of culture or from the outside.

And then get out of the way and let them carry on the fight for a world where we are judged not by the glottalization of our words, but by the content of our character.

Playing Along with #MyWritingProcess

Chain letters in blog form are a TERRIBLE idea (or maybe brilliant, I’m still undecided on that), and I place full blame on/thank Dan Bensen for everything that is to follow, since he’s the one who invited me to play along. Dan writes science fiction, fantasy, and alternate history, his latest project (for which I take some small blame) being a series of vignettes on his blog imagining a world in which China discovers/conquers the Americas instead of Spain, France, and England.

In all seriousness, I am having fun reading about other writers’ processes through this chain-blog, so I will play along with #MyWritingProcess. And I mean, honestly, who doesn’t love wasting time and talking about their creative work? It’s a win-win.

Not that talking about our work is ever wasted time. I discovered this when I was working on my undergrad thesis–the more time you spend trying to explain your work to others, the better you get at selling it quickly and the more insight you get into what you’re doing and who cares, all of which are beneficial for anyone who hopes to make a living off their writing.

What am I working on?

You know the saying that one rider can’t straddle two horses? The same principle should probably be applied to writers and projects, but I’m not good at that, so I have a lot of projects that get a fraction of the attention they deserve. These ones are at the top of the heap currently.

Autumn’s Daughter: YA fantasy with a sci-fi edge. Niamh Brennan grew up among humans, but discovers that she is something else entirely when political factions of a powerful species from a parallel dimension kidnap her sister. I’m working on polishing this for release on Kindle this fall. You should absolutely sign up for my enewsletter (points right, to sidebar) to get notified once it’s out.

Autumn’s Sister: Sequel to the above, focusing on Niamh’s sister (who is traumatized by her imprisonment in AD) finding her own strength in a world where she is presumed powerless. Much more interesting because it’s not a problematic first novel. Will be seeking beta-readers SOON, which means you get to read it (and Autumn’s Daughter) for free AND say insulting things about my writing without fear of repercussion, so, you know…one more reason to join my mailing list. :D

The Sentinel (working title): An ancient 13-dimensional intelligence “blesses” one woman at a time with its knowledge, superpowers (like time travel and teleportation), and longevity in order to battle injustice throughout space and time. Episodes are intended to be published as novellas one at a time and will be available either individually, or as a subscription to the full collection, hopefully starting in January 2015. Completely chaotic, could be a lot of fun as a comic if anyone wants to talk collaboration…

Here Be Dragons (also a working title): My other blog is a knitting blog. I design knitting patterns and I’m currently working on a collection of tiny, seamless dragons made from the scraps of leftover sock yarn. It will eventually become a book complete with advice on how to create your own stuffed toy designs using the principles my patterns follow along with facts and lore about the inspiration for the various dragon designs.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I think of myself as a science fantasist, by which I mean that I think high fantasy benefits from an infusion of thoughtful speculation grounded in the possibilities offered by cutting edge science and I think science fiction is better when it doesn’t sacrifice fun and whimsy on the altar of getting all the science perfect (though there is certainly something to be said for doing your damn homework after the first draft). Recent favorites along those lines include the Doctor Who reboot and Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings.

Why do I write what I do?

To call for a higher standard of human decency and equality: It pisses me off that gals who also happen to be written as complex humans are under-represented in my favorite genres, so I’m trying very hard to add to the pool of books I wish had existed when I was younger and struggling under pressures I barely even knew existed.

To shut the voices up: I have heard many writers talk about this, but character voices and scenarios and ideas get stuck in my head the same way catchy tunes do, and the only way to get any sleep some nights is to trap them in my computer where they think there’s hope of being heard by more people, poor saps.

 

How does my writing process work?

Haphazardly. See above re: too many projects at the same time and my last post re: what I read in order to write. I write with the sunrise and a full cup of coffee at my dining room table, usually uphill against the forces of distraction, the impending obligations of work-I-get-paid-for, and a cat trying very hard to flop across my keyboard.

Outlines: Yes. Loose ones. Knowing where I think I’m going gives me a place to be heading while I figure out where the story needs to end up.

Synopses: Critical for keeping track of who’s doing what when and why and at what point they learn critical information.

Tools: Google Docs for early drafts so I can work from any device easily, WriteWay for anything that makes it past short story length, Kindle (old school with the key pad so I can easily make notes) for the broadstrokes level of revision so I’m better able to sink into a reading experience.

If I had a more rigorous process and better discipline, I might have made more headway by now, but I don’t and I haven’t, so maybe don’t put too much stock in my approach to “process” anytime soon.

Passing the Baton

I passed this chain blog scheme along to some writing friends a week or so ago, but have yet to hear a response. Keep an eye out for an update as and if they get back to me–they’re a talented and entertaining lot.

What to Read When You’re Writing

I read the advice of professional writers from time to time, like ya do, and they all have exactly two pieces of advice in common: (1) practice. (2) Read stuff. The thing is, they often aren’t great about telling me what to read, and for years I labored under the general assumption that it didn’t matter overly much as long as you read. But yesterday, my brain hit a save point of sorts where it gave me a cut scene of my reading practices as they relate to my writing, correlating and organizing and generally giving me an “oh, wait” overview.

I was listening to Stephen Jay Gould’s Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms. I have to pick up a reading copy, as opposed to the audiobook, because I apparently do not have the attention span to catch the meaning embedded in subtlety and inferred connections that characterizes Gould’s writing while listening and driving. I have grasped maybe a quarter of what he’s saying. At one point, he poses the question of what the world might look like if China had done the empire building instead of western Europe, and I have no idea if this was an off-the-cuff thought or the point of the essay because my brain immediately screamed, “Ahhhh! That book would be SO much fun to write!” And I was off.

I started building a mental checklist of questions I would need answered:

  • What was the technological leap that made it possible for Europe to do it’s conquering?
  • Would it make geographical sense for China to need the same technology to conquer, and if not, what challenges would they face and given where they were at, what’s the minimal change that would have made conquest feasible?
  • Was a philosophical difference in attitudes towards conquest a determining factor? Who would the lynchpins have been and what would have had to change for them to be successful with a different message?
  • What is the Asian culture that would have been dominant at the time? Would an Asian conquest be more likely if a different Asian culture had won a particular war? How would the dominant philosophy (minimally tweaked for conquest purposes) impact the way that technologically less-advanced native peoples were treated?
  • What diseases were rampant in Asia at the time, and how would they have played out versus smallpox?

This is just a smattering of questions that I would need to answer and/or know more about in order to fix the questions in order to ask better ones once I learn which ones are based on flawed assumptions. I know a fair deal about the conquest record of western Europe post-1400 because I’m an American with a decent liberal arts education, but what I know about China in specific and the broader Asian context could fit in a shoe box. For baby shoes.

So that means, in order to write this story, I need to do some reading. Because I know so little about China, I’ll probably start with popularize non-fiction with strong bibliographies and work my way back to original (well, translations anyway) sources and denser history research. I’ll need to read Chinese fiction and mythology and philosophy. I’ll have to brush up on the finer points of European history to look for the credible lynchpins that make the most sense to change to posit a different world, which probably means reading some personal letters of influential people and doctrine and philosophy that was being produced at the time.

As I was making this laundry list in my head, I realized that THIS is what writers who have made it are talking about when they say writers need to read. This process, of discovery and inspiration and research. So, just to get a discussion started and for the sake of being useful, I’m going to throw some percentages out there on what writers need to be reading.

All of these numbers are bound to fluctuate by where we’re are in the process of working on a particular concept, obviously, and sometimes our background knowledge or the nature of the story means the research reading load has already been largely completed or is light to begin with, so these are just generalized averages.

  • Popular non-fiction along a broad range of categories that we’re loosely interested in. (books, magazines, blogs, trade publications, essays) – 30%
  • News/current events. (not because you shouldn’t read the news, but because you should probably be reading so much that catching up on the news doesn’t take up a vast piece of your percentage, unless current events are relevant to your subject matter) – 5%
  • In-depth scholarly reading on a subject that has sparked enough interest to merit book-writing research. (history, science, letters, historic decrees, old newspapers, philosophy, more in-depth and specific pop non-fic by reputable scholars, classic fiction/plays/poetry that will help you develop the culture/voice/what-have-you) – 50%
  • Writing about writing. – 3%
  • Fiction in genres not closely related to ours. – 7%
  • Fiction in our genre and closely related genres. – 5%

I’m only slowly coming to accept the lowness of that last number, but here’s the thing: reading other people’s fiction in my genre is more likely to inspire envy (or judginess) than ideas. Reading too much of it makes me feel incompetent, too far behind (or superior and lazy). Neither response is productive for improving my craft. And while I can swoon over a well-executed bit of SFF and learn from it’s plot/voice/structure/world-building/whatever, I almost never walk away from other fiction itching to get my ideas onto the page–that energy comes, for me, from great non-fiction and new discoveries.

But I’m only one writer, and not yet a published one at that. How does this list stack up with what you have success with in your own reading to writing life?

UPDATE 4/15: For those of you who don’t read the comments, my co-conspirator in the arcane art of writing genre fiction, Dan Bensen, responded at length, going so far as to put up an excellent blog post answering and providing resources to explore the questions posed on how China might have come to rule the world.

Double Spaces from Beyond the Century

Subtitle: Pointless Crusade #138.

So I love the work of Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess, and I read her blog regularly, but I am mildly annoyed at her at the moment. Someone called her on her use of double spaces at the end of sentences and rather than either changing the habit or politely keeping the email to herself, she had to POINT IT OUT on her blog and then REFUSE TO CHANGE. And now I can’t see anything but the double spaces.

*Bangs head on keyboard*

If you are not and never have been either a copyeditor or a graphic design person, you probably wouldn’t notice. It’s a subtle thing, and on websites, I often think assume I’m seeing things, because websites sometimes do weird things with fonts. I’ve experienced font weirdness on my own blog, so I try to be forgiving of others. But once you start seeing it, and once you know that the underlying cause is completely fixable, it’s like having a mosquito whining close enough to drive you insane, but just out of smacking range.

I can’t persuade the Bloggess to change her ways, I’m sure, and I get it. If you’re old and/or learned to type on old technology or with the instruction of old people who learned to type on old technology, the habit of hitting space twice after a period is probably darn hard to break. But does that mean you have to trigger twitching in every copyeditor/typographer who has the misfortune to notice your antiquated habit? No, no it does not.

Why? Because the spacing is insanely easy to fix.

If you’re working in any kind of word processor that has a find/replace function, all you do is place your cursor in the “Find” box, hit space twice, move your cursor down to the “Replace” box and hit the space bar once. Hit “Replace All” and the processor will magically get rid of all those spaces. It literally takes three seconds.

Unless you’re working directly in a content management system. On a related note: someone should get to work on adding a find/replace function to the general WordPress WYSIWYG editor, because that would make my life much more efficient.

Pointless Crusade #137

Can we talk about the phrase “oven-baked” for a moment?

Google definition of "baked"

The definition of “baked” is “cooked in an oven” (with a minimally important modifier, because while you can cooking something via non-dry heat in an oven, it’s not the more common process, so therefore, it would use a term like “oven-steamed,” which I’m okay with, because steaming isn’t, by definition, done in an oven, and using oven as a modifier therefore adds useful information), so can we please stop using the phrase oven-baked to try to make food sound fancier? It’s idiotic.

The only time I’m cool with the use of “oven-baked” is to refer to having gotten high in or by means of an oven, in which case, the phrase is descriptive rather than redundant. And also, at that point, redundant language is the least of your problems. Getting high in an oven sounds like high-risk behavior, so you might want to seek counseling if you find yourself needing to use this phrase appropriately on a regular basis.

Khaaaaaannn!!!

I just finished listening to Richard Panek’s The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality. It is a gripping recounting of the history of cosmology and the birth of astrophysics, the question of the cosmological constant and dark matter, and a wonderful exploration of how we have come to know what we now we think we know about the birth and death of the universe and, more importantly, how we probably don’t actually know anything.

Gripping, I say.

I have a shelf full of popularized accounts of the cosmos – Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, Brian Greene, Michio Kaku – and every single time I find a new bit of astrophysics / quantum mechanics / cosmology to fall in love with, I walk away both overwhelmed with gratitude that these people are willing to take the time to explain the wild underpinnings of the universe to such as me. And every time, I tell myself I should quit my day job and go back to school for astrophysics, because I am in the wrong damn line of work.

Panek’s book came into my life at a point in time where I actually do have a fair amount of discretionary time, so this time, I followed up the sigh with a little bit of research into the course requirements for an undergrad degree in physics at a few different institutes. I found what I expected to find: I would need to do serious catch-up with the math.

At some point in my life I stopped thinking of myself as being capable of math, and while I muddled through the required classes with Bs and the occasional A, I didn’t both trying to retain the information, so at this point in my life, I wouldn’t trust myself to do much beyond what’s needed for balancing a checkbook or tweaking a knitting pattern.

The internet being what it is and my belief in my own intelligence not being quite as crippled as it was, I started looking for solutions, and as you might guess from the title, I started playing around with the Khan Academy lessons, which are wonderfully done, in my opinion. A pretest plopped me solidly into 6th grade math…not entirely unexpected, but humbling. Slightly confusing, given that I swear I passed calculus by at least the skin of my teeth, but I suppose I haven’t had reason to use it in nearly a decade.

Not to be daunted, I started going through the practice lessons and mastery modules. I’ve been getting things wrong. Less of it because I don’t remember the theory, I’m please to say, but I’m embarrassed to note that most of my wrong answers are because of (a) a lack of attention to detail in the question/instructions and (b) a tendency to make minor calculation errors that come from, guess what? A lack of attention to detail.

At this rate, I’m probably going to die of old age before I get to the level of math needed to manage even an undergrad degree in physics, but I think I’ll keep at it all the same. If nothing else, it will be an exercise in mindfulness, right?

Oh, and in the meantime, a recent discovery about the cosmic microwave background radiation essentially added the next chapter to “This is what we think we know about the birth of the universe and why,” and PhD Comics did a lovely job explaining the significance. How can you read about this stuff and NOT want to be an astrophysicist when you grow up?