Category Archives: Dispatches

The Trouble With Science Popularizers

More people are starting to notice the problems with Bill Nye:

The trouble with science popularizers in general is that by nature, the job entails talking about a wider range of technical topics than any individual can fully comprehend at the level necessary to discuss them competently. While an expert in one field can speak intelligently about closely-related fields, the further away from one’s own expertise one travels, the more difficult that task becomes. And it’s even worse if a man in that role is a textbook example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, so assured of his superior intellect that he is incapable of recognizing that he is in fact a fool.

Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson inspired a character in another “Dispatches from Mars” story Carl and I are trying to finish up – a character who as a science popularizer and a man is the opposite of these two.

The big difference between the fictional Silas Hudson and these two is that he learned very early on, when he fell into a career as a public personality on the back of a book and related video series, that it’s easy for any expert to fall prey to the temptation to speak authoritatively about fields of which he has lesser, little, or even no knowledge. After publicly embarrassing himself, he redeemed his image by hiring a research staff to vet his scripts and books with true subject matter experts, and by conscientiously acknowledging the limits of what he personally understood. In other words, he started off as a young man with an enormous ego, humiliated himself as a result of that ego, and learned a bit of humility and ethics from the experience – humility that improved his ‘product’ greatly.

I’m actually disappointed that we have to kill him off. But when you’re writing a murder mystery, someone has to be the victim.

Dispatches: the Writing Technique

Carl and I came up with Cameron Lake, a freelance journalist visiting Mars and documenting its people, events, and culture, as a medium for using interesting elements of the Ares Project universe that we didn’t have room for in books or stories. And then we sat on the concept (and about two dozen story ideas) for about two years, until we got the idea to do Anatomy of a Disaster as an April Fool’s Day gag.

And that went well. That experience led in turn to my taking on a personal challenge while on vacation this summer to spend the ten weeks after I returned producing ten detailed outlines of new Dispatch stories. (I finished with #8 yesterday, with ten days to finish the remaining two.) I’ve settled into the following technique or method for this, which seems to work quite well – start with a new document, and the kernel of an idea:

The Gimmick: write out in 1-2 sentences what the core idea of the story is – the gimmick, twist, gee-whiz technology, character quirk, whatever the inspiration for the story is.

The Summary: in one paragraph, explain in simple language what the story is about…that is, how the gimmick manifests in a plot.

Discussion: this is the brain-vomit or stream-of-consciousness part – brainstorm about the plot, characters, setting, twists and turns, science fictional elements, etc. using bullet points to document what you think up; use this section to document any relevant research you do regarding these things; it’s a catch-all, so keep it open-ended and unstructured, and don’t worry about dead-ends (you might use them later somewhere else); explore variations on the mechanics of the story, how characters relate, and the logical consequences of actions and any technology used; profile your characters, how they think and act, who they are, what the look like – ditto any relevant social structures or trends; this is also the place to document any peripheral thoughts or expand on an idea relevant to the story but which might bog down the Structure or Working Outline sections below – for example, thinking through a character’s backstory at a level of detail that informs his presentation in the story but isn’t shown in full, or working out the real-world ramifications of some technology that appears in the story, or explicitly documenting something that will affect or should be cited in related stories in the fictional universe.

Structure: as you brain-dump in the Discussion section, you’ll get a clearer idea of the story you want to tell and how its plot should work; here, use a numbered list to arrange the steps of the plot in order; treat each line item like a summary of one chapter; raid the Discussion section until you have captured all the high-level elements you want to use and have them ordered into a coherent plot that flows from one section to the next; if any character dialogue suggests itself at this point, I’ll document it in this section; explicitly establish here how the story ends (I try to make up a tentative last line for the ending), so that you know your destination.

Working Outline: once you’re comfortable with the quality and detail in the Structure, copy and paste it at the end of the document; at the beginning of each line item insert a tentative chapter title (useful even if the finished story won’t use them) and a simplified one-line summary of the chapter; break the copied text for each chapter into sub-bullets (the simplest way to do this is to make each sentence in the copied text into an individual sub-bullet); work through the outline, adding, reworking, and reordering the sub-bullets and chapters to make the story flow and show the action and ideas you want it to include; to keep from getting bogged down in minutiae, use placeholders for character or place names you haven’t already chosen and mark any technical details for later review unless they are essential to know in advance (i.e.: the plot hinges on them, vs. they’re generic enabling devices or part of the setting); when you gut-feel that the story is sufficiently organized, make a rapid pass through the whole Working Outline changing all of the sub-bullet text into the proper tense, making it read like actual prose where possible, and turning it into dialogue where relevant.

I’ve gotten to the point now where about half of the story is written when I’m finished outlining it, in that most of the sub-bullets are sentences in draft form and ready for editing. (In the case of these ten outlines, I then send it to Carl for his input). Finishing it then involves doing more research to fill in the missing details, reworking particulars to make both of us happy with the story, and finally polishing the text into its final form.

In practice this results in a really long document for a mere short story. The Gentlemen Adventurers, the outline I finished yesterday, originated as an idea only last Monday and a blank-sheet document on Wednesday. In the intervening 8 days I produced a document of 20,150 words, 3,835 of which are the Discussion, 5,570 are the Structure, and 10,700 are the Working Outline. Obviously I didn’t actually write that many words from scratch, as the Working Outline started as a copy-paste from the Structure – in the end, recognizable copy-paste accounts for about 40% of the Working Outline. The number also doesn’t account for two chapters which still exist only as extended summaries, as they will require research to flesh out in detail.

I started in this morning on the ninth of the ten Dispatches, which will be a comedy of errors concerning the first British Trans-Marineris Expedition. Beginning with a roughly 200-word Gimmick and Summary, the Discussion so far brings the word count up to 2,670 words. Not bad for about an hour and a half of writing before going to work. Unfortunately, in this case it’s all context and social trend backstory – I haven’t even started in on the details of the failed expedition yet…