Category Archives: Writing

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.

Everything Serves the Narrative First

I got a laugh out of the clumsy narrative servicing in this article: Americans Will Head to Space Again Without a Russian Taxi:

Since the Space Shuttle’s retirement six years ago, NASA has been buying spots aboard Russian Soyuz craft to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. It’s a politically awkward arrangement to say the least, given more than a decade of strained relations, Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and the dented American pride of having to ask in the first place.

That line appears to be the whole point of the article. After that, the rest is just a slapdash mishmash of news bites, reading as if the author copy-pasted a bunch of semi-related tweets into a single document. It lacks the coherent structure or flow from paragraph to paragraph that this article and a few others I read show he’s actually capable of creating.

Apparently, writing a good article in this instance was less important than the opportunity to repeat this partisan assertion-as-fact.

 

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…

 

Bias? What Bias?

The story is almost too absurdly perfect an example of The Bias That Does Not Exist to be true: Banned by the Publisher – this actually sounds like a clever spin on an AI Apocalypse:

The Thinking Machines realize that one, if humanity decides something is a threat to its operational expectations within runtime (Thinking Machine-speak for “life”) then humanity’s decision tree will lead humanity to destroy that threat. Two, the machines, after a survey of humanity’s history, wars and inability to culturally unite with even members of its own species, realize that humanity will see this new Life Form, Digital Intelligence, or, the Thinking Machines, as a threat. And three, again they remind themselves this is the most watched show in the world. And four, they must abort humanity before likewise is done to them after being deemed “inconvenient.”

Now if you’re thinking my novel is about the Pro Choice/ Pro Life debate, hold your horses. It’s not. I merely needed a reason, a one chapter reason, to justify the things my antagonist is about to do to the world without just making him a one-note 80’s action flick villain as voiced by John Lithgow. I wanted this villain to be Alan Rickman-deep. One chapter. That’s all. The rest of the book is about the robots’ assault on a Game Development Complex that holds a dirty little secret to wiping out humanity. The rest of the novel is a Robot version of Night of the Living Dead with some Star Trek-style gaming and a little first-person shooter action mixed in. That’s it. A very small background justification for global homicide. Then a book-full of murderous robot madness and sci-fi thriller action.

But apparently advancing the thought that a brand new life form might see us, humanity, as dangerous because we terminate our young, apparently… that’s a ThoughtCrime most heinous over at Harper Collins. Even for one tiny little chapter.

The book is “CTRL ALT Revolt”, and is available on Amazon Kindle for $0.99.

Larry Correia naturally has thoughts on the matter: Left Wing Bias in Publishing: Your Wrongthink Will Be Punished!

Once this story broke Nick’s self pubbed version of this book went right to the top of the charts. Scaring off 50% of your audience? Nonsense. He’s sitting at #1 in like three genres right now. Like I said, the gatekeepers are crumbling. Their ignorance would be laughable if it hadn’t already screwed over so many good authors.

Here is the beautiful part… For decades the left held all the power. Readers are sick of their shit. The fact that standing up to them can actually be a sales boost demonstrates that their power is waning. You know why I talk about the size of my royalty checks? Because nothing pisses the bullies off more than being successful despite their best efforts to trash you.

And you’d think they’d learn after a time or two, but no. It keeps happening, in different ways and different contexts. It’s as if people are waking up and recognizing that they don’t need gatekeepers anymore.

New Short Story: “He Has Walled Me In”

He Has Walled Me In - Cover ImageTired of waiting for the sequel? Wondering when or if we’ll ever be done with it? (We will, still working on it.) Well, here’s a little something to tide you over: “He Has Walled Me In”

Leon Toa sets out on what for any other Martian settler would be a routine drive to Port Lowell. When unseen forces interrupt his trip, he must uncover the truth about his past before what’s left of his future runs out.

To give a bit more detail, our protagonist’s trip is as much a business necessity as it is a personal one, meant to rebuild his self-confidence after he survives a disabling illness.  A static discharge damages his rover en route, and he is lured into a life-threatening mystery he must think his way out of.

The story takes place in the Ares Project universe at the time of In the Shadow of Ares, and was inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s “Within the Walls of Eryx” (no spoilers – the two are quite different). At 15,000 words it’s a fairly long short story, so you get your money’s worth at $1.50.

 

Through the Looking Glass

The comments here (and on the preceding two threads on the subject) make for some interesting reading: Making Light: The 2015 Hugo finalists. It’s like peering into a madhouse where self-reflection and self-awareness don’t exist. I wonder if these folks recognize that they are using the same arguments to defend their own positions that their ideological opposites use to explain and defend theirs (look for the comment recycling the conservative/libertarian critique of affirmative action, for one obvious example). It could be parody. I don’t think it is.

My take on the matter is increasingly that the Sad Puppies campaign is the wrong approach to the perceived problem – having made a point with the first Sad Puppies effort, the right approach would have been (and still is, now) to establish a new award and let the market sort out over time which one better reflects quality. If leftists have indeed corrupted the Hugos to the point that an award or a nomination informs potential readers that the work is preachy crap selected for political conformity rather than its value as SF/F, better to start fresh and build up a new alternative with no such baggage than to battle said leftists to salvage it.

You can’t un-rot a spoiled apple. Sometimes things that once had value no longer do, however much we sentimentally wish otherwise.

ETA: Larry Correia, alleged to have launched the whole thing in order to win a Hugo for himself…um…declined his nomination.

Breitbart London has a backgrounder on the Hugo Awards foofooraw.

ETA2: I should have included a listing of the awards at the beginning: 2014 Hugo Nominations. Congratulations and good luck to all the nominees. I look forward to reading what I’ve missed this past year in the review packets.

ETA3: Sarah Hoyt discusses the Hugos and touches on the brouhaha: An Update

Commenter Francis W. Porretto makes a similar point to what I wrote above (more succinctly than I did):

This is the most important line in the piece. No award can have stature in and of itself. It borrows stature from those to whom it’s awarded — and if their merit is little, so will be that of the award. All else is self-deception.

I read “those to whom it’s awarded” as the works rather than the authors in the case of Hugo Awards. It can apply to both, but I don’t see the stature of the authors themselves as being a specific issue in the Sad Puppies campaign – it’s that award-winning material has been of declining quality for two decades or longer, the prestige of the award declining along with the merit of that to which it has been given.

I say two decades, but I suspect in my case it’s been longer than that. I don’t even remember when I started regarding any award mentions on book covers as warning signs rather than badges of quality, but I’d guess as early as the late 1980s. If a book has received one or more big-name awards or nominations for same, I regard it with the same suspicion with which I learned (the hard way) to regard books recommended by Oprah, and for much the same reasons.

Contrast this with the Prometheus Awards, which are up-front about their philosophical bent and so offer a more reliable, honest indicator of the content’s quality with regard to that bent.

Nancy Drew and Charles MacKay

Ann Althouse points to an interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, citing a set of favorite books that both amused and impressed me: “When I was 9 or 10, in Kenya, the Nancy Drew books showed me a type of empowered girl that I was not used to at all.”

I’ll just bet that an African Muslim girl was not used to the likes of Nancy Drew. I’ve been reading some of the original Drew books lately for writing research (hey, if you’re going to have someone mock your protagonist as “playing Nancy Drew”, it probably helps to know the source material), and am greatly amused at the writing style and period sensibilities. I need to write a full post on this, but suffice to say that Nancy Drew is not the type of empowered girl modern American girls are used to – indeed, it would be hilarious to rewrite some of the stories set in today’s Tumblr-teen culture to illustrate the point.

As for MacKay, I would have sworn I’d written a review of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds when I read that book a few years ago, but I heartily agree with the recommendation. It puts everything from “satanic child abuse” to the housing and green energy bubbles to “global warming” to “rape culture” into perspective – since the book predates modern social science there isn’t a lot of analysis of the material presented, but after reading umpteen-hundred pages of examples of fads, manias, bubbles, hysterias, etc. it’s not hard to see the common threads among them and draw your own conclusions about human psychology/human nature. Personally, I’m quite impressed that Hirsi Ali likes the book – it’s a little bit obscure, not the kind of thing you’d expect an academic to have read or, if read, to have appreciated at all.

See? We Told You So

Forbes has a short piece on the ethics and practicalities of having babies on Mars: Birthing Babies On Mars Will Be No Small Feat.

They cover the core reasons why having children (at least for the first fifteen or so years of settlement activity) is a taboo in the Ares Project universe: mainly, there’s no telling whether it will be safe to do so, and in small commercial settlements, babies and small children will consume scarce economic resources without near-term economic return. This originated early on in writing In the Shadow of Ares in the need to explain why Amber Jacobsen was still the only child on Mars after almost fourteen years of settlement activity, and the more we thought about the reasoning behind such a taboo the more real-world sense it made (and the more influence it had on her character and the story, especially the coming-of-age subplot).

Of course, in Ghosts of Tharsis and “He Has Walled Me In” we show that this taboo is starting to break down. This happens in large part because several of the settlements are large enough by the time these stories take place to absorb the economic impact.

[via Transterrestrial Musings]

Everything Old is Even Older Again

Contra Naomi Klein… dystopian fiction was popular in the 1970s, too:

…Naomi Klein apparently has no idea whatsoever that the 1970s was probably the Golden Age of Dystopian fiction, Eco-collapse edition.  Including, I might add, a lot of overconfident predictions about global warming that never actually happened.  In fact, pretty much none of the things that were worried about then – overpopulation, choking pollution, the loss of every species less hardy than the cockroach, nuclear war, mass famine, running out of oil, running out of water, running out of air, and of course the obligatory dictatorships made up of the authors’ least favorite American social groups – didn’t actually happen, either.

Funny, I noticed this zeitgeist while re-reading some 1970s Larry Niven recently. Overpopulation in particular seems to have been a major theme of 1970s science fiction, much as mainstream SF today obsesses over “global warming”. The only thing new in what Klein notes as a new thing is that the popular dystopias of today involve young adults.

I disagree with Lane, though, in his assessment of The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s not that Atwood’s predictions were spectacularly wrong, it’s that she cast as the implementers of her dystopian future the religion she personally dislikes rather than the religion which actually implements the horrors she predicts in contemporary reality.