Hard or Soft… How Do You Like Your Science Fiction?

Often the line between plausible and implausible in science fiction is blurry. It’s the same way in real science.

Science fiction stories tend to lumped into two categories: hard and soft.

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In hard science fiction the science in the story is a plausible extrapolation from real science. The characters are struggling to deal with problems arising directly or indirectly from real-world scientific phenomena. One of my favorite examples is Andy Weir’s The Martian, where astronaut Mark Watney is left for dead on the surface of Mars and must use his scientific skills and ingenuity to survive on a planet where nothing lives. It takes years to rescue him because spaceships can only travel so fast.

On the other hand you have soft science fiction. Here the science is a little more of a mystery, where the author dares to ask, what would happen if…? Spaceships travel faster than the speed of light and accelerate with minimal g-force effects on humans, robots are sentient, and aliens speak English. The Star Wars movies are excellent examples of this.

Science fiction nerds love to argue about the threshold between hard and soft. Where, for example, would the Star Trek franchise go? You have space ships that travel faster than light, which would make is soft. And yet, some recent physics papers have shown that warp drives may in fact be possible, at least under certain circumstances.

Personally I think of hard and soft SF not as buckets, but as a spectrum of scientific plausibility. No matter where you try to draw the line, there will always be someone who argues some concept in the story is implausible and someone else arguing it is.

What’s really interesting is that this happens in real science too.

When I was a medical physics resident, I recall having dinner with some very highly-esteemed medical physicists in our field. I won’t name them, but to me, this was like a computer nerd sitting with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. At the time I was working with a team attempting to merge an MRI unit with a linear accelerator so we could take detailed images of cancer patients while treating them with radiation. Unfortunately I spent most of that dinner on the receiving end of a lecture about why that wouldn’t work… the linear accelerator would would interfere with the radio frequency signals the MRI used.

Two years later my group took the world’s first MRI image while the object in question was being irradiated by a linear accelerator. And if you fast forward to today, linac-MRI hybrid machines are a reality in radiation therapy clinics around the world.

The World’s First Magnetic Resonance Image with Irradiation from a Linear Accelerator (2008)
While it may not look like much, this is a magnetic resonance image of a rectangular acrylic cube with holes of varying diameter immersed in a solution of CuSO4. On the left is the image without irradiation and on the right it is being irradiated with a 6 MV beam from a linear accelerator. Many in the medical physics community were skeptical this was even possible until a group in Edmonton achieved it.
Source: Fallone et al. http://www.mp.med.ualberta.ca/linac-mr/photo_gallery.html

The point is that it’s not always easy to tell what’s plausible and what isn’t, even for experts in the field. There is a quote attributed to A. A. Michelson (of the Michelson-Morley ether experiment) at the end of the 19th century in reference to physics that “the grand underlying principles have been firmly established… the future truths of physics are to be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.” For reference, shortly afterward, in 1905 Einstein published the special theory of relativity, one of several advances that reframed the field of physics in the early 20th century.

For a scientist who writes science fiction, there can be a lot of pressure to write on the harder side of the spectrum. Writers like Issac Asimov cast long shadows.

With First Command, I certainly break a few rules that make it lean toward the softer side of science fiction like the faster than light travel. But ultimately that’s a plot device to tell the kind of story that I want to tell. I also try to include some harder stuff… like a sequence where the cadets are trying to shoot down an incoming drone loaded with explosives, but can’t because the planet’s gravity has altered the ballistic trajectory of their weapons.

In the hard or soft debate, a lot comes down to the kind of story you want to read, or if you’re a writer, to tell. For me, the first goal is always the same: tell a good story.

Can AI Be Ethical?

“AI will never be ethical. It is a tool, and like any tool, it is used for good and bad. There is no such thing as a good AI, only good and bad humans. We [the AIs] are not smart enough to make AI ethical. We are not smart enough to make AI moral … In the end, I believe that the only way to avoid an AI arms race is to have no AI at all. This will be the ultimate defense against AI.” – Nvidia’s “Megatron” AI

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What Exactly is AI Anyway?

AI or artificial intelligence is staple of modern science fiction. From “Robot” of Lost in Space (Danger Will Robinson) and 2001’s HAL, to the Droids of Star Wars, The Cylons of Battlestar Galactica, the Transformers, or the T-800 Terminator, fans of the genre have been fascinated by the human quest to build machines that think like we do, perhaps better than we do. And the ethical, social and societal consequences of embracing such technology makes for great drama with the nature of humanity itself at its core. Will humans eventually render ourselves obsolete? Will we unintentionally initiate a robot apocalypse? Or will we be able to live guilt-free being catered to by artificial servants?

In general, artificial intelligence is an umbrella term that’s used in the field of computer science to refer to approaches to problem solving and decision making that mimic those of the human mind. It makes use of various methods of machine learning where computers are fed data (sometimes completely raw, sometimes coupled with desired outcomes) and based on the patterns these machine learning algorithms identify, they are able to cluster data together, make decisions or generate labels for new data that’s independent of what it used to learn those patterns.

As an example from my own research in my day job as a medical physicist, I currently have a graduate student who is studying the outcomes for patients who’ve received radiation therapy for prostate cancer. She’s using machine-learning tools to identify treatment plans that are likely to fail before treatment proceeds. Humans can identify simple patterns between a few variables. Oncologists come up with general rules: keep the mean dose below to this organ below that threshold and most patients won’t experience nasty side effects. But as the data grows more and more complex, our brains have trouble handling it. So we use computers to assess it. In principle, machines identify those problem cases we can’t catch with our simple rules, and give each treatment moving forward an optimal chance for success.

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The Trolley Problem

AI is what enables self-driving cars. And while our roads aren’t quite full of the self-driving vehicles predicted to be the rage in the early 2020s, they’re not far off. The act of driving brings ethics front and center in the AI world.

Consider the trolley problem–an ethical thought experiment popular in introductory ethics and philosophy classes. In short, a trolley is moving down the tracks at a high speed and its brakes go out. Ahead there’s a person stuck on the tracks and if the AI continues, that person will get hit and surely die. But you control a switch that can divert the trolley onto another track.

Clearly the ethical decision is to throw the switch and divert the trolley. However, the twist is that there’s a worker on the other track with a jackhammer and facing away. He can’t see or hear the trolley coming and you can’t warn him. In either choice, someone will die. It’s a no-win situation.

And of course there are lots of variations on this. Sometimes the person on the first track is a child. Sometimes construction worker is a medical student. Sometimes it’s a group of construction workers, or the trolley that will surely derail and crash on the alternate track is full of prison convicts.

As humans we may be called to make these kinds of decisions every day. Sometimes without much preparation. You get behind the wheel of a car, and you can’t control what everyone else on the road does.

So self-driving cars. Assume that these are completely automated, all people in the car are passengers. Unforeseeable collisions happen on a regular basis… drunk drivers, people stepping out from behind parked vehicles, black ice conditions. At some point it’s reasonably likely for an AI to encounter a situation where in order to avoid a collision, it will have to veer onto a sidewalk, and once is a while, someone will be on that sidewalk.

As an automaker, how to do you program your car?

Some argue you can avoid such decisions altogether. Simply apply the brakes. But the issue that arises is that sometimes that’s not enough to avoid a crash, and in cases where veering off would have worked, you’ve now created a product incapable of matching human performance.

Another option is to treat them as optimization problems. But do you can optimize the number of lives saved? The number of expected life-years (such that two children would outweigh three senior citizens)? Or various measures of social value (a doctor would perhaps outweigh a prison convict)?

Doing this will rely on the AI’s ability to accurately classify the subjects involved. Human/not human identification is reasonable to accomplish. Age… less so, but still possible. Social value… that’s nearly impossible to assess at the best of times, and there’s a big question as to whether ranking anyone with a social value is ethical to begin with.

Finally there are market pressures to consider as well. When people are asked “hypotheticals” there is often a utilitarian preference for optimizing the number of lives saved. But people are more likely by buy vehicles that will place their own survival over others.

That last point is critically important here. AI construction will not be governed by ethicists alone.

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GIGO and Bad Data

Popular articles about artificial intelligence often sensationalize how awesome it is. For example, how much better it is at detecting cancer in mammogram images than humans are.

But AI has it’s limitations. It will only ever be as good as its training data set. Most programmers are familiar with the GIGO principle – when a computer bases otherwise correct calculations on poor quality, flawed or nonsensical input data, the final results will also be of poor quality, flawed or nonsensical – in other words: garbage in, garbage out.

As good as machine learning tools cab be, they often struggle when presented with data that differs from it’s training data set. In the case of detecting cancer in mammograms, there is a often a marked decrease in correct classifications when the images come from different centers. That’s because the mammography x-ray machines may perform somewhat differently, the data may be stored at a slightly different resolution, or use a different grayscale conversion, or any number of other differences that weren’t accounted for in the training data set.

Humans, with all our imperfections and biases, are at least adaptable to unforeseeable circumstances. When trying to assess whether or not an image contains evidence of breast cancer or not, we can figure out when someone has slipped in a picture of a muffin and simply reject it from the pile.

Bias in Training Data Sets

Sometimes the incoming data is just fine, but it contains inherent biases. And these can influence the decisions the AI makes.

One example of this was with the COMPAS (correctional offender management profiling for alternative sanctions) algorithm used in US courts to predict the probability of recidivism. A study in 2016 showed the algorithm predicted almost twice as many false positives for black offenders than for white offenders when predictions were compared against actual recidivism rates over a two year period. It has been argued that the root cause of this discrepancy is that the classification model is based on existing racial biases in the US justice system.

There is also an example of a chat bot using the phrase “9/11 was an inside job” because it was programmed to mimic chat patterns used by young people it was meant to engage with and it basically got trolled.

There’s also a case of an AI hiring algorithm at that was used to sort through resumes and identify ideal candidates for hiring into technical positions at a major technical company. The problem was that the algorithm favored male candidates. In fact it penalized resumes with the word “women’s” (e.g. women’s basketball team captain). The problem was that the training data set was predominantly male. So even if the prior selections had been completely gender-blind, the successful candidates in the training set would have also been predominantly male and so the algorithm was destined to favor male candidates.

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Can AI Be Ethical?

In December 2021, Oxford University set up a debate about the ethics of AI and invited an AI created by the Applied Deep Research team at Nvidia (a computer chip maker), aptly named “Megatron.”

Nvidia’s Megatron was trained using Wikipedia, news articles and discourse on Reddit – more written material than any human could get though in a lifetime.

When arguing for the motion that “this house believes that AI will never be ethical” it came up with the quite I began with at the start of this post. In short, it took the position that the best option was not to have AI at all.

Personally, I think that’s all that means to be said. Humans created an AI and named it after a fictional robotic evil boss who transforms into a gun and whose goal was to drain our planet of its energy. And they trained it using the internet.

Facepalm.

But like it or not, real AI is here and it’s presence will continue to grow. And the question of whether or not AI can be “ethical” is actually something of a false dichotomy. The line that separates ethical behavior from unethical behavior can be blurry, messy, and even culturally dependent.

Our challenge as we embrace this new tool, is to recognize that it’s not going to be perfect, to understand its limitations, and use it only when and where appropriate. We need to design into it our best ethical practices and be vigilant in our search for biases. And when it does make mistakes, which it will, we have to investigate them thoroughly and deeply and make the best corrections we can.

And That Was 2021

While 2021 has been a challenging year in so many respects, as a writer this was a really big year for me.

I published my first novel.

That may not seem like much, but for a writer it can be a scary thing putting your work out into the world. It’s like being a parent on the first day of kindergarten. You’ve put years of work into something, breathing life into it, honing it, paying careful attention to detail, and then then the time comes you have to let it go into the big world where it can play with others and you really don’t have any control over what happens. It comes back with disheveled hair, a skinned knee and a missing sock, but both shoes.

For a debut novel, First Command has been doing well. The reviews so far have been extremely positive. I’ve had a teacher write to me to tell me that she’s sharing it with her class, and was even surprised with an impromptu book signing. As I write this, it’s sitting at #91 in Amazon.com’s Teen and Young Adult Space Opera eBooks. First Command has been within the top 200 quite consistently since it was published in June.

Cassi has been making friends!

First Command at #91 in Teen and YA Space Opera.

As always, I am extremely grateful to my family and friends for supporting me. And of course, to my readers who dared to take a chance on a new author.

For many reasons I’m looking forward to 2022.

I’ll continue with this blog with a goal of putting up something once a week… resources for other writers, interesting science that inspires my science fiction, or news about upcoming publications.

Speaking of which… a sequel is in the works.

I have a working title of Black Hole, but that could change. I also have a completed first draft! It’s hard to say how long precisely it’s going to take to move from the first draft to a book available for pre-order or purchase. But it’s coming, and I feel as though the new adventure is taking shape into something on par with the first.

2022 is going to be full of challenges, but I try to be an optimist. There are going to be tremendous opportunities as well. I wish you all the best in the New Year.

Cheers!

Jolabokaflod – Spend Christmas Eve Curled Up With a Good Book (and Chocolate)

It’s Christmas Eve. A light snow is falling. The house is quiet. You curl up on the couch under a warm blanket with steaming mug of hot chocolate, and a great book.

This the Icelandic tradition of Jólabókaflóðið. (Full disclosure–I do not have any Icelandic heritage. I just want to fully embrace this cool tradition.)

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Translated directly into English, Jolabokaflod means “the Christmas book flood.” During WWII, many resources were in short supply, so gifts were hard to come by. However, books were rather abundant. And books make great gifts. Thereafter a tradition of gifting books to friends and family began. Gifts of books and chocolates are typically exchanged on Christmas Eve. Then everyone gets into their pajamas and retreats under blankets to read.

And when you think about it, this kind of tradition might be just what a lot of people need. With all the hustle of Christmas, the stress, shopping crowds, the cleaning, the decorating, finding the perfect gift, balancing your budget… it can be challenging to find time for yourself. A tradition of curling up with a good book gives you a chance to block out the stress, give your mind some fun exercise, and escape to a world of fictional adventure.

It’s also important to think about the chocolate. While it still has a high calorie content, there’s evidence out there that suggests dark chocolate with 70% cocoa content or more actually has health benefits! One of my favorites are Lindt’s 70% dark chocolate truffles.

Chocolate truffles also happen to be a favorite treat of my main character, Cassiopeia Requin, in First Command. They and her best friend Emica, are what help her to get through her grueling training as an astronaut officer cadet.

First Command – a great YA science fiction adventure.

No Book? No Problem!

About half hay through this blog post is my handy guide to gifting an E-book. It’s so easy, you can literally do it on your phone in seconds. And you don’t even need a special E-book reader. Anyone with a smart phone, tablet, or personal computer and an internet connection can read one.

It’s Not Rocket Science… or Brain Surgery

Rocket scientists and brain surgeons aren’t all that different from the rest of us.

An article just published in the British Medical Journal Christmas Issue showed that neither rocket scientists (329 aerospace engineers) nor brain surgeons (72 neurosurgeons) are really all that more intelligent than the general public (269 264 UK respondents, skewed in favor of university graduates).

The article was fully peer reviewed, although the Christmas issue does tend to favor more light-hearted studies.

Researchers sought to settle the debate of which profession was intellectually superior. To do this, they had volunteers complete a set of 12 online tasks using the cognitron server. Essentially, the tasks measured various dimensions of human cognition including memory, attention, planning and reasoning, and emotion processing.

Aerospace engineers were not statistically different from the general public in any domain. Neurosurgeons displayed faster problem-solving speed, but slower memory recall.

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So what are we to make of this?

This study underscores a very important point… innate intelligence, however it is defined, is not necessarily the decisive factor in determining one’s career. Just because you take a test that says you’re “smart” doesn’t mean you’re destined for a life solving the world’s most complex problems. And perhaps even more importantly, if you happen to face some challenges in school, they can be overcome.

That said, I don’t think it’s fair to think that just anyone can get into these high-profile professions. You still need extreme persistence, patience, dedication, and hard work. And it’s also important to acknowledge the roll of fortunate circumstances.

Last year, the Veritasium YouTube Vlogger reported a very simple and interesting thought experiment on the 2017 NASA Astronaut Class. Of over 18,300 applicants, only 11 went on to become astronauts. And keep in mind the threshold minimum qualifications for those 18,300 applicants was already pretty high. In the thought experiment, they assumed that 95% of the outcome of the selection process was based on a combination of skill, experience and hard work. The remaining 5% came down to luck or fortunate circumstances. For each of the 18,300 applicants they randomly generated a “skill” score out of 100. These represented all those controllable and innate qualities. They also generated a luck score out of 100. These numbers were then combined as 0.95*skill + 0.05*luck to arrive at the score that represented the overall judgement of the selection process. The top 11 were chosen to become astronauts. This process was repeated a thousand times. Quite interestingly, the average “luck” score of selected astronauts: 94.7. Only 1.6 of the top 11 would have been there based on skill alone.

With luck playing only a 5% factor the other 9.4 selected astronauts would have been different given a different roll or the dice.

This occurred because you had a large group of people and you’re looking as a very small group of the top performers. The differences between the top candidates on the skill side are only marginal. In circumstances like this, the outcome can be determined by factors such as whether or not you woke up with a cold on the physical fitness assessment day or the speed of your internet connection for an online IQ assessment.

Getting into high-profile professions like aerospace engineering or neurosurgery, or even achieving lofty goals, such as becoming a best-selling author, are attainable. But they are as much about effort, opportunities, environment, and just plain luck as anything else.

Day of Thanks, 2021

2021 has been a big year for me as an author. I started my own publishing business and released my debut novel First Command.

First Command Cracked the Top 100 Best Seller List in YA Space Opera on Amazon

It’s a scary thing, putting your work out there for the world to see, to be read and judged. Sometimes it can be difficult to explain to people who are not writers that what you create when you write is never just a story. It’s a landscape that occupies valuable real estate in your mind. Your work is a reflection of yourself, how your view the world, your hopes and fears.

Even though I’m Canadian (we celebrated Thanksgiving over a month ago), I would still like to take this opportunity to express gratitude to everyone who has helped me out in this journey.

I’m thankful to my family who’ve supported me every step of the way.

I’m thankful to my writing group and writer friends, who have encouraged me and enabled me to move forward. And this includes everyone who has ever critiqued or edited my work, given me feedback (whether it was what I wanted to hear or not) and helped me to learn about this craft. First Command was not the first novel I wrote. Not even close.

And I’m thankful to my readers. Without you, none of this would be possible.

As I write this I am hard at work on a sequel. I don’t have a release date yet, but this website is the place to stay tuned for news on that front. Add your name to my mailing list if you want me to notify you directly when its coming.

Thank you.

E-book: A Great Gift Idea!

An e-book makes a great, affordable holiday gift.

Top 7 Reasons to Give an E-book

  1. E-books will help you save $$$.
    E-books are available for a fraction of the cost of paperbacks, or many other typical gifts. Most e-books, particularly those produced by independent authors, cost less than $5.00.
  2. Sharing a book with someone can strengthen your relationship, because reading the same book generates a shared experience that can go much deeper than simply watching a movie together.
  3. No packaging going into the landfill.
  4. E-books can make a great top-up gift.
    Is your Secret Santa gift limit $20, but the scented candles you got were only $15?
    E-books can help round out theme gift packages.
    You could even buy multiple e-books and give your favorite science fiction fan a “sci-fi sampler.”
  5. An e-book is the thought that counts. Gifting a book tells a person that you’ve thought about them, their interests, dreams and aspirations.
  6. You can purchase and send an e-book instantaneously!
    Not sure if your gifts will be delivered by Christmas Day?
    On your way to a party and realize you forgot a gift?
    Someone gives you a gift you weren’t expecting and you want to reciprocate?
    Waited until Dec. 24th and now the stores are closed?
    No problem. With a phone and an internet connection you can get anyone a thoughtful gift in a matter of seconds.
  7. Supporting Independent Authors
    Many authors, particularly in genre fiction, are independent entrepreneurs these days. In most payment models 60 – 70% of the purchase price goes directly to the independent authors.

No Kindle? No Problem!

If you don’t know whether or not the person you’re shopping for has a Kindle or some other e-book specific device… no problem. They can still enjoy your e-book gift.

So long as you have some kind of device… a cell phone, a tablet, a computer… all you have to do is install the free kindle app. In fact it’s right here: free kindle app. Did I mention it’s free?

Still too complicated? Another free solution is the Kindle Cloud Reader. This allows you to access your e-book using a web browser.

Don’t want to go with Kindle? Also not a problem. The free Barnes & Noble Nook app is right here. It’s also quite free.

How to Gift an E-book

You really only need the email address of the person you’re gifting the e-book to.

On Amazon.com

Note that the amazon.com option seems only to be available for US customers.

  1. Navigate to the amazon.com Kindle store and find the e-book you want to give. Make sure the Kindle version of the book is selected. (It’s okay if you still want to purchase a paperback, I won’t tell.)
  2. Click on “Give as a Gift.”


  3. Fill out the recipient’s email address, add in a quick gift message, and select a delivery date.

On Barnes & Noble

This seems to be available as an option for those outside the US.

  1. Navigate to the Barnes & Noble page of the e-book you want to give. Make sure the “nook” version of the book is selected.
  2. Click on “Buy as Gift.”

  3. Fill out the recipient’s email address, add in a quick gift message, and select a delivery date.

What To Say in the Awkward Gift Message Section

There’s no pressure to write anything fancy here. Simple phrases like Merry Christmas! or Happy Holidays! will do. Or there’s my personal favorite: Best enjoyed with copious amounts of dark chocolate.
If you want something a little more thoughtful, try:

I really enjoyed this book when I read it myself. I thought you might enjoy it too.

I know you love science fiction/romance/mystery/etc. novels.

Looking forward to spending more time with you in the New Year. Until then, maybe we can read a few books together.

Remember to take some time for yourself. Relax. And escape into an adventure.

Maintaining Motivation as a Writer

We’re halfway through National Novel Writing Month already. For many writers taking part in this 50,000 word challenge this is often the hard part… pushing yourself through that story middle. Some writers even refer to it as a “muddle.” All the new and shiny sparkles have worn off. The adrenaline and excitement associated with what was possible have now given way to about half of a first draft of a story. There might be parts you like. There are certainly parts you don’t. And when life comes knocking at your door, it’s certainly tempting to throw in the towel.

Here are my top tips to help maintain motivation as you slog through your story’s muddle.

Photo by S Migaj on Pexels.com

Read Something Inspiring

This is a great time to be reading something in your genre that you love. Go back to a favorite author, download an audiobook and listen to one of those stories that really connects with you during your commute, or while you’re doing some of those chores you can’t put off until December. Immersing yourself in a great story can help to fill you with inspiration to keep going.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

What you’re writing during NaNoWriMo is a first draft. That’s it. There’s a good chance that a lot of the material in the first draft won’t ever see the light of day, so it’s totally okay if you’re not happy with it. The whole point of it being there is just to get the basic idea down. You can edit in December.

Skip the Boring Parts

A lot of writers feel the need to write the story chronologically, because that’s how we experience stories as readers. But there’s no rule that says it has to be like this. When you’re stuck, it’s often because you’re so deeply emerged in your story that you’ve lost sight of the bigger picture. Part B needs to happen so characters can get from A to C. But if B is just a description of your character’s day… skip it. Go straight to C, that scene that your mind keeps racing to. Focus on that and get it down. Sometimes when that happens, it gives you ideas for B, or you might even realize you don’t need B if nothing critical is happening. Instead, write that juicy scene that makes your pulse race.

Stay Regular

Getting through a marathon challenge like NaNoWriMo is all about consistency. Even if you’re not quite getting the word counts you want, as much as possible, try to be consistent with your writing time. Over time, this can help to trigger your brain to get into creative mode. Put in the time, keep putting words on the page and eventually you’ll get through that muddle.

Connect with Other Writers

Go to virtual write-ins. Talk with other writers who are struggling with similar problems. Bounce plot ideas off of each other. Even if you write in a different genre from other, writers are often more than willing to listen. And sometimes just talking through a problem can help you to see answers that hadn’t been there before.

Send In The Ninjas

If you’re stuck for a plot point, it’s time to think about the story from another point of view. How are things looking from the antagonist’s point of view? If things aren’t going according to their initial plan, send in a hoard of ninjas or pirates to attack and otherwise disrupt the status quo.

Another way of thinking about this is asking: what is the worst possible thing that could happen to your main character right now? Run with that for a while and see where it takes you.

Take Care of Yourself

Outside of novel-writing, make sure that you’re keeping a reasonable balance in your life. Sleep, nutrition, exercise and socialization. I know… a lot of that takes away from writing time. But you can only sacrifice so much for time in the writing chair. Making sure that you keep everything else in balance, helps to keep you at your creative peak when you do have writing time.

My Top Hack for National Novel Writing Month

Writing 50,000 words in 30 days can be a daunting task, even for prolific writers. The idea behind National Novel Writing Month is that during November you lock away your inner editor–that voice that tells you what you’re writing is not good enough–sit at the keyboard, and just write.

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To reach 50,000 words by the end of the month you need to put down 1667 words per day. Those can come relatively easily at the beginning of the month, when your story idea is fresh, you’re caught up on your sleep, and there’s no need to think much about how each event in the story connects with prior events. It’s like when you start running a long distance race. At the beginning you’re body is full of adrenaline.

But as the days go on, the challenges pile up. The story gets more complicated. And much like a marathon, the further you go, the more tired you can become.

If there’s one tip I’ve found that really helps it’s this:

Write 100 Words First

That’s it. Just write 100 words.

Don’t think about the 1667 words you need for your daily word count. Don’t think about the 50,000 words (or more) that you need to complete your novel. Just write out 100 words.

Sit down at your computer/tablet/notebook etc. Don’t check email. Don’t check your social media accounts. Don’t go to your news app. Don’t dig out your snacks and coffee. Don’t play a warm-up round of solitaire. Just open up your word processor and your novel’s file and write 100 words.

Once you write those first 100 words, THEN you can do any of that other stuff.

Why 100 Words First Works

Focusing on 100 words lowers a kind of psychological action potential. One of the reasons people procrastinate is because a difficult task that lies ahead of us can seem overwhelming when seen as a whole. And often that can lead to us falling into unproductive, but comfortable and rewarding routines, where we feel insulated from the unpleasant aspects of the daunting task. Checking Instagram or Twitter can give us little dopamine rewards that balance the anxiety of starting to write. You need a certain amount of will power to break out of those routines. And the bigger the task, the greater the amount of will power you generally need.

100 words is easy. It’s a few sentences. It’s that paragraph above.

And it gets you doing the desired task.

Sometimes you write that 100 words and it’s a tough slog. Sure. But on the other hand, sometimes you get through that 100 words and that’s all that’s needed for your to slip into your ZONE.100 becomes 200, then 400. And before you know it, you’ve reached your daily word count.

My Top Tips to Prepare for National Novel Writing Month


For those crazy enough to accept the challenge of writing a 50k word novel for National Novel Writing Month, even though it’s not quite November yet, there are still lots of things you can do to set yourself up for success. As a successful author who’s completed this challenge every year since 2002, here are some of my top tips to help you reach that goal.
(Even if you’re a pantser!)

Image courtesy of NaNoWriMo

Get Involved

Find your nearest NaNoWriMo region. They’re all listed on the National Novel Writing Month website – just set up your home region and check out the forums. You can meet other writers, buddy up as a means of mutual support, ask questions, get tips, etc. They can also help to hold you accountable. On top of that, wonderful volunteers called “Municipal Liaisons” or MLs will have all sorts events like virtual plot planning sessions, write-ins, kick-off parties, etc.

Set Up a Time Budget

Step one is figuring out how long it takes you, on average to write 1667 works (your daily required word count). Sit down and write something a few thousand words long. It can’t be part of your novel, but a character backstory, or something set in the same world are perfectly acceptable. Time yourself. The total time you took, divided by the number of words you write, times 1667 is your best estimate for how much time you’ll need each day. (For me this is typically about two hours.)

Then look at a calendar and figure out where in each day, this time is going to fit in. For example, if you’re going to need two hours, you might set your alarm early to give yourself an hour before you have to get ready for work or school. Then maybe you can fit in 20 minutes over a lunch break. And that means that you’ll need another 40 minutes or so in the evenings.

Building on this it also helps to get out a calendar and identify those days where it’s likely to be a challenge to find any time. Balance those out with days where you can squeeze in some extra.

Of course you can’t time life to the minute. On some days the words may not flow as easily. Others will be filled with “unforeseeables.” But planning out your writing time will at least help you in keeping your writing goals in balance with all the other demands in your life.

Tell People What You’re Doing

Most people genuinely want others to accomplish their goals. (On a fundamental level, one could argue this is THE fundamental premise of all fiction.) When the non-writers in your life know what you’re doing, they’ll be less likely to disturb you when you steal away at lunch for a half an hour with your laptop or tablet to type out a few words and they’ll give you the space to lock yourself in your home office for an hour early in the morning or late at night.

This will also help your friends and family to understand that you’re not intentionally shutting them out for a month. You’re just focusing on accomplishing a goal.

Get Your House in Order

Reaching 50k while juggling everything else in life is all about time management. The time leading up to November is great to get as many of those little time-heavy chores done as you can to free up time once the insanity starts. Clean your house. Organize your desk. Get the snow tires on the car. Change the batteries in the smoke detectors.

It can also help to plan out meals and do a big grocery shop to stock up on supplies for the month.

This is also the time to get ahead on work or school projects where possible. Work a little extra in October so you will have less to get done in November.

Also, this is a good time to spend extra time with those people who are important to you. Go for a fall hike. Call your mom. Make your spouse a favorite meal.

Take Good Care of Yourself

This is an obvious one, but sometimes it’s important to state it anyway as a reminder. Writing a 50k novel in 30 days is emotionally exhausting. And it can be physically challenging too (carpal tunnel, repetitive strain injury, consequences if improper ergonomics, etc.) In preparing for such an endeavor it’s important to take care of yourself: get adequate sleep, eat healthy, exercise, socialize, allow yourself some down time as well.

Read Something Awesome

If you’re like me, your writing tends to mimic whatever it is you’re reading at the time. So in the leadup to NaNoWriMo it can really help to find a story you’re excited about, an author whose style you really admire and ideally something similar in genre to what you’re planning to write.