November is just around the corner. And as the rest of the (western) world gears up for Halloween, a procrastination* of writers from all corners of the Earth are busy preparing for the ultimate novel writing challenge of typing out 50,000 words is 30 days. (Well, those of us who are plotters anyways. To pantsers it’s just a regular month until midnight on Oct. 31.)
National Novel Writing Month is a self-challenge that started about 20 years ago. Over the years it’s grown into a community with chapters in most major cities, where writers congregate at write-ins (in person or virtually) and encourage each other to get those creative juices flowing and simply write.
Why 50,000 words?
50k is relatively short in terms of a novel. It’s pretty typical for a western and some forms of romance. Science fiction, urban fantasy and thriller novels tend to come in at around the 80k mark. Epic fantasy tends be somewhat longer.
At 50k though, no matter what your genre, you can safely say you’ve written the bulk of a novel. Some people bump up the goal to something closer to a full novel. But to accomplish 50k in 30 days you need to average out about 1667 words per day. For me that’s a commitment of about 2 hours per day on average. For most writers with day jobs, that 1667 words per day tends to hit a sweet spot of manageability.
And if that’s too intimidating, the goal is scalable. You can aim for 20k, or 190k if you want. In my experience, the NaNoWriMo community is all about encouraging writers to meet that goals that work best for them.
While no time is ever perfect, November is an awesome month to take on a big writing project. Halloween has wound down. The weather turns cold. It’s a good time to cozy up in front of a laptop with a warm drink of choice, dig out some treats, and open up a brand new a fictional world.
But if you write that fast, will it be any good?
No. Not at all. It will be the first draft of your manuscript. And as Hemmingway said, the first draft of anything is [word inappropriate for a family friendly blog]. Sure, there are people who can pound out something that’s pretty decent the first go around. Most of us write crap.
But you can edit a crappy first draft, and make it less crappy.
The point is that you turn your inner editor off. That voice inside your head that tells you that your writing isn’t good enough, that it’s boring or unoriginal–that voice gets an all expenses paid vacation to Nowhere. During November, you’re allowed to write crap, because that’s what gets you into that creative “zone.” Some writers describe this as flow. The ideas come fast and in real time. As a writer you experience a nearly complete immersion in your fictional world.
What if I fail?
Jack Canfield, one of the co-authors of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, has this anecdote about a goal he set for himself of earning $100,000 in a calendar year at a time when he wasn’t even making about $8,000. He went through all of these positive visualization exercises, posted a fake $100,000 bill over his bed, and set out on an array of different paths to sell enough copies of his book to hit that goal. At the end of the year, he failed. He missed his goal and he only earned about $92,000. But he went from $8,000 to $92,000!
Let’s say you set out to write 50k works and life happens. You fall short. You only hit 10k. You’ve still written 10k words of a novel!
How to Sign Up
Getting involved is easy. Just head on over to the NaNoWriMo signup page. It’s also worth noting that the official organizers are a registers nonprofit group that focuses on the promotion of writing fluency and education.
Once you’re signed up, you can search out a local region. Amazing volunteers call municipal liaisons organize community events all through November–including planning events in October, and TGIO events in December. You can also buddy-up with other writers through the website, maybe find someone who has similar goals or who writes in a similar genre. These are great ways to connect with other writers.
*I don’t actually know the proper term for a collection of writers. I’m going with a procrastination for now, because it seems oddly appropriate. But if anyone is aware of a better term, please let me know.
With new exoplanets being discovered on a regular basis, it’s only natural to wonder about the possibility of humans actually exploring, and even establishing permanent settlements on them in the future.
But we know that a lot of planets are just not likely to be that hospitable to us. Toxic atmospheres. Crushing gravity. Extreme temperatures. The details of what we’re looking for in the galactic real-estate market are dictated by our own limits of survivability. So, in the grand scheme of things, how robust are humans really?
1. Ionizing Radiation
In space, high energy particles and photons can tear through your cells like microscopic cannon balls, doing damage that can kill individual cells and even induce cancer. But radiation is around us in some form all the time here on Earth in the back ground. Our bodies are quite well adapted to what’s in the background. According to the International Commission on Radiological Protection Report 103, your lifetime risk for getting cancer or other undesirable genetic effects goes up by about 4 % for every 1.0 Sv of radiation exposure one receives. Unfortunately the probability of developing superpowers is much, much less… even if the exposure comes from the bite of a radioactive spider. Here on Earth, the atmosphere protects us from much of the cosmic radiation in space. Typical background dose rates work out to around 0.003 Sv per year. This comes from those cosmic rays that do reach us, terrestrial sources in the ground, radon gas, and you know… the potassium 14 in bananas. But in Ramsar, Iran, background doses have been recorded up to 0. 260 Sv per year (although looking a little deeper, it seems typical doses are closer to about 0.010 Sv per year), and people have been living there for generations without the kinds of problems one might expect. Some scientists have even argued that these elevated exposures can result in overall beneficial health effects, though this is an ongoing debate. The International Atomic Energy Agency establishes limits for people who regularly work with ionizing radiation at about 0.020 Sv per year, so that’s probably a reasonable upper limit for any would-be astronaut colonists.
The good news is that many forms of radiation can be mitigated. Alpha particles have a tiny range through most matter. Even most photons can be shielded with enough concrete. So if the radiation levels are the only problem, it might be something we can mitigate.
2. Air and the Need to Breathe
Normal air here on Earth is about 78 % nitrogen and almost 21% oxygen. The remaining one point something percent is argon, with trace amounts of carbon dioxide, and a few other elements mixed in, but it’s the oxygen that’s important to us humans. The minimum oxygen concentration necessary for humans to function normally is about 19.5%. Technically humans can “survive” O2 concentrations down to about 6%, but it wouldn’t be pleasant. Below that 19.5%, threshold, you can have impaired mental function, loss of coordination and exhaustion quickly sets in – getting worse with the less O2 you have. With too much oxygen humans and other forms of Earth life will generally be okay, but fire and explosion risks go up. Optimal oxygen levels established by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration are in the range of 19.5% to 23.5%.
And it’s not just a case of concentration either. As anyone who’s ever spent any time at high altitudes can tell you, pressure is important too. At sea level, atmospheric pressure is about 100 kPa. Oxygen partial pressure is about 20 kPa (there’s a slight adjustment for water vapor). Pressure decreases with altitude. At Mt Everest base camp (5500 m above sea level) the pressure is about half of that at sea level–that means half the partial pressure of oxygen. This loss of pressure reduces the efficiency of gas exchange in one’s lungs and this can lead to all the pleasant side effects of altitude sickness.
You also have to worry about toxic effects with other gases. One particular concern with space flight is carbon dioxide toxicity. On average humans produce CO2 at a rate of about half a liter per minute (and that’s just existing as a human, not including driving or generating electricity by burning fossil fuels). That can accumulate pretty fast. On spacecraft and submarines, carbon dioxide is removed with zeolite scrubbers–chemical sponges that soak it up. While typical air only has trace amounts of carbon dioxide, when it builds up it can become toxic leading to cardiac arrhythmias and impaired consciousness. Above 10% and you’re in serious trouble… convulsions, coma and death. Generally it seems that recommendations are to keep the levels below about 1%.
The chances of finding a planet with a breathable atmosphere are quite low. On the other hand, humans are pretty good at bubbling up and bringing our atmosphere with us. If this is the only problem, it’s another one good engineering can solve.
This is something else humans have lots of experience regulating. Arguably the hottest inhabited place on earth is Dallol, Ethiopia, with an average temperature of about 31 C, and summer heat pushing 40 C. On the other end of the spectrum is Oymyakon, Russia with a lowest recorded temperature of -66.7 C in 1933. With heating an air conditioning, we can of course go to further extremes. Temperatures outside the International Space Station can reach as high as 121 C on the sunny side and -157 C on the dark side.
Of course, the more extreme the temperatures get, the more costly the endeavor. Ideally we’d want to inhabit a planet where liquid water could exist naturally, at least some of the time. So in this sense, we’d still be looking for interplanetary real-estate in the Goldilocks zone. Too far outside of that and you can probably still go there, but it would be too costly to stay long term.
I once had an astrophysics professor who was fond of telling us that gravity runs the show.
We know humans can survive over the long term even in the complete absence of gravity. Sort of. Unfortunately without gravity humans experience progressive bone loss due to an absence of stress on their bones, vestibular problems, elevated blood pressure , and muscle atrophy. Of course in the short term… it’s totally awesome! So on that end, there really isn’t a lower limit.
It’s the other end of the scale that really limits us. When gravity gets stronger than what we’re used to on earth, everything gets more challenging. Eventually you reach a point where your bones would be crushed under your own weight. According to this article, which is based on a paper eventually published in The Physics Teacher in 2019, the upper limit of what humans could endure is about four-and-a-half times what we experience here on Earth. Of course, even then you’re limited to only taking a few steps at a time, and you’ve have to be as strong as Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson to do it. (He’s the World’s Strongest Man winner who played Ser Gregor Clegane, the Mountain That Rides, in the Game of Thrones.) For the rest of us, that upper limit is probably closer to three times Earth’s gravity.
Gravity is one of the harder problems to solve from an engineering point of view. When air is a problem, you can build a “bubble” habitat. You can shield people from radiation. But on a given planet, you’re more-or-less stuck with the gravity it comes with. One potential solution might be to use high gravity planets simply as a source of raw materials to build massive space stations where the gravity might be more manageable, but again, it’s going to be expensive.
Heroes. Main characters. Protagonists. Just about all great stories follow them. And as readers, when one connects with us, we’ll follow them through Hell and back. But what makes a character worth reading about? We all have those guilty pleasure characters where we struggle point to any objective reason for following, but still do. So what are the qualities of heroes that resonate with readers?
1. Unique Identity Something about your character needs to stand out. There’s a sea of hero characters out there. To get that resonance with readers, before you can make that connection, your reader needs a way to easily and quickly identify that character. If you think about George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books, he has a vast array of protagonists. And not only that but he breaks one of the cardinal rules of naming characters, giving them all similar names. And yet for fans, it’s easy to identify each character. We don’t mix up King Robert Baratheon with the King in the North Rob Stark, even though they’re both “Roberts.” Or look at the massive success of the translation of comic book heroes to the big screen. Spiderman, Batman, Thor, Captain Marvel, Groot… they all have deeply unique characteristics that allow even casual observers to distinguish the signal from the noise. Even a character like James Bond, who Ian Fleming specifically intended as a bland “anybody” character… he stands out from the background because of the extraordinary world of international espionage that swirls around him.
As a “1(b)” it’s also important to recognize that what’s unique right now, might not be in a few years. When a character like James Bond is successful, that character inspires clones. The clones are typically only successful when they have a unique edge themselves. Consider Jason Bourne–the spy with the lost memory.
2. Familiar Struggles In contrast to the first point, the next ingredient is something deeply familiar. There’s a reason why the Harry Potter books open up with Harry suffering under the care of the Dursleys. The experience of feeling overlooked, ignored, or bullied, is familiar, especially to young readers. It’s the same reason Peter Parker can’t get a date with Mary Jane Watson. Most people recognize that feeling of crushing on someone who’s out of reach. Tyrion Lannister struggles with his dwarfism, and sure the specifics of that particular affliction may not be familiar to most people, but when interpreted in a metaphorical sense, we’ve all felt like the underdog at some point in our education, career, or social setting. Characters resonate with readers when the readers can easily identify with the personal challenges those characters face.
3. An Strong Skill Set Audiences enjoy engaging with characters who possess and demonstrate at least one strong skill. That said, a strong character doesn’t need to be a world champion martial artist, neurosurgeon, billionaire who climbed Mt. Everest while fostering twenty six refugee children. In fact it’s easy to go overboard on this one. But I think whatever challenges you’re going to throw at your characters, they need to (eventually) be matched to the task. Often this skill can be linked to the first point-the character’s unique identity. And sometimes (often) the skill isn’t that obvious. Take the character of Daniel LaRusso from the original Karate Kid. On the surface one could argue his skill is karate, but looking a little deeper, one could argue that the real trait that defines this character is persistence. He’s willing to wax the cars, sand the floor, paint the fence and the house… to keep showing up regardless of how mundane and taxing Mr. Miyagi’s tasks are for him.
4. Vulnerability Even Superman has kryptonite. Just as a character needs to have the skills to confront the challenges of the story, the outcome can’t be predetermined. If we know from the outset that Frodo is absolutely immune to the temptation of power the Ring presents, The Lord of the Rings is just a story about a hike through Middle Earth. Vulnerabilities draw into question the outcome of the narrative. And, as with point 2 above, they give the character depth, and make them seem more real.
5. Rebel I got this one from James Scott Bell. One really quick way to define an engaging character is to have them rebel against the status quo. According to the Hero’s Journey dogma, all stories start either literally or at least metaphorically in a regular world where there’s something wrong with the status quo. Harry Potter lives in a closet under the stairs, Panem controls the 12 districts using the Hunger Games, the “Empire” rules the far far away galaxy. In one way or another, characters that resonate with readers ten to refuse to accept that status quo. From the beginning they’re defined by a hope for something better. Being rebellious also suggests that perhaps the character is going to be willing to break some rules to achieve their goals. And though we may not always agree with their methods, breaking the rules draws attention.
6. Something Likeable Not everyone agrees with this one. But for me to invest any serious time in following a character, something about them has to be likeable. That doesn’t mean I have to like everything about them. I don’t even need to morally approve of everything they do. But if I don’t like anything about character pretty quickly in a story, it’s hard to keep caring about what happens to them.
Usually this is shown by the character doing something altruistic. They have friends they look out for or they try to help someone in need. In Game of Thrones, even though Tyrion is a Lannister, when he first meets John they are two outsiders who bond… all dwarves are bastards in their fathers’ eyes.
And in the case of anti-heroes, sure, maybe you don’t need to like the anti-hero. But you should like something about the characters around them because that gives you a reason to follow the anti-hero to see whether or not their nefarious goals are attained.
7. Agency By agency, I mean that above all else the character needs to act, to make choices (even if they’re not always the correct ones), to sit in the driver’s seat and drive the outcome of their story. When a story “happens to” someone it’s challenging to engage as a reader because it feels as if the outcome is predetermined, and we’re just grinding through a process toward an inevitable conclusion. But when characters take responsibility and make those critical decisions, suddenly we’re engaged because as a reader we have the opportunity to observe consequences and potentially learn something.
Agency was something I tried hard to focus on in First Command. The main character, Cassi, and her crew of astronaut cadets end up stranded on an alien world (as a direct consequence of a rebellious decision that Cassi made). The story progresses through a series of decisions… leave the downed spacecraft?… trust the stranger from the pirate crew?… drink the alien water?… all of which have a direct impact on their survival.
Of all the traits that make a strong character that audiences are willing to invest in, I think agency is ultimately the most important.
As an aspiring writer there are few experiences more terrifying than having your fledgling work read out loud in front of a live audience, while a panel of American Idol-like judges sit and the front of the room, waiting like rabid dogs to tear it to shreds.
Welcome to the Live Action Slush.
One of my favorite writing conferences is Calgary’s When Words Collide. I started attending back in 2015, following members of my writing group up to Calgary, Alberta for a weekend in August just to check it out. At the time I was an aspiring writer, and I did a lot of writing, but most of it hadn’t seen much in the way of public exposure.
If you believe the 10,000 hours to mastery concept, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown and Company, 2008), you know that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to truly master any skill. One of the conditions that comes along with this notion is that the practice must be accompanied with useful, critical feedback.
That critical feedback is often what’s missing for a lot of writers.
Literary agents and publishers who accept manuscript submissions directly from authors, have huge numbers of submissions to sort through. Typically an agent can receive between three and ten thousand queries per year. That accumulates into what’s commonly referred to as a “slush pile.” This is a hold over from the days when manuscripts were paper-based and agents would have piles of potential Pulitzer Prize winners to read though.
Agents, editors and their minions read through these very quickly. Often they’ll read only the first page or so, and they do it looking for any excuse to toss the manuscript into the “no” bin.
Unfortunately, with that many queries to get through, it’s rare that anyone takes the time to offer feedback on any given manuscript. So as an author, you’re stuck waiting for weeks to months to hear back and then when you do, it’s often just a polite form rejection (if you get any rejection at all).
The Live Action Slush exercise opens up that process, so the audience gets to see what it looks like from an editor or agent’s point of view.
At the front of the room sit a panel of about four or five judges with experience in the industry… conference guests who are editors, agents or sometimes very successful published authors. Writers can submit the first page (double-spaced) of their work into a pile. A reader randomly choses from the manuscripts and reads them out loud to the audience, including the judges.
As they listen, the panelists will raise their hand if they reach a point where they would toss the manuscript into the reject pile. If three or more panelists raise their hands the audience will shout out “stop” (or sometimes something more cruel or entertaining like “die”) and that’s it.
The judges then explain what it was that they didn’t like about the manuscript and why it would get a “no.” Some of the most common offenders include:
Too much up front backstory
A slow or unremarkable opening… a character wakes up, looks out a window and surveys the land
Grammatical or structural flaws in the writing that trip the reader up
Shifting points of view
Common openings… a dream, two characters sparring
As you know, Bob…
Occasionally, you get story that makes it though to the end. In these situations the panelists will explain what they liked about the story.
I’ve even seen instances where agents/editors will invite the writer to submit the manuscript based on the live action slush reading!
The judging is also blind. Writers submit anonymously and so if your story is massacred, no will will even know you wrote it. You get the feedback, while you quietly look around the room with your chin up as if to question who wrote such rubbish!
What you learn, not just from your own work but from listening to everyone else’s submissions as well are where the pitfalls are, and perhaps more importantly, you get to see what works and hear why it works. You also get feedback on what agents and editors are seeing up to that moment… what the current trends are. If three agents say, “I liked the manuscript by I have ten zombie romances that I’m trying to sell right now and another hundred in my current slush pile,” it’s probably not a good year to submit your zombie romance.
The judges don’t always agree, either. Sometimes rather loudly. This goes to show how much of the process is subjective and that sometimes a rejection from one person may simply be an unfavorable opinion.
Regardless of how the experience turns out, live action slushes are a great opportunity for feedback on your work. When I wrote the opening to First Command, I certainly had my live action slush experiences in mind. That feedback got me from an opening that certainly needed some work to:
“This is a fabulous and exciting opening, full of tension that pulls the reader instantly into the story.” (A quote from my editor.)
Story telling is common to all human cultures. But why are people driven to tell and read or listen to stories?
Humans understand the world through narrative. We use stories to make sense of our experiences and to share those experiences with each other. We use them to communicate ideas, to decode complexity in the world, and to organize our thoughts and dreams.
Though many of us take reading for granted, it really is an astounding experience. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, you can stare at a bunch of funny dark squiggles and this transports you into the mind of another person, perhaps even someone dead for thousands of years.
Story… Our Evolutionary Advantage
In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, historian Yuval Noah Harari argues that one of the primary advantages that we as Homo Sapiens have is our ability to tell stories. It is this trait that allowed us to dominate over other fledgling intelligent species.
According to sociological research, the maximum size of a group of humans held together by common experience and gossip is about 150. Beyond that, it’s exceedingly difficult to really get to know anyone or coordinate common activities.
Unless you can tell effective stories. In a broad context that means communicating non-physical concepts like a common value system for items trades or a common explanation for the weather. The power of stories is that they enable a virtually unlimited number of strangers to cooperate and work toward common goals.
“In a one-on-one brawl, a Neanderthal would probably have beaten a Sapiens. But in a conflict of hundreds, Neanderthals wouldn’t stand a chance. Neanderthals could share information about the whereabouts of lions, but they probably could not tell–and revise–stories about tribal spirits. Without an ability to to compose fiction, Neanderthals were unable to cooperate effectively in large numbers, nor could they adapt their social behaviour to rapidly changing challenges.”
– Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens
What’s Going on in the Brain When You Read?
The human brain is great at pattern recognition. Visually, we learn very quickly to identify faces. Auditorily, we learn sounds and music.
When we read, a part of our brain called the “visual word form area” in the left occipito-temporal cortex decodes the letter patterns, interpreting a word as a visual pattern–we see words as little pictures. This pattern is then linked to its phonetical elements. That means that as we read, we hear the written words in our head. Other parts of the brain are then used to perform the linguistic decoding, ultimately deciphering the word’s meaning through a neural pattern where the word is placed the context of the sentence, which is placed in the context of the greater narrative.
In 2006 a Spanish study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showed that reading the word cinnamonactivates olfactory regions of the brain. (Basically fMRI works by sensing changes in oxygenation and blood flow in the brain in response to neural activity–when a specific part of your brain is active, the fMRI signal lights up.) Of course, this study has been expanded on in the last decade and a half. Words like “perfume” or “coffee” also activate the primary olfactory cortex while control worlds like “chair” or “key” do not. Action words like “lick, kick, or bite” have been associated with activation of the primary motor cortex, suggesting that they trigger a mental simulation of the motor act without the associated overt body movement. Similarly metaphors involving texture like “he had leathery hands” activate the sensory cortex.
What all of this means is that the act of reading does more than just play a movie in your head. Your brain is actively engaged in simulating the experience you’re reading about. To the brain, in many respects, it feels as if what happens in the story has happened to you, or at least someone close to you.
This is why your pulse races in those moments of suspense with the monster is sneaking up on an unsuspecting hero, or when your eyes tear up at the end of every dog story ever.
And that’s why reading is so important. It allows us to efficiently expand our cumulative catalogue of experiences in life beyond our own physical, social, financial, etc. boundaries. And we can do it safely and relatively free of negative consequences. Other research points to correlations between reading and higher degrees of empathy, emotional intelligence, and measures of social development.
Of course, maybe that’s all relatively obvious. And I suppose there are some implied caveats. I would imagine, for example that a lot can depend on the details of what a person reads.
When it comes to my own genre of science fiction, for example, will reading it make you smarter?
Well, reading I, Robot is certainly not the same as taking an introductory course in machine learning. But I think one of the most important things that science fiction can do is inspire further engagement with science. It can increase one’s vocabulary and exposure to ideas. And certainly, there are lots of examples where speculation in science fiction has led to actual technological advancements.
I would argue that even if we are able to develop virtual reality to a completely immersive experience, reading is unlikely to go away. Reading fiction gives the reader the capacity not just to experience sensation, but to enter into a character’s thoughts. We see how characters react to their circumstances and how they assume agency, make decisions and take action.
So pick up a book, because reading and sharing stories is one our human superpowers.
Ever wonder about the process of how an author goes from idea to finished product?
This is something I’m often asked about by readers. It took me about two years to go from my initial idea for First Command to a final product. I’m sure the process varies from author to author, but here’s an overview of the process from my point of view.
Where do authors get their ideas?
Most authors really have no idea. It’s generally not online plot generators though. For the most part ideas for science fiction stories come from from a combination of personal experiences, curiosity, deep thought about the directions our own world is heading in, and exposure to the works and ideas of others through reading.
For many authors, myself included, idea generation is rarely the bottleneck in the process. In fact the main problem is often that there are so many ideas percolating in one’s mind, it’s challenging to latch on to one long enough to really develop it.
With First Command I started out wanting to write something that would be accessible to my own children at the middle grade level, and yet mature enough that adult audiences would enjoy. So I started with a team of cadets training to be astronauts. Some of the most important questions a writer can ask once they have a basic premise are…
What’s the most critical moment in these characters’ lives?
What the worst possible thing that could happen?
World Building and Character Creation
Ever wonder how writers keep entire fictional universes in order? That’s where world building comes in.
World building is the process of creating a fictional environment. Many writers will draw maps, write little backstories, generate character genealogy trees, or fill out character sheets to keep help solidify specific traits of the world and the characters within it. In science fiction authors can also spend a lot of time thinking about the science and technology in their universes. See for example my posts on travelling faster than light or the search for alien life.
Some people enjoy world building so much it becomes a hobby in and of itself.
Writers vary considerably in the degree to which they world build. I tend to do it on an as-necessary basis. For the Colonial Alliance Universe, at some point I had to establish a canon for all the little details that while they might not matter to the casual reader, are important to me as an author. For example, take spacecraft classification. A lot of writers default to navy terms for spacecraft, because that’s familiar. In First Command, the cadets are tasked with flying the Triumph, an old corvette that’s been decommissioned from the expeditionary fleet. I needed to call it something. I knew it was small and initially I’d been calling it a frigate, but after doing some research I decided that an expeditionary corvette was perhaps the most suitable name.
Somewhere I have a set of notes detailing spacecraft classifications along with details like crew size, how crews are organized, into which departments, how many astronaut officers and crew each contains and the like.
Plotting vs. Pantsing
Plotting This the act of preparing a detailed outline of your novel from beginning to end, mapping out each individual scene. It includes writing out character arcs and sub-plots. Some authors use templates known as “beat sheets” that help writers to organize the story by word count.
The advantages of plotting are generally pretty obvious. You start out with an organized story. And sometimes it can help make the process shorter in the long run because those scenes you think might be important in the beginning but really aren’t can be axed before you even write them.
Pantsing This is the art of writing “by the seat of your pants.” No plot? No problem. Just sit down with a character and a situation and keep making things worse for the character based on the decisions they make until you reach a cathartic moment or final crisis to serve as the climax of the story.
The main advantage of this approach for a writer is that you get to live in the moment of the story and watch it unfold in real time, as you’re writing. Also, there’s less time investment before you get to write. Some people can do this naturally and produce wonderful, coherent stories even in a first draft. Often though, my experience is that this approach can lead you into a lot of dead ends.
Plantsing This is what happens to your pants when you sit on the fence.
Personally I find I write best when I have at least a brief outline to follow. That’s because I have a hectic day job and sometimes it can be days between opportunities to write. Also, sometimes I don’t have a lot of time at any given sitting to write. An outline really helps to keep me on track.
“The first draft of anything is shit.” – Ernest Hemingway
I think this is what most non-writers think of when then envision someone writing. You sit at your computer, and type out a story. A typical novel is about 80,000 words long. When I’m in the groove, I can write at about 1000 words per hour. But it takes time to get into the groove, and some days you just don’t find it no matter what you do.
The first draft is all about getting the story down. The characters come alive for the first time and they tell the story. Writers scramble to organize thoughts into something coherent. Exercises like National Novel Writing Month encourage writers to ignore any urges to edit and lock away any feelings that what they are creating isn’t good enough and just delve deep into that creative zone to get the story written.
Getting to “the end” is an exhilarating experience, but completing the first draft is far from the end of the writing process, particularly for someone like me.
This is the process of making sense of the story that your characters have told you.
When people think of editing, many envision what’s called proof reading, i.e. checking for spelling mistakes. That’s later in the process. Once you have a first draft, you can finally see the story as a whole. This is when you have to start making surgical amputations and reconstructions. Some writers will cut out entire scenes or chapters because nothing really happens. You look for long paragraphs of exposition (known as “info dumps”), convict them of the crime of being boring and sent them to the guillotine. You look for logical coherence and fill in any plot holes that you can find.
This is not a single pass operation either. I probably went through First Command about three or four times on my own before sharing it with anyone else.
Editor: Developmental/Substantive Edits
Once you’re reasonably happy with your baby, it’s time to lift up the swaddling cloth and let a few others have a peek. You have to be careful about doing this. The world can be cruel and when your baby looks anything like a book it is often without mercy.
In Megavoltage Publishing, we hire a professional editor. The first step is substantive editing. That’s editing that is aimed at ensuring the content is coherent. Here an independent professional with experience in the genre reviews the work and gives detailed feedback on story structure, content, style, etc. A good editor here will help the writer find their voice, and help develop the basic meat and bones of the story into the best possible version of itself.
For writers this is often the most challenging step because this is where someone else will tell them what needs to be cut out and added. It’s not just finding out whether or not your baby is ugly. It’s sitting in an office to find out whether or not your baby has a cancer that needs to be removed.
But going through the process produces a health, vibrant story on the other side. You will also come out with a much deeper understanding of what the story is about and who the target audience should be.
Editor: Line Edits/Copy Edits
Once you have a manuscript you’re happy with structurally, you can move on to copy edits. This is where a professional editor will go though the manuscript in detail to make sure the text is clear and grammatically correct. The editor will look for consistency in details–do characters have consistent eye color, if you chose to capitalize the work Marine, is that consistent all the way through? Can the reader understand what the writer means to convey? Are there cliché phrases or over-used words?
You can get a manuscript that comes back with a lot of red ink on it in this process, but for the most part, every change makes the story that much more accessible to your readers.
Advance Reader Team/Beta Readers
Before releasing the story to the world, many authors will have some kind of advance reader team that get to read the book before anyone else. They get copies for free in exchange for feedback. Sometimes the feedback can be as simple as thumbs up or down. Sometimes it can be a review for when the book is released. Advance readers who are fans of a series are also invaluable for their knowledge of the universe and can help tremendously with consistency.
I should also throw in a plug for author readings. Along the way in the process, authors should read their work to anyone willing to listen. Every opportunity to share is an opportunity to make the work that much better. You can do live action slush readings at conferences, read to a writing group, find an online critique group, etc. But feedback is tremendously important, not just to a given story, but also to writers in terms of development of their own skills.
This is where you take your word document and translate it into a full print or electronic book. One of the most exciting aspects of this is cover design. You get to establish what your book is going to look like when you present it to the world.
On top of the cover, you need to format the file for print. There are online services that help with this. You figure out front matter like your copyright statement, and dedication and at the back it’s important to add a follow up page, so if readers enjoyed the book they know where to look for your next project.
Next you put all of this into your formatting program of choice and it generates a book. This needs to be reviewed meticulously by the author. The point is to avoid words drifting off of a page or off-center paragraphs!
You thought edits were done? There’s one more stage… searching out those illusive typos that have survived to this point. Ideally there shouldn’t be a lot of them, but some of those guys are survivors. And I like to bury them deep too. Most are caught with basic word processors these days. But those programs are only so intelligent.
Some authors will rely on their advance reader team to catch these, but you can also hire freelance proofreaders.
And then finally you find a distribution company, go through their process.
One of the big decisions at this point is something called “going wide” or publishing with Kindle Direct Publishing “Select.” Kindle’s “Select” program is kind of like Netflix for books. Readers pay a subscription fee and get to read whatever is in their inventory for free. Authors get paid by the number of their pages that get read. But in order to do that your ebook has to be exclusive with them for a period of 90 days.
When someone goes “wide” they’re publishing on platforms other than Amazon, so Kobo, Apple, Google Books, Indigo -Chapters, etc. It also allows you to make your book available through your local library. That’s the direction I’ve gone with First Command.
So that’s it. That’s how you go from an initial idea for a story to a published novel.
Alien life is a staple of science fiction. In my latest novel, First Command, a crew of astronaut cadets crash land on a habitable planet and must survive an array of hostile life forms native to that world. But how likely is it that there actually is life on other planets?
Are we alone in universe?
The Drake Equation
In 1961 at the first Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) meeting, Astronomer Frank Drake proposed an equation to stimulate scientific dialogue on the topic. The equation is a means of estimating the number of intelligent alien civilizations that humans might make some form of contact with. While scientists don’t really expect it to come up with a precise value, it can still help guide efforts in this search. It also serves as a convenient way of breaking down the different dimensions of the problem–dimensions that span a wide array of sciences.
The Drake equation looks like this:
N – The number of alien civilizations that humans could communicate with. How many alien intelligences are we likely to be able to communicate with? 10,000? 1? If it’s much less than 1, then there isn’t much point in trying to communicate with anyone else. But if it’s a lot larger than 1, it rather begs the question so eloquently asked by the Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi… where is everybody?
To estimate this number, we consider seven (mostly) independent factors.
R* – The mean rate of star formation in our galaxy About 10 billion years in, the Milky Way galaxy has converted roughly 90 percent of its initial mass into stars. Initially R* was estimated at about 1 star per year, but some more current astronomical research puts this at about 7 per year and some estimates are as high as 20. It’s important to bear in mind though that there’s also a lag factor at play in the game. The relevant R* that was 5 billion years ago when our own sun was formed, may have been different than it is now.
fP – The fraction of those stars that have planets It turns out that stars with planets are relatively common in the universe. To a rough approximation fp ~ 1. Digging a little deeper, according to NASA, about one in six stars has as Earth-sized planet orbiting it.
ne – the mean number of planets that could support life per star with planets These are the “Goldilocks” planets. Most often this factor is associated with the physical conditions required for water–too cold and you live on an ice cube, too hot and you’re in a cloud of steam, but just right and you have conditions for liquid water. Astronomers define a “circumstellar habitable zone” as the range of distances from a given star where liquid water could exist. Sometimes this is called the “Goldilocks” zone after the character who needed her chair, porridge and bed to be just right. Initial estimates of ne were as high as 5, but I think it’s important to recognize that water’s not the only element necessary for life. The planets would also need to have the other necessary raw materials too, which cuts this factor down considerably.
fl – the fraction of life-supporting planets that actually develop life Now we get into the variables with much wider ranges of uncertainty. That fact of the matter is that in terms of planets that have actually developed life, we have precisely one data point. That’s not much to go off of. Still, that hasn’t stopped scientists from attempting to address the idea. If even microbial life were to be found on Mars or on one of Jupiter’s moons, that would imply that fl is relatively close to 1. There is also an argument that since life began on Earth soon after the geological conditions were favorable, that the emergence of life must be relatively common. Really I think the basic transition here is going from having the correct set of molecules and getting precisely the right conditions where they can spontaneously start to replicate themselves (i.e. RNA and DNA).
fi – the fraction of planets with life that go on to develop intelligent life Once you’ve got basic microbial life, then you go through billions of years of Darwin Awards. New species arise and go extinct. Life survives through a series of mass extinction events (we’ve had five so far and are arguably in the midst of a sixth). And eventually you get something as complex as a primitive human. On one hand of the argument, you have a group that argues this factor should be very low. After 3.5 billion years of evolution we have only one intelligent species out of billions of branches on the tree of life. On the other hand are scientists who argue that complexity in living things has increased over time and given billion year timescales, intelligence is rather inevitable and therefore fi ~ 1. (But try telling that to your grade seven math teacher!)
fc – the fraction of intelligent civilizations that become capable of communicating across space Now comes the tricky part of going from making fire and wheels to building microprocessors and radio-telescopes. Oh, and not annihilating ourselves somewhere along the line. Again given our one data point, humans have only just reached this point. Some might argue we’re not even there yet. Sure, we’ve been emitting somewhat coherent radio waves for the last century, but it’s really only been since the Cold War that we’ve emitted radio signals powerful enough to make it beyond our own atmosphere and the radio noise from the sun. Personally I think once a species gets to “wheel and fire” it’s just a matter of surviving mass extinctions until we become capable of long range communication, so I’d estimate fc ~ 1.
L – the mean length of time that those civilizations could communicate And back to not blowing ourselves up. Or making our planet unfit for human habitation. Or consuming all our food. Or not wearing masks and not getting vaccinated during a global pandemic. Or producing enough Bruce Willis’s to save us from rogue meteors. This factor basically argues that it’s all just a matter of time folks. The optimists would argue that once we get to the communication stage we’re likely to expand beyond many of these threats and therefore if even a small fraction of civilizations make it to this “immortal” stage, L can reach billions of years.
According to Wikipedia, on the low end we have N ~ 9.1 x 10-13. For anyone who doesn’t understand scientific notation that’s about one in a trillion, or a very very very small number. For all practical purposes… we’re alone. On the optimistic end however, you’ve got N ~ 1.56 x 107 (15,600,000). We’re like on person amidst double the population of New York City. If that’s the case, there are all kinds of parties going on out there. We just don’t seem to have been invited yet. Maybe humans just aren’t cool enough. Or maybe there are some aliens hanging out at the galactic punch bowl staring at us and quickly looking away whenever we look up, trying to work up the nerve to talk to us.
As a science fiction writer and scientist myself, I tend to favor the more optimistic side of things. But one of the big challenges we face, again comes back to our single current data point. We have only life on Earth as our example to guide us in our search. If and when we do encounter some kind of alien civilization, will we even be able to recognize each other?
So, what do you think? Is there anyone out there?
*Photo above is attributed to: u0418u0433u043eu0440u044c u0426u044bu0431u0443u043bu044cu0441u043au0438u0439 on Pexels.com.
One of the biggest challenges for writers is finding the time to write.
How do you it?
In my own life, I’m a father & husband first, then a medical physicist in a busy cancer center where I have to balance clinical responsibilities, research and teaching. And only after that, I get to be a writer. One of the common questions I get is: Where do you find the time for writing?
Short answer: You have to make it.
Here are my top 10 tips on making time for writing…
Make Writing a Regular Habit Schedule it into your day. Even with a mind-blowingly hectic schedule, blocking off an hour, or even a half-hour to devote to your craft will accumulate over months. Play the long game. Figure out what’s reasonable given your schedule and defend your writing time. People around you will learn your schedule. Further, when you do something on a regular basis, you tend to get better at it. Your brain learns that this is the time of day to be creative. Thanks neuroscience!
Set SMART Writing Goals for Yourself Goals are hugely important. When you don’t have a specific goal with a deadline, making any progress in your writing will often take a back seat to the other things in life that do, even the unimportant ones. Make sure your writing goals are: Specific Measurable Attainable Relevant Time-Constrained
Permission to Play Writing for me is constructive down-time. It’s how I relax and exercise my creative mind. Sometimes people see this as an indulgence… something you really shouldn’t be doing… there are more important things to do. And sure, there are very clearly more important things in life. But when you’re doing those “more important things” you want to bring your A game. That’s hard to do, when you can’t concentrate well. People need down time. It makes that “executive function” part of the brain that much more efficient when it’s needed.
Self-Care Exercise. Get adequate sleep. Eat properly. While at first, hitting the gym or going to bed early may seem at odds with building time into your schedule for writing, keep the long game in mind. When you do sit down at the keyboard, you want to be alert and have a healthy reserve of creative energy to unleash. This is next to impossible when you’re lethargic.
Eisenhower’s Quadrants See the picture above? I first leaned about this in Steven Covey’s the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” but, it’s often attributed to Dwight Eisenhower. All “tasks” fall somewhere on this chart–having both relative degrees of importance and urgency. Any tasks with deadlines start with low urgency and march across the board like a game of horizontal Space Invaders until they can be checked off. The point is to make choices based on an evaluation of Importance and Urgency. You want to spend the majority of your time in the upper left hand quadrant: important, but not urgent. This keeps important things from moving into the urgent quadrant, where you have less options for controlling them. Further, if something is not all that important: why are you’re doing it at all?
Tell People About Your Writing Talk to your family, friends and colleagues about your goals. Most people want to see other people pursue their passions and achieve their goals and will go out of their way to help. But they need to know what those goals are and what they can do to help. It also goes a long way when you learn about what other people’s passions are and offer them the same kind of assistance.
Join a Local Writing Group Building on that last point, it really helps to surround yourself with people who have common goals, in particular those who may be a little further along in their writing journey that you can learn from. They help you learn the craft and share personal victories.
Avoid the Naysayers and Emotional Vampires As a counter to the above, there are unfortunately people who can be toxic in their attitudes and actions (whether intentional or not). These are the types who tell you writing is a waste of time, or that you don’t have any talent, that you’ll never be as good as Stephen King (often these people aren’t too creative with famous author names). While you probably don’t want to completely ignore people who are otherwise close to you, do what you can to limit toxic interactions.
Make it Easy to Write Create your own personal writing space and develop tools to help make it easier to start writing. One example of this might be keeping your projects on a cloud drive like Dropbox or Google Docs. That way, when you have a few minutes and access to a computer you can open up your project and get right to work.
Read a Lot Again, perhaps one of those counter-intuitive points, but making time to write is about using the time you have efficiently and effectively. One of the best ways to learn what makes a good story is to read a lot of stories. On top of that reading a lot helps your brain to think in terms of prose and story, it helps you develop those natural talents for structure, character, generation of suspense, etc. On that note-consider picking up my latest novel: First Command.
It’s so big that our terrestrial-evolved brains have trouble really understanding how far distances between stars really are. The closest star to us (other than our sun) is Proxima Centauri at 25 trillion miles away. That’s so far, it would take light 4.2 years to reach it.
This presents a challenging problem for gallant space cadets exploring the universe and battling aliens. In order to cross the distances even to the closest stars would take a very very long time. If you were to travel at the same speed as you drive on the highway, it would take about 44 million years to get to a neighboring star! (Without bathroom breaks.)
New intelligent species could evolve back on Earth before you got back!
The solution we humans typically employ to cross vast distances is to travel faster. But the problem is that there’s a cosmic speed limit that can’t be broken. You can’t go faster than the speed of light – typically denoted mathematically as c, about 300 million meters per second, in case you were wondering.
Why You Can’t Travel Faster Than Light
Anything with mass behaves differently when it gets accelerated to speeds approaching c. You can thank Albert Einstein for this little nugget from special relativity… the Lorentz factor (Hendrik Lorentz had a roll in it too).
The m0 term is the “rest mass” of the space ship, person or electron you’re trying to accelerate. On the other side, m, is the “relativistic mass.” I won’t go into the details, but this derives from the total energy of a system (in the E=mc2 sense.) What this equation says, basically, is that as an object’s velocity (v) increases, it will behave as if the mass has increased. For the most part, in our experiences evolving here on earth, things simply don’t move all that fast. The top speed of a cheetah for example is about 36 meters per second.
The speed 36 m/s is very small compared to 300 million m/s. The ration is even smaller when squared. So for all the fancy terms on the right hand side of the equation above are practically no different than 1. In other words, unless you’re travelling an appreciable percentage of light speed, your mass doesn’t behave any differently than if it’s at rest.
But what happens when v gets close to c? All of a sudden, the term on the bottom gets smaller. In fact if v=c, you run into the “divide by zero” problem. The relativistic mass becomes infinite. And it takes an infinite amount of energy to move it.
The problem then facing the science fiction writer who wants a heroine who can gallivant around the universe with her K205 railgun at the ready in a timeframe that doesn’t involve the evolution of new species, is how to overcome the distance problem and sound at least semi-believable in doing so.
Breaking the Lightspeed Barrier
In theory there are ways around this.
There are physicists who spend their carriers working through general relativity equations, searching for potential solutions to the problems of interstellar travel. Enter the notions of wormholes and warp drives.
The basic “cheat” here is figuring out ways to shorten the distance between two points.
When general relativity came around shortly after the end of World War One, it changed how physicists thought about space and time. Einstein showed that gravity could be explained mathematically as a curvature in space around an object with mass. Space itself could change!
It only took a few months following the general relativity publication for Karl Schwarzchild and Hendrik Lorentz to publish solutions to Einstein’s field equations for a point mass, effectively describing a black hole (though the general concept in the classical sense had been proposed over a century earlier). This extreme warping of spacetime eventually gave rise to another idea where by two points on a plane could be brought together through a shorter tube. In 1957 John Wheeler coined the term “wormhole.” In principle, this solved the distance dilemma.
If the two star systems are too far away, one could simply warp space and time to bring them closer together. You don’t have to go faster than light and you can still get there.
It’s important to point out that this is one of those notions where the math comes first. There’s nothing in the mathematics that says this can’t be done, however that doesn’t mean it’s easy. For one thing, the kind of warping we’re talking about typically takes huge amounts of energy–like all the energy contained within a star. And there are other practical considerations-like not getting turned into a human spaghetti noodle by gravitational tides. However, as we used to say in physics undergraduate classes… those are engineering problems.
The other big idea along these lines is a little more recent and was inspired by the Star Trek franchise. In 1994, Miguel Alcubierre proposed a solution to Einstein’s field equations whereby a spacecraft could contract spacetime in front of it and expand spacetime behind it, effectively travelling faster than light without actually breaking any laws.
Unfortunately for would be Captain Kirks, accomplishing this requires matter with an energy density less than than of a vacuum–in other words a “negative mass” (and a lot of it at that)–which we’ve never observed and many people say is not actually possible.
Recent work from Alexey Bobrick and Gianni Martire as well as work from Erik Lentz that has come out just this year suggests that perhaps you can get by without the requirement of negative energy, although the catch seems to be that while you can in principle have an isolated bubble that moves practically faster than light, you still have an acceleration problem. And generating the bubble may not be possible from a spacecraft within. But that work is a hopeful step that there might be “some” way of actually travelling faster than light.
Incorporation into Science Fiction
As a genre, science fiction has a spectrum of scientific realism interpreted on a scale of hardness. One one hand you have hard where the author makes a serious attempt at keeping the technology realistic. A good example of this might be Andy Weir’s “The Martian” where an astronaut on a Mars mission is left for dead and has to survive on his own until he can be rescued. There’s no faster-than-light travel and the science is at least reasonably believable. On the soft end you have something like the Star Wars franchise–where the science takes a back seat to the action. You just get in your Millennium Falcon and go make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, regardless of what a parsec is.
When building their fictional universes, authors have to make a decision about how true to the science they want their stories to be. And a lot of the time that depends on the type of story that they want to tell.
When I was writing First Command, my goal wasn’t to write hard science fiction. The story at its core is about leadership. It’s action first, science second. That’s not to say that I didn’t think at all about the science while writing it though.
What is important, even in pew pew kerplewy stories, is a set of consistent rules. Readers of speculative fiction will often accept whatever rules you establish up front as a writer. What’s critical, is loyalty to those rules as the story evolves.
In Cassi’s universe, spacecraft achieve faster than light travel via a transit process, similar to the Alcubierre drive. The completely fictional part is that they need to line up precisely between two stars to generate their warp bubble. This forces spacecraft to travel along specific lines, like train tracks when travelling between solar systems, and looking ahead in the series, this presents a set of interesting possibilities and restrictions for interstellar travel.
If and when you find an author whose work you enjoy, there are a lot of ways that you can support them. Number one, is obviously purchasing their books, but something else you can do is leave a review once you’ve read the book. This helps other readers decide whether or not the book is for them.
Does my opinion really matter?
Without digging into the statistics, people rely on independent reviews when shopping online. They use the number of reviews as an indicator of a book’s popularity and feel more comfortable when they can review information from a source with no financial interest in the outcome.
What if I don’t have a degree in English literature?
Neither do (the vast majority of) the other people browsing. Most potential readers are just trying to figure out whether or not they’ll enjoy the story. Is it going to be a fun beach read? An engaging listen during a long commute? Will they like the characters? What emotions will the story draw out?
If you’ve read the book, your opinion counts.
What if the book was only… okay?I’d like to give feedback, but don’t want to give it five stars.
Moderate reviews are helpful.
Consumer confidence goes up when consumers see reviewers giving honest feedback. Not everyone is going to like a given book, even if it’s well-written.
If a particular book isn’t for you, is there a target audience it might be better suited for?
How to write a review (on Amazon)
Search up the webpage where you purchased the book. Scroll down about half way. You should come to the “Customer Reviews” section. Look for the box that says “Write a customer review” and click on that.
At the top of the page you can leave a name that will be displayed. You don’t have to use the name associated with your account. Or you can shorten it.
Amazon Reviews will want a title. Sometimes this is called a “hook.” You don’t need to get too creative with it if you don’t want to. Titles like “I Really Enjoyed this Book” are fine. Sometimes it can help to write the main body of the review and then just copy an paste a phrase that comes out of that.
Ideas for things to discuss in the the body of the review (you don’t have to answer all of these, they’re just suggestions, pick one or two):
What emotions did you feel while reading the book? Angst, fear, sadness, excitement, happiness, elation, joy?
What would you tell your best friend the book is really about? What happens? Where did the story take place? What was at stake?
What was something you read in the book that you hadn’t come across before? What was unique about it for you?
What is one word (or phrase) you would use to describe the book?
How would you describe the main character(s)? Did you feel an empathetic connection? Did you care what happened to them? What did the character want or what goals did they have in the story? Did other characters stand out for you?
What kind of reader is likely to enjoy this book? Age? Stage of life? Fans of another book, movie, or TV series? A book club or discussion group? Science nerds? History buffs?
For what places or circumstances might this book be a good read? Camping? A long road trip? Something to read next to a crackling fire?
Include something about yourself. Is this the first time you’ve read something like this or are you a prolific reader in the genre? What other types of books do you like to read?
And if you want to leave a review, but just can’t find the words or the time, you can always just say: I enjoyed this book.