2021 has been a big year for me as an author. I started my own publishing business and released my debut novel First Command.
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.
E-books will help you save money. E-books are available for a fraction of the cost of paperbacks, or many other small gifts. Most e-books, particularly those produced by independent authors, cost less than $5.00.
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.
No packaging going into the landfill.
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.”
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.
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 or a family gathering and realize you forgot a gift for someone? 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.
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.
Note that the amazon.com option seems only to be available for US customers.
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.)
Click on “Give as a Gift.”
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.
Navigate to the Barnes & Noble page of the e-book you want to give. Make sure the “nook” version of the book is selected.
Click on “Buy as Gift.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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. And don’t forget to add in a buffer. Not everyone can sit down and start typing at will.
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 with your family. Call your mom. Make your spouse a favorite meal.
Take Good Care of Yourself
This is an obvious one, but a reminder never hurts. Writing a 50k novel in 30 days is emotionally exhausting. And it can be physically challenging too (I’m looked at you repetitive strain injury). 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. Set up your writing environment with the best ergonomics you can. Get it clean and organized. And if you do struggle with repetitive stress injuries, or any other conditions that might limit your ability to write for long periods, talk about it with your healthcare provider.
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.
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 to 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. A 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 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 characters depth, and make them seem more real. It’s easier for audiences to connect with Tony Soprano when they see the mob boss suffering from panic attacks and speaking with a psychologist .
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 refuse to accept that status quo. From the beginning they represent a hope for something better.
Being rebellious also suggests that the character is willing to break some rules to achieve their goals. And though we may not always agree with their methods, breaking 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.
Often likeability is demonstrated through altruism. They have friends they look out for, or they try to help someone in need. In Game of Thrones, even though Tyrion is from (and supports) a family responsible for much of the oppression in that world, he is shown striving to do good things. When he first meets John he finds a connection… all dwarves are bastards in their fathers’ eyes. Or take a character like Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul. He’s the definition of a sleaze bag lawyer the audience shouldn’t give two shakes about. Yet he goes to bat for his clients, and for the people in his life.
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.
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.