Writers Do THIS To Make Your Characters Resonate With Readers

You may have heard of the SMART acronym for setting and achieving personal goals. Any goal should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-constrained. It (or some version of it) is repeated like a mantra in self-help literature and workshops. But as a writer, I’ve found this can be useful tool for developing stories, characters and even writing blubs.

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A story in its most basic form is about a character trying to obtain a goal. In striving for that goal the character changes (or maybe the world around them changes). From the experience of the struggle within the story, the reader grows in some way. And that’s one of my goals as a writer–to write stories that people gain something positive from.

So how does a SMART goal work for a character in a novel?


A general goal might be “survive a crash landing on an alien planet.” Okay, sure. That works for a while. But simple “survival” can quickly get bogged down, because in any absence of immediate threat, there’s nothing for the character to work toward, there’s no strategy to play out that the reader can think about, to agree or disagree with. At any point that binary switch might flip, regardless of what action the character takes. And that can lead to reader apathy. The key then is to define goals as specifically as possible. So you throw in a safe spot for the characters to get to. Maybe another downed spaceship, but one with a working radio. The characters them survive by getting to the safe spaceship.

A specific goal can also be articulated quickly and succinctly, so the reader knows exactly what the character needs to accomplish. At the end of the story, the reader will also have a clear understanding of whether or not the goal has been met.


One of the staples of post-apocalyptic fiction is usually a character or set of characters trying to get home. In high fantasy fiction, it’s often a quest. Journeys like this can be measured in miles or leagues or at least kingdoms passed through on the way to the volcano. In romance ,the goals is usually development of a relationship (meet-cute, first date, setback, reconciliation, commitment) . If you look at the Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen needs to survive a game of elimination that is scored in lives lost.

The point here is that your readers need to have some means of marking progress toward the goal. This will allow the reader to track what works and what doesn’t, understand when there’s a setback, and contemplate strategies for moving forward.


Here’s one where there’s some subtle differences between personal goal-setting and setting goals for your characters. In real life, you need to assess your circumstances and make sure your goal is actually achievable. In fiction, things can be a little different.

In fiction, the reader has to be convinced that character has a shot at obtaining the goal. They have to know that whatever traits and flaws that character possess, somewhere inside that character has the tools necessary to get the job done. That’s not to guarantee it will happen. Like the first scene in an action movie where the hero takes down some thugs just to prove how awesome they are, it’s kind of boring if it takes too long. Conclusions can’t be foregone.

But neither can the goal be so impossible that the reader will no longer suspend disbelief. If the goal is too lofty, the reader starts to think the only way it will happen is if the writer is going to pull a fast one, a deus ex machina, and then the game doesn’t seem fair.

So long as there’s a question in the reader’s mind as to whether the goal will be achieved or not, they’re going to be along for the ride.


Here’s where it pays big time to know your genre well and read as much as you can. Your character’s goals need to be consistent with reader expectations. (This R can also stand for research.)

It’s important to remember that character goals can change as the story progresses too. In some stories, the initial goal as the character understands it, may be the exact opposite of what that character needs for growth. When you’re revising and you’ve identified the theme of the story, it’s important to go back and revisit initial goals. Do they make sense in the context of the greater story? In the context of the genre?

Is the goal consistent with your other priorities in life? If it’s a smaller, short-term goal, does it jive with your bigger picture, and longer-term goals? The R can also stand for research, making sure that you understand the details of what you’re planning to pursue and this can in turn help to determine how realistic the goal is.


Ticking clocks add suspense.

In addition to knowing what the goal is, the reader also needs a sense of time and how urgently the goal needs to be met. Readers care a lot more about a character caught in a traffic jam when she’s on her way to an interview that starts in 15 minutes. The time limitation starts a game of strategies. What should she be willing to risk to get there? A ticket for driving too fast? Should she run a red light? Hop out of the van and take the kid’s bicycle in the back? A reader thinking in these terms is completely engaged in the story.

So that’s it. That’s a handy tool to have in your writer’s toolbox. As a side note, if you can write all of this out and put it together in a few hundred words, that also makes for a decent method to answer that dreaded question: so what’s your story about?

Overcoming Fear for Writers

Whether you’re publishing independently or submitting your manuscript to an agent, putting your fiction out into the world for other people to see requires a tremendous amount of courage. Even attending an in-person writer’s group for the first time and talking about your writing with other people can be challenging.

Putting together something as complex as a novel requires an enormous investment of time and mental energy. People put their hopes, dreams, and desires into their fiction. They infuse their stories with their ideas, many of which can be deeply personal. And so when someone makes the decision to take their work from the privacy of their own files and subject it to public scrutiny, they are exposing a vulnerable part of themselves.

It’s not unlike walking across the grade eight gymnasium-turned-dance floor in front of all your classmates to ask someone to dance. You’re suddenly open to rejection, ridicule, judgement, and in many ways even worst possible reaction: indifference.

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The easy advice to give, and I hear it a lot, is simply to grow a thick skin.

But advice like this does a disservice to the industry. By limiting the works of public fiction to only those writers who can put up with a certain level of criticism, we’re denied all the great stories from writers who can’t overcome this barrier.

Worse, it can propagate attitudes where people believe it’s okay to treat other writers poorly if their work is not up to a subjective and often arbitrary standard.

So here are a few (hopefully constructive) tips on overcoming fear.

Figure Out Your Goals as a Writer

First off, it’s totally fine to write for the sake of writing. People write for all kinds of reasons: to relax, to play with ideas, escape from reality, work through a tough experience, etc. And there’s nothing that says what you write needs to ever been seen by anyone else.

It’s also okay to want to publish ‘at some point’ but that doesn’t have to be now.

One of the best tips for overcoming anxiety around putting your work out there is to have an honest conversation with yourself about what you want to accomplish by doing so, and defining when you want to do that.

Establishing a timeline for yourself can be quite empowering, even if when that timeline is the simple recognition that you’re not ready yet.

Read. A lot.

One of the best pieces of advice for any writer is simply to read. Read the classics. Read what’s hot. Read as much as you can in your genre. Read whatever interests you. But read.

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The point is that through immersion, you learn. You learn what other readers a looking for. You learn the tropes of your genre. You develop an eye for what works, and what doesn’t.

If you compare a person who’s read a hundred books in a given genre, with someone who’s only read one or two, it’s far more likely that the avid reader is going to be better at critically assessing their own writing quality, because they have a much larger frame of reference.

Proofread and Revise Your Work

Maybe this one is obvious.

But it’s important to understand that the works from your favorite authors that you end up pulling off the shelf, or downloading into your e-reader is never a first or second draft. It’s probably not even a fifth or sixth draft. While all authors vary in their process, those who can write something near perfect on the first or second draft are a very rare breed (and among those who do the draft is often meticulously planned out ahead of time).

It’s easier to find courage in presenting something to the world that’s been thought through, reflected on, and reviewed than the first thing that went down on paper.

(The irony of any errors in this post is not lost on me.)

Go Slowly with the Sharing

There are different ways to start sharing your work. You don’t have to publish it publicly just to get feedback.

Finding a writer’s group or a critique group can be a good way to start. Once you’ve met a few other writers and learned a little bit about where they’re at on their writing journey, you can start sharing your work with ones that are willing to give you feedback at a level you’re comfortable with.

Open Conversations

When you do give your work to someone else for feedback, remember you can have an open conversation about what kind of feedback you’re looking for. If you’re not ready for it to come back all marked up with red ink, then say so.

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It’s okay to say that you’re just looking for the positives to begin with. Ask whether your reviewer can identify things that work, parts of the story or characters that resonate with them and why.

You can always progress to more critical feedback as time goes on. And when you want more critical feedback, remember to ask for specifics. How can I get better at…. suspense, dialogue, imagery, character arcs, etc.?

Sometimes I’ll hear a phrase along the lines of “Tear it to shreds.” While perhaps brave, I often wonder if that’s what the writer really wants. How do you grow from something that’s been shredded?

Rather, it’s better to focus on your goals and ask questions like: What recommendations do you have to get this from it’s current draft, to something people will pay me for? What areas of my writing could use the most improvement?

Offer to Give Feedback

There’s no shortage of writers seeking feedback on their work. Even if you’re afraid to put your own work out there, you can still offer to review things that others have written.

In fact, you can learn a lot from reviewing other people’s work. I’ve spent a lot of time on various writing sites and critique groups. When fifty percent of the fantasy novel opening chapters that you read start with a prince or princess waking up and looking out over their kingdom, you very quickly learn that this is not a unique opening.

Be kind with your words.

Do your best to offer the kind of feedback that the author is seeking.

Find an Editor

One final tip is that can really help with overcoming fear as a writer is to seek professional feedback.

Of course finding and hiring an editor can be tricky (and expensive). It’s very important to find an editor who: (i) understands your goals as a writer, (ii) is well-versed in your genre and has some credentials behind the advice they give, (iii) is willing and able to give you critical, but constructive feedback at a level that you’re ready to hear, and (iv) that you can trust.

A good editor won’t just tell you what’s wrong with your writing, but will give you suggestions on how to make it better.

If nothing else, editors act as buffers between you and the rest of the world. If you write something that’s “really bad” they can identify it and flag it before it goes out and they won’t ever say another word about it.

“No matter what anybody tells you. Words and ideas can change the world.”

Robin Williams (Dead Poets Society)

On Writing Blurbs

Love writing, but hate writing blurbs? Here are some tips to upgrade your blurb and get your book into the hands of those readers who are going to love your work.

One big reason for so much writer anguish with blurbs is that writers are attempting to summarize their 80,000 word manuscript in 200 words or less. But here’s a big secret: the goal of a blurb is not to summarize your story. The goal is to sell your story (in an honest and helpful way).

A person reading the blurb has either picked up your book and flipped it over, opened it up, or clicked on a link. Something (probably your cover, title or ad copy) has piqued their interest. That potential reader now wants to know if your story is going to be worth the investment of their time and money. What they are looking for are flags to make that decision.

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Start With Research

Identify the top market category(ies) you want to market your book under. Read through the blurbs of as many of the top selling books in that category as you can. Pay particular attention to the books that are the first in their series (many sales for the later in series books are the result of read-through), and for books that have had staying power, those ones that have been in the top 100 for months or even years. Look for the common traits in their blurbs. Things to take note of: how the characters are described, flags that identify the genre, how the main problem is summarized, hook phrases, word length, and what you particularly like about them.

Remember, when writing your blurb, it’s unlikely to be the only one that the reader sees at that time. After reading a dozen or so, which ones do you remember and what stands out about them? Keep this in mind as you craft your own blurb.

Who is the Main Character?

Choose a single character to define the story around. I know this can be a challenge for an ensemble cast, but you can always tweak and add later. Start with one character with whom your target audience is most likely to resonate with.

Once you have your character, identify two traits of this character. The first is something familiar, identifiable, or accessible. What trait or experience does that character have that readers are going to most closely identify with? A longing for love? Getting bullied in school? Training for a competition? It doesn’t even need to be something the readers themselves have actually experienced, but something they’ve likely read about before, or something they seek when reading your genre. If you’re working on an action-thriller, it might just be that the character is associated with a familiar agency: the FBI, CIA, or the US Navy SEALs. If you’re a military science fiction writer, it might be that your character is a space marine, starship captain or cyborg.

The second is something unique. What’s different or uncommon about this character? Identify a trait that’s going to pique a potential reader’s interest, something that stands out, that’s going to be memorable about that character. What makes the character different from “normal” people in your story’s world? What makes the character different from other characters in the genre? This is the flag that you can plant that will help make this character memorable. Note that it doesn’t need to be absolutely exclusive. There are lots of dogs in the world that are large and have auburn-tinged fur, but Clifford the Big Red Dog is pretty memorable.

Harry Potter… unloved orphan (familiar/identifiable]) who discovers he is a wizard (unique [at the time]).
James Bond… an agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service (familiar) with a license to kill (unique).
Jon Snow… an unloved orphan (I feel like I’ve mentioned this before) with a dire wolf (unique).
Jason Bourne… a CIA black ops agent (familiar for readers of the genre) has lost his memory (unique).

Clearly Define the Genre

For some genres or stories the setting is critically important. In historical fiction, readers need a frame of reference for the time and place. In post-apocalyptic fiction, readers want to know how the modern world ended. In a fantasy story, readers want to know what that fantasy element is–the presence of magic and some hints at how it’s used. In a blurb, the genre needs to be shown and shown quickly, often boiled down to a single sentence. Here’s a great example:

“In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.”

– Excerpt from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games blurb (Scholastic Press)

Here, in the space of two sentences the author defines this unique world and sets up the core challenge facing the main character. We don’t actually learn much about the setting details, but it’s clear that this is a story about an alternative world where a character is going to have to survive these games. The reader knows exactly what kind of story they’re in for.

Avoid Too Many Fictional Proper Names

In that example the author uses a few proper names: North America, Panem, Capitol. Here there’s only one that’s objectively unfamiliar to anglophone readers. But if you’ve ever read some fantasy or science fiction blurbs you will have seen those that include a pile of unfamiliar terms. Each new word requires mental effort on the part of the reader to keep track of. It’s like a little hill to climb. If you present a reader with too many hills to climb, they’ll put the book down and move on.

What Major Challenge Does The Character Face?

Be specific here. One problem I see frequently when people first start writing blurbs is the use of vague language. I think this comes from a desire not to give too much away. But if the reader can’t identify what problem the character faces, they’re not very likely to be interested because they won’t understand what the story is about.

Isolate a single challenge. If you’re writing something like epic fantasy, there may be many different challenges, but a blurb can only be so big (ideally no more than 200 words). Choose one.

The challenge should be easily defined in a single sentence. It’s okay to approximate something that’s complex. It’s okay to skip over details. Remember, you’re not trying to give the reader a synopsis of everything that happens. You’re trying to give them enough information so they can make an educated decision on whether this is a story they will enjoy.

Now that you have a challenge, how do you present it?

Identify Why This Character Must Face This Challenge

One option to try is to emphasize why the character must face the challenge. People tend to find stories much more appealing when characters are forced out of their comfort zone, where they are forced to make compromising choices, where they take actions that they wouldn’t normally take. That’s where there’s the greatest potential for disaster. But that’s also where learning and growth happen. That’s where reader is most likely to get the greatest bang for their buck.

Emphasize Choices the Character Faces, Decisions They Make, and Actions They Take

Think about character agency. You’ve got an interesting, approachable character and an intriguing problem that the character must confront. Now, what does that character do? Use the active voice here.
Jon Snow chooses to join the Night’s Watch. Katniss Everdeen volunteers as tribute.

At some point in the story, the character will need to assume direct responsibility for the outcome. Identify and articulate this point.

Avoid Questions

Questions, when they are directly put to the reader, are an opportunity to put the book down.

If the answer to the question is obvious… asking it can come across as pretentious, or lecturing, and that can turn a reader off. Also, the reader may not agree with the intended/obvious response. If they don’t believe that love conquers all, or power corrupts, or whatever the obvious answer is, they’ll put the book down.

On the other hand, if the answer to the question is not obvious, the reader may not know it, or feel as if they have to work to figure it out. It’s another hill to climb. If they feel stupid for not getting it, they’ll likely pass on the story.

I’ve seen some blubs that hit the reader with question after question. Avoid this, unless you want the reader to feel as though they’re taking a quiz.

The Hook

This is a catch phrase, often bolded, at the beginning of the blurb. It’s main purpose is to get the reader to read the rest of the blurb. It also serves as a kind of slogan for the book, something easily identifiable that will make it resonate in the reader’s mind.

Ideally the hook should be unique to the book. Avoid clichés.

Even though the hook should be the first thing a reader sees, it helps to write it last. Generally it’s easier to boil down the bigger blurb into a single idea, than vice versa.

Winning means fame and fortune. Losing means certain death. The Hunger Games have begun… – The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

Six days ago Astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars.
Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to dies there. – The Martian, Andy Weir

Winter is coming. – Game of Thrones, George RR Martin

Seek Feedback

Blurbs are short. People can read them quickly and give feedback without too much of an investment of time.

If you haven’t already, join a few social media writers’ groups where posting blurbs and giving/getting feedback is encouraged and post your draft. Keep in mind that no all feedback will be positive, and not all people will agree. But often you can tap the hive mind of the online writer community to help identify any major flags that are keeping you from getting sales.

On Character Names

Notice any patterns in this list?
James Bond
Jason Bourne
Jack Bauer
Jack Reacher
Jack Ryan
John Rambo
Johnny Ricco
John McClane
Jon Snow

Aside from the fact that they all start with the letter J, there’s a certain pattern in the naming that seems to resonate in the action hero genre. Ian Flemming, for example, is reported to have named his iconic spy after the American ornithologist James Bond. At the time Flemming was looking for a name that was plain and dull sounding. He wanted to create a neutral, anonymous figure at the center of stories that were otherwise full of exotic action. At the same time, the character needed to be a blunt instrument wielded by a clandestine government department.

So you end up with James, which following WW2 was one of the top 20 names in the UK (in fact it appears to have been in the top 20 for the last century)–a common name that could be nearly anonymous. But then this was coupled with Bond. That last name can evoke images of either money, or shackles, perhaps both at once. It is a single blunt syllable. It resonates so well that the line:
“Bond. James Bond.”
has become an instantly recognizable institution in and of itself.

Going back to that list, I see quite similar patterns emerging… a common first name coupled with a blunt one or two syllable last named that evokes action. It might almost be a comic book onomatopoeia : Boom! Bam! Bang! Look at the Mission Impossible franchise. The lead character: Ethan Hunt.

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Here’s another list, this one of heroines from science fiction and urban fantasy:
Katniss Everdeen
Honor Harrington
Kris Longknife
Ellen Ripley
Beatrice “Tris” Prior
Hermione Granger
Annabeth Chase

There’s a similar pattern. Though in some cases it’s mixed up, you still have one part that at least feels “common” and another part that’s more exotic, that evokes a more vivid imagery.

This kind of pattern resonates with readers on a deeper scale because on one hand there’s something about the name that’s familiar, making it accessible. On the other hand there’s some contrast that gives it a unique flare, making the name memorable, and in many cases even aiding the characterization.

One other piece of advice that’s important in naming characters is that no character exists in a vacuum. As an author you have to consider the entire cast of your book. One trick a lot of authors use is to avoid having any two characters, at least main ones, with names that start with the same letter or that sound similar. This helps the reader to avoid confusion. (Interestingly George R.R. Martin turns this on its head and uses a small number of names and similarities between them to turn a relatively small number of names into a massive ensemble cast. I don’t recommend trying this for most writers though.)

Beyond the book you’re writing, no reader reads in a vacuum either. That’s why it’s so critically important for authors to read in their genre and learn who the popular characters are.

Gray, Sievert, Rad… a Sci-Fi Writer’s Guide to Radiation

In recent years, there has been an explosion of post-apocalyptic fiction and one of most prominent aspects of many of these settings: nuclear fallout and other forms of radiation either as a primary antagonist or at least a constant challenge for characters that arises from these settings. Radiation is mysterious, it can be dangerous, and a convenient plot device for writers. So many characters that were created at the dawn of the “atomic age” following the second world war have “radiation” as a part of their origin story. Spiderman… bitten by a radioactive spider. The Incredible Hulk… the result of a gamma radiation experiment gone wrong. Godzilla… seems to use radiation to heal. But what is radiation really?


Even among physicists the term “radiation” can have slightly different meanings in different contexts. Generally it refers to the propagation of energy, usually as an electromagnetic field, through space. Optical light, microwaves, infrared, ultraviolet… etc. As a subset of that, and what I’ll be focusing on here, is ionizing radiation–where there is enough energy in packets of that radiation to knock an electron out of an atomic orbital. If you want to impress your friends at parties, the energy threshold where this starts to happen is about 4 eV (315 nm) and that’s in the ultraviolet portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Everything to the left of that in the figure below is ionizing… x-rays, gamma rays, cosmic rays (not shown). This can also include fast moving sub-atomic particles… when that’s the nucleus of a Helium atom after a particular mode of decay in a radioactive isotope, you’ve got an alpha particle. If that’s an electron, we call it a beta particle. Sometimes in radiation medicine protons, helium or carbon ions for cancer treatments that take advantage of the specific charge and mass to target precise depths in the body.

The electromagnetic spectrum from gamma rays to radio waves, logarithmically increasing wavelength left to right, with the visible spectrum highlighted in colour.
Source: Philips Ronan Gringer, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/30/EM_spectrumrevised.png

Measuring Radiation

Over the years, radiation has been measured in different quantities. Currently the most common currency is called the Gray–defined as 1 Joule per kg of the medium exposed to the radiation. This quantifies radiation absorbed dose. In the past we used use the rad–which works out to about 0.01 Gy. The Gray was officially adopted in 1975. You might also see another (outdated) unit called the Roentgen (or R), which has (had) a more technical definition that refers to the about of charge produced in air in a free air ion chamber, but this was abandoned because as people became able to produce higher energy sources, the measurements were impractical.
A concept called effective dose also comes into play when we’re talking about human exposures and the risks associated with them. Not all physical doses are created equal. To a cell, for example, a heavy, charged alpha particle blasting it’s way though does a lot more damage per unit energy absorbed than a speeding electron. It’s kind of like the difference between a bullet and cannon ball. To account for the relative amount of damage created by the specific type of radiation absorbed dose is translated into equivalent dose. Then, we have a system that also normalizes risk depending on which tissues were irradiated. The risk of developing cancer after having your whole body irradiated is different if the radiation only goes into your hand as opposed to your whole body. Putting this all together, yields effective dose which is measured in Sieverts or Sv.

Background Radiation and Common Effective Doses

Radiation is all around us. Cosmic rays, radon gas, potassium 14 in bananas… every day we’ve got photons and other particles passing through us (and doing damage to our cells). This is referred to as background radiation. Cumulatively the dose from background radiation adds up to about 2.4 mSv of effective dose per year or 0.0024 Sv/yr. Of course this can vary. There populated parts of the world, such as Ramsar Iran, where the background doses have been measured up to about 260 mSv/yr, though I believe average doses are closer to about 6 mSv/yr. Over the years a considerable amount of scientific attention has been paid to the residents of Ramsar and for what it’s worth, numerous health metrics have demonstrated that there doesn’t appear to be a significant increase in cancer rates in such areas.

In most places the background dose is about 2-3 mSv. You go about your daily life receiving this level of exposure, you’re unaware that it’s even there and generally it doesn’t cause too many problems. So it’s useful to use this as a normalizing standard. Below, I’ve added a table with some approximate effective doses.

EventEffective Dose (mSv)Fraction of Background
background (annual)2.4 1
dental x-ray0.0050.002
CT scans5 – 202 – 8
lethal dose (whole body)4,0001667
Effective doses are approximate, for the purposes of general public education and writing cool science fiction stories. For example, the term
“lethal dose” is statistical in nature. For a group of people exposed to 4 Sv, without medical intervention roughly half of them will not survive.

How Radiation Interacts with Humans

From the point of view of a human cell, radiation can be thought of like little bullets zipping through water. Inside that cell you have a coil of really important material… your DNA… it encodes all the relevant information for building the body and enables the cell to do what it does. That DNA is the sensitive component of the cell.

As radiation travels through the cell it interacts either directly or indirectly with the water-like medium inside. As atoms of the medium become ionized they generate highly reactive chemical species called free radicals and these can diffuse, interact with the DNA and damage it. To a cell, damaged DNA is a big deal.

In fact it’s such a big problem that cells have evolved mechanism to constantly scan for it. An analogy that I sometimes use is that the DNA is a like a library of information. It’s critical for the cell to operate, so critical that every book in the library has two copies. Or maybe a copy and an “anti-copy”. Words in each book are printed with only the letters A, T, C, and G (nucleotides). Every A in one book pairs up with T in the other book. Cs pair with Gs. (Arguably, one could even say there are four copies of each book, since diploid cells have two sets of chromosomes. But I digress.) This library has an army of editors who work day and night constantly comparing each book to its companion. You can have minor DNA damage where a letter gets lost. Those are pretty easy for the editors to fix because they know what the paired letter is in the other book. Repair of the damage is often an option. But sometimes you get more severe damage where you have pages torn out of both copies of the book! That’s an analogy to something called a double strand break where both of the helixes in the DNA double helix are severed.

When that happens the cell has a few options. Often, if there’s enough damage it will trigger a process referred to as apoptosis-programmed cell death. In the analogy that’s like burning the library down if one pair of books is out of whack.

Unfortunately sometimes the repair happens, but not… perfectly. This leads to a change in the code. When this happens, in most cases, it’s relatively inconsequential. But sometimes that damage can linger and cause problems much later on… manifesting as something like a cell that can’t control its reproductive cycle… cancer.

What Happens To Characters Who Survive Nuclear Blasts?

Assuming of course we’re talking about radiation exposure and not the percussive blast itself, for reference the increase in cancer risk as a result of radiation exposure is roughly 4%/Sv for adults. In radiation protection this is applied in a linear fashion: an exposure of 0.5 Sv results in a 2% excess risk, an exposure of 2 Sv results in an 8% excess risk. But of course this is a simplification. When you really look at it, things such as the age of the person exposed come into play (a young person has more time to develop a cancer than an older person for example), and there is a lot of debate as to what happens when doses are relatively low, like in the tens of mSv range. But the 4%/Sv can give you a rough ballpark for determining downstream risks to any characters

And as per the table above, the lethal dose that would kill about half of the people exposed to it (without major medical intervention) is about 4 Sv. Anyone who receives about 0.7 Sv or more will likely develop acute radiation syndrome (ARS), sometimes referred to as radiation sickness.

ARS typically starts with a prodromal phase characterized by a period of nausea, vomiting, anorexia, fever, headache and skin inflammation). It can occur over a period of hours to days, with severity of symptoms depending on dose.

Hematopoeitc syndrome or bone marrow syndrome (1 – 8 Sv): Rapidly dividing cells in the body tend to be the most sensitive to radiation. At about 1 Sv, the stem cells in your bone marrow are diminished to about 37% of their pre-exposure level. This cuts off the supply of mature blood cells to the rest of the body. When the syndrome progresses to its clinical phase, individuals are prone to infection and hemorrhage and individuals, particularly those who have received over 4 Sv, require supportive care.

Interestingly, people have a pre-existing supply of mature blood cells, so when the stem cells die, not all effects are immediate. ARS has a latent phase characterized by an improvement in symptoms. Once the initial shock of exposure is over, individuals can look and feel good. From a writer’s point of view, you can have characters feeling fine for days to a week or more, allowing events to progress in a story as if they are totally healthy, only for a time bomb to go off later. The length of the latent phase is also dose dependent, shortening with higher doses.

Gastrointestinal syndrome (5-20 Sv): The GI tract is also full of proliferating cells. High dose exposures will result in diarrhea and vomiting. On top of the bone marrow effects, this syndrome is generally characterized by irreparable damage to the GI tract that lead to infection, dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. Survival is not certain for these individuals, even with sophisticated supportive care.

Cerebrovascular syndrome (> 20 Sv): In these exposures the doses are high enough to impact the nervous system directly, and typically these patients will not experience any latent phase. Patients are likely to lose muscle control, experience seizures and convulsions, and the condition rapidly deteriorates into a coma. Death is likely within 48 hours.

So in the end… unfortunately there’s no evidence of radiation leading to superpowers, at least not that I’m aware of. That said, it can be used for some pretty amazing things, like curing cancer. But that’s another blog post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This happens in real science too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can AI Be Ethical?

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

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What Exactly is AI Anyway?

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

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

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

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The Trolley Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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GIGO and Bad Data

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

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

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

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

Bias in Training Data Sets

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

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

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

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

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Can AI Be Ethical?

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

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

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

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


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

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

And That Was 2021

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

I published my first novel.

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

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

Cassi has been making friends!

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

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

For many reasons I’m looking forward to 2022.

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

Speaking of which… a sequel is in the works.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Command – a great YA science fiction adventure.

No Book? No Problem!

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

It’s Not Rocket Science… or Brain Surgery

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

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

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

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

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

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So what are we to make of this?

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

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

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

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

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

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