The science of enclosed ecosystems

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Earlier today I did a guest post for fellow blogger, writer, and scientist, Dan Koboldt. I came across his blog about a month ago. He and I share the same mission, to promote the use of accurate science in sci-fi. But rather than do all the background research on his own, he wisely seeks out professionals in related fields and asks them to write about scientific misconceptions in sci-fi and how to get it right. Since my own lab work concerns cellular respiration, I offered to write a post for him on enclosed ecosystems, and he generously agreed. You can see the original post by clicking on the graphic below:

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Enclosed ecosystem and life-support systems in sci-fi

A Closed Ecological System (CES) is a broad term that encompass any self-sustaining and closed system in which matter does not leave or enter. These artificial habitats can be built in space, underground, or underwater, but no matter where they are, chances are they are closed for a reason. Whether it is an underground bunker in a post-apocalyptic setting, a distant planet in the early stages of colonization, or a spacecraft carrying the last remnants of humanity, the environment outside is not hospitable. To ensure long-term survival, the occupants must maintain a well-balanced air and water system, a continuous food supply, and a reliable source of energy.

So far, no artificial enclosed ecosystem has successfully supported human life for long periods of time. Even the astronauts on the International Space Station get regular supply runs and have to exchange personnel. The largest CES was Biosphere 2, which sustained 8 crew for 2 years; however, they had to resort to some extreme measures to keep oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in normal ranges, and many of the plant, animal, and insect populations died off.

Creating and maintaining a CES is difficult, as many fluctuations or imbalances can cascade into environmental collapse without continuous monitoring and support. Here I will discuss a few of the misconceptions about Enclosed Ecosystems and Life Support systems and suggest ways to get it right in Sci-fi.

Myth: Waste is useless and should be disposed of.

You see this in many sci-fi stories set in space; the airlock door opens and a stream of garbage is ejected into the vacuum. This might be acceptable for short-term missions, where all the supplies needed are carried along, but for an ecosystem intended to last for a long time, being wasteful is not an option. It is a matter of mass balance. In most situations, it won’t be possible to obtain resources from outside the enclosed system, so if your characters are ejecting waste of any kind out the airlock, soon there won’t be anything left. By the same principle, if some waste product cannot be recycled, it will build up and eventually consume all of the precursor materials.

Getting it right

When creating a life-support system for a fictional crew, they must adhere to a strict recycling policy. Most solids, such as plastics and metals or glass, can be melted and recast into any number of shapes. Of greater importance is the conversion of gaseous, liquid, and solid wastes into breathable air, drinkable water, and edible food. Solid organic wastes such as material from dead plants, animals, or their excrement, contain large amounts of nitrites and nitrates, phosphates, and other inorganic compounds that serve as fertilizer for plants.

Having a ‘living soil’ or cultured hydroponic system is also necessary, as bacteria, like those found in the human gut, are great at breaking down complex organic molecules and making them assessable to the roots of plants. So far, there is no easy way to convert waste, carbon dioxide, and water into an edible food source, outside of a biological system, such as a plant. Such plants can be consumed as food, and the cycle is repeated.

Myth: Water evaporates and condenses, but the total amount doesn’t change.

You hear this often in terms of a large environment like the Earth, where water rises from the oceans and falls again as rain, and it is true for the most part. Only a few processes create or break down water, but in a small, highly balanced environment, they can make a huge difference. Water is made and destroyed in biological systems during condensation reactions and hydrolysis reactions, respectively.

But the most significant of these reactions occurs in the mitochondria, the ‘energy’ producing organelle in nearly every cell. In the mitochondria, oxygen receives 4 electrons from the Electron Transport Chain and is reduced to water. Yes, nearly all of the oxygen you absorb through your lungs is converted into water. The reverse happens in plants, where water is hydrolyzed into oxygen during the construction of carbohydrates during photosynthesis.

Getting it right

The balance between animal and plant life on the ship should ensure a stable supply of water, but water can be made and eliminated artificially if there is ever an imbalance. Electrolysis, breaking water into hydrogen and oxygen, can be accomplished with a little electricity. That processed can be reversed by burning hydrogen in the presence of oxygen. A means of storing oxygen and hydrogen or water should be in place to deal with small fluctuations. Humidity and condensation can cause severe damage to electrical systems, especially in zero gravity, where air currents can become stagnant. This also increases the risk of mold. Cold surfaces or specialized air filters can trap the water vapor and return it to storage.

Myth: Plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, while animals do the opposite.

Unfortunately, the biochemistry isn’t so simple. Oxygen is not converted into carbon dioxide in animals. As I already mentioned, nearly all of the oxygen you absorb is converted into water. Carbon dioxide is released from the breaking down of metabolites like sugar, proteins, and fats. This takes place in the mitochondria. In plants, oxygen is made when both carbon dioxide and water are converted into carbohydrates like glucose during photosynthesis. This occurs in the chloroplast in plants.

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Another misconception is that producing oxygen is all plants do. In reality, plants have mitochondria too, and they consume oxygen and carbohydrates and produce carbon dioxide and water. When the lights are on, plants tend to produce more oxygen than they consume, but without light, they will suck up the oxygen as hungrily as we do.

Getting it right

Even as little as 1% concentrations of carbon dioxide can cause acute health effects such as fatigue and dizziness, but even higher concentrations (7-10%) can lead to unconsciousness, suffocation, and death within hours. To control fluctuations in carbon dioxide, CO2 scrubbers can be used. However, carbon dioxide is an intermediate step in oxygen and carbon cycles, so this artificial means to lower carbon dioxide may cause downstream effects on plant growth and lower oxygen concentration. This occurred accidentally in Biosphere 2 when carbon dioxide was converted into calcium carbonate in exposed concrete.

Materials like metal oxides and activated carbon can be used in CO2 scrubbers and then the carbon dioxide can be released at a later time. Large variations from the normal 21% oxygen is more easily tolerated than variations in carbon dioxide, but long-term exposure to greater or lower concentrations can lead to many acute and chronic health effects. Adjusting the amount of artificial or natural light available for photosynthesis is an effective means of controlling oxygen concentrations.

Myth: Energy must be produced within the ecosystem.

No closed ecological system is completely enclosed. If it were, it would soon succumb to the laws of entropy, making it a very cold and dark place. Something has to enter the system, and that thing is energy. The energy driving the weather, the currents, and the very life on this planet is coming from the sun.

Getting it right

Most common energy sources:

  • Solar
  • Wind
  • Water
  • Geothermal
  • Gas
  • Fusion/fission

The first four examples are the only types applicable in a completely closed ecological system, since energy can be moved into the system without any exchange of matter. A major drawback, however, is that the habitat can’t leave the source of the energy. A spaceship powered by the sun will have a hard time operating in interstellar space.

Any technology that requires the use of combustible fuels or fissionable (uranium 235 or plutonium 239) or fusible (Hydrogen 2 and 3, deuterium and tritium, and helium) materials will have to be resupplied on a regular basis, so they are not suited for long term ecosystems. By nature of their bi-products, they cannot be reused for more energy, but they have the benefit of being disposable and can be used as a form of thrust in spaceships without upsetting the mass balance.

Other Considerations for Environmental Control and Life Support.

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My year old Ecosphere. Going strong except for a slight algae overgrowth (The lab decided to keep lights on around the clock this past month).

Size- Closed ecological systems can come in all shapes and sizes, but the larger the better. Larger ecosystems, like the Earth, can sustain much more life and complexity and take longer to collapse if poorly maintained.

Nutrition- The nutritional demands of a human are more than getting the right amount of calories. There are many essential trace elements, minerals, amino acids (9 of them), and fatty acids (omega 3 and omega 6) and nearly everything that is classified as a vitamin, that cannot be synthesized by the human body. Until these things can be synthesized by machines, a complex ecosystem of many different plant and animal life forms would be required to maintain optimum human health.

Temperature regulation- Heat will build up rapidly in most enclosed systems, even in the cold of space, especially when you have heat generating electronics around. Heat needs to be dumped back into space as thermal radiation, usually a high surface area radiator that circulates a fluid capable of picking up heat in the interior and then dispensing with it outside. The opposite may be true in the deep ocean or underground, where heat may be drawn out of the enclosed system, and insulation will be necessary.

Air circulation- This is particularly important in zero G space, where hot and cold air will no longer rise and fall, respectively. To prevent air stagnation, humidity fluctuation and condensation, air needs to be well circulated. Filters are also necessary to remove any particulate matter such as skin cells or microbes.

The human element- Most enclosed ecosystems designed to support human life have not lasted nearly as long as they were intended to. Why? Because they failed to factor the human element into the equation. People get lonely and fall in love, personalities clash and people fight. Close quarters and a limited food supply can cause even the most patient and respectful of people to lose their temper. In Biosphere 2, the eight crew were barely on speaking terms by the time they exited, and two of them got married soon after.

The science of gravity

gravityFor this week’s post, I’ve decided to talk about the thing that keeps us all grounded, makes us fall, and keeps us from venturing too high. It’s a very weighty subject, something I hope will draw you in, and it’s apparently a great source of puns. It is gravity.

Writers have gone to great lengths to circumvent this fundamental law of nature. When gravity can be eliminated or overcome, new and astounding opportunities arise. Our characters can strap themselves into rockets, dirigibles, and aircrafts to view our world from amazing heights, or visit entirely different worlds.

Unfortunately, many writers think their grasp of gravity is sufficient enough to excuse them from any research. In most cases this is true, but when glaring mistakes prevent readers from being immersed in the story, a little research would have been invaluable.

The science.

Gravity is many magnitudes weaker than electromagnetism at the microscopic level, allowing even a weak fridge magnet to resist the pull of our entire planet. What gives? Why isn’t it pulling its own weight? That was the last pun, I swear. The truth is, while electromagnetism predominates over the small, on the planetary scale, gravity always prevails. So for such a strong force, why do we have no idea how it works?

Unveiling the mysteries of gravity is the sole priority of many research labs around the world, and many theories have been proposed, but only a few have been found scientifically and mathematically sound (though they make many assumptions). The problem with all these theories is that they offer few testable hypotheses, and are based principally on math. Some, like Einstein’s theory of General Relativity and Loop Quantum Gravity (LQG), believe that gravity isn’t a force at all, but instead a warping or changing of the geometry of space-time (4 dimensions). While other theories, like Quantum Field Theory (QFT) and M-theory (string theory), believe the force of gravity is mediated by particles, the graviton, which propagate out like any other particle, not just in our 4 dimensions, but into other dimensions. There are pros and cons to each theory, and some go to extraordinary lengths to justify the strength of gravity relative to electromagnetism or the method by which it propagates. Some theories don’t try to explain everything at all (create a unifying theory) because it simply won’t work. Recently LIGO detected the previously hypothetical gravitational wave from two colliding black holes, giving researchers some clues as to how gravity propagates through space. This casts some doubts on those theories that suggest gravity has everything to do with space-time geometry, unless you somehow justify that ‘ripples in space’ are somehow to blame.

If you are creating a story line where gravity manipulation is a major plot point, some of these theories might make a good starting point for ‘anti-gravity’ technologies. Since no theory has been proven, there is a lot of room for creative license. I myself have absolutely no formal training in physics. In fact, I probably got away with taking fewer physics courses than the average science graduate. I also am pretty terrible at math. I have been looking into theories of gravity for several months now, and most of them gave me headaches. I applaud anyone who can make sense of them. I, with my limited understanding of physics, think gravity might be a combination of several theories. I theorize that perhaps gravity is a distortion of space-time, but that this distortion is the result of a particle, the graviton. If the Higgs boson (spin 0) is unable to move freely through space (or the Higgs field, whatever that is), imparting mass to objects, and the photon (spin 1) is able to move across space freely, what if the graviton (hypothetical spin 2), had the same speed as a photon, but also affected space, not by resistance, but repulsion. If the graviton were responsible for distorting space, this could explain its weakness (displacing space at the plank scale), its ability to affect time, and its ability to propagate like other particles. I have no idea if this theory has already been suggested or has already been debunked, but it’s what I am going with until someone decides to educate me. Seriously, if you are a physicist, we should chat.

Whether or not you came up with your own theory, gravity is still one of the most studied and characterized ‘forces.’ It follows certain rules. These rules are so defined, that we can take Newton’s equations from the 16th century, and use them to launch a tiny ship about 240,000 miles to land exactly where we want on the moon with zero to minimal course adjustment. So here are some considerations when writing your novel:

Orbits.

It is important to note that just because your characters are in space does not mean they will be weightless. If you take a balloon to the very edge of space, you will still feel the gravity pulling you down. It is only when you achieve angular momentum, momentum away from gravity, that weightlessness occurs. This is an orbit.

While orbits are relative, we tend to say one thing is orbiting another thing, when that second thing is the more massive of the two. Orbits are pretty simple to understand, and once understood, writers can avoid making some simple mistakes. A stable orbit is when a body has an angular momentum (outward force) that is equal to the inward force supplied by gravity. Because the force of gravity decreases according to the inverse square law, the further something is from the center of mass, the slower it has to travel to remain in orbit. For example, the International Space Station has to travel at nearly 17,500 miles an hour to remain in a low earth orbit of about 200 miles (orbits every 90 min), whereas a satellite in geosynchronous orbit, or about 22,000 miles from earth, only has to travel at about 7,000 miles an hour (orbits once 24 hours). At about 5 trillion miles from the sun, the objects in the Oort cloud barely need to move at all and only need to be nudged in order for them to come careening toward us as a comet. If you need a planet to revolve around another, but close enough to fill a quarter of the sky, they need to be revolving pretty fast around each other in order to counterbalance the pull of gravity, which will also cause some extreme tidal forces (to the core and oceans).

Directions.

Like orbits, directions are relative. North on our planet is simply the magnetic north, where the magnetic field lines converge back on our planet (the place in the north pole where the compass starts to act a little erratic).  On other planets, this may not be the case. Venus for example, has an extremely weak magnetic field, perhaps due to its very slow spin, or the loss of convective forces due to a thick crust.

Gravity is also the only thing that differentiates up from down. The saccule and utricle of the inner ear contain grains of calcium carbonate that respond to gravity and momentum, tugging on hair cells (mechanoreceptors). This as well as visual stimuli, help you orient yourself to gravity and keep you from falling over.

In space, without gravity, this sensation is lost and many astronauts have to deal with a bit a vertigo and nausea as their eyes tell them something their ears are not. In space, people need to orient themselves to something besides gravity, like a feature of the galaxy (quadrant), the orientation of equipment or text on the spaceship, or they can learn to ignore directions all together. In my current work in progress, it is a struggle to describe motion and actions when lacking a directional cue. Are you really reaching up to flip a switch if you are upside down relative to everyone else? It is important to orient your reader to the character’s POV and sense of direction in order to prevent confusion.

Other effects of gravity.

As mentioned earlier, a world orbiting closely to a gas giant will likely have tremendous geological activity and a molten interior from tidal forces. A small world about the size of our moon that is not orbiting a gas giant will likely have very little atmosphere and no molten interior, since gravity is responsible for both.

Buoyancy is another ‘force’ that exists because of gravity. As Archimedes’ principle states, whether it is water or air, if something weighs less than the stuff around it, it will rise above it until it finds an equilibrium. It will sink when the object weighs more than the medium. This upward force is caused by the pressure differential in the medium, i.e. the pressure of the medium against the bottom of the object will be slightly greater than the pressure of the medium against the top of the object, causing it to rise. Neutral buoyancy occurs when the medium it displaces weighs the same as the object itself, and when the pressure difference between the top and bottom equals zero. The larger the volume of the object, the more medium it will displace, but it will also tend to weigh more. That is why ‘density,’ the weight of a certain volume of an object, is commonly used to estimate buoyancy. In orbit, the effect of gravity is canceled out and everything will be weightless. Thus there is no buoyancy in space. You can inject a drop of air into a sphere of water, and it will stay in place and not rise to the surface.

There are also many health effects associated with a long exposure to weightlessness, including muscle and bone loss as well as some neurological and visual problems. Rather than go into all of this, I will encourage you to read this post from Amber, a fellow sci-fi blogger and science nerd.

Difference between mass and weight.

This is a relatively minor point, but that should make it easy to remember. Mass is measured in grams, and weight is measured in newtons (gravitational force multiplied by mass). Most of the time weight and mass can be used interchangeably, unless there is space travel involved. Your character’s mass will be the same on earth as it is on mars, however, their weight will have changed. Weight is the measure of an objects gravitational attraction to another object, whereas mass is a physical property of the matter the object is made of. Mass is caused by the Higgs boson, but weight is caused by gravity (perhaps the graviton). While the incorrect use of this terminology will probably not dissuade many of your readers, it might cast doubt on your knowledge of the subject. Better safe than sorry.

Artificial gravity.

This encompasses any technique that is used to mimic the effect of gravity, and it is used in nearly every hard sci-fi story where astronauts are able to walk instead of float around on their space-ships. Creating an artificial gravity will be required for prolonged periods of weightlessness to prevent many of the adverse health effects. It it important to note that artificial gravity is not gravity at all.

Centrifugal ‘force’ is a method used to generate artificial gravity, whereby a torus, or another type of structure, is rotating around a central point. This has the effect of making all objects within the structure want to fly outward, but the structure itself is preventing that (centripetal force), thus allowing all the objects to be forced to the inside of the structure, with up being the center of rotation, and down being out into empty space. There are some pretty simple equations that will allow you to estimate the amount of rotations/min needed for a torus of a certain radius, to generate a certain amount of force (equivalent Gs).

Other continuous forms of acceleration can also apply a constant force, however, rockets will run out of thrust eventually, and when the people inside the rocket catch up to the rockets velocity, they will become weightless again.

It is up to the writer whether or not they want to address how gravity is simulated in their ship. I personally prefer there to be some mention of it to avoid logical inconsistencies. For example, if there is no torus or rocket used to apply this continuous force, then I will assume gravity has been mastered and replicated. If that is true, why would you need propulsion at all? What happens when the ship loses power (assuming generating gravity consumes power)? Where is the device that creates it? Where are all the floating cities, flying people, and gravity weapons? Conquering of gravity would of course result in all these and many other amazing things.

Anti-gravity.

It does not exist (yet). Sadly, most contraptions that claim to be working by anti-gravity are in fact operating by buoyancy or propulsion. In order from something to be anti-gravity, it must ignore gravity, or perhaps reverse it, not just compensate for it. This probably won’t happen until we find out what gravity really is. Is it the curvature of space time by Mass? A change in the geometry of space-time?

But when we finally do unravel the mysteries of gravity, we may be able to redirect it, amplify it, or turn it off altogether. Exciting times are ahead, but as sci-fi writers, we don’t have to wait, we can bring that excitement to the here and now.

The science of the presentation

presentationI am posting much later in the week than usual. It was a busy week. Most of my time was dedicated to analyzing data and preparing a research presentation for a group at the university. It was in preparing the presentation that I came up with the topic for this blog post. I realized that the mechanics of giving a presentation were very similar to the mechanics of writing a book. The goal is to make it sell.

I was lucky enough to be trained in how to give presentations by my first mentor, who was passionate about the mechanics of delivering presentations (he even gave a yearly presentation on how to give presentations). These were some of the main points he stressed:

Control the flow of information-

Don’t give any more background than the audience needs to be able to understand and appreciate the rest of the presentation. This is especially important when it comes to the content of individual slides. If you overload the audience with too much information at one time, they will become distracted from the heart of your message. Begin a presentation with a complicated scheme or figure and the audience’s eyes will wander to every part of it except for the area you want them to focus on. Worse, the audiences’ eyes might glaze over entirely when confronted with what appears to be a lecture. In a book, they call this an info dump, and it is a sure way to slow down a story and make people lose interest. In short, deliver the information only when they need it, and never more information than they need.

It is also important to deliver the information in a direct and logical fashion. If you are too vague and ramble, your audience won’t have gained anything in the time they spent listening. You want to anticipate their thoughts, giving them an answer right before they realized they had a question. This will keep them interested and give them confidence that you are an expert in the subject on which you are presenting. It follows that you should never bring up something you will not address or hope people won’t ask about. If you have a curious artifact in a piece of data, don’t draw attention to it, especially if you have no idea why it’s there or what could be causing it. You will be asked questions you can’t answer and the audience will get the impression you are ignoring something important, or just too dense to figure it out.

It is best to assume your audience is intelligent. Having a slide titled What is DNA? will be sure to offend all the geneticists in the room. By the same token, your sci-fi readers will not be pleased with a detailed description of why earth orbits the sun.

Which brings us to our next point.

Know your audience-

Delivering a presentation on muscle physiology and contraction kinetics to a group of geneticists is difficult. Trust me. So it’s important to deliver the information in a way that makes sense to them and gives them a bit of what they are expecting. You can judge your audiences’ reaction to a presentation by how many have fallen asleep in their chairs. On amazon, you can get an idea of your book’s success by number of reviews. At this point, it is too late to go back and fix things. Running these things past your lab or beta-readers will help you narrow down your audience.

If you are struggling to find a way to make your product (research or novel) interesting to the audience, it’s probably not your target audience, and you should not spend your time and effort on them. Selling a horror novel at a Romance Readers Conference is the definition of futile.

Be enthusiastic and confident-

Projecting enthusiasm and confidence is the best way to draw your audience in. But like all things, it is best in moderation. You can litter your presentation with animations and colors and media, just as thoroughly as you can fill your novel with flowery language, imagery, and description. But too much of it will be distracting and off-putting, and make it seem like you’re trying too hard, or compensating for a poorly plotted story or lack of data. Keeping things too colorless and dry, however, will come across as boring. If you sound bored, your audience will be bored too.

It’s okay to be a little nervous. When we put our stuff out there, whether it is in front of a lecture hall or on the virtual bookshelves of Amazon, anxiety is to be expected. I find that I am far more confident in my presentation if I have done a lot of preparation. This includes significant edits and revisions of my slides, and many practice runs with people willing to give me critiques. It is the same with my writing. I am far less nervous about my audience’s impression of my work if I know it is well thought-out and heavily edited for grammar, style, and structure.

 

Research presentations are a lot like books. The major difference is that your data shouldn’t be fiction (theorizing that your data is the result of ‘magic’ is frowned upon in most scientific circles). But no matter how much you prepare and polish, there will always be those who don’t care for your work and will criticize it. Don’t lose heart. You can’t please everyone… unless there’s free food involved. Nobody complains about free food.

My publications (so far)

It wasn’t until midway through my first novel that I began to think about publication. I was in my early twenties, and didn’t know anything about it. Like most writers, I slowly began to educate myself on the different types of publications and the process of becoming published. After nearly ten years, I still have a lot to learn, but I am happy to say that since I began taking writing seriously, I have gained a bit of practical experience in publishing.

Publishing my own words and ideas is a very fulfilling process. It isn’t the same as relating your day-to-day experiences to friends on Facebook. Face it, nobody really cares what you ate for breakfast. This fulfillment comes from communicating an idea, an emotion, a complicated theory, a story, or some other form of insight about the world that few people would have readily come to on their own. While writing is fun, I am not one of those writers who claim to write for themselves. Words were made to communicate, and communicating with yourself seems a little pointless to me.

Ideas are like viruses and words are their genetic code. When someone is exposed to an idea, it sometimes takes hold, and that person becomes a carrier, propagating that idea to other hosts. I want my ideas to reach people, to spread, to replicate like a virus. Not all ideas are dangerous, and some can change peoples’ lives for the better.

Here are a couple of the ideas and stories I have already released into the world. Many of them will not spread, but I hope they will affect (infect?) some people eventually.

My stories.

Speaking of viruses, the latest of my published stories was about a virus that destroyed people’s self-control and drove them to violently seize anything they desired. The possessive irrationality would not leave them until they had what they wanted and hid it away in a secret hoard. The young protagonist must fight to survive among the Hoarders, but even the uninfected are not to be trusted. This short story is called Want, and I published it with my writers group, Alabards, as a part of a horror anthology.

In the first book of our anthology series, I published a short story called Blue and Green Horizons. This story is about a man who had become a paraplegic in the past year due to a sky-diving accident. He has very little memory of the incident, recalling only the blue and green horizon as he leapt from the plane. He still has no idea why he deployed his parachute so late. The story takes place on a trip to a friend’s wedding. They are taking the train because he doesn’t feel comfortable on planes. When the train derails within a tunnel, he is the only one who can save the other passengers, but first he must fight his own insecurities and come to terms with his disability.

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Off-kilter and Off-kilter2 available on Amazon

This isn’t my only experience in the area of self-publishing. For the past few years I have been printing beta-reader novels through Lulu. The only difference is that I chose not to assign it a ISBN or make it available to anyone else but me (technically it’s never published). I highly recommend this method for beta-reading as it allows the readers to see the book in their hand and in a professional format. If you choose to self-publish (I haven’t decided yet), then it will also allow the readers to comment on format and cover design. I also suggest inserting a couple of questions at the end of each chapter in the beta-reader version. This will allow the reader to jot down their impression for each chapter rather than try to recall everything at the end. I am currently preparing my novel Quotidian this way. It will be ready for beta-readers early next year. Please contact me if you wish to be a beta-reader.

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The working cover and title for my latest book. Seeking beta readers.

My laboratory notebook.

A couple years ago, I was in my last year of graduate school and I got fed up with the laboratory notebooks currently available. I liked to outline my experiments by making a flow-chart first, then I would write down the protocol, and then I could record and paste the results. No one laboratory notebook was organized in such a way and nor did they have dedicated spaces for a table of contents, title, dates, signatures, etc. So I decided to make my own.

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The back and front of each page. Available on Amazon and Lulu

After designing the lab notebook and ordering several for my lab, I reached out to the founder of several private schools in Atlanta. Her science lab needed just such a lab notebook. I made a few changes to the format and added her school’s logo to the cover (a cover that can easily be personalized and decorated), and so far they have ordered hundreds of copies for their kids. “They are a staple to the program now,” she says.

labnotebooks

The lab notebooks I made for the Midtown International School in Atlanta, GA separated by class and filled with the kids’ science experiments.

I would encourage all writers with some knowledge of self-publishing and book formatting to put that knowledge to work. You can make calendars, planners, cook books, etc, for your own personal use or to sell. There is no reason why anyone should be confined to publishing novels when they have all the skills necessary to dabble in other publishing formats.

My research.

I was surprised to discover that my day job also provided me with practical publishing experience. Throughout grad school and my post-doc, I have been constantly constructing, writing, editing, and then publishing research papers. Science writing is very different from fiction writing in both style, tone, and wordage, but it still requires extensive planning, editing, and communication with editors and publishers.

My largest published work is my dissertation. Anyone who has ever written one will agree that the formatting is almost as tasking as the writing.img_20160927_131022192
While my 20ish articles and reviews are something many will likely never read, they are at least reaching other researchers who can build off my research findings and theories to help probe a little deeper into the mysteries of biology and disease. According to ResearchGate, my publications have been cited nearly 200 times in other publications since 2013.

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Take home message.

With that, I will leave you with one last consideration. Building your publishing presence is just as much about quality as quantity. Just because you have written something doesn’t mean that it is ready to be released into the world. I am proud of each and every one of my publications, but I still see a lot of room for improvement. Many of my readers will see it too. So unless you are confident that you know how to format a book, design a cover, and edit a story until it gleams, I suggest you take the time to learn how or to consult with professionals. Otherwise your reputation as an author will be marred by your haste to release your stories and ideas into the world. For example, I never could have created the amazing covers that grace the front of our short story anthologies, so I reached out to an old friend and graphic designer who had the skills and eagerness to take on the project. Thank you, Matt.

There is a common mentality among authors and artists to keep everyone ignorant of the project until it is ready to be released. Perhaps it is a fear that other people’s opinions or meddling hands will corrupt it in some way. These works most often fail because nobody has any stake, interest, or investment in the project. Getting beta-readers, cover designers, editors, and other writers involved in the project, even to a small degree, will link them to the project. These people will be the ones to help market the book once it is published because they can proudly say they read it before anyone else, helped edit it, etc. It can only benefit the author to bring others into the fold, especially if it means a more polished and marketable product.

The science of killing your characters

research-at-work               *** This post may contain some detailed and disturbing descriptions***

I spend a lot of time thinking up ways to kill people. Normally this might classify me as a psychopath…if I weren’t a writer. Let’s just hope the FBI makes that distinction if they ever get a glimpse of my search history.

This is a very important subject for writers to research, not just to add realism, but because death, or rather the avoidance of it, is one of the most common motivations for characters. Pretty much every adventure, horror, mystery, tragedy, and drama story uses death or fear of death to some degree. Death is, understandably, the greatest universal fear. It means the end of everything (unless your story contains elements of the afterlife), and there is no coming back from it. Even the bravest of heroes and heroines are cowed by the prospect of imminent death. It makes the bravest of men and women weep and pray to be spared, and it can provoke irrational and reckless actions in the most learned and patient of people. It is the most useful tool in the writer’s toolbox for creating suspense, surprise, and horror.

When writers are given the ever-important task of describing the stakes for their main character, most of them are common iterations of the word “death.”

  • Save the _____.
  • Survive the_____.
  • Fate of the _____.
  • Destroy the _____.
  • Loss/end/demise/etc.

Death is often featured in the opening of a story to spark the initial conflict, and it can be used to conclude the conflict at the climax. It is important then that death be portrayed accurately when it finally does strike, especially in these two all-important scenes.

I watched the first few minutes of a movie the other day and I couldn’t bear to watch any more than that. The victim in this opening scene of the movie had a huge hole punched through their chest. Despite their heart and lungs likely being destroyed, the person was able to spend the next couple minute saying their farewells. I’m sorry but you can’t talk without lungs, nor can you stay conscious for more than a few seconds when your heart is turned into mush. Unlikely deaths can cause an audience to laugh or roll their eyes, which is often not what an author is going for.

In this post, I will discuss the most common types of death featured in fiction. It is, by far, my longest post and pretty heavy on the science; my apologies.

Death by poison.

If your protagonist or antagonist has to kill someone without casting blame on themselves, they will either hire an assassin, wear a mask, or choose poison as the murder weapon. Sadly, poison has been a bit overused in fiction as a means of causing death, and often it is used inaccurately. The poison itself will only be effective at the right dose, in the right vehicle (solution, powder, etc.), and by the right mode of entry (breathing, eating, drinking, injection, etc.), so it is important to do research. Simply coating a bit of it on an arrow tip will probably not work.

Also, almost anything is considered a poison at the right amount. Put a tiny bit too much harmless potassium in someone’s IV and they will go into cardiac arrest. Since potassium levels naturally spike after death, such a poisoning would be impossible to detect. There are a lot of poisons, so for the purposes of this section, I will focus on the ones that are interesting to me.

Succinylcholine is a common one used in fiction. This paralytic is often toted as the best to use if your characters want to get away with the murder. First thing to appreciate about this drug is that it has to be injected into the muscle or vein; eating it is useless. This poison functions by imitating a common neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which is how nerves tell muscle to contract. When injected with this paralytic, classified as a depolarizing paralytic, the muscles contract and spasm uncontrollably and prevent the muscle from repolarizing in order to undergo subsequent contractions. The patient is paralyzed within a couple minutes and dies within a few minutes after that because they are unable to breath. It is nearly undetectable because it is quickly broken down into choline and succinate, two molecules found in abundance in the body.

It might surprise you that the poisons cyanide, azide, and the gasses carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, and hydrogen sulfide all work in the same way, by inhibiting Complex IV of the electron transport chain in the mitochondria. This protein is the main reason why we need to breathe. Almost all the oxygen you take in will be used by the mitochondria by this protein, which dumps 4 electrons onto oxygen to make water. This is the final immensely favorable reaction required by the mitochondria to drive the highly unfavorable pumping of protons into the inter-membrane space of the mitochondria. Once an electro-chemical gradient is established, those protons pass through Complex V to drive the production of ATP, the molecule that ‘powers’ most cellular functions. With ingestion of sufficient cyanide or azide, and breathing of the gasses, the victim will die by lack of energy production, a complete suffocation of all the individual cells. It may interest you to learn that rigor mortis, the stiffening of a body at around 12 hours after death, is the result of the body’s muscles finally running out of ATP. In the muscle, ATP is required to relax the contractile machinery and to keep calcium from constantly flooding into the cell and causing contraction. The relaxation of the body afterward is due to the degradation of the myofilaments causing the contraction. During my day job I study mitochondria in muscle, so I can tell you that there are hundreds of potential inhibitors of mitochondrial function to chose from.

Botox is not simply a way to prevent wrinkles, it is also the most toxic poison known to man. Produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum, this protein prevents the release of acetylcholine, often causing death by rendering the victim unable to breathe. But if small amounts of this toxin can cause death, why is it used in cosmetics and medicine for all kinds of diseases and conditions? It is all about containing the spread of the toxin. If an injection hits a vein rather than an intended muscle, you better hope someone can put you on life support. The muscle weakness can last for months.

Last but not least, Russel viper venom. Of all the millions of poisons to choose from, why this one? Because I find it fascinating. The venom is a direct activator of Factor X in the blood, the enzyme that converts prothrombin to thrombin and activates coagulation. In short, it turns your blood into a thick sludge. This can, ironically, cause you to bleed uncontrollably because all your clotting factors and platelets are used up.

I haven’t gone into a lot of symptoms for these poisons, primarily because there are so many of them, but I do advise writers to look up dosage, symptoms, and cause of death to make sure they get it right. There are many other poisons, but this post is already going to be too long. If you have questions about what poisons to use in your story, shoot me a message and I can help you brainstorm.

Death by blood loss.

If stab wounds, severed limbs, and internal bleeding feature in your work of fiction, it is important to consider blood loss. Depending on the location of the injury, bleeding may be quick or rather slow. Blood will clot fairly quickly if the bleeding is slow. A wound to an artery will likely be required to cause death, so make sure that arteries are present in the area your character is stabbed. The average adult human body contains about 5 liters of blood, which is the same as about 8.5 bottles of soda (20 ounce variety), but they will have died and their heart stopped beating long before all of that blood ends up on the floor.

The most common symptoms of blood loss are cold, pale, and clammy skin, racing heart, a tinge of blue in the finger tips, fading vision, and unconsciousness. Unless something else is going on in the body, most of the time they won’t just trail off and die mid-sentence with their eyes open as seen in pretty much every movie out there; they will instead go unconscious.

I’ve worked in two different blood banks and wrote my dissertation on mitochondrial function in human blood cells. I have drawn and processed quite a lot of blood for transfusion and analysis. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn I’ve seen more blood than most surgeons ever will. In case you don’t have this much experience with blood, it will be important to look it up and familiarize yourself with its appearance and properties. For example, the red in blood is due to the hemoglobin in erythrocytes (red blood cells) which are in suspension in circulating blood (about 40-45% of total volume), but when the blood has been allowed to settle (30 minutes to an hour) the greater half of the blood volume will sit on top of the packed red blood cells. This fluid is called plasma (or serum if it has clotted), and it is usually golden or straw-colored in appearance, but this will depend on many factors. Also, unless the victim is somehow injected with anticoagulants, the blood will most likely clot within 30 minutes. Clotted blood has the consistency of Jell-O, especially if it is a fresh clot, and it will shrink and harden over time.

Death by pathogen.

Viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites are the most common types of pathogens. There are nearly a million different species of pathogen that can infect mammals, and each of them might have different symptoms and can be deadly, or have no symptoms at all and live symbiotically with their host. Some won’t survive on a surface for more than a second, some can last years. Some can only be transmitted by blood, some by mucus membranes, and some by the fecal oral route (yes, eating poop). Some, like parasites, may have multiple life cycle stages that occur in different animals. They are fascinating to learn about and even more fascinating to use as tools in fiction.

I won’t say much on this subject because it would take an entire book just to cover the basics. I will stress, however, that the most common symptoms presented with these pathogens are not really due to the pathogen, but the result of our own immune systems trying to combat it. Most of these deaths are caused by your own body which kills you in its attempt to kill the invader. Granted, many pathogens will generate and release toxins of their own, or get inside your cells to evade the immune system, or even tinker with your DNA, or commandeer your cell’s own machinery for its own ends. These tiny organisms want to live just as much as we do.

Fever is a common means by which your body tries to eradicate the invaders, but it can fry your nervous system if it gets too high. Your body often tries to repel invaders by producing a lot of mucin in your airway epithelium and goblet cells which is secreted, mixed with water, and comes out as coughs and phlegm of various colors. Mucus can then congest the airway and prevent the lungs from absorbing enough oxygen, resulting in death. Interestingly, the green in pus and mucus is not a result of the bacteria, but myeloperoxidase, an enzyme of neutrophils (a common white blood cell) which converts hydrogen peroxide (also produced by these cells) into hypochlorous acid (bleach) to help kill pathogens.

Death by radiation.

From a nuclear blast, to cosmic rays, radiation can come in many forms and many of them behave differently. Depending on the type of radiation (alpha, beta, gamma, ions, protons, etc.), they will have different effects on the body. Some, like alpha radiation, are so large (a helium nucleus) that they are unable to penetrate skin. Others, like gamma rays, can rip through the body, cutting apart DNA and generating oxidants. When DNA is damaged faster than it can be repaired, the body will shut down and then die over the course of 24 hours to several weeks, depending on exposure. The cells that replicate the fastest in the body will be the first to go, including those that line the mouth, lungs, hair follicles, and gut. Vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, headache, loss of mental faculties, hair-loss and many other symptoms can result in as little as a few hours. The immune system is reliant on the proliferation and function of many immune cells (like lymphocytes and neutrophils), and when they can no longer provide their essential functions, the body will be subject to infections. Cancer can also result from DNA damage to important genes controlling the cell cycle.

There is a common misconception that radiation will contaminate other items, thus allowing it to be spread from one irradiated thing/person to another. This only occurs if the radioactive isotope is what is being spread. There is also a common misconception that taking iodine will help you survive radiation exposure. This only helps if the radioactive element is iodine 131. Taking normal iodine will prevent the harmful radioactive isotope from being taken up by your thyroid. Granted iodine 131 is a common fission byproduct of uranium and plutonium, so having some iodine might be useful in such situations as a reactor breach or nuclear blast.

Before deciding on this mode of death, it is important to look up symptoms for each exposure level as well as the type of radiation that will result from the event.

Take-home message.

There are many ways to kill your characters, so many ways in fact, that you don’t really need to make stuff up. I’ve only listed a few scenarios here, but they are near infinite. Why go in to this kind of detail? Well why not? You can teach your readers something as well as describe something that is visually captivating. That’s a win-win in my book. If you need help figuring out where to start, feel free to contact me.

Aweology

transdimension

The science of awe.

According to a review of one study, awe-inspiring sights elicit global activity of the autonomic nervous system, but shuts down parts of our parietal lobe, which contains our sense of self and our own boundaries and those of the world around us. In short, our brains are broadening their sense of scale, trying to encompass the vast and beautiful world. This is perhaps why awe also makes our own problems and worries seem insignificant in the grand scope of things. This same review cites a 2012 study showing that awe alters our sense of time, making us feel like we have more of it to spare, and even motivates us to spend more of that time helping others.

We also use awe to describe a sense of fear. This is also a process involving the autonomic nervous system, causing our heart and breathing to speed up, and in some cases, freezing us in place even as danger barrels toward us.

Becoming numb to awe.

Last month I was sitting in the middle seat on a flight to Atlanta from Seattle. I fly a lot, but certainly not as much as the man sitting in the window seat next to me. At one point during the flight, he lifted the blind and peered out for a few seconds before starting to close it again. The one and only time I spoke to the man was to keep him from closing it and to ask if I could take a picture. How he could have peered out the window at such a sight without taking the time to appreciate it was beyond me. The picture barely does it any justice.

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The ability to recognize beauty and feel fear is something most of us have. Unfortunately, it is also something we can become numb to with repeated exposure. In my novel, Quotidian, the day is repeating, but not just any day, the last day, the end of the world. The characters experience danger and destruction every day and have ceased to be awed by it, and even death has become something routine.

Make their jaws drop.

From a sun setting over a field of flowers to the plume of a radioactive mushroom cloud, these sights, like so many others, can inspire awe. But there are different levels of awe:

  • There is the kind that makes your jaw drop and stare speechless for a time.
  • The kind that gives you chills.
  • The kind that deserves a nod of appreciation
  • And the kind we assign to everything else that barely warrants noticing (in the words of Emmet from The Lego Movie: “Everything is Awesome!”)

It is important to aim for the mind-blowing sort of awe in writing. Why? Because readers have become so overstimulated, that anything less than that will barely register. This concept is important for writers to grasp. If our target audience experiences the same conflicts, the same wonders, love stories, horrors, scifi dramas, etc. they will lose that sense of awe.

Some strategies.

Nowadays it is difficult to create an original plot.

Rather than racking your brain for a new story to tell to awe your readers, try presenting a similar story in a unique way. As my brother is fond of saying, “do it in a way that nobody has ever done it before.” This can be as simple as changing the tone or mood of your story, or changing something about the world, or show things from a new perspective. For example, the scene of a large open field is boring until you put on a pair of glasses that invert your view of the world, and suddenly it feels like you could fall into the sky. This can reawaken your reader’s sense of awe even thought the primary plot and conflict is little different from others they’ve seen before.

My own strategy is to open the reader’s eyes to the inner-workings of things. It is only when you understand a magician’s act, that you can appreciate the complexity of the sleight of hand, the talent, and the training involved to pull it off. It is the same for sci-fi. Only when you truly understand the hazards of space travel do you become awed by the accomplishment of traveling to and landing on another planet.

As I was trying to describe this awe, I realized I didn’t need to, I’ve already written about it. This is an excerpt from my second book of The Abyssian series:

There were two types of awe, I surmised. One that was inspired by the unknown, the majesty and mystery of the world the God-of-All had built for them. This was a powerful sort of awe, I knew, I had felt it before and could see it kindling in the eyes of those praying around me. The second type of awe was wholly different, the opposite in fact, but no less powerful. It was an awe of knowing, at least in part, how the world worked. From the weather, the formation of mountains and seas, to the inner workings of the human body, it was an awe of knowing how this last had managed to survive and even thrive among all the rest. It was this awe that I felt burning in me as I stared at the cluster of men and women who had managed to carve out a peaceful and quiet existence from the stones of the cold and unforgiving northern mountains.

No matter your strategy, it is important to chase the awe factor. As Brandon Sanderson says, “err on the side of awe.”

 

Can you think of any other strategies to awe a reader? I’d like to hear from you.

The science of motivation

machine

I have trouble with motivation. Usually this problem manifests when my obligations mount, and my time does not feel my own. But when I do manage to tackle an item on my to-do list, a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction spurs me on to the next with renewed determination.

That feeling of pleasure and satisfaction is the result of dopamine, a neurotransmitter, which is released from the ventral tegmental area in my midbrain to the nucleus accumbens. This Mesolimbic pathway is otherwise known as the reward pathway, which reinforces the positive behavior, and encourages me to ‘want’ to be more productive. It is a process critical to reward-based learning and the survival of our species.

This feeling is far more rewarding if the task I wish to complete is something I am passionate about. Take a whole novel for instance. I completed my first novel while sitting in a coffee shop. While the other quiet patrons may have observed a man leaning back in his chair for a lengthy stretch, I was covertly raising my fists into the air in triumph.  Of course, the feeling did not last long, not when I realized how much work still needed to be done, but I set to it with renewed vigor.

Here are some tips to help you complete your works in progress (WIPs).

Use baby steps.

It’s important to work up to your larger goals, and not tackle them head-on. Standing before a mountain is far more daunting than taking it one ridge at a time. You can think of a novel as a series of scenes, or short stories, with each chapter an accomplishment in itself. Motivation will build as more and more of these accomplishments pile up. You can give yourself additional rewards for reaching these milestones, like a night at the movies or a particular food you enjoy. This will positively reinforce the hard work you’ve done up until that point.

But sometimes, the reward stops working, in which case, you are officially an addict going through withdrawal. Indeed, many drugs target dopamine or mimic it in some way. And like all addicts, it takes a little extra reward to get the same sense of pleasure. With planning, you can slowly build up the rewards, making each better than the last until you’ve completed the novel. For the record, I do not advise taking actual drugs.

Find a routine.

Momentum is inarguably, the best way to get somewhere and to keep moving once you’ve arrived. Seeing your word count rise day after day, will not only keep you motivated, but keep the creative juices from stagnating. Setting a routine for yourself, one that matches your own pace, will help you speed through the processes. However, it’s important not to take on more than you can handle, or you can quickly burn out, and the act of completing your novel will seem more an obligation than an aspiration. Take NaNoWriMO, for instance. I’ve heard from many writers that the month is indeed motivating, but can leave you never wanting to look at that particular novel again.

Gain some perspective.

Oftentimes we need validation, assurance that the success we are striving for is in fact momentous, worthwhile, and anticipated by our peers and loved ones. The more worth you pile onto your WIP, the more liberated and accomplished you will feel by the end of it. So it’s okay to daydream about all the success you are going to have, even if those dreams are unlikely to come true.

It’s also important to surround yourself by people who are invested in the outcome of your novel, who can make your hard work feel appreciated, and who encourage you to write more. If you are looking for critiques for your writing, it’s sometimes best to wait until the novel is complete. If a less that positive critique comes back, it can make all your hard work feel pointless and a waste of time. If you still want critiques before you finish, it’s important to ask your critiquers to tell you what you’re doing right. It isn’t in peoples’ nature to dole out praise, but if it’s honest, it is equally if not more helpful than constructive criticism.

Piggyback on a troll.

This is not an actual literary term, but one I made up for lack of a better way to illustrate the concept.

If you need more motivation to complete your WIP, make it a secondary goal to something much more important to you, such as your sense of ethics, values, or loved-ones. Most of us are easily motivated to right a perceived wrong, deal out justice, or confront someone/thing that has offended us or our sense of morality.

And this is where the troll comes in. If you don’t know about trolls, I will do my best to summarize it. Trolls are people who post hateful or inflammatory comments on the internet or other form of media just to elicit an emotional response. Most of the time, trolls just want attention. You can spot a troll’s blog, for example, by the sheer number of outraged comments they have following each post. They love drama. For the record, I have zero respect for trolling, but I make an exception if the only one you are offending is yourself. If you set up your WIP with a moral challenge or dilemma for your characters, you can often trick yourself into seeing the story through to the end just to make sure it ends satisfactorily, and that justice is done. In short, troll yourself. Of course, this works best when you don’t work from a concrete outline and have to discover how the story ends by writing it.

Believe in yourself.

I felt like this post was about to take a turn on cheesy lane when I typed this section’s title, but it bears repeating. If you don’t believe you can do something, you will not have the motivation to try. If, for example, you don’t think you can learn a language, you are never going to attempt it. Again, it is important to surround yourself with people that believe in you. Don’t be afraid to fish for compliments if that is all that stands between you and finishing your WIP.

Finish your work.

This is the last and most important point. Don’t expect to be swept up by motivation halfway through a draft. It is almost always going to fail at some point and become a slow slog to the finish line, but it’s an important line to cross. Once you’ve experienced the pleasure of completing your first draft and then publish, you will have gained all the confidence you need to start your second WIP.

 

I’m sure there are many more points to cover, but I have run out of ideas, and ironically, the energy and motivation to think more on the subject. But at least I am finishing this post!

This is a really good article that covers many of these same points, and coincidentally, it is titled the Science Behind Motivation.

Please leave a comment if you have more tips to share on how to stay motivated and finish your WIP.

The creativity proclivity

creation

As writers, we have a penchant for creating things. Seeing something of your own imagination brought into the world provides such a sense of satisfaction that, for many of us, it has become a drug. When we need a fix, we simply pull out our computers or notebooks and let our imaginations spill out onto the page. We can create entire worlds and cultures, magic, and new laws of science, but sometimes we encounter writer’s block, or the act of writing is no longer enough to satisfy the craving. To keep withdrawal from setting in, many of us seek a creative outlet in the real world. If you suffer from this creation addiction, here are some tips on how to expend your pent-up creativity in a safe and productive manner.

Arts and crafts

One of the easiest ways to sate your creative impulses, is to take up arts and crafts. This includes any hobby that involves the creation of objects, not the intangible ones to which we writers are accustomed. Whether it involves glue, thread, needles, wood, metal, or glass, or paint or graphite, these mediums can be used to exercises your inner creative muscles.

I have tried my hand at lampwork (melting glass with a torch), pen making, sculpting, whittling, mold making and casting, and many more. But for me, the most satisfying form of arts and crafts is etching. I have etched images and text into metal (saltwater etching and electroplating), glass (chemical) and wood (wood burning), and even cloth (screen printing).

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An aluminum saltwater etching I made for a friend, quoting the Space Wolves Catechism from Warhammer 40K

Until recently, I have been doing this the hard way, but I came across this laser etching service called Ponoko, where I can have all kinds of materials laser etched to create key-chains, jewelry, game pieces, prototypes, etc.

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Insect wings cut and etched into acrylic by Ponoko. I gave these to my girlfriend who enjoys making earrings.

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Leather key-chains with a P kissing an M for me and my girlfriend, Megan.

Food

There is no creation as immediately gratifying as food. While you can enjoy food cooked by anyone, that urge to create something is not satisfied unless you do it yourself. Heating a microwave dinner or mixing a couple ingredients provided in a box don’t count. I don’t have a wealth of culinary skills, but I do like to experiment in the hopes of coming up with a new taste. I get the most enjoyment out of cooking something from scratch. Take a pizza for example. It takes no creative effort to order one or heat it in the oven. Instead, try making the dough yourself (water, yeast, flour, and some sugar and salt), the pizza sauce (tomatoes, salt, and herbs), and then cheese and toppings. I’m proud to say that I’ve made an entire pizza from scratch a few times, including the cheese. I hope that one day I will be able to plant, reap, and process my own grain into flour, too. Want an adult beverage with your pizza dinner, stop by a home-brew supply store and brew your own wine, beer, mead, or cider.

Growing your own herbs, fruits, and vegetables is also a rewarding process. Even if the plants are decorative, allowing them to flourish provides the same sense of accomplishment.

Creating with friends and family

If you are a mother or father, congratulations, you have successfully brought life into the world, you are a creator. I do not advise expending your creative urges in this manner all the time, however. Instead, try the following collaborative projects:

– coming up with stories at bedtime

– create your own board or card games

– start a band and write music

– come up with science fair projects

– have art projects or arts and crafts nights

– play Minecraft or other sandbox games

– DIY projects around the house.

At work

If you have a job where you are paid to create (e.g. engineer, artist), then you probably aren’t lacking in creative outlets. In the lab, I get to make figures and schemes and presentations to accompany my research data. For many of you, there will be many opportunities to exercise your creativity at work. You can volunteer to put together a logo, a presentation, a memo, an advertisement, or anything else that requires a bit of imagination and implementation. If your job doesn’t offer those kinds of opportunities, it can be as simple as making cookies for your colleagues, customizing cards for special occasions, or decorating office space or attire, designing a business card with interesting graphics, or printing t-shirts for company getaways.

I once made a motivational poster of my boss peering down the barrel of a Nerf gun, with the words “stay focused” written beneath. Soon, everyone in the lab was requesting motivational posters with their own sayings. I also cultivated a line of petri -dish Jade bonsais that have since been spread to multiple labs as a window seal decoration.

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To supplement your writing

Of course, these creative projects should not impinge on your writing time, marketing, or other author responsibilities. However, you can supplement your writing with these creative projects to help sell your brand. You can focus your arts and crafts on making things specific to your fantasy or scifi world. If you describe a piece of jewelry or attire, try to make it. If you have a saying, motto, or logo, or book cover, print it on t-shirts, mugs, poster, etc. Perhaps you can sell these items on your website, or offer them as giveaways. That way when people show off these items, it will further advertise your book. You can even draw sketches of your characters, paint a scene, draw a map, or design a cover for your book.  Do you make music and have a bunch of audio equipment? Turn your novel into an audiobook. If you like to cook, make the dishes you describe in your world and write a cookbook. Not only will you be able to describe the taste of such a dish in detail, you can describe the making of it.

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A leather cover for the first round of edits of my first book.

It is difficult to be creative in today’s world; everything is made for us, processed within an inch of unrecognizable and provided with instructions as simple as “just add water.” It is no wonder the simple process of creation eludes many of us on a day to day basis. Writing can only satisfy our addiction for so long before we begin drawing inventions on the back of napkins or building a castle of epic proportions on Minecraft.

Are you an creation addict? How do you expend your excess creativity?

The Write Right Rite

This isn’t a post about homonyms, it’s about the rite of passage we all must take in order to become better writers, to write right. Contrary to popular opinion, people aren’t born great writers. Anyone can become a talented and successful writer so long as they possess the following traits:

  • The passion for reading and telling stories
  • The creativity to come up with those stories
  • The dedication, patience, and persistence to write, edit, and market those stories
  • The willingness to read, practice, and learn the craft
  • The humility to learn from your mistakes and accept criticism and feedback

If you are reading this, then you will likely agree that these last two traits are crucial to any writer who wants to improve. In the beginning, most writers are blinded by their own accomplishment, that act of putting so many words down on the page, that they fail to see their own deficiencies. OMG, they say, I am doing what all those authors in bookstores are doing, I am writing a novel. Once I finish, my book will be right up there with theirs. It is not their fault; they simply don’t realize how difficult it is to become a successful author, and their friends and family all insist it’s a work of art. They don’t know that they have just embarked on a life-long journey of self-improvement. Who knew that writing was considered an entire craft? How hard can it be? They’re just words, right?

birds.pngIf only it were that simple. Pretty soon these fledgling writers will leap from the cozy nest they were born in and try to soar to the starry heights of the literary skies. Unfortunately, many of them will plummet to the ground, their little wings incapable of bearing them up. Those that do rise will find that a cruel tempest lies between them and their goal. Once the reality sinks in, many writers will give up and lock their stories away where they can no longer embarrass them.

It takes a lot of courage to face your inadequacies as a writer and choose to stay in it for the long haul. And it won’t be easy. Today’s authors are encouraged to find their own unique voice and original story lines, yet produce writing that meets the standards of the industry. It is a narrow path to walk. If you stray too far from the norm, you will be criticized or ignored entirely, but if you adhere too firmly to the standards of the genre, you will be accused of chasing trends and your work will be viewed as derivative. Today’s author must stretch the limits of the genre’s boundary in order to find their niche.

The quickest way to learn the craft, is to do your research and seek writing advice. At one time or another, most writers will join writers’ groups or participate in online writing websites and forums, or follow blogs (cough…this one… cough). There they can absorb the hard-won wisdom of writers who have already been through the process. All writing advice is subjective, however, since it comes from an author with their own unique voice and target audience.  What will work for one person may not work for another. The advice may still be useful, as it has already gone through the extensive process of trial and error. Learning what advice to accept and which to disregard is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome as a writer.

You can read all the advice in the world, but it won’t make you a better writer without practice. It takes time and effort to produce quality writing. Consequently, many writers consign their first novel to the bin, proclaiming it their ‘learning or practice novel.’ Like most rites of passage, this one is particularly discouraging and painful, but is often necessary in order for writers to improve their writing. In a recent newsletter, one of my favorite authors, Brandon Sanderson, admitted to having written ‘numerous books,’ many of which were ‘very weak,’ before he sold his first novel.

Someone once told me that writing is a practice in shoveling a mountain of ‘crap’ (she didn’t say crap), and that every time you write you decrease the height of the pile. Only when the pile is gone, will the writing be free of ‘crap’. However, there will always be writers who do plenty of writing but are incapable of facing their inadequacies, who won’t listen to advice, strive to improve, read books, or learn about the craft. They will continue to churn out undeveloped stories and poor writing, and accuse the world of not understanding them. These unfortunate writers, don’t see the mountain of ‘crap’ they are standing on, and instead produce more of it in order to look down on the world from an even greater and loftier height.

Have you ever recalled a memory, but rather than experiencing it through your own point of view, you look upon your actions as if from third person? I am no psychologist, but I like to think this happens because, subconsciously, you can no longer identify with your former self. Something in your values, your mentality, your self-image has changed. You should strive for this feeling with your writing. If you can look back on something you wrote 5 years ago and see no way to improve it, then you are not doing it right. Writing as a hobby or as a career, requires continuous learning. Read more about the craft, learn more about what your audience wants, read over your reviews or go in search of critiques. There are always ways to improve, and as writers, we should use every opportunity to produce quality and enjoyable writing for our readers.

The science of curiosity

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Know naught but for naught but knowing.

I came up with this phrase when writing Agony’s Fire. Apart from its pleasing symmetry, I felt a strong connection to its message. Knowing for the sake of knowledge’s sake, is the very definition of curiosity. But where does curiosity come from? Almost everything has an obvious evolutionary imperative, a reason why it has come to exist in us. For those without an obvious reason, it has either lost its usefulness and has yet to evolve out (e.g. appendix, wisdom teeth), or exists because it can (provided no significant disadvantage to our ancestors), or both. But curiosity is not useless or indifferent, it gets people killed just as often as it saves their lives. Why then would we have evolved to have it?

I posit that curiosity is the feeling that compels us to solve problems with the ultimate goal of controlling our environment. The only way for us to have control over our environment is to learn about it. A baby explores the world by touching and tasting everything, for that is the tried and tested method of knowing if something is good or bad for you. If it tastes good, it is probably edible, and if it doesn’t burn or sting you, it is probably safe to handle. Other senses are not so discerning, but all have evolved to help you learn about your environment and solve problems. Curiosity helped our ancestors do more than decide which food was good to eat, it helped us discover medicines, and drove us to strike rocks and sticks together to make tools, fire, and even music. It gave us power to dispel darkness, to shelter us for the elements, and to hunt and ward off predators.

Like the possibility of a predator in the darkness, uncertainty will keep us up at night, make us sick, cause depression, and age us beyond our years if we don’t answer the question that plagues us. This physiological response to uncertainty occurs when the stress hormone, cortisol, is elevated for long periods of time. Acutely, this hormone will improve pain tolerance, tissue repair, and stimulate cognition to help overcome problems during a fight or flight situation, but the body cannot be sustained at that level for long without consequence. Endorphins are also released during stress to counteract its effects. Endorphins are partly responsible for making you relaxed and feel-good after stress (runner’s high), reduce your sense of pain, and improve your mood. This is the bodies reward for solving a problem. Interestingly, the problem doesn’t necessarily have to be solved in order to have this effect, the individual just has to believe that it is. The placebo effect is thought to be caused by endorphins, making a patient feel like their aliment is being remedied when they are in fact taking a sugar pill. Even more interesting is the fact that many people do see improvements in their health. That is the power of the mind.

I believe this is partly why we enjoy reading. Not only are we attaining knowledge, true or not, we are receiving the benefits of problem solving while in the comfort and safety of home. Curiosity is what keeps us reading from the start of the conflict to the resolution, much as it compels us to resolve conflict in our own lives. This is perhaps why most story arcs look the same and why deviations from the standard ‘shape’ do not perform well. Giving a reader too much conflict and too little resolution will prevent them from feeling the physiological benefits of problem solving. This is perhaps why cliff-hangers, which fail to bring the major conflict to an end, will leave the reader unsatisfied. On the other hand, having too little conflict will keep their stress from rising in the first place and have the same unsatisfying effect. If you fail to heighten the conflict much at all, they may not even experience enough curiosity to keep them reading.

As writers, we must capitalize on the emotional turmoil of our reader, enough to make them invested in the outcome of our story. We must stimulate their curiosity, but not so much that they are chronically or unduly stressed. We should help them learn about the world, and exercise their problem solving skills through the adventures of our characters. In the end, we can hope they will be flooded with endorphins and feel a reader’s high.