Writing Update-October

fall-in-seattleIt is Fall, a beautiful time of year in Seattle. All the leaves are changing color, and the days are either rainy, sunny, or a bit of both.  I wish I could blame the weather for the late writing update this month, but the truth is, I just forgot. I do have some fun blog posts planned, but you will have to wait till next week to see them.

My works-in-progress.

The thing I love most about this blog is that it allows me to research dozens of topics I would otherwise have no reason to research. In so doing, it has given me more ideas than I know what to do with. These ideas have found their way into my writing and into the outlines of several new works in progress.

In case you missed it in my last post, I am working on a new story called Grounded (working title). Quotidian is more dystopian than sci-fi, but Grounded is very sci-fi. You can read the blurb here. It will be set in the near future, just like Quotidian, but unlike Quotidian, it will be chock full of science and innovation. It has been fun learning all about orbital mechanics and buoyancy and speculating about what will change when gravity has been eliminated. I have even consulted with my uncle, who works for NASA. You will be hearing more about this project in the near future.

Editing.

Quotidian is coming along slowly. In my August update, I had planned to make it through several rounds of edits and several drafts by the end of the year, but I am still wading through the current draft. The hardest part it deciding what stays and what goes. If a subplot doesn’t contribute much to the overall story, character development, or setting, I eliminate it. Unfortunately, this means I have to comb through the draft and remove all mentions of it. The earlier the subplot is introduced, the more there is to eradicate as the story progresses.

Typically writers fall into one of two categories: underwriters and overwriters. I think I am an overwriter, but not to the extreme. As I am editing, my word count is shrinking, but not by much. I think I outlined it well enough that there isn’t a whole lot of extraneous exposition or excessive subplots.

I usually write my entire story as one Word document. It is easier to keep track of the drafts that way verses having a Word document for each chapter. I regularly make new versions of the same document with a new save date to ensure, if I lose one copy or make a significant change, I can return to a previous version if necessary. This has resulted in a huge file of documents over the years. I love graphs, so I plotted the word count for each of my document versions over time to get an idea of my writing pace and speed:

quotidian-word-count

Word count for Quotidian

The book started relatively high in word count, but this was mainly due to all the notes, outlines, and about a chapter or so of actual story. It was pretty slow to get started because I was finishing Book 2 of the Abyssian. I didn’t start making headway on Quotidian until the end of 2014. Of course, this didn’t last long. I had to graduate. The next several months were spent writing my dissertation and graduating. I started my postdoc about a week after my last day in grad school, and that week was spent packing my bags, leaving Alabama behind, and traveling across the country to Seattle. Once in Seattle, the setting for Quotidian, I felt much more inspired. During the day, I was in lab, but afterwards I would find a quiet place in some nearby café or bar and write, nearly every day, until I completed Quotidian. Now I am in the editing phase, and I am really missing the daily writing. I have since started Grounded, but juggling both is making editing and writing progress pretty slowly.

Thankfully, I get quite a lot of editing and feedback from members of Critique Circle. On this website, I post chapters to my private queue, and my queue members read and critique it. I only have 16 chapters posted so far, but will be putting all of them up by the end of the year. In addition to finding me some alpha readers, CC was able to generate some pretty cool stats for my posted chapters:

readabilityadjectivesnounspronounsadverbsverbsprepositionsdeterminersdistinct-wordsdirect-speech

The readability stats indicate what grade level the reader needs to have in order to understand each chapter. Mine is pretty standard for a book targeting a broad audience, I think. The other stats give me assurance that my writing style isn’t dramatically changing throughout the story, and they show me where I am heavy on description or dialogue. I highly recommend CC to other aspiring writers. When I get into some other editing software, I will be sure to post my reviews and recommendations.

As a side note, I was thinking about starting up a scientific consultant service to cater to writers’ specific story needs. I would probably do this service for free, unless demand rises rapidly. So if you are having trouble figuring out the science involved in your story’s unique context, or if you simply want someone to help you brainstorm, please feel free to contact me. I will likely not be an expert in the topic you need help with, but I do enjoy researching new things.

I am also happy to take suggestions for future blog posts. Any topic related to improving the accuracy and believability of science in science fiction is preferred.

That’s all for today. Back to writing… and editing, I guess.

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.

img_20160926_203928

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.

cover-quotidian

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.

img_20160927_132406

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.

citation

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 misinformation perpetuation

teleportation

In a previous post, I spoke about how essential communication was to the survival of our species. In the critical stages of our evolution, when humans were few in number and they could not glean information from a device in their pocket, misinformation meant death. Give someone the wrong directions, and they will walk into a swamp or get turned around in a frozen tundra. Inadequately describe an edible mushroom or berry, and the next time you go check on your neighbor, you’ll find them dead. These instances still occur today, but less frequently due to the ease at which we can access validated information. But this has also made us lazy and we often assume information comes from a reliable source.

In Science-

Misinformation in research journals has a toxic effect on science. All it takes is one publication to slip through the cracks and suddenly, anyone who reads that article and doesn’t know better, will now be a source of misinformation to the rest of their colleagues. Misrepresentation of a biological process, data fabrication, misuse of terminology, or even a misinterpretation of a theory, can spread unchecked in scientific journals until it becomes an epidemic. Billions of dollars have been wasted on the experiments that resulted from this misinformation.

In Movies-

In the entertainment industry, this isn’t called misinformation, it’s called ‘artistic license,’ and it gives the industry the ability to alter, fabricate, and withhold any and all information for the sake of entertainment. Everyone who has watched a movie will have seen a 5 gram bullet knock a 90,000 gram individual back a few yards. Aren’t grenades supposed to explode in a huge fireball? Of course we all know that heroes can dodge every single bullet shot at them, that scientists can cure every disease with just a microscope, and that sound is easily carried through the vacuum of space. These examples have the desired dramatic effect, but don’t we owe it to our audience to avoid perpetuating these inaccuracies?

In Writing-

There is a lot of misinformation between writers that is given in the form of advice. Many new authors will hear this information and treat it as fact and be very vocal about ‘the rules’ on most writing forum. We have all heard the writing rules, but the truth is, there are none. Writing is very subjective. Unless you write in a made-up language, or completely disregard grammar, you will likely find someone who is interested in your book. What works for some might not work for others. Even this writing advice is completely subjective. Separating fact from opinion is much more difficult in this industry than in science. It is generally a good idea to listen to the advice and learn ‘the rules,’ even if all you intend to do is break them.

How to overcome misinformation-

What do you do if your entire plot is built on inaccurate science? Despite my assertions that many things can be explainable with science and that writers don’t have to break the laws of reality in order to achieve their plot goals, there are certain things you can’t explain with science, but work as decent plot devices. For example, there is no possible way for a mutation to cause an individual to grow fur, muscles, and claws within seconds. Biology doesn’t work that fast on the macro scale. But then we wouldn’t have werewolves. There is no scientific basis for telekinesis or turning a deck of playing cards into flying explosives, but then you wouldn’t have the X-men. Warp drives, or anything that can travel faster than light, violates causality and many laws of physics, but it is the only way to move spaceships quickly from one star-system to another. So, depending on where you stand in the hard or soft sci-fi category, your plot might be limited by the laws of science.

When writing other forms of fiction, however, research and accuracy rarely limits your creativity. Not only will readers appreciate your adherence to fact, many will have learned something. When a reader recognizes an incorrect statement in your book, they will be shaken out of the story. Some reader will even think less of you, especially if it concerns something they are passionate about. If your main character is a lineman who repairs power lines for a living, make sure you research their standard practices and the correct terminology. If you have a character hack a database, make sure you actually use correct computer terms and give plausible scenarios. Anything from the process of making cheese to the appearance of a flame in zero gravity, make sure you have the facts, because chances are someone will know more than you. This is why they say to “write what you know,” because that is the tried and tested method to write a believable story. This doesn’t mean I should only write stories about a caffeine-addicted scientist who spends way too much time on the computer, it means I should educate myself on a topic before writing about it.

The higher purpose of a writer-

People read books for entertainment, but shouldn’t they gain more than a few hours of enjoyment? Teaching your readers something is easy if it is done right. Long paragraphs explaining the mechanics of an internal combustion engine will have your readers dozing, but a dialogue between father and son as they work on a common hobby will feel more natural and realistic. Better yet, have the son damage the engine, and show the suspenseful process of him trying to repair it before his father comes home. Your reader might not even realize that they’ve learned something.

If you point out the what-ifs, things that might actually happen given our current understanding of the world, you can inspire your reader as well as educate them. In my opinion, that is where speculative fiction is at its best. Ever since the ideas of space elevators, solar sails, ion engines, and hover cars were popularized, huge advances in research and engineering have brought them so much closer to becoming a reality. Many of the scientists I know today are big science fiction fans, and many of them entered the field because books and movies first inspired them to learn more and to create something. How disheartening would it have been for them to make it all this way only to find out that the thing that inspired them had no basis in science or reality, that it was based on fabricated information and flawed from the start.

I originally created this blog to help encourage others to look to science to inspire their writing, but another major hope of mine is that their writing will inspire science. Putting science aside, the accurate portrayal of events, the coverage of a controversial subjects, and calls for change, can all inspire action in your readers. That is how we as writers can effect real change in the world.