Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Well, no sooner do I complain about difficulties in finding interesting science articles to blog about than I come across this piece by a wonderful science writer, Olivia Judson. In this essay, called "Evolving Sexual Tension," she talks about how the different reproductive goals of males and females create opposing evolutionary forces. Traits that may make a male successful at attracting a female, such as brightly colored plumage for a bird, would be a problem for the female. (Female birds often have drab coloring so they can hide.) But since an organism gets half of its genes from its mother and half from its father, it inherits genes that from the opposite-sex parent that may hurt its own reproductive success. (Judson doesn't go into detail in her article, but genes have markers that indicate which parent they came from. These markers affect how the genes are expressed, so they may play a part in keeping females from becoming too masculine and vice versa.) The sexual traits of both genders act on each other so they can't become imbalanced. However, geneticists have complex techniques (which Judson didn't go into) that allow them to remove the constraints. When this is done, the gender that is allowed to evolve goes to its extreme--ultra-masculine males or ultra-feminine females. The downside is that the opposite-gender offspring of these extremely gendered organisms take on these traits too, so they have a harder time reproducing.
Judson must think like a science fiction writer, for she poses her own questions in the last paragraph:
I’d love to know how much of the human genome is similarly constrained, and I wonder what would happen if human males were prevented from evolving while females were allowed to keep going. I also wonder what happens in beings like hermaphrodites, where individuals are males and females both at once — how does sexual tension evolve then? Or what about those insects where males hatch from unfertilized eggs, but females have “normal” genetics — can sexual tensions be more easily resolved?
It's always interesting to learn about unusual animal traits; as a science fiction writer, they give me ideas for creating alien races. It's especially interesting to learn about gender, since it affects so much about our culture and how individuals behave. By playing with the biology of gender in fiction, one can examine how gender affects us in everyday life--and possibly come up with ways to level the playing field between the genders.
To summarize the article, researchers at MIT found that by stimulating an electric current in a certain part of the brain, they can change the way people judge other's acts. This particular part of the brain (called the right temporoparietal junction), when active, makes people more likely to consider the intentions behind a particular act, not just the outcome. By creating an electric current in the brains of study participants, researchers were able to disrupt activity in this region. (I assume this was only temporary, although the article doesn't say that.) The researchers then asked the participants to judge morality in certain situations. Some of the scenarios had both bad intentions and a bad outcome; others had bad intentions but a harmless result. After the magnetic treatment, the study participants were more likely to disregard the intentions behind an act and focus on the results when deciding how moral the situation was.
I think I should post a few caveats here before I look at the implications of this study for science fiction. There's still much to learn about how the brain works. This study just looked at a small part of the brain; there may be other areas of the brain that play a role in judging morality, and they may be affected in different ways. The researchers caution that there may be a social aspect to the participants' responses too; they may have said what they thought they should say instead of what they really thought. And while I don't know what type of equipment was used here, it may be a long time before something similar is developed for everyday use.
That said, this study offers a lot of interesting ideas for science fiction writers. Could neurological techniques someday be used to develop a conscience in criminals -- or convince someone to do something against their normal morals? (One of the subplots of Across Two Universes deals with time travelers attempting to brainwash someone into committing murder, though they use drugs.) Could this be applied on a larger scale, making citizens more likely to support a politician's decision to go to war? Can people still have free will or be held responsible for their actions? To what extent is a person's personality affected by the structure of her brain? If it's all physical, do souls exist? If science argues against souls, will this be commonly accepted, or will most people refuse to acknowledge it? These are tough questions to answer, but science fiction can be used as a thought experiment to shed some light on them, and different writers may have different takes on the subject.
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Sunday, March 28, 2010
Harmony Sweepstakes is an annual national contest for acapella groups. The Midwestern regionals are held very close to where Eugene's parents live. We used to attend every year, but we stopped going after Alex came along for lack of a babysitter. But this year we decided he would be OK if we left him with Eugene's family, so we brought him there first. They had a train set waiting for him, and he was so busy with that he didn't get upset when we left.
This year, there were eight groups competing. Each group gets ten minutes to sing their songs. Between sets, the group that won the previous year comes out to entertain the crowd (by telling bad jokes) until the judges have finished their evaluations. Once all of the groups have competed, the audience gets to vote on their favorite, and the host group performs while the judges confer.
My favorite group was An Octave Above. I think we've heard them before, but last night I was amazed by the power and presence they brought to their singing. I was disappointed that they didn't have any CDs for sale. The winning group tends to be the one that best plays to the crowd; in this case, it was a group called Home Free. They were picked by both the audience and the judges, while An Octave Above came in second.
We bought a total of three CDs, then returned to Eugene's parents place. We'd planned to spend the night, so we'd brought along everything Alex needed. Unfortunately, he refused to fall asleep for Eugene's mom because he missed us. He wound up sleeping with us, well past his normal bedtime. At least he's getting an early nap in now. I just hope he sleeps in his own room tonight!
Friday, March 26, 2010
I think the Tao is another name for the "flow" state, when you're so immersed in what you're doing that it works like magic. I first noticed how writing got me into the flow state when I was in high school taking essay exams. I'd come into the classroom armed with a brain full of knowledge, a process of how to turn a thesis statement into an essay, pens, and a tissue to wrap around my left hand (so the ink wouldn't stain it). As soon as I read the question and figured out how to answer, off I'd go, not to resurface until I was done.
These days I have so many distractions it's hard for me to reach the flow state, especially since I have so little time to do it on my lunch break. I know surfing the net and playing Spider Solitaire don't help, but they've become a habit. Sometimes it helps to go somewhere, like the bookstore, with the specific intention to write. If I can set aside a large chunk of time, it's more effective.
What do you do to reach a flow state, whether that's in writing or some other activity? Do you feel that the flow state comes more frequently with practice? Please feel free to answer in the comments.
I actually have some fun personal things planned for this weekend; they may even make it to the blog. Enjoy your weekend!
Thursday, March 25, 2010
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
I'm congested from a cold, so I didn't sleep well last night--or should I say, I slept even less than normal. But of course that's not enough to justify staying home, and Alex will demand I carry him around and attend to his every need as usual. I plan to write during my lunch hour, though I wonder how productive I'll be.
Writing does require discipline; part of that is sticking to a regular writing schedule. On days when you're sick or tired, does the muse still keep his/her appointment with you? Do you find that you write less than normal, or that you have to toss it all out later? Are we pushing ourselves too much in this fast-paced, Type A society?
That's enough questions for now; it's back to bed for me for a little while longer.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Monday, March 22, 2010
Sunday, March 21, 2010
I don't want to bad-mouth other authors in my genre, and I don't want to spoil this book for people who haven't read it yet, so I'm not going to name it. I will describe it, however. It's a book that was written by a college dropout in his early twenties. It originally came out in the mid-80s and was recently reissued. If I had read it when it was first published, I would have been enthralled with it, as it features one of my favorite mythical animals. As an adult writer, I'm more critical. The central premise changes the laws of physics in a way that doesn't make sense. I knew that from reading the blurb but still read it anyway. I've seen online reviews complaining about the inconsistent world-building and undeveloped antagonist, but the issues I want to discuss involve the two main characters. I'll refer to them as A and P.
The antagonist wants something from A that she can't give up. A and P decide that they don't want to be on the run for the rest of their lives, so they decide to confront him in his stronghold. This is information from the blurb on the back, so it's no surprise to me. What did bother me was the way they went about it. They knew the antagonist has many people working for him, some of them quite dangerous. It is also impossible to disguise A. So what do they do? They march into their enemy's lair in broad daylight, making no plans to scout the area or obtain allies of their own first. They live in a dangerous world and have had to defend themselves before; in other situations they're more cautious. They should know better than to do this. Needless to say, things go very wrong. This disaster is important for later plot events, but I still want to smack A and P upside their heads for being so foolish.
More foolishness occurs at the end, another point that readers complain about. It's hard to discuss without saying too much, but A and P both do some things that result in an irreparable rift in their relationship. Given how important this relationship is to both of them, it's hard to believe they would let this happen, and under normal circumstances, I don't think it would have. But their motives for acting like this aren't explored, and they don't even discuss their actions with each other afterward. I think that's what makes the ending so disappointing -- that these two characters sabotage their own long-term goals when they didn't have to; they let short-term instincts override them. I think the author felt at the time that he was writing as honestly as he knew (he says as much in the afterword), and perhaps he did. But perhaps if he knew more about characterization and motive when he wrote this novel, he could have made A and P's actions more credible.
What's the take-home lesson for other writers? You can always learn something from a book, even if you don't like it. And when you're writing your own stories, try to make your characters' reasons for doing something clear to your readers. Your readers may not always agree that your characters are taking the best course of action, but you don't want your characters acting against their own interests just for plot's sake either.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Do you enjoy writing dialogue? Do you use a lot of dialogue in your writing (for our purposes "a lot" will be defined as more than a smidge and yet not so much that the quotes key on your computer is completely worn out.)? Do you have example(s) of dialogue you especially enjoyed from something you've read? Do you have example(s) of dialogue from your own writing? What about these examples makes them special?
Amanda posted before me, and Eric comes next.
I can't resist posting this video, even though I've posted it before.
I would have to say yes, I enjoy writing dialogue, and I employ a fair amount of it. When I'm drafting a scene, it tends to be mostly dialogue and action. Dialogue comes more easily to me than, say, description, though that doesn't always mean it works as well as it should. I've been told in crits that sometimes my characters sound younger than they are, so that's something I have to keep in mind as I write. But I like how dialogue can advance conflict and show character; it's especially fun if your characters can throw in some wit as well.
Speaking of wit, here's an example of some dialogue from Gail Carriger's Soulless. The book is set in an alternate Victorian London where vampires and werewolves are part of polite society. Here, Alexia, a spinster with the ability to negate supernatural powers with her touch, is talking to two werewolves about a vampire who tried -- and failed -- to attack her. I'm cutting out most of the expository text (there is a lot of it), but I still think you can learn a great deal about the characters by how they speak. Words are italicized as they are in the novel.
"I suspect that is precisely what the vampire was thinking when he found you without a chaperone. An unmarried female alone in a room in this enlightened day and age! Why, if the moon had been full, even I would have attacked you!"
"My dear sir, I should like to see you try."
"You do realize modern social mores exist for a reason?"
"I was hungry, allowances should be made."
(The other werewolf gives Alexia a sandwich, and she says, "this is delicious!")
"I keep them around for when his lordship gets particularly testy. Such offerings keep the beast under control for the most part. Excepting at full moon, of course. Would that a nice ham and pickle sandwich was all it took then."
"What do you do at full moon?"
"Uh, do you want half of this, my lord?"
For an example of my own dialogue, here's a bit from Across Two Universes. Here, Paul's father is explaining to him how he was cloned from a famous rock star who also happens to be his ancestor. This is backstory, something writers are normally advised to avoid telling through dialogue. The reason I think it works here is because this is information Paul himself really wants to learn at this point in the story:
“Jo was against it from the start. That’s why she became your mother.”
“Huh?” Paul looked at Dad — or the man he’d always thought was his dad — again. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“I guess I’d better start from the beginning.” Dad pulled out the tranquilizers again. “Are you sure you don’t want to take one now? You’ve had an awful lot of shocks the last couple of days.”
It was very tempting to numb his emotions away, but Paul shook his head. “I’m an actor; I have to feel this. Maybe I can use it later.”
Acting was the only thing he could count on right now. He opened himself up to the chill in the air, the sick feeling in his stomach, the sense that his vision was going to blur.
“Here, eat something.” Dad pulled out a sandwich and a can of his favorite soda, pressing them into Paul’s hands. He adjusted the thermal sensors woven into his shirt as if he was still too young to do it himself.
“When I first met your mom, she’d already been hired by her uncle to retrieve Sean’s DNA—”
“But you said she was against it. And she hated Great-Uncle Jack, or did that happen later?”
“Let me tell the story. Jo was more chip than shoulder when I first met her. Her parents divorced when she was young, and she saw very little of your granddad when she was growing up. She blamed him for everything, even when her mom developed TransAIDs and they couldn’t pay for both her medical expenses and Jo’s education.”
“Granddad didn’t help?” It seemed so unlike the man Paul knew.
“Jo didn’t ask.”
That was very like Mom.
Dad gestured for him to eat. “Anyway, shortly after the Sagan survived its first passage through the wormhole and found the alternate TwenCen Earth, people realized they could harvest genes from organisms long gone from our Earth. From there, it was only a short step to cloning famous people, like Elvis Presley. That gave your great-uncle the idea to clone Sean.”
Paul spit out his sandwich. “You mean I owe my life to him?” He wasn’t normal, his parents weren’t who he’d always thought they were...that fortune cookie at lunch had been right after all.
“Jack doesn’t own you, Paul. No one does.” Dad’s gaze pierced him. “He couldn’t have done it without your mom. There’s a lot of Sean still on your side of the family, and she could pass for his cousin. And she did. When she visited the other Earth, he wasn’t a star yet, so she was able to meet him, stay at his house, and steal a DNA sample while he slept.”
I feel as if I should provide some advice on dialogue, even though Kate didn't ask us to do so. As a science fiction/fantasy writer, I create new settings, including expressions unique to that culture. I do this by making my world-building details serve double duty. For instance, in one of my shelved projects, there are four gods and goddesses protecting the country of my heroines. The God of Winter is also the God of Death. After people die, their souls spend some time in His realm before being reincarnated. However, the irredeemably evil souls are frozen so they can't be reborn. Therefore, in this book, my characters use "freeze it" and "frozen" the way we use "damn" and "damned."
That's all I have for now. Please look at the other Blog Chain posts for more dialogue about dialogue!
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Sunday, March 14, 2010
We went to the final performance, which was at 5:00. We had really good seats near the stage; I wanted to make sure Alex could see what was going on. He got a little upset because we left his Thomas trains in the car, but he calmed down before the show started.
The show was set up very muck like the Nick Jr. channel. Two characters (Moose and Zee) came on stage to introduce each episode. The show started with Kai Lan going to a party at the Monkey King's castle in the clouds. Then the Backyardigans did a parody of Robin Hood, with the Robin Hood characters saving dirty villagers from a mayor who wanted to keep the whole town filthy. Alex really seemed to enjoy this part of the show. He got a little antsy during the intermission; I think having some snacks on hand helped. He did get pretty boisterous during the second part of the show. He didn't pay as much attention to the Wonder Pets part as I thought he would (I thought this part was a bit cheesy, as they represented the characters with big puppets controlled by onstage actors), but he seemed OK with the Dora episode. Characters from each show came on at the end to sing a version of "Shout."
I think if Alex was a bit older, he might have gotten more out of the show. We don't watch much Nick Jr., anymore, though he's seen at least three of the shows. Still, he got a kick out of some parts of the show, and it's always good to hear him laugh. We'll see if he wants to watch these shows more often or if he'll stick to his current favorites. I feel like he watches too much TV as it is, so I'd rather encourage other activities anyway.
Friday, March 12, 2010
-- Yoko Ono, from a speech called "A Quiet Revolution" given at Oxford University on March 10, 2010
(You can read the whole speech here.)
I know there are a lot of people out there who do get depressed and lose their confidence. I see this discussed fairly often on writer blogs, though of course lack of self-confidence isn't restricted to writers. But I agree with Yoko. I work full time and have a toddler; I'm always busy, sometimes busier than I'd like to be. There's lots that needs to be done at work and at home, so I just do it. When you're busy mentally juggling half a dozen things, you don't have time for negative thinking. But negative thinking can keep you from accomplishing things -- if you let it.
Another quote I like is from drummer Mark Schulman: “There are always going to be better drummers out there, but that doesn’t mean I’ve ever doubted my ability to do this.”
The same applies to writing. Don't worry about what other writers are doing; focus on making your work the best it can be!
Tuesday, March 09, 2010
Do you create characters that are larger-than-life or are your characters more like the average Joe?
(For discussion purposes, let's use his definition of "larger-than-life" as meaning exceptionally talented. It doesn't have to be a supernatural talent--an Olympic athlete would be larger-than-life.)
In his book Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card discusses how these two types of characters go in and out of fashion. Most of my esteemed fellow Blog Chainers, from Eric to Kate, have been on the side of the average Joe or Jane. I think some of this is due to genre. A few people admit their characters have a slight supernatural twist, but for the most part, larger-than-life characters are considered too perfect, too hard to relate to, or even too cliched. We're at the end of the chain now, and there's only one person left to champion the champions: a short, overweight, almost-middle-aged speculative fiction writer. In other words, me.
Let's cue some music for our discussion:
Most of my protagonists have had some extraordinary gift. My first two books featured magicians, as does my short story "A Reptile at the Reunion." My NaNoWriMo book from 2007 had a pair of shapeshifting sisters. Paul, the hero of Across Two Universes, lives in a science fiction universe, but he has a "quantum quirk" of his own. The only protagonist who might be considered an "ordinary Jane" is Paul's mother, Joanna, in my novella "Move Over Ms. L." So, how do I avoid the previously mentioned pitfalls of larger-than-life characters?
First of all, I don't think a larger-than-life character is necessarily perfect--or should be. Many legendary characters had flaws as big as their virtues. Hercules was very strong, but he wasn't above using dirty tricks in battle. Lancelot was in love with his liege's wife. Modern-day larger-than-life athletes like Michael Phelps and Tiger Woods have shown what I'll call lapses of judgment. Even my beloved Beatles have done drugs, had affairs, made poor business decisions, and otherwise proved they're not perfect. Having an extraordinary talent doesn't mean you're invincible either; just look at Achilles and Samson. I could go on, but the point I want to make is that the larger-than-life characters may be good at what they do, but if they're too good, then the story loses any suspense factor. Struggle is at the heart of all stories, so your characters have to face challenges that force them to stretch themselves. Heck, much of the time my characters struggle just to get along with their allies!
Another concern writers have about writing larger-than-life characters is how to make sure the average reader can relate to them. It's not as if most of us turn into animals every full moon or perform magic and read others' minds. Here, I think the key is to focus on emotions or experiences that can be universal. Many larger-than-life characters in speculative fiction face problems readers can relate to; for example, Carrie Vaughn's werewolf Kitty has a mother dealing with cancer. A classic Star Trek episode, "The Devil in the Dark," features an alien that's basically a sentient rock. Yet this creature is also a mother trying to protect her young. How can any parent not relate to that? If you can relate to a rock, magicians and other larger-than-life characters ought to be easy.
As for whether or not larger-than-life characters are cliche, I think anything can become one. It's not always easy to find a unique spin on a subject, but it can be done.
Going back to Eric's question, why do I prefer larger-than-life characters? Part of the reason is escapism and wish fulfillment. I live in Midwestern suburbia, and I like taking mental breaks from it with my fiction. Having high-powered characters means you can demand more of them; they buy you a seat at the high-stakes plot table. But there are other reasons for enjoying larger-than-life characters and speculative fiction. By looking at the extremes of the human condition (or even examining non-humans), we can learn something about the ordinary parts too. And while ordinary characters in extraordinary situations can do astonishing things, extraordinary people can inspire us to transcend the commonplace and reach for something we never thought possible. Our future depends on how far we can see and our drive to try new things. If we work at it, what was once considered extreme or even impossible can become part of our mundane reality.
Monday, March 08, 2010
Hey Mr. Spaceman, don’t think I’m your prize,
Something you win for exploring new worlds.
Protest all you want; I know you despise
Women who don’t act like helpless small girls.
Don’t tell me that science and math are hard
And romance novels are what I should read.
I learned quantum physics in the schoolyard
And made DNA with wire and beads.
It’s time you accept I’m not a token
The only woman to serve on your crew;
It’s time you learn how women have woken
Up to the wonders of planets so new.
Hand over the spaceship; I want to fly
And see what’s beyond my half of the sky!
Saturday, March 06, 2010
When we arrived, there weren't any kids yet, and an alarm at the elementary school next door sounded for several minutes. Alex kept asking about it, even after I reassured him the policemen would shut it off. (They did.) He didn't want to go down the slide, but we went on the see-saw, and he wanted to swing in the baby swing all by himself. Then, after rocking back and forth on a purple puppy and a fire truck, he wanted to climb a snow pile. Unfortunately, I didn't think about the mud and puddles in front of the snow. Alex slipped and fell, coating his hands, coat, and pants with mud. Right away he wanted to clean his hands, but all I had with me were a tissue and a glove liner. I put him on top of the snow pile, and he stood there for a few minutes before we went home. In the process of cleaning him up and getting him in the wagon, I got mud on my black wool coat. But I still managed to clean Alex up, change him, feed him, let him finally succumb to sleep, take a picture of his muddy clothes (which I can't upload now, sorry), and load the washer before Eugene came home from work.
I suppose as a writer, I should try to find some writing lesson in this, something like "observe details" or "think about all the possible implications of an action." My take-home lesson was "use my day as an excuse to run away to the bookstore to write this evening, leaving Eugene in charge of Alex." It didn't work out tonight, so Eugene owes me one!
Wednesday, March 03, 2010
Tuesday, March 02, 2010
Some of the best examples of culture influencing our genetic makeup have to do with what foods we eat, as our genes determine how well we can digest certain types of food. For instance, many adults are unable to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk, because the genes that break it down are no longer active. Populations whose ancestors reared cattle retain the ability to digest milk as adults. Northern Europeans tend to be lactose tolerant, but there are a few groups in Africa who have the same ability. The interesting point is that each group took a different genetic route to arrive at the same cultural destination, implying they evolved this trait independently.
Milk isn't the only food that influences our genes; starch consumption affects how much amylase (a starch-digesting enzyme) people produce. People who live in societies that grow food have more copies of the amylase gene than people who primarily hunt or fish. Diseases may also affect the genes of the immune system. Biologists think up to 10% of our genes may be influenced by selective pressures, though we still have much to learn about the roles of these genes.
So the next time you decide to send a group of humans off to colonize a planet or create aliens for them to encounter, think about what kind of environment they'll be in and what traits they'll need to flourish there. Perhaps humans aboard a generation ship will adapt to space travel, only to have their descendants struggle to survive on a planet. Perhaps they'll evolve so they can eat new types of food, and this change may have other side effects. These situations can tell us something about what we're like here and now.