Thursday, June 30, 2011

Back on the Blog Chain: Reseaching Beyond the Internet

Today's topic was suggested by Michelle, who wants us to share our research secrets:

There are so many things we have to include in our storyworlds...characters, world details, settings, etc. No matter what genre you write, your stories are full of tiny details that help create your storyworld. I know that for me, at least, finding or creating all these details can sometimes be a bit tough.

Where do you go for help? And what types of things are you more likely to research/search for as opposed to making up on your own? Do you have any favorite resource sites? Share links if you have them!!

I come between Abby and Kate this round.

The Internet is a wonderful source of information for writers. If I want to look up obscure bits of information such as what songs and movies were current November 1980 (some details I needed for Twinned Universes), all I have to do is pick the right keywords, feed them into Google, and browse the resulting links. And yes, if I want basic information about a topic, I'm not ashamed to start by looking at Wikipedia, though it's not my only source. However, there are some things you can't research online, such as the way a setting smells or feels. Also, sometimes, you need a in-depth source, not just a casually written one-page summary. So, although I use the Internet for research, it's not my only source.

Earlier this year, I got an idea for a story which will be set in a turn-of-the-20th-century Midwestern small town. Part of the reason for choosing this setting is because I spent my teenage years in Delavan, Wisconsin. (This town won't be identical to Delavan, but I plan to use it as inspiration.) I can draw on my memories for some of the sensory details needed to make this town come to life. To learn more about the era, I'm reading some books with photographs from that time and details about everyday life; a couple of them are listed on my Books I've Read in 2011 page.

The details that I research instead of making up depend on the story I'm writing. If a story is set in our world (or something very close to it), then I feel I need to match the details more than if I'm creating my own world. The important thing is that the details feel right to the reader as she's experiencing my story.

Note: The Blog Chain will be taking a brief vacation for the month of July and possibly August.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Book Swap

My son's daycare center is hosting a book swap this week. Today and tomorrow, people can bring in books (either for kids or adults). Friday, we'll be able to select some books and bring them home. The daycare center is also setting up a website to track the books once they're released into the wild.

So far, I'm planning to donate three books: a touchy-feely children's book Alex has outgrown, Her Majesty's Dragon,and To Say Nothing of the Dog. I'm all for encouraging kids to read, but it's also good to appeal to parents too. After all, parents are role models for kids, and I've read that seeing their parents read is an important factor in whether or not kids will be readers. (We have full bookshelves in our house, plus a Nook and a Kindle. I wonder how e-readers will affect kids' reading habits.) I figure if I'm going to donate books for adults, I'll donate books in my favorite genre to get others interested in it too. Of course, someone who already reads SF/fantasy is more likely to select those books than a general reader. We'll see how it all works out.

Have you ever participated in a book swap like this before? If so, what books did you give away or pick up? What books would you offer someone new to your chosen genre?

Monday, June 27, 2011

A Visit to the Train Lady

Not too far from us lives The Train Lady. She owns a company that manufactures and installs model railroad layouts. Once a year, she opens up her home and grounds so the public can see some of her setups. Sounds like the perfect activity for a trainiac like my son, doesn't it? Here are some of the pictures I took this weekend:

At the Train Lady's place, trains are everywhere! Even the bathroom was decorated with a train motif.

Alex is riding in the boxcar.

My husband and son admiring one of the train layouts. The Train Lady's daughter took a picture of Alex in his Amtrak outfit for her mother.

Inside a building set up to look like the outside of a train station. This layout includes some Chicago landmarks, like Millennium Park. We're looking down at the setup from the control area.

I wonder if Alex will try to get a job working here when he's older....

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Author Interview: Rebecca Knight

Today I'm interviewing Rebecca Knight on my blog. She's an indie fantasy writer who recently published her first novel, Legacy of the Empress. Welcome, Rebecca!

Sandra: Please tell us about yourself.

Rebecca: Hi, Sandra! Thanks so much for having me. Well, I’m a fantasy writer living in the Pacific Northwest with a husband and a cat. My dad was a freelance writer when I was growing up, and my mom was an English teacher, so writing has always been in my blood (along with how to use a comma correctly!) Now, I’m working on following my dream as an author and do some freelance editing on the side. So far, I’m loving it!

Sandra: How did you become a writer?

Rebecca: Before I could write, I would draw these little crayon picture books about alternate Peter Pan adventures or other weird stories I’d dream up. I’ve always been a writer, as far as I can remember, or at least a storyteller. Being an author has always been my dream job, but I didn’t really believe I had it in me to complete a novel until I met my husband. He encouraged me to give it a go back in 2005, so that’s when I first got serious about writing for publication.

Sandra: Why did you decide to write fantasy?

Rebecca: I write the books and stories that I want to read! It’s really very selfish. I’ve always loved fantasy books like Lord of the Rings, Song of Ice & Fire Series, and Neil Gaiman’s books, so it was natural for me to write something in a fantasy world.

Sandra: Can you tell us about your work, particularly your novel, Legacy of the Empress?

Legacy of the Empress is a fantasy novel about a girl named Astrid who escapes imprisonment in her mother’s castle, and while worrying about how to do basic things like survive on her own without being caught by her mom’s spies, discovers she’s the only one who can save her land from total destruction. There’s an evil magic spreading throughout the kingdom, devouring the people—it’s what corrupted her mother, the queen, in the first place. The only one who can stop it is an ancient empress imprisoned on the other side of the world, and Astrid may be the only one who can free her.

What I love about Legacy is that it reads like a fairy tale but with these pockets of horror when Astrid has to fight the evil magic. It was really fun letting loose for those darker moments.

Sandra: What inspired you to write Legacy of the Empress?

Rebecca: Weirdly enough, I got the idea for Legacy back in college when I was taking a writing class. There was a prompt we did where I imagined lines of magic intersecting all over the world like a grid, and an Empress imprisoned in a crystal fortress. I never did anything with it, and ended up finding it a couple of years later in my journal.

It was my husband who convinced me I could actually write the novel I’d always wanted to, so I gave it a go, and here we are!

Sandra: According to your blog profile, you’re interested in art in addition to writing. Are you an artist yourself? If so, what’s your specialty, and can you tell us about some of your work?

Rebecca: When I say that I paint, I mean that I paint silly things for my own amusement. You can only call it art if you’re saying it really sarcastically with quotes around it. Ha! For example, I’m responsible for this painting:

Based on this video I found on Youtube:

Truly, “art” at its finest ;). It’s currently on display in my living room.

Sandra: What types of research have you done for your stories? Can you share with us something unusual you learned from your research?

Rebecca: I researched types of swords and horses mostly, but the most interesting thing I researched was exactly how to use a Ye Olde Crossbow. Apparently there’s a crank involved—who knew? I love medieval weaponry, so figuring out how to describe loading a bolt and winding it back was great fun for me.

Sandra: Why did you choose to go the indie route when publishing your writing? How do you feel about the overall experience?

Rebecca: Since the recession hit, genre mid-list authors have had it rough, even if they were already in with a traditional publisher. Authors were getting dropped from their houses left and right after their books were only making modest sales. I knew that at that point, I probably wasn’t going to get an agent willing to take a chance on a debut in epic fantasy. Contemporary or paranormal fantasies were selling, but the old school fantasy was much more of a niche market. So, I stopped querying and waited for the tides to change.

However, while I was waiting, something unexpected happened. E-books started outselling their paper counterparts, and self-publishing switched from a dirty phrase to a viable option—one where mid list authors were now making more money and selling more books than their traditionally published counterparts. This was what really got my attention and made me research indie publishing more thoroughly.

The overall experience has been excellent so far. I just sold my 100th e-book this weekend, and am over the moon about it. Sales are increasing steadily, and I know I’ve made the right call for my career. The fun thing is, whenever my next book is ready, there’s no waiting—I can publish it as quickly as I can format it and get it straight to the readers. Love that!

Sandra: Who are your favorite authors and why do you admire them?

Rebecca: I’m totally falling back in love with George R. R. Martin right now because of Game of Thrones on HBO. I started rereading his books, and not only do I love how subtle he is with his use of magic through the Song of Ice and Fire, but I also how no one is ever safe. He makes his books dangerous by making you love someone and then making you fear terribly for them because you’re never sure if they’re going to make it.

I’m also a huge fan of Neil Gaiman and how he takes old folk tales and legends and weaves them into modern stories.

Sandra: What other writing projects are you currently working on?

I just finished another installment in my Fairytale Assassin short story series called CARNIVORE. It’s basically my own twisted take on the Little Red Riding hood story and is a follow up to two short stories called NO REST FOR THE WICKED. These shorts are fun, naughty action-packed tales about an agent named Veronica Grim who goes head to head with real world fairytale villains.

I love writing these, and when I get a good handful of them, I’ll group them together as a book of shorts.

Sandra: What’s one of the goals you hope to achieve with your writing?

Rebecca: My goal in my career is to make enough from my e-book sales to quit my day job and become a full time writer. That’s always been my dream, and now it seems more achievable than ever before.

My goal as a storyteller is to completely entertain my readers and leave them wanting more. Books that I re-read have always had something special in them that touched me, surprised me, or scared me to death, and I want more than anything to illicit an unforgettable response from my readers. I want people to put my books down and think “When does the next one come out??” It’s all about telling a great story.

Sandra: What’s something people wouldn’t be able to guess about you just by looking at you?

I have awesome aim. I’m not very athletic, being a geek and all, but for some reason, I’ve always been able to sink a basket, or shoot wadded up paper into a trash basket, left handed. No clue where this came from. Don’t challenge me to a game of HORSE! You’ll regret it ;).

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Back on the Blog Chain: Curses, Foiled Again!

Kate has a particularly evil question for us this round:

Curses, you've been cursed! You can write no longer. The story well has run dry, and you can't even remember how to type. Now what do you do? Where do you channel your creative energies? And to what lengths would you go to break the curse?

Abby posted before me, and Cole will answer this question tomorrow.

Anyway, curses, hah hah hah! I'm a scientist, a rational human being. Curses aren't real; they're just psychological. They can't hurt you if you don't believe in them. Why, I'm not having any problems writing the sequel to Twinned Universes...., ok, what does Paul do next? Never mind; there's always that other idea that's been percolating on the back burner. There was a house, and a couple of characters, and they did...they did...well, I'm sure it was innteresting, I mean, interesting....

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(The Management of this blog would like to apologize for the subpar quality of this post. Sandra has been led off in hysterics to make a deal with a suspicious horned figure. She may not be able to blog or write, but she can still show, not tell. She'll return to normal tomorrow...hopefully....)

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Science of Science Fiction: Technology and Time

Paul McCartney wasn't the only one celebrating a birthday on Saturday, and he wasn't even the oldest celebrant. That honor goes to a simple light bulb that was first lit 110 years ago. According to this article from, the light bulb hasn't been burning continuously. Although it's a 60-watt bulb, it's only turned on for four watts. Even so, this light bulb holds the world record for the oldest working light bulb.

If you watch the video accompanying the Time article, you'll learn that this light bulb was designed as a prototype and each part was carefully inspected. Perhaps that's part of the reason for its longevity. However, if you look at the bulb, you'll notice that it's very similar in appearance to the light bulbs that we use today. On the other hand, more complicated pieces of technology, such as telephones and computers, have changed drastically in form and function within the same time frame.

It seems to me that simpler technology is less likely to change with time than advanced technology. (Does anyone have a counterexample?) If this is true, then it's something useful for us to keep in mind when we write science fiction stories set in the future--or when writing time travel stories in which characters have to adapt to a different level of technology.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Temperment and Pacing Perference

Thanks to the people who answered my off-the-cuff questions yesterday. The results weren't as clear-cut as I thought they would be.

One of the books I read last week was called The Introvert Advantage. It discussed some of the differences between introverts and extroverts; some of them where physiological, not just psychological. (Some of the surprising things I learned were that introverts and extroverts rely on different neurological pathways and that introverts tend to have lower-than-normal body temps. Mine does tend to be low, but I'm also hypothyroid and take daily medication for it.) Anyway, I thought perhaps that introverts would find fast-paced books too fast and would prefer slower books.

Six of the eight people who commented identified primarily as introverts; two people considered themselves both. I did expect to see more introverts, so that wasn't surprising. However, reading preferences weren't so one-sided. Only one person preferred slow-paced books; for most people, they could enjoy either a slow or fast book, depending on what mood they were in.

So, what's my reading preference? Well, I don't like very slow books; some of the classics feel too bogged down with description for my taste. However, I can think of a few books that felt too fast for me, as if the author felt that sending characters dashing all over the place was exciting. Instead, I just felt confused or not engaged with the characters. So I guess I'm in the middle. Although this wasn't a random poll, my hypothesis is not borne out by the results. I better stick to the biological sciences instead of the social ones.

The good thing for us as writers is that pacing shouldn't deter most people from reading a particular book. And the good thing for us as readers is that there are books out there to fit our every mood.

P.S. K Howard, how did you like Zombies vs. Unicorns? I'm not interested in zombies, but I've heard good things about this book. I have a sample on my Kindle; maybe I'll have to try it when I finish the trilogy I just started.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Short Poll

This morning, I have a couple of quick questions for you:

1. Do you consider yourself an introvert or extrovert?

2. Do you like fast-paced stories with lots of action, slower stories that are less plot-driven, or a mixture of both?

I have a hypothesis about how these traits may be correlated, but I'd like to gather some data first before disclosing it.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Convention Conversation

I'm finally done posting my panel notes from WisCon. I probably won't be going to another convention this year, but I've already signed up for next year's WisCon and ChiCon (The World Convention). I tend mostly to go to local conventions; the farthest I've traveled for a convention was to Minneapolis/St. Paul for a World Fantasy convention. Perhaps when Alex is older, I'd like to go to ReaderCon or CapriCon.

Which conventions or writing conferences have you been to? They needn't be SF/fantasy related. Are there any that you'd like to attend?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

WisCon Panel: Beyond the Hero’s Journey

(Here's the final set of panel notes I'll post.)

The hero’s journey is still popular, but does it apply to women?

Are there other useful tropes for protagonists?

Good vs. evil is simplistic

Hero’s journey in a nutshell—hero grows up with foster parents, is summoned by a wizard and told he has a great destiny, has several adventures before facing down some of his own evils (the Shadow), defeats the evil and becomes the next ruler

Readers know what the rules are, so you can experiment with setting or character

Are audiences ready to accept other types of narrative?

Alternate journey—woman lets in evil into a harmonious society, her husband must stay at home and rebuild while the woman goes off on a redemptive journey

Some readers want something familiar to read when they want to relax

Hero’s journey doesn’t just entertain; supposed to be a metaphor for growing up (you have to go down into the darkness and come out the other side)

Hero’s journeys are sometimes about collecting plot coupons

Hero sometimes emerges from darkness to find out he has changed and doesn’t fit into his society

About 80% of fantasy fits this trope

Some readers love to be challenged, but they don’t like to be surprised

Need to prepare readers ahead of time so they know what to expect

What are examples of stories that did something different with the hero’s journey

Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Monoke, etc. Mizusaki (the target audience in Japan are boys who want to be saved by their mothers; the female character is a mother figure)

What is the structure of the heroic tale and how does it vary from culture to culture?

A Song of Ice and Fire series (multiple hero’s journeys)

Deepening characterization may change who’s the hero and who’s the villain

Always Coming Home has many layers and is nonlinear

Finnovar Tapestry – several different characters

The Heroine’s Journey

Woman may be rescuing a family member or other beloved person

Instead of getting magic sword or other phallic objects, women get objects of perception, distance weapons, magic bags/clothing/jewelry (less violent), domestic implements

Modern boys still want swords, but modern girls don’t want domestic magic

Female often gets a mean mentor (wicked stepmother, witch); the fairy godmother is a rarity

Heroine’s boyfriend is different

Heroine discovers the all-powerful father figure isn’t so powerful

Disney movies are the heroine’s journey lite

The heroine faces a destroyer of children

Woman is an agent of order (Mary Poppins)

Toads and Diamonds explores what happens when two girls get different gifts

Males return back home to rule; women marry when they reach their destination

The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown—uncomfortable comfort

Motif of inheritance leans toward a patricharchal system

New trope is inventor girls, especially in steampunk

Another trope is a gift that is actually a curse

Kushiel—heroine’s journey

Dark Jewels trilogy

Mist of Avalon

Is the heroine an exceptional woman, or are there other strong women in the story?

If there are two women, they may have different strengths

Rosemary Kirsten

Need to look beyond the idea of story, or what we expect a story to be (different cultures may have different forms for stories)

Like Water for Chocolate—magical realism

Girl stories often involve the next generation (family sagas)

What is the relationship of the hero to the community? In general, the hero protects and helps the community. In return, the community may help the character, or sometimes hates the hero.

In some stories, the antagonist is redeemed instead of vanquished


Look for translated stories that don’t come out of the Eurocentric tradition (

Woman as Other-directed

Friday, June 10, 2011

WisCon Panel: Meanwhile, In the Dark Matter Universe....

(another science panel)

Universe is not only expanding, but it’s accelerating

Not sufficient ordinary matter or energy to account for this

Dark matter is a concept used to fix the math (stuff we can’t see)

Dark matter/dark energy

Dark energy contributes to expansion

Dark matter affects the shape of galaxies

Are they related?

The only way dark matter interacts with ordinary matter is through gravity (no light)

All observations come from astronomy data

Only light matter collapses and forms stars

Dark matter density isn’t uniform, doesn’t interact to form black holes

We think it’s everywhere (could be on Earth too)

“If you can detect it, it’s not dark matter”

Are ghosts dark matter? (doesn’t seem to fit what we know about dark matter)

Ghosts are like trying to prove something with faith

Not reproducible

Where does SF use dark matter?

We have no idea of what dark matter is like at quantum mechanical level

We currently have no idea how to measure it (even neutrinos can be detected more easily than dark matter)

Scientists are willing to admit that some possible dark matter detections are really machine error (more skeptical than ghost-hunters)

Dark matter may not be able to enter the solar system

Examples of dark matter in science fiction

Vernor Vinge—Fire on the Deep, Deepness in the Sky, areas of the universe move from fast time to slow time (affect speed of light)

Are the rules of physics different in dense areas of dark matter? (pure speculation)

Don’t use the concept lazily

Try to extrapolate something interesting, even if it’s wrong; it’s fiction, after all

Flashforward—Robert J. Sawyer

Greg Egan

If dark matter doesn’t interact itself on a macro scale, would life forms be possible?

Entangled dark matter might stay entangled for a long time

There could be some small areas where dark matter interacts with itself that we just don’t see

It would be a stretch to speculate about dark matter chemistry

Could dark matter be gravity from a parallel universe?

Every time the universe splits, it leaves a trace (is this real or speculation? It’s all theory)

We can’t see gravitational forces on nuclear level (unlike the other three forces)

If we can’t run any experiments on dark matter, how can we deal with it scientifically?

String theory and dark matter do fit with each other

We can’t throw out general relativity; it’s been well-proven

Late 19th century physicists were gloriously wrong about how much they knew (they thought physics was over)

What’s the difference between ether and dark matter?

Ether was considered the medium through which light traveled; however, Michelson-Morely showed that the speed of light was constant regardless of which direction you measured it

Some physicists believe we just don’t understand gravity and that dark matter doesn’t exist

His Dark Materials—coexisting alternate dimensions

Gravity is the elephant in the room for physics; we don’t understand the basis of gravity (CERN is looking for the God particle to explain masses of particles)

Gravity is the force of attraction between two objects based on their masses and the distances between them; so far, no particles for gravity have been found (general relative: gravity is a curvature in the fabric of space-time)

Time prevents everything from happening at once

If the speed of light is set to 1, time and space are the same

What’s the worst thing you can do when writing about dark matter?

If dark matter was used in such a way to convince people to harm themselves (mark fiction as fiction)

What could scientist fictional characters say about dark matter/energy?

Don’t say things that have been disproven

Don’t try to use “dark matter” as a fancy way of saying alien or something similar (parallel universe)

Can propose a universe with different physics

Real scientists would discuss freaky results with their coworkers

Real scientists would do experiments, get odd results, keep testing


Check panelists on Twitter (Jake Kolojejchick)

Michio Kaku

Brian Greene –The Fabric of the Cosmos

Are Sagan and Hawking relevant?

Read accounts of the experiments (Experiments in Modern Physics)

Thursday, June 09, 2011

WisCon Panel: Self-Publishing, Could You? Should You?

This is another panel I proposed.

Crowd-funding—give work away and let people pay you what they wish

Need to know your market

Should experiment to see what sticks, but that’s not a good business model

How much time are you willing to invest?

Depending on the publisher, you may have to do some of what you’d expect the publisher would do anyway (such as marketing)

Every author is an entrepreneur, no matter what publishing method you choose

Bookstores do carry a lot of power

Publisher decides on a lead title and neglects the other books

YA authors get a lot of support

Only the top authors get support; everyone else gets diddly

Anthologies have tanked, even when the participating authors are best-selling

Beware of marketing packages offered by self-publishers

Can go straight to Lightning Source for POD (they’re a printer, not an e-commerce site) you can also buy your own ISBM and they distribute through B&N, Borders, etc.

Or Smashwords/CreateSpace

Try Et Libre

Go straight to

One Bookshelf

Should I go through my website or Amazon (or both)

Need different ISBMs for print and e-book editions

Don’t buy the bar code

Whoever is the biggest, the first, or the longest wins online

If you’re going to self-publish, need to put out a lot of stories (the more the better)

Need to make it as easy as possible to convert readers into customers (need as few clicks as possible)

You can set up your own affiliate store on Amazon

Being a retailer is different from being an author

Have to ask yourself what you really want and what your optimal balance is

The less time you spend running the business, the more time there is for writing

Bloggers are a great way to get word-of-mouth out

Do you want a print edition or an e-book?

Amazon is selling the most e-books now

Still have to do marketing

Can network with BroadUniverse, Indie Book Collective

What do you do with physical copies?

Overdrive—get digital books into libraries for images—good place to find an artist to do your own cover if you want something unique

Need a contract with the artist ahead of time

Need to read license before you buy/tweak art

Kickstart and indiegogo can help you with pre-orders

Editors freelance association

Look at other self-pub books in acknowledgements

Can just go with beta readers for edits

Don’t lose any rights

Convert the file with mobipocket

Market is becoming oversaturated

Arrange for reviews and book tours

Blurbs from well-known authors may help recognition

Samantha Robi (chicklitplus on Twitter)

Majority of self-published books don’t sell lots of copies

You may sell fewer copies but get more money

Some people do get contacted by producers, translators, etc.

Self-publishing allows you to reach your target audience

Can write the kind of book you want to write

Want to have multiple streams of income

Listen to the people in the middle who have explored both options

Publishing industry will take 5-10 years to shake itself out

You are entitled to 100% of your earnings

You pay publishers in perpetuity for a one-time service

You give away everything to get an editor to like you

(bold is my own emphasis)

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

WisCon Panel: Science Writing

My master's degree is in Technical and Scientific Communication, so that explains my interest in this topic. This was the first panel held Sunday morning; I was a little late, since I had breakfast with my family.

Can approach article authors with questions

Libraries can help you get access to articles

Open-source journals like PLOS

Sometimes authors post PDFs of their articles on their websites; however, they may not have been subject to peer review

Can always try a Google search too

The headlines may be sensationalized, but many people don’t read beyond the headlines

Newspapers very rarely go back to the scientist with question

Pay attention to your sources

Even big journals sometimes publish controversial articles to drive science forward

Blogs—Not Exactly Rocket Science

Science 2.0

Am I Making Myself Clear, Don’t Be Such a Scientist (these are recommended articles)

NY Times offers quality articles

Some societies train journalists in critical thinking and risk assessment

Small, regional papers may be more likely to sensationalize

Even peer-reviewed journals aren’t perfect

Some types of results are more likely to get published (positive preferred over negative, paradigm shift)

Science writers use analogies to help explain science to the public, but they’re not necessarily accurate

Even speculation may be off-base

The essence of science isn’t facts, but the ability to change our minds when new data comes along

(e.g., Pluto itself hasn’t changed, but the way we view the planet has)

Scientists in Italy are being prosecuted for not warning public about earthquake

Public considers numbers too dry; come up with another way to explain what the numbers mean

Kids are taught to use numbers and facts when writing about science; however, we need to use some of the elements of fiction (like a narrative) to bring science to life

People react differently to different ways of stating the same data

Scientists will critique science programs on their blogs

Labcoats in Hollywood (another recommended book)

Some wiki sources are useful, but there’s always the risk of someone editing it to distort the picture

You can get approval, but still use poor science to support your argument

Which sources are unreliable?

NPR does a lot of good reporting, will admit errors

Look for podcasts like the Naked Scientist

Even tiny misspellings can lead to errors

Wikipedia does have good basic stuff like MSDSs, chemical weights, boiling/melting points, etc.

Be wary of newspapers that don’t have dedicated science sections

AP labels tell you what people are talking about, but doesn’t guarantee quality

Highly focused scientists may not understand the big picture—and they don’t know everything either

Blog: Speakeasy Science

Writer may get the facts right, but editors may change things that they think are wrong (but aren’t)

Articles may be cut in such a way that the explaining paragraphs are lost

Jared Diamond—made some broad generalizations about why particular civilizations collapsed, cherry-picked data, didn’t address the data points that contradicted his thesis

Popular authors still winning, science still trying to catch up

We self-select our own data streams

Scientists in different specialties may have different paradigms

Jennifer Rome— (fiction that incorporates science)

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

WisCon Panet: The Bechdel Test in Books

(This is a panel I proposed. It was inspired by this blog post.)

The Bechdel Test—to pass, a movie (or book) must 1: contain two female characters who 2: talk to each other about 3: something that isn’t a man

It’s harder to pass this test than you might think

What does this test tell us about a work? Is it a pass/fail? Can we judge the work by this? It does tell us how complex the female characters are

For example, the exceptional kick-ass woman may have no female friends

Prior to 1800, women were limited to a female, domestic world

In the late 19th century, only one woman would be included in an action novel

The test devalues what women do when interacting with men

The test measures woman-woman interaction

Smurfette—only one female in a group of hundreds of men

In Game of Thrones, the two sisters are very different

The Bechdel Test shifts your perceptions

Are domestic stories devalued?

The exceptional woman has lost her femininity

Need to think of more roles women could play in stories besides kick-ass warrior

Modesty Blaise—spy woman who has relationships with other women

Movie marketing is very gendered, but books and SF/fantasy are different

Publishing does very little market research; they use the spaghetti model (throw everything against the wall and see what sticks)

Why does fantasy have so limited models of anyone other than a white male?

Most of the bestsellers work within this paradigm

Many fantasies based on Western, medieval setting

History was more complex than you might think (for example, you might find women business owners, women like the Wife of Bath, abbesses, that are written out of the simplified medieval world)

Game of Thrones looks at women in different roles

POV affects test: a POV woman should talk to other women, but if it’s told from a male POV, then he may not always see female-female interaction

Pride and Prejudice—the women almost always talk about men (but the men represent money and power)

If two women are antagonists, does an interaction between them count as a Bechdel test pass?

If two women get catty with each other, they very rarely develop a deeper relationship (compare to male-female or male-male hatred at first sight); instead, the heroine will undermine her opponent

The part about women talking about men assumes that men are the heroes and the women the love interests

Is the man important, or are they giving backstory on him?

Movies are dialogue based, whereas books provide internal thoughts

If a woman is thinking about an absent friend, does that count as dialogue?

Does the gender of the author make a difference in how the dialogue is written?

Male writers may be afraid of misrepresenting women’s dialogue

Is there a better test for feminism in a work?

Do the women have their own stories, or are they just set decoration?

Do the women have emotionally important relationships with other women?

What makes a work feminist to begin with?

Do you have two women who are allies?

Are the roles gendered, or can they be filled by either a man or a woman?

Literature starts at a different place than other types of entertainment (other types may be more sexist)

Books and book series are longer

Does it matter if the man the women are talking about isn’t a romantic interest?

The Left Hand of Darkness would fail this test because there aren’t two females in this book (the narrator’s bias affects his view of the world)

What about a racial Bechdel test?

You can’t assume there’s a natural alliance between two nonwhite people (people are more likely to ally by gender instead of race)

The nonwhite character shouldn’t be magical and shouldn’t die

Avoid the Smurfette problem

Are the number of books who pass this test increasing/decreasing?

It has potential to improve because we’re paying attention to it

People tend to write to market which may not be helpful

The rise of YA is creating books that pass this test

Having two women who interact may peg a book as “women’s fiction”

Think about this as you read/write

As a comsumer, where you spend your money matters

Monday, June 06, 2011

WisCon Panel: Evolving Animal Intelligence

All this week, I'll be posting my notes from the WisCon panels I attended. These notes are posted pretty much the way I wrote them, with an occasional explanation added.

This is a topic of interest to many SF writers (including me, which is why I attended this panel)

Humans are animals; this topic refers to nonhuman animals

How do we define intelligence?

Culture=shared learned behaviors (animals have culture too)

Psychologists don’t have a good definition of intelligence

Tree shrews have largest brain/body ratios

Do you need dextrous limbs or a large frontal lobe?

Janet Kagen—test for intelligent species—artifacts, art, and language

Artifacts are easy to find in the animal kingdom; art isn’t

Cleverness is manipulation; sapience is thinking forward and backward and with symbols

Emergent properties—whole greater than sum of their parts

We can learn to read because we can recruits parts of our brain that didn’t evolve to read for this task

Animal examples:

Bees, dolphins, bonobos, ravens, parrots, crows, squid, octopi, elephants (can mimic human speech, bury their dead, teach their children culture), bears, raccoons

Birds don’t have hands, but they can do some manipulation with their feet

Our methods of looking for intelligence in animals has changed over the years, but it’s still too shallow and sterile

You can’t test for it, but you can see it happen in the wild

Ravens in Yellowstone follow wolves to share in their kills

Wolves will also look for ravens circling and diving

Animals who work in a pack have some social intelligence

Intelligence is thing-oriented (for very broad definition of thing)

Whale songs go out of fashion or can be mutated into a new form

Take things from the world into your mind and do something with them

Intelligence—learn from past experiences (do you learn from your personal experience or from others?)

The Animal Dialogues (unusual encounters with animals)

Anecdote about ravens caching owl feathers and coming back to commemorate the owl’s murder

Humans are looking for symbolic behavior from animals because we’re looking for company

Can an animal recognize itself when it looks in the mirror?

Cephalods are very strange, generally solitary, don’t do much child-rearing, yet squids have a complex color-signaling system (visual language?)

Humans are wired to notice patterns and pick up grammar

Octopi can use tools but don’t have language, but squid are the other way around

Octopus can get out of its tank, cross a room, get a fish, and return to its tank

Jellyfish have no central nervous system but can still move independently of current

Whale males sing more than the females

Domesticated animals are freed of instinct (because they’re protected), so they can learn to make choices

Humans are not the keepers of free will

Having choices leads to problem-solving

Dogs have been domesticated to deal with many different environments (as opposed to sheep or poultry)

Dogs/humans evolved symbiotically (we outsourced different tasks to each other)

Dogs are most often part of interspecies relationships (companions to other animals)

Bees can recognize shapes and use them to navigate

Social insects can accomplish amazing things as a superorganism

Isolation on an island allows an animal to lose traits

Wolves are smarter than dogs when it comes to problem-solving, but dogs are better at picking up human cues

Are prehistoric tools always the product of early humans, or could they have been used by chimps?

Example—a rock may have been used to break open eggs for thousands of years

Birds are related to dinosaurs—could the dinosaurs have been intelligent?

Africa is poor in metal, so had to use plant material and stones—inventiveness may have gone into language

We experience a divide between what our instincts and our minds tell us to do

Language grows and evolves, but bee dances don’t

Do whales and elephants tell stories?

The “uplift” story—animals being genetically engineered to have human intelligence—what are the ethics?

Animals do have objections to breeding programs and lack of mate choice—look at zoos

We’ve already affected the niches of all animals on this planet; it may be nit-picking at this point to complain about uplifting

Do we have any data about what we’re like in the wild?

How smart are we without our support system?

In most intelligent species, there’s a long childhood

If we can’t figure out what intelligence is in humans, how can we find it in anything else?

Humans raised by animals are stunted and die young (they reach a point where they can never learn language; however, some normally raised people can still learn to read as adults)

Primates can learn 50-100 words without grammar; this is the limit for a human teenager who has never been exposed to language

Alex the gray parrot—(was an only child)—had the concept of zero found it on his own, manipulated the researchers into demonstrating to them that he had the concept of zero—taught chimps value of currency; unfortunately, the chimps learned to steal and prostitute themselves for money

Friday, June 03, 2011

Science of the Week 6/3/11

Here's what I found for science articles this week:

Green Crystal "Rain" Discovered Near Infant Star

Eating Dirt Can Be Good for the Belly

Novel ‘prodrug’ alleviates symptoms in Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s mice

Color Red Increases Strength and Speed of Human Reactions

Bacteria May Mimic Human Proteins to Evolve Antibiotic Resistance

Cancer Drug Holds Promise as First Treatment for Common, Inherited Dementia

In addition to these news articles, the June 2011 issue of Scientific American has articles on quantum physics and its affects in the macro world, test-tube meat, a test for sentient computers, and the smartest bacteria on Earth. Check them out, and have a good weekend!

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Back on the Blog Chain: Breaking the Rules

I'll continue posting notes from my WisCon panels next week, since today I'm participating in the blog chain. For this round, Abby wants to find out how rebellious we are.

There are SO many writing rules, but sometimes we have to break one or two, just to keep things interesting. Is there a writing rule you've broken on purpose? Why did you choose to break it? And if you want to post a snippet of your writing as an example, even better!

Although I'm very picky about grammar, even I break the rules occasionally. One rule that I've broken on purpose is the rule against sentence fragments. I've done so as a way of emphasizing items and to increase tension. Here's an example where I wrote a paragraph of fragments. It's taken from my Beatles fanfiction story "The Movement You Need." In this story, Paul has found a strange guitar in his bed and is searching his hotel room, trying to figure out how it got there:

Paul doubled up the belt in his left hand. He glanced around, but there was no place to hide in the room except for the closet. Silently, he padded over to the closet door and raised his belt. He yanked the closet door open –

Shirts and slacks, neatly hung on the hangers provided by the hotel. His suitcase on the luggage rack, lid open. A couple pairs of non-leather shoes on the floor. Nothing else.

I hope you liked the example. If you'd like to meet more writing rebels, check out Kat's post yesterday and Kate's tomorrow.

P.S. Something I should have said earlier is that before you can break the rules successfully, you first have to understand and master them. If you break the rule repeatedly out of ignorance, then readers can spot that. However, if you follow the rule 99.9% of the time and then break it at a strategic spot, then it has more impact.

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