Learn From Writers

If you’ve done much writing, you may have seen articles in writing magazines or online or such about what writers can learn from this, that or the other.  They may take the form: “What Writers Can Learn From Plumbers,” or “What Writers Can Learn From The Backs Of Cereal Boxes.”  You’ve probably seen them.  I’ve read many of them and in most cases I’ve learned something.  Sometimes only a very little something, but a tidbit of information nonetheless.  Now I want to turn the tables and suggest that someone who’s not a writer (at least not that I know of) can learn from us writers.  I have someone very specific in mind: Tiger Woods.

What can Tiger learn from writers?  Simple: learn when to quit.

Now, I don’t mean that Tiger should quit and give up golf altogether, I’m not saying “quit” in that sense.  But Tiger, in contrast to a lot of other professional golfers has been tinkering with his swing since he first took up a golf club, all those many years ago, and he still is.  Sure, when you’re young, adjusting your swing is important.  A pro golfer needs a swing that works well for him/her, and a little tinkering is appropriate.  But after a while you’ve just got to go with what works and play golf.  Enter tournaments and play the game.

There’s a similarity here with writing.  I’ve been working on several science-fiction novels for several years now, and I’ve worked on the first one, especially, quite a lot.  I’ve made changes both large and small over the years, all with a view toward making it better–easier to read, up-to-date, cutting out things that are unnecessary, and so forth.  I tinker with it a lot.  I’ve done this to short stories I’ve written, too.  But there comes a time when tinkering and fooling around become self-defeating, and may even make the piece worse.  Writing, the sage said, is never done, just abandoned.  A writer can always find something to change about a story or novel, even after it’s been published.  You just have to say “no,” and be done with it.  Send it out and let the editor work with it.  Let time be the judge of the piece.  Go on to something else.

Similarly, Tiger can take a lesson here.  Stop tinkering with your swing.  Just tee up the damn ball and smash it down the fairway.  Get into tournaments and play golf.  Like writers who are told “write every day,” I suggest you play golf every day.  You’ve had one hell of a career, get back into the game and play.  You are the J.K. Rowling of golf, bursting on the scene in a display of golfing brilliance.  Write your name again on the Tournament trophy.

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Building A House

As the title says, we’re building a house in this blog post.  And by “house” I actually mean a “novel.”  That’s because writing a novel is like building a house.  There are a lot of similarities between the two which I think can be instructive in the construction of a novel.

Right now I’m working on the third installment of a trilogy of science fiction novels.  I’ve just finished the rough draft and am now beginning the first revision.  It’s in going through this first phase of revision that I realized how similar novel-writing is to house-building.  The first phase of each is to set up a skeleton, a rough framework that gives the basic outline of the eventual result.  In my novel, I’ve written a rough draft that gives the essential story line; in a house the framework of the walls and roof do the same thing.  Next comes the first revision which is like adding the drywall and the roofing.  In the novel, I’m adding more and more details to the rough draft, as a home builder would finish off the floors and ceilings.  Eventually, I will go through another revision which will add even more details and perhaps rearrange things to make the novel more readable.  Likewise, the home builder will add the electrical work and plumbing, paint the inside and outside, and add the shingles and siding to make the house a home.  It’s the little things that count.

A novel writer may make many revisions to his blossoming novel, though a home builder may finish after the street numbers are tacked to the outside and the keys are delivered to the new owner.  And so the metaphor at this point may break down.  A home can be built in a few months; a novel may take years.  Mine usually do.  Some revisions in novel-writing may actually involve removing excess material, something that wouldn’t usually be done by a house builder.  But the underlying idea is the same and I like to compare my novel to a new home where my characters can reside and thrive.  They live longer in the minds of the readers, of course (should anyone choose to be so daring as to read one of my yet-unpublished novels).  But the novel-home is the place they always come back to.

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Using a Thesaurus

As a writer, I’m constantly putting words down, either on paper or on a computer screen.  Usually in some sort of order, as in a sentence or a meaningful phrase, though not always.  Occasionally, I’ll come to a stopping point where I’m stumped for the proper word.  I can’t keep every word in the English language in my head, so I have to look one up.  Most of the time I’ll have a word in mind that isn’t exactly what I’m trying to say, or I’ll have a concept that I want to express with just the right word.  But I’m at a loss to come up with the word that says what I want.  In this situation, I’ll consult a thesaurus.

I’ve had a number of thesauruses in my time, but the one I use almost exclusively now is Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus, published by Delta Books, a division of Bantam Dell, which in turn is a division of Random House.  The latest publication date I have is 2005.  This thesaurus is filled with synonyms of all types and sizes, and I usually can find the word I’m looking for.  I don’t consult the thesaurus in the word-processing program I use because it doesn’t have enough synonyms.

Regardless of what thesaurus you’re using, the process of finding the proper word is the same.  You have a word that doesn’t fit the concept you want, or you have a blank space that needs filling.  In either case, you have to have an idea of what you want to say.  Sometimes I’ll come up with a phrase that expresses the idea, but a phrase won’t work and I need a single word.  I almost always have a word in mind that’s similar to what I want, so that’s the word I look up in the thesaurus.  But then I’m confronted with many other words that are similar in meaning, but just not right–just not what I want.  At this point, the most important facet of using a thesaurus comes into play.  Before a thesaurus is any good at all, you have to know two things: the concept you want to express in the sentence you’re writing, and the meaning of every word in that thesaurus.  That’s vitally important: be aware of the meaning of each word you consider.  Don’t just drop in a word that looks good; you must know each slight variation and difference in the synonyms presented to you.  Different words that have similar meanings will have slight nuances within those meanings that can make a big difference in the meaning of the sentence.  Dictionaries are good for looking up those slight variations.  (That’s why you should have a good dictionary as well as a good thesaurus.)  The proper use of a thesaurus can make the difference between a writer who doesn’t know his English and one who does.


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Bubonicon 46

Well, Bubonicon 46 is over.  The Albuquerque science-fiction convention (The “Con”) was held in early August this year to give attendees the chance to go to other conventions around the world, especially the world science-fiction convention, WorldCon, which is being held in London, England, later in August.  That said, I really felt the early setting of this Con.  I’ve been attending Bubonicon since #41 in 2009, (which isn’t a long time) but I still felt out of place.  Don’t get me wrong, the con was great, one of the best I’ve been to, but I could feel the “earliness” all the time.  It was like, “Something’s wrong–I don’t belong here.  At least not at this time.”

In any event, I had a great time.  My purpose here is not to review the Con in detail, but I will briefly summarize a couple of the sessions I went to.  The theme of the Con this year was “Sidekicks and Minions.”  There are a lot of sidekicks in literature and cinema, such as Sherlock Holmes’s sidekick, Dr. Watson, and The Lone Ranger’s sidekick Tonto.  Others mentioned in a couple of the sessions were Don Quixote’s sidekick Sancho Panza, and Batman’s sidekick, Robin.  One of the questions discussed in one session was how to differentiate between a sidekick and a foil, or a sidekick and a minion.  Most seemed to agree a minion was someone of lower rank than the main character, especially in a military situation.  A foil was not really defined, but my opinion is that a foil is someone the main character, for example, Holmes, bounces his ideas off of, and takes into his confidence, but is not necessarily equal in stature to the main character.  Watson, for example, could never become Holmes.  He could never solve cases in the same manner as Holmes, and didn’t even try, though he did discuss the cases with Holmes and even, on occasion, provide an insight to the consulting detective in solving the case.  That doesn’t make Watson a bumbling idiot, though.  Not in the slightest.  He was, after all, a physician and served in the British Army in India and Afghanistan.  Later, back in London, he started his own medical practice.  But he was no Holmes.

Contrast Watson/Holmes with Tonto/Lone Ranger.  I always felt Tonto was almost the equal of The Lone Ranger.  Tonto was as intelligent as the masked man, just second in command, so to speak.  Similar Robin to Batman.  Robin always went into the battle with Batman against the bad guys just as vehemently as Batman did, and was just as competent as Batman in most situations, though he was a lot younger and lacked the experience of the more mature Batman.  These guys are not foils; they are intelligent crime fighters in their own right.  Tonto could replace The Lone Ranger if the situation warranted; likewise Robin.

But Sancho Panza could never replace Don Quixote, and Captain Hastings could never replace Hercule Poirot.  (He tried at least once and failed miserably.)

Sidekicks are important in literature.  In most cases, they are not a secondary character, and it is a mistake to think of them as such.  With a sidekick, the story takes on the elements of a team, though it is important to understand that one is in charge, and the other takes orders.  These are two characters who solve the riddle embedded within the plot, and bring the perpetrator to justice.  Sidekicks take the pressure off the main character.  They have their own life.

A sidekick differs from a team in another important way, too.  In a team–for example, Captain Kirk, Commander Spock, Commander Scott, and Dr. McCoy on Star Trek–each character has a specific duty to perform on board the Enterprise, and only occasionally are they put together as a team.  They are not sidekicks.  A sidekick goes wherever the main character goes and shares all, or almost all, experiences with him.  He works directly for the main character, not for a separate agency.

Any other sidekicks you know of?  How do you think of them?

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The Others Out There

A few weeks ago I finished reading David Waltham’s book, Lucky Planet, and I’d like to comment on it in this blog post.  This is not in the nature of a book review, although I do recommend the book if you’re into the question of life on other worlds.  (It was published by Basic Books in 2014).  Dr. Waltham’s main point is that our Earth has had a phenomenal run of luck during its 4-billion-plus lifespan, and that has allowed life not only to arise about two billion years ago, but to flourish and result in the development of us humans.  He notes that the conditions on Earth have been remarkably constant for the past two billion years in spite of asteroid impacts and mass extinctions, constant enough that although many life forms have gone extinct, at no time has life ever been totally extinguished, and other forms have been able to take the place of the extinct species.  Temperatures have certainly fluctuated on Earth, but never has the temperature gone so high or so low that life was ever wiped out once it got started.  It is an amazing set of circumstances.  I never thought of it that way until I read his book.  It is this stable climate that is at the heart of Dr. Waltham’s book.

Dr. Waltham goes into some detail about his theory that Earth has been extremely lucky over the past several billion years, and I won’t try to summarize the arguments.  I’m not sure I followed all of them, anyway.  He does state near the beginning of the book that if we take all the different facets of evolution that have led to the development and maintenance of life on this planet, such as being in the habitable zone, having a magnetic field that protects us from radiation, having an atmosphere, having a moon that stabilized Earth’s orbit, having large outer planets in our solar system that gobbled up stray asteroids to prevent them from bombarding us too often (but not so often that life wasn’t shaken up now and then), and so forth, and if we add all those up, the number of conditions would be so large that the presence of life on Earth would not only be unique in our galaxy, but perhaps in all galaxies.  With the number of planets in our galaxy alone (in the range of hundreds of billions) that probably isn’t very likely.  But it is possible that our planet has been just lucky enough to allow life to develop and thrive, perhaps lucky enough that there aren’t any other planets that have achieved the same result.

More recently, in the past few weeks, astronomers have begun to say that they are confident they will find life on another world within twenty years or so.  Seems a little like braggadocio to me, considering how long we’ve been looking for life on other worlds and not found squat.  I have no doubt that life will be found on another planet or moon sooner or later.  But I’m only saying “life of any sort.”  A few bacteria-like organisms would fulfill that prediction.  I’m not talking about intelligent life capable of traveling the galaxy.  Life is fabulously complex, and the emergence of intelligent species will take time.  Lots of time, and that requires conditions on the birthing planet to be constant and mild for a very long time.  How many other planets out there will fulfill those requirements?

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Bugs On Other Planets

One topic that comes up frequently in discussions of life on other planets is the question of how life got started on Earth in the first place.  Did it develop here all by itself under the pressure of the energy present in sunlight, or was it dropped here by an asteroid or comet or passing piece of space rock that landed and seeded the infant Earth?  No one has the answer to that question right now, and many years may pass before anyone can give a definitive answer.  But simply raising that question puts us here on this little blue planet in a rather awkward position.

We Earthlings will eventually journey to other worlds.  We’ve already been to the moon and no doubt left some of our germs there.  That probably isn’t a terrible situation since none of our germs (bacteria, viruses, fungi and fungal spores, etc.) are likely to survive there for more than a short time.  The moon is so inimical to life that a problem probably doesn’t exist.  True, some bacterial and fungal spores may last for a long time, but unless they were seriously protected, the radiation from the sun likely killed everything soon after the Apollo astronauts left.

But eventually Earthlings will travel to other planets and moons, and the sterility problem may not be so straightforward.  Some moons of the outer planets in our solar system are thought to possess large amounts of water, in some cases in the liquid form, which could potentially be the breeding grounds for microorganisms.  In that case, an Earthling spacecraft landing there could potentially introduce Earth organisms.  The spacecraft would have to be decontaminated, but I’m not so sure that total decontamination of a spacecraft, even unmanned and remotely operated spacecraft, could ever be achieved.  How can you guarantee such a decontamination?  How do you take a “decontaminated” spacecraft on a trip from Earth that far out into the solar system and guide it down to the surface without getting it contaminated?  Decontamination would have to result not only in the killing of microorganisms, but in their total removal as well.  The process of decontamination usually only kills microbial life, it doesn’t necessarily remove it.  Foreign, if denatured, DNA and RNA could still be present on a spacecraft even if all the tests we usually do to check for it (viability, microscopic, PCR, etc.) come up negative.  And seeding DNA in any form on a pristine planet is the most egregious form of Earthling arrogance I can think of.

Therefore, I propose that Earth-based spacecraft stay away from any moon or planet which could have water, such as Europa.  Don’t seed the planet with a “decontaminated” spacecraft, however well-intentioned.  One tiny microbe may be all it takes to “seed” a planet or moon.  Let’s maintain the sterility of the system.  Flyby missions which only take pictures and make scans are okay.  The Moon and Mars are already contaminated, much to our chagrin, and should be allowed to remain the only two.  We have walked on the moon, and we will walk on Mars, and may even walk on asteroids and other waterless, atmosphere-minus planets.  Let’s leave it at that.  I would hate to see Europa or Callisto or Titan or others pockmarked with Earth probes.

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The Mask, Revisited

Back on April 11, 2011, I wrote a blog on using a mask (like, for example, a surgical mask over the nose and mouth) to protect yourself from the obnoxious and dangerous things that sometimes foul our air.  I noted that there are different types of masks, and each must be used properly for it to work.  Pollution requires one type of mask, surgery another, dust another, protection from organic vapors still another.

But as I watch television of disasters, generally in other countries because Americans are not big on wearing masks, I still notice that most people who use masks don’t use them properly.  The major guiding principle in wearing a mask is that in order to work, the air must pass through the matrix of the mask.  A mask doesn’t work if there are holes in it, or if it is worn improperly so that it doesn’t fit the face.  It has to be air tight all the way around.  I see so many people wearing the old-fashioned rectangular surgical-type mask in inappropriate situations, and with an opening on each side.  The air that person is breathing is flowing in and out through those openings, not through the mask itself, and as a result, the person is getting absolutely no protection at all.  Why wear a mask if you aren’t going to use it properly?

(By the way, most hospitals now use masks that fit tightly around the nose and mouth, and have stopped using the older, rectangular masks.)

So, what should you do if you want to wear a mask to protect yourself from bad airborne stuff?  First, get the proper type of mask.  Second, read the directions and fit the mask to your face so that it is air-tight all the way around.  The most common mask, the type that used to be worn in surgery, can protect you against some airborne particulate matter such as dust, and perhaps even pollen, but not all, assuming you get it fitted tightly.  It won’t protect you against air pollution since air pollution consists not only of particulate matter, but also of gasses such as oxides of nitrogen and sulfur and other unpleasant stuff, and that type of mask won’t filter out airborne gas.  If, on the other hand, you’re working in a woodworking shop where wood dust predominates, get a mask that will filter out that type of dust.  If you are exposed to organic vapors, as I was when I was staining and finishing some wood projects I’ve made, then a mask with cartridges that absorb organic vapors would be the right choice.  In short, get the right type of mask and wear it properly.  Just throwing on a surgical mask may not work in all situations.  Just saying…

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