Archive for January, 2018

How Does He Do It?

As a science fiction writer, I usually find in necessary to keep up with much of the ground-breaking work that goes on in the fields of astronomy and particle physics and cosmology and all that other astronomical stuff, among others, and in many cases I wind up either reading the work of Stephen Hawking, or at least hearing about the latest research he’s done.  He’s in his 70’s now, and has been afflicted with ALS since he was 21.  At the time of  his diagnosis, he wasn’t expected to live much past 25.  But for some unknown reason, he’s lived with the disease for an almost outrageous number of years.  I’ve been curious for a long time, how does he do it?  Is there a specific reason why he hasn’t succumbed to the disease?  Does he have some variant of the disease that lets the afflicted person live a long time?  The vast majority of people with ALS (amyotropic lateral sclerosis) die within three to five years.  So I looked up a little about ALS to see if there’s something to his longevity.

In the US we call it Lou Gehrig’s Disease after the baseball player who died of it in 1941, but in the UK, they call it motor neurone disease.  ALS affects the motor neurons in the brain and the spinal cord which transmit impulses to the voluntary muscles throughout the body.  It’s those voluntary muscles that do all the things we want to do, such as telling each finger what letter to press on a computer keyboard.  Motor neurons also innervate the diaphragm, which is a part of breathing.  That’s why we can take a voluntary deep breath.  ALS can kill off the nerves that affect the diaphragm, and that results in breathing difficulty, and can be one of the contributing causes of death.  Eventually, ALS begins to affect other neurons other than the motor neurons, and that can also be a cause of death.

But it seems there are various life expectancies within the general diagnosis of ALS.  Most with the disease die within three to five years, but about twenty percent live five years after diagnosis, ten percent live ten years, and five percent can live twenty years or more.  But Stephen Hawking has lived for almost fifty years with the disease, and, as far as I could tell, no one knows why.  It may be that he has had excellent nursing care over the years, though no one really knows whether that’s an important factor in his longevity or not.  Maybe it’s due to force of personality; he just refuses to give in to the disease.  That seems unlikely, though.  It’s doubtful that patients can voluntarily affect the course of the disease.  In any event, he’s certainly an outlier; most patients don’t have any chance of living that long at all.  He still does research and publishes papers, and has still made important contributions to cosmology.  I wish I could do the same, even without the diagnosis.

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Notes And Commentary, Part 2

Here are a few commentaries and observations designed to fill this space with words.  These are especially directed toward those of my readers who are writers.

Which of the two constructions do you prefer?   1) I’m ten years older than him.  Or: 2) I’m ten years older than he is.

The quote, “A [fill in your work] is never finished, only abandoned,” has been attributed to several writers.  The poet Paul Valery is credited with, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”  Graham Green said, “It,”—referring to a novel—”is never finished, only abandoned.”  The novelist E. M. Forster said, “A work of art is never finished.  It is merely abandoned.”  I’ve even quoted it myself without giving proper attribution, usually referring to novels, rather than poems.  And I’ve come to believe the truth in that quotation (whoever you feel is the real author).  I’ve just completed a serious revision of the third installment of my sci-fi novels (it’s called “Warrior,” but hasn’t been published yet).  The revisions filled in quite a number of plot holes, and smoothed out some awkward phrasing here and there.  Now all that is left is to print out the novel (the first time that novel has been printed) and read it in the “paper” stage (see last week’s blog) and read it out loud.  And then make whatever changes I feel are necessary.  All of that won’t be a simple matter by any means, but it will insure that the novel will be in a reasonably good state, ready for beta readers or critique groups.  Yet, based on my experiences with the first two novels, both of which have gone through that “print/read/out loud” phase, small touch-ups will always be possible at any time.  It’s true, the novels are never finished; you can always make changes.  I just have to be willing to drop them and let them go.  And not obsess over small things.

If you have a character in your writing who is angry, and you need to show intense outrage/passion/displeasure/hatred, and you are writing in the 3rd person point-of-view, which way do you like to express it?  By having the angry person be the POV character and present to the reader directly his/her feelings ?  Or by having the character be not the POV character and letting him/her—and by extension, the reader—view it from a distance?  It can be done either way, of course, but does it seem to fit your style of writing better one way or the other?  Generally I stick with the indirect way: presenting the anger of someone directly in their head seems too much like telling, not showing.

In this day and age of climate change when storms are getting more and more powerful, and forest fires burn more and more square miles, I’ve noticed that people caught up in these events tend to use a curious method of comparison to try and describe how they sound or feel.  Frequently that comparison is to a “freight train.”  Most frequently, this is the object of comparison for tornadoes, but it has also been applied to land/mudslides, and even hurricanes.  But I’m curious, do most people really know what a freight train sounds like?  I’d almost be willing to bet that most don’t.  I’ve heard a few freight trains in my life, and though I’ve never heard a tornado, I really wonder if the two sound alike.  Anybody know?  In this day of long trains pulled by large-horsepower diesel engines, the sound is more of a growl of low pitch and high.  I suppose that back in the 1940’s and 1950’s when large steam engines pulled long trains of coal out of the Appalachian coal fields of Kentucky and West Virginia, and they had to literally pound the rails to get it over the mountains, it could have had a terrible rumbling feel, especially considering the power in the exhaust of the mighty engines and the shaking of the ground if you stood too close.  But diesels don’t do that much any more.  They seem to glide along; there’s no pounding and no heavy exhaust.  I wonder if a tornado or mudslide really sounds like that.  Anyone have any idea?

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Writers and Paper

I’m curious.  What will writers do without paper?

In our growing environmentally conscious society, the reduction of paper in the workplace has already begun.  We’re supposed to reduce the amount of paper we use to help save trees, and by extension, the environment.  But books are made of paper.  (I don’t count e-books here.)  In fact, I’ve never seen a book made of anything else.  But speaking as a fledgling writer, and more to the point I’m trying to make here, manuscripts are printed on paper.  Revisions are made on paper.  The whole process of writing involves paper.  And to an horrendous degree.

I know of and have heard of people who routinely print out their works (on paper, of course) during the revision process as a method of seeing the work in a new light.  I agree with them.  I do it too.  Seeing my work, whether short story, poem, or the entire manuscript of a novel, gives me a clearer and more realistic vision of the work as it will appear to the reader (of a real book, not an e-book).  I print out every story.  In some cases, several times.  I also read it aloud, and that helps even further in identifying the difficult points of the writing.  Especially the redundancies, the difficult points of narration, the confused logic, the plot holes that need to be filled, the weird phrasing that should be revised, the scientific points that have to be explained in some detail.  I—and as I said, others—need that printed version.

Paper is relatively cheap.  Trees are cut down every day.  But it’s a largely unsustainable concept, the idea of turning trees into a thin, white sheet that will accept ink and pencil lead, and the idea of reducing the amount of paper we use is most certainly environmentally proper.  Computers have already forced us into a reduction of paper usage.  And in my case, a substantial reduction.  Without a computer to produce and keep my novels, short stories and poetry, I’d have to have a large file folder of each revision of a novel.  That would be a lot of paper.  One novel would take up an entire file cabinet drawer.  I can’t imagine doing that.

Yet, still, I need to print out a novel to look at it in a “new light.”  What are we going to do if paper goes away?  To be really, really honest here, I suspect paper will never go away completely.  It will always be with us, but we may wind up with much less of it and it will become much more expensive.

In the universe I created for my characters in my sci-fi novels, I put them on a desert planet without much plant life, except in large hydroponic gardens where they grow their food.  Thus, they do not have the large trees or the cotton, or even the cellulose, we use to make paper.  But—and this is a big but—they do have plastic sheets to print things on, such as photographs and computer images.  They still have to have a format for printing.  I cannot conceive of a civilization that doesn’t have some sort of ability to “print” writing and images.  Perhaps in the distant future, the concept of “printing” will become obsolete, and computer images—of writing, of pictures, etc.—will be all we will have.  But how will writers “print” out a manuscript to get a look at it?  They’ll be limited to the computer version.  Will that make writing worse in the long run?

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