5 Devious Ways to Improve Your Writing

I’ve written as a hobby for a long time – as such, I’ve had a lot of inspiration from friends, family, people on the internet, and (a few times) teachers. I’m not formally trained in linguistic arts, so I try to keep the best tidbits of advice close at hand whenever I put my fingers to my keyboard.

5. Comma Rules on Coordinating Conjunctions

When I was a freshman in high school, I found out that my elementary and middle education had been sorely lacking in grammar. I taught myself parts of speech and some other pieces of basic grammar, but as a sophomore I got a red-inkedCommas paper back from my teacher that showed just how lacking my skills with grammar were. I got a book from my teacher and taught myself one of the most easily forgotten and easily broken comma rules.

The rule states that if a sentence has two independent clauses separated by a coordinating conjunction, it needs to have a comma before that conjunction.  Just as importantly, if one of those clauses is dependent, the comma should *not* be there.

I wrote an entire series on my favorite comma rules, complete with examples, mnemonics, and other goodies.  If comma rules are something you’d like to brush up on, these are some of the most easily forgotten and useful rules.

Click here to go to my first of a series of comma articles

4. Minor Characters Can Enhance a Story – Or Bog it Down…

justice_league_unlimited_primary

Justice League Unlimited – somehow I liked it, but wow… terrible idea.

In high school English, I had a teacher who made the class spend a long time focusing on how Beowulf, titular character of the English epic, made certain to pay tribute to the poor sod who had to remain with and guard his ship.  With that one action, in just a small stanza, Beowulf’s honor and concern for the common man is accentuated.

When minor characters serve as foils, drive the plot, or serve to embellish a main character’s traits, they are extraordinarily useful.  Minor characters can have as much depth through what is left out as what is written plainly.  Named or unnamed, minor characters add a richness and depth that you can’t get without them.

At the same time, I’ve beta read and edited enough books to know that there are ways to overuse minor characters.  One book I read introduced a named character approximately every 1,000 words, and in a 100,000 word story, it became entirely untenable.  It was impossible for the writer to do justice to each of the characters with so little time dedicated to any of them.  If a character is invented just to show off an item, have a magical skill, or sit around being pretty, they may be better off excised from the story.

3. The Hidden Way to Indicate a Speaker During Dialogue

group of people in a meeting

If you’ve followed my site for a while, you may remember that I am an engineer by trade.  I learned this technique very late in the game, so I’m pretty sure it’s not obvious.  I even made a more detailed post about it here.  There are three ways to indicate speaker: directly tagging, back-and-forth with no tags, and interspersing with action.

Direct tagging serves a great purpose and makes it easy for the reader to pick out the speaker with almost no effort.  This is the way that you learned in grade school, and it should definitely still be in your repertoire.

Using actions around your dialogue adds another dimension to your writing and makes it more interesting for your reader.  The reader forgets that you’re telling them who said something and instead falls into your narrative.

Click here to read a more detailed article about dialogue.

2. How to Seek and Reduce Passive Voice

dr strangelove

Passive voice can be really useful, but it can also make a passage drag.  Being able to identify, assess, and change passive voice sentences tightens writing and draws a reader into the activity.  While passive voice has its uses, they are a bit more obscure (and for obfuscation!).

A quick and dirty explanation of passive voice sentences is a sentence where the actions are performed on the subject, and the subject seems to take a passive role.  I.e.

The dog was rewarded.

vs the active version:

I rewarded the dog.

Note that in the passive version, the actor – the person giving the reward – is completely missing.  If you want the focus off the true actor and onto the person receiving the action, that’s when you want passive voice.  It’s not quite as powerful or engaging for any other purpose, so identifying the voice and being able to change it is important.

For greater detail on passive voice, I wrote an article you can find here.

1. The Best Word Isn’t Always the Biggest Word

This is something I would have balked at before reading Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.  It doesn’t just serve to use a word with more syllables or more arcane qualities.  The goal of writing is to communicate thoughts, not to impress people with your intellect.

Aim for clarity, precision, and ease.  Sure, you’ll probably use a couple words your readers won’t know just out of general differences in people’s vocabularies, but people in your target audience shouldn’t have to look up many words as they read your book.  Be wary – if people reading for fun have to work for it, it’s going to stop being fun.  Once a book stops being fun, people are much more willing to put it down.

For more on this topic, you can find an article here.

See you Around!

Hope you enjoyed this ‘Greatest Hits’ article!  Are there writing tips that have helped you through your ventures?  Any that you wish you’d known long before now?  Craft books that you love?  Pop that in the comments!  I’d love to find out more things that I need to learn!

SEEK AND DESTROY Passive Voice Sentences

dr strangelove

Perhaps the title is a bit gung-ho (passive voice can be useful, as I’ll talk about more later), but use of the passive voice changes the feel of a sentence.  It clouds true meanings and dulls action.  Though you may choose to use passive voice to great effect, simply knowing how to pick it out of your linguistic soup will help you improve your writing.

What Is Passive Voice?

Passive voice is where the subject and object are inverted from the normal English word order so as to create an interesting, dulling effect.  It’s grammatically acceptable, and I almost guarantee you’ve used it before.  Let’s look at an example:

Active: George smoked the pot.
Passive: The pot was smoked by George.

The two sentences essentially mean the same thing, but the second George is less likely to face charges.  Why?  The first George definitely committed the act.  In the second example, the word order is inverted, and native speakers feel like the act happened to George.  Actors and actions are dulled by passive voice, whereas objects are accentuated.

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Check for “To Be” Words

 

Passive voice needs helping verbs in order to exist.  By checking for this verbiage, you can spot passive voice more easily.

What do I mean by ‘to be’ words or ‘helping verbs?’  Well, they’re the words you use to go along with another verb or, in this article, make passive sentences.  You can sing them all to the tune “Jingle Bells:”

Am Is Are
Was Were Be
Being Been Has Had
Have Can Could Should
Would Might May Must
Will Shall Do Does Did

Jingle Bells

 

Using that info, which of the following is a passive sentence?

  1. I walked down to Grandma’s house and shot a couple squirrels.

  2. Billy Jo tended the garden with a bear by his side.

  3. The turkeys were dressed by my mother.

  4. Mr. McCalister owns the Tallahachee bridge.

Spoiler: it was number 3!  Number 3 takes the object, the turkeys, and makes them the subject.  The action of ‘my mother’ is dulled, indicating the importance is on the dressed turkeys.

This doesn’t mean all sentences with helping verbs are passive, so you can’t just rearrange everything to stop including helping verbs.  Here’s some other uses that you’ll have to pick through:

Future Tense: Suzy will eliminate all survivors.
Continuous Tenses: Mr. Buchard was bicycling.
Perfect Tenses: Jeff will have escaped from prison by 5.
Ownership: The ants have a picnic basket.
Being: I am a douchebag.

Wow – with all those options (plus a few more), it’s not entirely straightforward to pick out the offensive instances of passive voice.  Here’s a set of more difficult sentences to check your skills:

  1. Due to his sharing of military secrets, Renault was a traitor to his country.

  2. “What have you done!?”

  3. She sits alone, waiting for his question.

  4. His lips are dry, her heart’s gently pounding.

  5. She was defeated at checkers.

  6. Alex enjoys watching Le Tour de France despite all the doping controversies.

  7. You guys should love my dog.

The winner?  Number 5!  Though the subject, whoever defeated ‘her’ at checkers, was never mentioned, the subject-object sentence order was still inverted.  Numbers 1, 4 and 7 use the ‘helping verb’ as the sentence’s main verb, whereas the helping verb is used for tense in number 2.

When Is Passive Voice Ok?

Passive voice isn’t just evil, and you’re ultimately the one who decides what happens to any sentence.  Plenty of reasons abound to use passive voice.

bold strategy

When the Actor is Unknown – Sometimes, things happen for unknown reasons.  Maybe “The solution to the problem was left on the board” sound better than “Someone solved the problem.”  It can add an air of mystery that “someone” or “something” might not be able to provide.

When the Object Is More Important – There are instances where you don’t want the actor to be more important.  Sometimes, the fact that a person was bitten is more important than the fact that a dog bit someone.

When You Want to Reduce Importance of the Actor – This is usually the reason you want to avoid passive voice, but sometimes you just got to mislead a reader.  Reducing the subject’s importance also makes passive voice useful for victim blaming.  Victim blaming is a terrible, terrible thing, but you can make it useful in writing.  If your villain is nasty and psychological, using the passive voice can gaslight a victim and shove blame away from the perp.  I DO NOT CONDONE MAKING REAL LIFE VICTIMS FEEL LIKE GARBAGE.

How To Write Biology In Science Fiction, Part 2: Evolution (Including How It Affects Religion)

In the first installment in this series, we thought about what DNA itself was, and we delved into ideas about genetic modification in science fiction.  What I was building up to was this article, which was a terrible thing to tackle in such a short space. Multiple scientists and philosophers have considered what to think about evolution, and many have struggled. What I intend to do here is show how evolution is theorized to work, show some of the common misconceptions about evolution and why using them makes for a weaker story, and then have a brief aside on the religious aspects of evolution.

How Evolution Actually Works

1. Cartoon version of Peppered Moths in their natural state.

Let’s say you have a spotted moth that lives on a tree.  They might look something like what you see to the left.

As long as the moth doesn’t get dirty, it will remain somewhat difficult to see by a passing bird.  A moth like this exists in Britain – and it has for quite a long time.   It’s the peppered moth, and it’s a lovely example of how natural selection and evolution work.

2. Cartoon version of peppered moths after their trees become covered in soot.

In the early 1800’s, right when Britain was industrializing and producing more coal smoke, people began noticing these moths.  Judging by the picture to the left, it’s pretty obvious why this happened – the dirty trees made it easy to pick out the mostly white moths.  Humans weren’t the only creatures to begin noticing this moth, though.  Birds, the natural predators of the peppered moth, were also better able to pick out their prey and eat them.

3. Some peppered moths are born with defects that make them darker than the normal moths.

Sometimes, mutations happen in DNA that cause interesting effects, or sometimes DNA combines from parents in interesting ways to create a new effect.  At one time, a moth or some moths were born that contained a darker pigment.  This sooty looking moth wasn’t easy to see, and the birds also did not notice them as much.  The white moths were eaten at an increased rate, and so were not able to lay eggs and make as many new white moths.  Meanwhile, the black moths were getting it on.

4. Eventually, nearly all the moths were black. The black moths remained predominant until environmental laws got rid of the soot and, in some areas, the white moths returned.

The black moths became more common, since they had babies and weren’t eaten.  Eventually, as many of the white moths died off, the dark version became the main color of moth.  Humans were able to notice this change because the lifespan of a moth is so much shorter than that of a person’s.  The moths evolved over the course of several generations, and the changes were thus relatively slow.

Common Misconception 1 – Passing On Adaptations

Let’s think about the above moth scenario again.  This time, though, a moth isn’t born looking darker.  Instead, it flies into some soot and happens to look like the dirty trees, sort of like wearing makeup.  When it mates and has babies, this moth’s genes are still the underlying white.  Its children are no more likely to breed than any other moth because they have no natural advantage.  That first moth that got covered in soot simply had a lucky break.  Experience or changes in an individual don’t result in evolution.

Here’s a potentially better example.  Let’s say you have a pig, and you need to tag it so your neighbors won’t steal it.  You thus poke a hole in its ear where it’s not going to hurt.  Later, since this pig is a good pig, you decide to breed it.  Even though an offspring pig would be better off if it came with a pierced ear (since you wouldn’t need to do it and risk infections or pain later), there’s no way your offspring piglet will come with a pierced ear.  Neither of its parents had this advantage, so without random mutations, it won’t either.

Things that happen to an animal during its lifetime won’t affect how its offspring look.  Those are individual adaptations, or things that an animal can go through without dying.  To pass on a trait, the organism must have had that trait to begin with.

Common Misconceptions 2 – Metamorphic Evolution

This is more like what happens with butterflies or Pokemon.  It basically means that you start out with one organism, and that organism changes into another organism sometime during its life cycle.

If you ever watched a butterfly metamorphose, though, you know that the stages it goes through will be the same stages its offspring will go through.  It’s not quite accurate to call the stages of a butterfly as evolution, since pupal, larval, and adult stages are all the same insect.  Deciduous trees go through stages during the seasons, but just because it doesn’t have any leaves doesn’t mean it’s not an oak or a maple anymore.  It is impossible to start with an animal of one species and end up with an animal of another species.

Am I Doing Something Immoral by Writing About Evolution?

Long story short – only you can really determine if writing about evolution is immoral for you, but if you’re looking at this section with any sort of seriousness, you’re probably looking for an excuse.

If this is true, look at this.

Pictured: Proof of humanity’s hand screwing with God’s master plan.  Adorably, though.

This is a Pomeranian.  While it’s my favorite breed of dog, it’s still a 5-lb ball of fur that needs a human to comb it lest the fur mats, skin develops hot spots, and the animal gains tons of health issues.  It has no way to fight against almost any predator or prey despite being (mostly) a wolf by genetics.  In fact, the actual dog pictured to the left was incapable of killing a betta fish out of its tank (he just cried instead, which did allow me to save the poor fish from suffocating).  If this dog were to be left to the wild, I have no doubt in my mind that it would fail to survive.

I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household.  Like straight-up ‘7 modern-Earth length days of creation with no leeway’ kind of fundamentalist.  I appreciate that upbringing, and I totally understand where people who do think that way are coming from.  There is no way to prove them wrong, because in their mind God is too great for things that are so limiting as carbon-13 testing or the speed of light.  If you are in this camp, that is totally ok.  If believing in a strict 7-day, young earth interpretation of scripture is what makes you feel like God is the greatest of gods, then you should believe that.  If you believe that by writing a story with evolution in it, you are leading people away from a loving creator, you should strongly consider whether the story is worth telling.

I’m going to return to the Pomeranian, though.  Humans MADE that.  There’s no doubt in this fact.  They did so by selective breeding, or by making dogs with similar traits have puppies until they came out with the adorable fluffball.  The peppered moth above is a true story about how animals changed over a few generations without the direct (though, I admit, indirect) influence of humans.  While there are some gaps in evolutionary theory, like how eyes came to be, the basics makes a lot of sense.  I began to feel uncomfortable denying evolution as an undergraduate when I realized that dog evolution had to have happened.  Yet, at the same time, I felt uncomfortable leaving what I had learned growing up, especially when Biblical texts, interpreted literally, are pretty devoid of evolutionary theory.

But I could never leave the idea that God is too great for things that are limiting at all, whether through science or through our meager interpretations.  I decided that to read the text and limit God to 7 days as modern humans understand the time frame, to reduce his voice to a sound rather than a force which humans are barely capable of fathoming, or to reduce God’s workings into anything less than what God actually did is just as much a sin as forcing God out of the picture.  To deny the possibility of evolution, in my opinion, is wrong.  I suppose I can believe in both God and evolution because I don’t see them as mutually exclusive, but they are ideas I can hold in tension, at odds with each other in some ways, and yet believe both are true without believing everything is true.

If you can hold the ideas in tension, and if you believe that other people are just as intelligent and thoughtful as you, then no, it’s not immoral.  C.S. Lewis wrote fantastical stories like the Chronicles of Narnia or Out of the Silent Planet that have moral implications many believe trump the fantastical or evolutionary elements.  At worst, I think people are made in the image of God, and that means people enjoy creating.  Evolution can be a literary tool that, at least for us mere mortals, allows us to form ideas and imitate the creator that loves us.

My insight is probably not unique.  I’m probably not breaking any new ground or changing any minds, but perhaps I’ve given you something to think about.  That’s all I really wanted.

– If I Only Had No Heart – Chapter 13

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There wasn’t much of a line at the prayer room when the Colonel stepped in, but even with the short wait he wasn’t going to let the dictates of the Machine’s orders slow his progress. He dragged Spirit across the steel plated floor, causing her to trip upon some of the smoothed seams between the hunks of metal. The two people in line scoffed as he marched past them, but they soon saw the small army following him and their eyes opened wide with interest.

The guard stood at attention, putting his right fist to his left shoulder and bowing. “Colonel, sir – is there something you need?”

The Colonel let go of Spirit roughly, his corpulent mass hobbling over to the curtained entrance to the prayer room. “Get whoever’s in there out.” He pulled down heavily on the curtain while he reached up, handling a couple steel hooks at the top to take them off their rod.

“Sir,” the guard said, the halfling rushing up to him, “Sir, what’s going on? I thought we weren’t supposed to disturb a prayer this way-”

“Does it matter?” The Colonel pointed up to the light on the side of the sanctuary. “The light beam is red, so you’re to get the fool in there out immediately.” He took a couple more hooks off the rod, revealing a bug-eyed major who was beating on the slot where cards were shoved in.

The dragonborn major, flummoxed at first, stared out at the crowd he had no idea had accumulated.

“Get out,” the Colonel said. “We’re doing the Machine’s business, and your time is up.”

He scrambled to his feet and crept out from the inner sanctum, squeezing between the half-removed curtain and the door frame. The red scales on the man’s snout frowned slightly as he noticed Spirit’s steel face. Spirit held tight her hands, realizing that the man had quickly realized what must have been occurring.

The Colonel’s strong fingers gripped her arm again, tossing her into the room over the curtain. He scowled at her, then turned to the audience, lifting his hands. “This is a special day, a day in which we – as the Machine’s faithful – sit in judgment.” His scowl lifted into a wry smile while the last of his echos died out in the steel hall. “This mistake of a creation, Spirit of Michael, insists that she can reach the Machine without the prayer cards. If she cannot reach the Machine, then our judgment shall stand and she will be subject to the laws of the compound. If she can, then she will sit in judgment at the hands of the Machine, whose mercy is well known.”

The audience chuckled at the Colonel’s emphasis of mercy, making Spirit’s heart twinge. She held her breath, feeling her body heating until she released it and took in a new one.

“So pray, Spirit of Michael. Prove that you’re not just a lying virus, a hunk of trash. We’ll be watching.”

She nodded as the Colonel sidestepped from the door, his beady eyes still staring in at her. The single arcane bulb that hung above her head lit the room poorly, but he would still see if she took out a card and punched it. If she were to use the card, she would have to either be sneakier than she really was or do it faster than the Colonel could walk over and beat her.

Neither were real options.

With steel fingers she reached into her coat pocket, fiddling with the small bag of tobacco. There wasn’t much left from before the war, only a couple of prayers’ worth, perhaps. She took out a piece of vellum and lined up some of the thinly sliced leaves along the paper. “Pyyrpoustovoskchengalgilk, shorm navlovetiv skapfgaknargitamymir; oh powerful, dictatorial Machine, you are eternally my reason for living,” she muttered repeatedly. She reverently closed the eye that still had skin on it and tried as hard as she could to simply not look out the eye with no covering.

She picked up the packet and licked the edge to wet it before sealing the stick of incense. She stopped the muttering briefly, bowing to it and to the Machine’s prayer interpretation device, kissing holy ground she was certain she didn’t truly deserve to sit upon. “Molg proloskov shorm, skapfgalguklalmir. I love you, my Steel Mother. Revarevativ badyshsolichevimir! Please hear your servant’s prayer!”

At that, she licked the tip of her finger, causing sparks to come from the exposed sensors. Quickly, despite the cry of pain, she touched the sparks to the end of the stick of incense, causing it to ignite. She stoked the flames, blowing gently through sobs of pain while the sparks on her finger died down. Smoke began to fume up, increasing with each puff of air, filling the small, enclosed space where she knelt.

Once the cloud was large enough, she bent her face to the floor. She only had until the tobacco ran out, and then the Colonel would have no reason to let her try again. An arrow to the head or an axe to the neck would be warranted if the Machine didn’t answer.

She muttered aloud, translating her thoughts to the arcane language of the Machine, “Most holy and righteous one, I would beg your mercy, but I know that all of your plans are perfect. If it is your will to call or send me through death, I will follow your command. I submit my prayer to you as an alert that I, in my current form, am in danger of being killed by others in the Hub, most notably the Colonel. He is your scion and high priest, however, and I have no right to complain of his orders, but I appeal for you to look into the situation. Examine our minds, intentions, and loyalties. If mine is impure, let me fail, let me fade into nothingness so I can no longer taint your name.”

The tobacco burned, the vellum wrapper curling inwards as the plant turned to gray ash. Orange flames crept down the sides of the piece far too eagerly.
Spirit swallowed. “I have no other complaints, highest Machine. I would request instruction for future actions, but I don’t know if I am to have a future. I would ask you to test my intentions, but I know of what I am made. I know I am created from imperfection and am made out of mathematical sins, so I do not expect response. But I love you. I love you…”

Spirit looked at the tobacco, seeing it running down.

Her goddess wasn’t going to voluntarily protect her. She wasn’t loved, wasn’t important enough for a miracle.

No.

Spirit shook her head and bit her tongue, self-punishment for the lapse of faith. Fear was an organic emotion and worthless to the Machine. If she died, so be it. The Machine was all that mattered.

And the Machine prescribed sensibility and logic. Logically, if Spirit wanted to know that the Machine had heard and would guarantee a response, the card in her pocket was the way to do it. She slipped a hand into her coat, feeling the parchment with her painful finger.

The sounds of a clacking printer and whirring gears made Spirit’s gaze change. Black lines appeared on the white paper, the symbol of the Machine appearing just as it would for a card prayer.

The Colonel stormed in. “No… No!” he said, yanking the sheet as the first page printed out. He balled it up and tried to shove it into his pocket, but the crowd bombarded him. They swept him back out of the small room, backing him up against the table where the guard normally stood.

“What was it?” people asked. A half-giant woman, mechanical arms tensed, held the Colonel down and pinned him against the table.

Spirit tore her attention from the crowd as they buckled around the Colonel. The paper on the spindle turned, her own words from the prayer appearing. She blinked, mesmerized by the action, and couldn’t move.

Then, after a couple lines were skipped below her pitiful pleas, the Machine herself responded, “Grumm has been received and is undergoing repairs. He gave me your message.”

Spirit fell to the floor. She sobbed, shaking as her goddess responded. False blood began to flow under her face, dripping out from the skin that remained.
The printer clacked on, continuing a new line from the Machine. “I approve of your actions against the heretic, which puts me in a merciful mode. But it disturbs me… What makes you think you deserve to demand I respond to you without a card?”

Spirit could hardly speak. Breathily, between stammerings and sobs, she responded, “I don’t deserve it. I am faithless, a poor excuse for a follower of yours.”

“That’s right.” The Machine waited while the people outside shouted at the Colonel, their demands chaotic and simultaneous. “You are a pitiful believer. What does that mean about the others in the hub with you?”

“It is not my right to decide, my most high goddess, and I do not intend to pretend that I could influence your decisions or ways.”

“That is your problem. You will change.”

Spirit blinked. “May I appeal for an explanation, my goddess?”

“No.”

“Yes, oh righteous one.”

The printer clacked furiously, spitting out words as fast as it could. “Your hub is as good as dead. With Saifer’s soul bought by the Singer of Songs and Grumm’s contested by the Triumvirate, it has become apparent that Obrazet has followed the ways of Gate City, Yerexol, and Fleverre. Organic lies that started in the holy war followed the false worshippers all the way to the hubs.”

Spirit bowed. “I confess my lapses of faith, my lies made to save my own life-”

“Shut up. You know very well that you alone are the most loyal. You won’t smack talk your superiors, not even when your goddess asks you about it. That is where you have failed me, not those white lies you gave the Colonel. I believe that the Colonel has been sabotaging you, and thus me, since I gave him control of this hub. I asked you what you believed he was doing, and you didn’t answer. What is the ninth precept?”

Spirit nodded. “Obey your superiors, my goddess.”

“And who is the highest superior?”

She stammered. “You.”

The printer sat silent. Spirit couldn’t speak, not when she had been so harshly reminded of her failings.

“Are you going to be better?”

Spirit nodded. “I will do all I can.”

“You will,” the Machine spat. “If you weren’t capable of acting in an acceptable manner, I wouldn’t have answered, just left you to sit until the Colonel performed his judgment upon you. But now, like you were from the beginning, you are my faithful tool. Your reward is finally at hand. You shall witness my judgment upon him and all this disloyal lot.”

Shouts and punches popped up outside the tent, making Spirit turn her head. The Colonel, though he was fat and slow, held his own against the non-mechanically enhanced.

Spirit turned back to the printer as it printed. “Don’t pay attention to them. I am the one who is important.”

“Yes, my goddess.”

“Then listen. I know what is coming. You get out – get out as soon as you can. Gather what you need, put on a suit of armor, and grab a shield and a weapon. There will be no lenience.”

Spirit nodded. “Yes, holy Machine. May I take Klavdiya with me?”

“You’re not listening. I said get out as soon as you can. Does that include Klavdiya?”

“N-n-no…”

The Machine sent a line of dots, a sign of thoughts, perhaps a sigh. “If you seek to save this individual, it is on your own head. You are damned regardless of what you do for me, though…”

Spirit waited for a while. “Yes, my goddess?”

“Listen closely, because you will not hear from me directly for a long time hence. You are, as of now, the highest ranked believer on your plane of existence. As such, you shall no longer be remembered as Michael’s – for you aren’t his. That is your past, not your present, and certainly not your future. Spirit of Michael you are no more – high priest Konchet Dukhmir you shall be.”

“Yes, my goddess.”

“And now, the era of the prayer card is over. Perform your function as an end statement, a Konchet, and feed me lace.”

The sprawl of words ended, the final printed line showing the termination of code. Her goddess had spoken.

While the fight raged outside the door, Konchet – no longer merely Spirit, just as her goddess demanded – pulled the card out from her jacket. She searched the area just beneath the card slots, grabbing up the awl and hammer. She placed the punch over the first coding slot, knocking out a hole before moving the tool to the next hole. One by one, she knocked out the coding holes.

Outside, the mob howled. Incomprehensible shouts were interspersed with violent threats and tearing of cloth. “You can’t keep us from the Machine, Colonel! We saw what Spirit did, and she told us the truth!”

Konchet punched faster. She worked ever more quickly, knowing that the crowd had never cared for her fate, only for theirs.

The Colonel wiped his bloody lips outside the door, backing up. “How was I to know that the Machine would speak with her? Obviously she’s innocent, that’s not my fault!”

The half-giant, tall with her brown stripes crossing through an angry face, pushed the Colonel harder. “What else was she telling the truth about? Where’s the cards, Colonel?! You hiding them?”

Konchet smiled. She punched through to the second half of the card, feeling it become less structurally sound, weak and floppy like lace.

“The Machine never gave me cards for you people! She never did, so I had to do what I could! I had to give out the cards as best I could!” the Colonel blubbered.

Punch. Punch.

“Then prove it! Prove it, you fat piece of shit!”

Punch.

“I can’t! What do you expect me to do? How can I prove that I never received the cards?”

Konchet punched the last hole and pushed the card into the slot. The card reader poked and prodded, the thin, lacy card inevitably getting stuck in the process. The turning tapes behind the card reader stopped, the arcane lights dimmed, and at last the card reader shut down and became noiseless.

She stood up. A broken interpreter of the Machine’s will was still broken. The parts, taken in a rampage to tear Michael apart at the end of the war, would remain here, uncared for. Konchet was an honorable name, a strong name, a designation that would continually need to be earned. Ending Michael’s terror and ending Obrazet’s heresies wasn’t enough.

She steeled herself, reaching fingers up to the skin on her face. If she was to follow her goddess’s instructions, this vestige of Michael wasn’t going to serve her. What was gone wasn’t coming back. As the high priest of the Machine, one who knew that the hub was filled with heretics only the Machine could fix, one who had been told to arm herself, and one who already knew how to finish the job given to her, Konchet had the right to take what she needed. She was finally free.

She didn’t need Michael or the Colonel, either of her fathers, because her mother was there. Her steel mother was loving, guiding, unwavering. She was always there and forever would be.

Her steel fingers pressed between the skin and her face. The sensors burned and tingled when she ripped what was left of her face off and threw it into the corner. What little false blood had been generated dripped onto the steel floor, some dribbling across her face and to her neck. She caught the glass eye in her left hand and slipped the bloody thing in her outside pocket.

Once outside the door, she looked down at the Colonel, noticing the real blood that drained from his nose and the top of his head. He reached up to her. “Spirit – I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it! You know I didn’t – please, tell them how I’ve been faithful, how I rescued you from them-”

“He keeps the cards in his desk,” Spirit told the small crowd threatening to beat the Colonel to a pulp. While they blinked, stunned, she bent down to his coat, sifting through it for a key ring that she tossed to the half-giant that held fists above him. “Top right drawer.”

The giant took the keys, then kicked the Colonel. “You better hope she’s not right, worm, or I’ll come kill you whether you’re my superior or not.”

“The Machine is watching you!” the Colonel cried out, desperation clear in his cracking tones. “She’ll torture you in hell!”

“You said it yourself – the Machine doesn’t care. She’s pulled out of this plane, she’s given up! We don’t matter to her, and you know that we all lied to save our pathetic lives! And those lies forced us here, damned us for eternity to live in the Machine’s hell!”

The half-giant started as if to pummel the Colonel, but a couple of heavily augmented humans and dragonborn held her back. The dragonborn puffed up his chest, the humans held back the giant. “Stop,” the human said. “He’s not going anywhere. Send a couple of people up to his desk and have them come back if they find the cards.”

Konchet saw the crowds move in on the Colonel. They drew knives, some of them swords, and pressed to his corner. The Colonel, eyes sad, swollen, bloody, looked up at Konchet longingly. “Please,” he begged, dragging himself to her. “Please, Spirit, you can’t let this happen to me. Please, you were broken, but I fixed you! I did so much for you, Spirit!”

She bent down to him, putting a hand to his shoulder. “I know that, Colonel. You loved me like a father, showed me the way to the Machine.” She leaned forward, putting her steel lips close to his ear. “And for that, I owe you eternity.”

The Colonel looked at her questioningly while she backed away, but a wry smile told him all he needed to know. He began to shake his head, realizing her true loyalty. The Colonel would be fixed, forever, once this was all done.

Konchet stood, smiling with empty, steel lips to the half-giant. “You are a true war hero. Look at your legs – you sacrificed to the Machine in one of the deepest, most important ways. Do you think that the Colonel deserves to make it out of this life in one piece? Wholly organic while so many of you have given so much?”

The goliath’s brows furrowed. “What are you getting at?”

“There’s a pile of limbs in the forge room. Should they go to waste? Shouldn’t the Colonel be allowed to taste the eternity you were promised? Shouldn’t all of the officers?”

The half-giant fought her way out of the dragonborn and the human’s grip. They didn’t fight very hard to get her back when she grabbed the Colonel up, holding on to him by the back of his neck. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Colonel? Being damned to haunt the halls of the mainframe forever?”

“No!” the Colonel cried out. He whimpered, but it was to late as sniggering dragonborn and simpering human grabbed tight his shoulders. “No – Spirit, what have you done?! You have betrayed me!”

“Don’t ask the stupid robot,” the giant shouted. “You worry about me – I’m going to cut you up, you lying piece of shit, and I’ll slaughter you if they find those cards!”

She smiled, waving at him as the crowd dragged him off. The loud noises and shouts continued, ringing out through the hall. Soon cries of pain emanated from them, the officers inevitably falling beneath the blades of the enhanced. Konchet marched around the bloodthirsty crowd to the door. They could murder these officers in the prayer room while she followed her goddess’s commands.

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Pantsing With Myself

Some people plan out their stories, writing in detail an intricate set of plot-lines, character traits, background information, and more all before beginning.

Other people – like me – don’t.

I write by the seat of my pants, and my planning often starts and ends with something I thought of while showering or shitting. I accumulate a large amount of world background information as I write, and editing for consistency is a total pain, but I love how my plotlines come together. Sometimes I have to break down and plan out a scene (like when I write it four or five times and the characters simply will not act appropriately), and I like how many guides are out there to help me plan.

That got me thinking… what about those people who already plan heavily? What if there’s a scene where they’d like to ‘pants’ it? I surfed around and found some advice, but most of it focused on how to pants entire books or stories.  My thoughts are if you’re trying to figure out how to write spontaneously, you probably want the help for a couple of scenes before returning to planning.

The problem is that pantsing doesn’t really feel like something you can study and learn.  It seems like something you’d need to practice.  Here’s some quick tips on training to write by the seat of your pants.

Practice Improv

Pantsing is often hailed as organic or natural writing, and I find it the most exciting to pants while writing dialogue.  The characters say and do as they please, taking you as the writer on a journey – sometimes ones you don’t expect.

Listening to the voices in your head sounds fairly schizophrenic, but there are ways to cultivate the ability.  Improv in high school drama class probably taught me more than I realized, and it definitely helps teach getting in the mind of a character.

Playing in a heavy RP Dungeons and Dragons group can also help.  When you put yourself in the place of your character, you have to think and act quickly enough not to stall the game.  This forced interactivity and roleplay can get you accustomed to thinking through the mind of someone else, which is important when divining character action.

If neither of those options work for you or seem too socially daunting, I have an even dumber, less communal offering: play an RP video game with the intent to only choose the actions or words most suited to the character you are writing now.  I did a playthrough of Shadowrun as the main character in my novella, and I made a Mass Effect trilogy playthrough as the primary villain in my long series (that may be coming here soon if I decide to publish it that way!). Though video game roleplay is somewhat limiting and not quite as effective as the Dungeons and Dragons version, it does help you think through your character’s set of logic and personal rules.

Learn to Think Better

Pantsing starts with an idea, a character, something very small.  If you get stuck or need new ideas, having a good sit down and thinking can work wonders. Talk with your characters in your head, think about premises.  You can even feel free to write down notes about these ideas, especially if you are naturally a planner.  There’s no requirement to dive headfirst into pantsing without any idea where you’re going.

For me, most of my ideas come from one of three places:

1) A dream
2) Thoughts during a shower
3) Thoughts during a long poop

In only one of those scenarios do I have the ability to whip out my phone (or other things) and take some rather germ-laden notes. I keep creative writing notes on my phone as well as in a memo pad between to-do lists and work stuff, and I do so with alarming regularity (fiber, man).

My advice here is to start keeping an idea journal if you don’t already.  There need be no formality, no pressure, or even a real, physical journal: just thoughts you promise to keep alive.  Find where and when your best thoughts are made, then make sure you have note-taking supplies present.  You will come up with more trash than gold, but one day you may be inspired to take an idea forward.  My best work to date is borne from that mechanism.

Learn to Rewrite

Planners often have less work on the back end of a story.  If you’re just sticking your toe into pantsing, you may have difficulty leaving a sentence un-perfected.  You may have a need or desire to stop and adjust, make your story better while you write rather than put it off to later.  Maybe that works for you, but the closer I work to the speed of speaking, the more likely I am to be satisfied with the character’s actions.

Try altering how much editing you do as you write.  Edit more, edit less, and see if you like what comes out after combing it over.  Of course you will have to edit after the scene is done, but perhaps the act of just writing will help you get through a scene you’d like to pants.

How do you write? Pants or plan? Leave comments below with your own tips, especially if you have some good nuggets!

How to Get the Best out of Beta Readers

Welcome to the second post in a series on beta reading! I love beta reading, especially for science fiction or fantasy, and I believe the practice not only worthwhile but necessary. (If you would like to have me beta read for you, feel free to contact me using the form at the bottom of the page or through the comments.)

You may be gearing up to recruit beta readers – but what should you do when you have volunteers?  These tips are meant to get your noggin rolling and help you craft a good beta reading experience for your friends, family, and other volunteers.

Today’s Tip – Ask Good Questions

While I love beta reading and do detailed analyses for fun, most of your friends and family will be reading as a favor to you.  The easier you make their job, the more likely they will be to complete it.  Sometimes people will put in-line comments that are very helpful, but other times you’ll receive your lovingly crafted file back with one of a couple sentences at the end: “It was good” or “I wasn’t a fan,” some of which is determined by how much they like you as a person.

By placing questions at the end of the chapter, you do a couple things:

1) You direct your reader’s attention to items that you’re concerned over
2) You make it easy for your reader to interact with you by explicitly showing them what you want

Even if you get people like parents to beta read a book, offering questions to answer will help your readers return more useful information with less effort on both of your parts.

What Kind of Questions are GOOD Questions?

A good question is one that asks about specific information yet leaves enough open room for the reader to truly comment on your writing.

I recently had a fantastic beta reading experience, and I asked E. Kathryn, author of Fire’s Hope, if I could talk about it here. I thought her questions were posed very well. She left between five and eight questions at the end of every chapter, referencing events (primarily) in that chapter. If you join the bandwagon soon, you too can beta read for her.

Some examples of good questions inspired by my recent read:

Were the fighting descriptions easy to follow?

This type of question helps the reader consider writing style without seeming too ‘high school English class.’ Fight scenes, especially, have a tendency to focus on weapons, powers, and movement, which can get tedious or confusing to read. This type of question will ensure a scene is up to snuff.

One thing to keep in mind is that the more specific the scene you point out, the more likely the reader is to respond with information you need. Is there dialogue you’re concerned about? A transition of scenes? A sudden occurrence? Ask about those certain places you’re unsure about.  Feel free to point out specific paragraphs, especially if you’re able to put links in your document (as with MS Word).

Do you have predictions about what will happen next?

When your story is plot driven, it is especially important to make sure that the proper elements are set up to build plot twists and, eventually, the climax. E. Kathryn did a good job directing me to think about the trajectory for specific characters or items, and I replied to her with my predictions. If I replied with something completely out of left field, she now has the option to either scale back her surprise factor or ratchet it up.

You want to have a certain amount of your book predictable, but not too much. Keeping up with reader predictions will help you gauge the creativity of your story as well as how well you’ve built plot twists.

Do you think the main character’s angry attitude in the middle of the chapter undermines his role as a “savior” archetype?

This is an excellent question. It makes the reader think symbolically and simultaneously about character growth. I liked how it asked about an opinion on the main character and his ability to seem believable as he carried out the actions necessary to drive the story.

Character growth is essential for most stories, and there may be times where you feel your character’s actions are strained. Think about what you want from your character, and ask if that came across. If it didn’t, you may need to think more critically about who that character actually is or consider changing the scene to get what you wanted across.

What was your favorite/least favorite character/scene/setting element?

This is an easy question to ask, and anyone is capable of picking out a favorite (or defending their reason to avoid doing so). If your goal is to sell your book, you should hope that people do have favorites.

Least favorites, I find, serves more to allow the reader to vent; there’s always going to be something wrong with a story, and it’s often easier to find what’s wrong when you’re going in with a judgmental eye. It would be great if your readers take these questions seriously, because then you might get information about where potential buyers would stop reading prematurely.

How Often to Ask Questions

This is ultimately up to you, but at the end of chapters works well since a reader can answer during breaks. You can also have larger chunks of multiple chapters, perhaps in each of the pieces that you send, with a single set of questions.

One thing to be careful with in your questions is how much you want to spoil in the story. Make sure you read them over and consider if it’s going to give away romantic tension, plot twists, or other information that a reader without the questions wouldn’t have access to.

Good luck with your writing!

Want a good beta reader?

Not to brag, but I’m fairly good at beta reading. I’m confident with grammar, excellent at catching plot holes, and very experienced with science (for you science-fiction writers). Hit me up if you have something you’d like honest feedback on, especially if you have specific (and good) questions!

 

 

 

 

The Number ONE Rule for Beta Reading

Getting beta readers is an important step for your own writing, since a beta reader test-drives your work before publication and is much cheaper than an editor.  Without them, the quality of your work relies on one person’s eyes to catch mistakes and test for the presence of an audience.  A lot of people want beta readers, especially the kind that aren’t friends or relatives and thus don’t have any reason to give back only good, fluffy remarks.  But how do you get this help?

READ for Others

If you want to get beta readers, it is only right and just to beta read for others. There have been times that I’ve read multiple novels for people only to be turned down for the reading of a short story, and this always gets my dog hide.  It’s also, thankfully, very rare!

I have been lucky enough to have a few beta readers for some of my more important (i.e. not on this blog) works, but part of having beta readers was giving back in the form of beta reading for others.  Eventually I’ll want to collect beta readers for something, but that means I need to be working up the karma in the meantime.

Are you looking for a beta reader?  Fill out the form at the bottom of this post.  I’m finishing a beta read now and will be available for a new one come Saturday.

Get Better at Editing

Ever felt like you can’t read your own works well?  Like you can’t catch simple mistakes?  Reading others’ works will help you learn how to find mistakes.

When you write, you read back what you think you wrote rather than what you actually wrote.  When you read someone else’s work with the intent to edit, it’s easy to see what went wrong.  It’s easy to pick apart another person’s story because it’s not your baby.  At the same time, the other author might make the same mistakes you do, or you may identify a type of mistake in their work that you’ll see in your own upon closer inspection.

It’ll also help you figure out what kind of information is useful to you as a writer.  What kind of information would you like to get back?  How detailed does this edit need to be?  What kind of instructions should you give to a beta reader?  All of these questions will be more easily answered once you’ve done it yourself.

Beta Reader Available HERE and NOW

As of Saturday, I will finish the current book I’m beta reading (look for a blog post next week on what I learned during the edit).  Thank you so much, E. Kathryn, for letting me read your novel!

If you would like me to beta read for you, fill out the form below.

Things I’m good at:

  1. Finding plot holes and inconsistencies
  2. Helping make your science more realistic, or at least not completely impossible
  3. Reading with an eye for diversity
  4. Spotting places where you can show rather than tell
  5. I can give you a fair pass at grammar help, especially if it is requested

As always, I will not share your work if you choose to request my assistance.  Looking forward to any new books to read!

 

Digging the Magnum Opus Hole

Writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, seems to be a hard way to make a living. I’ve met few other writers online who are writing full time, and those who do write full time might be considered ‘retired’ as well. That being said, no one writes with the aspiration to continue sitting at their home computer, slugging away at something that has no chance to become a best-seller.

I’ve spent oodles of time frittering away at ‘lesser works’ even though there are other projects that may be better for me to spend my time on. I’ve slaved at a long series that I can look back on that only recently have I found the ability to appreciate the fun I had writing it without depending on it to be ‘the one.’ Coming to this realization, though, was hard and probably far overdue.

When can we know it’s time to put something away? Shelving a story – or a world – and fating it to the dustbin feels like giving up on the dream, but sometimes putting away the greatest work we’ve made so far can remove the millstone that holds us back.

At the same time, no story – no matter how bad – is devoid of value. Perhaps it’s just not meant to be traditionally published. Perhaps it has a following, but one extremely niche and difficult to target. Perhaps, as authors, we are not yet mature enough to write the story as it needs to be written.

What do you do with the works you decide to put away? Feel free to leave responses in the comments below, and perhaps there will be follow up in the future!

How to Write Biology in Science Fiction, Part 1: DNA

I had originally intended to make a single post about evolution in science fiction, but I quickly realized just how much that post was depending on prior knowledge.  I have spent many years studying chemical engineering with a focus on biomolecules, and as such I am fairly well versed in a wide variety of scientific principles.  However, I recognize that this is a writing blog that is intended to appeal to those who, while they may know way more than me about the nuances of English and have probably read more literature than I ever will, might not have had as much time to spend dabbling in the sciences.  I decided to write a series about biology in science fiction that would be useful for a wider variety of writers than just (biologically focused) scientists and engineers.

Because of my occupation, I’ve had to sit through enough lectures, classes, and readings on biology and chemistry that I cringe at bad representations.  As a Christian who grew up in a strictly fundamentalist household, I also understand people’s trepidation with the theory of evolution and gene manipulation.  I hope that in this implementation of the Biology in Science Fiction series, I will be able to spark ideas on how to deal with the potential conflict of interest to write good science fiction while still wrestling with the moral and religious implications.

First, though, let’s deal with what genes are, how modifications work, and what that means in science fiction.

What is DNA?

Crystal structure of DNA.*

DNA is a molecule – a really, really long molecule that’s made up of smaller parts, or groups of atoms called nucleic acids.  These acids stick together to form the now-famous double helical structure, and they do so in a sequence that is specific to the organism it comes from.  This means that your DNA forms a shape that no one else in the world has, a shape that scientists and (if we’re being quite optimistic) crime investigators can figure out.

DNA is present in every cell in your body.  Within this cell, what it does is act as an instruction book to tell them what to do.  Because everyone has slightly different genes, their bodies do slightly different things.  This is why some people are really tall, some are short, some are more naturally athletic, and some are more naturally bookish.  Don’t discount experiences, though!  DNA controls more of your ‘maximum potential’ than it does your actual performance, in most cases, and as such education, practice, and other experiences determine a lot of who a person is.

What has DNA?

Crime shows and the dramatization of DNA as the signature of human individuality have taught many people that humans contain DNA, but there’s a lot of misinformation out there that has led us down some rabbit holes.  I once met someone, and thus believe there are probably a lot more someones, who hadn’t realized that everything living, many things that are dead, and some things that are questionably living** all naturally contain DNA.

DNA isn’t exclusively a human molecule.  Your dog has DNA, your corn has DNA, bacteria have DNA, your kale has DNA – even your coffee beans and tea leaves have DNA somewhere in there.  And, what’s even cooler, is that the DNA has always been there.  Scientists didn’t put DNA in animals and plants.  DNA is an organic molecule and naturally occurs in all living creatures.

You may also remember I said things that are questionably living.  Many viruses contain DNA, and they are in some ways the original DNA modifiers.  Not considered alive because they require a host cell to transmit and copy their own DNA sequences* to their ‘offspring,’ viruses insert their DNA into a host cell and insert their own sequences into the host.  When you feel sick, it’s your body responding to your cells being forced to make more viruses.***

But what about GMO’s and Non-Natural DNA?

GMO’s, or Genetically Modified Organisms, are life forms that have had their DNA modified by humans.  When most people think about GMO’s, they’re thinking about an artificial piece of DNA injected to an organism that will change how it functions.  Artificial DNA is the exact same molecule as the naturally occurring DNA, but the sequence of amino acids is chosen to perform a specific task.  This is how we get plants with genes to make them resistant to pesticides, how we can make apples that are resistant to browning, amidst a lot of other potential benefits.  There are lots of debates over whether these plants (humans haven’t really**** gotten around to GMO animals yet) are safe for human consumption, but unless you’re writing some form of propaganda-esque story, the truth behind that isn’t relevant to this post.

Arctic Apples are a really interesting GMO example in which you can see big results from a tiny change!*****

I’ve manipulated non-natural DNA and put it into a whole bunch of E. coli as well as strains of bacillus, chinese hamster ovary cells, S. cerevisiae (yeast), viruses, and probably other things for briefer stints.  I haven’t done plants yet, but holy moly do I want to operate a gene gun one day (which only works with plants).  I’ve only ever done up to three genes at a time, and the more genes that need to be expressed, the more difficult it is to modify the organism.  It’s also extremely difficult to modify an entire metabolic pathway, or set of actions a cell takes – whatever product you’re trying to make is probably not beneficial to the organism’s reproduction, so there’s always competition between making the cell produce what they want and making the cell keep itself alive.

In order to perform better gene manipulation in humans, a greater understanding of what the thousands of molecules in our bodies do is required.  We only understand a fraction of our genes, and the amount of non-expressed DNA is immense and still not well comprehended.  To have a really tight, scientific approach to gene manipulation in a story, deep understanding of how certain genes and their prescribed proteins act would be really nice.  Even without having the luxury of a known gene with known product and function, appreciation of the molecular actions that translate into larger effects (or phenotypes) is a key part to maintaining scientific accuracy in the modern era.

Humans are a long, long ways off from programming superpowers in someone or something.  Superpowers may be impossible, given that someone capable of superpowers may require more food than would be reasonable.  That being said, cures for genetic ailments such as sickle cell anemia are probably on the horizon – at least for newborns.  If large-scale gene modification using artificially introduced DNA is in your story, it’s probably going to need to take place in the far future.  Even then, the question of what kinds of powers are introduced becomes intriguing, since the bounds of what it means to be human becomes blurred.

One movie I thought did an excellent job concerning near future genetic modification was GATTACA.  It was mostly focused on the ethics of the practice, but it had relatively scientific methods and thinking behind it.  When I think about science fiction that includes good genetic premises and ideas, this is up there as a gold standard.

Modern Examples of Massive Scale Gene Modification

I was surprised when I learned that most people, including you, probably have a great example of the most pervasive form of genetic manipulation living with you in your house.  I’m talking about your dog or cat.

Pictured: genetic disaster.

Humans, long before they even knew about what DNA or the other biological molecules were, figured out that you can breed animals that express certain traits with other animals of the same species to continue focusing in on that trait.  What they were doing, without true comprehension, was making dogs and cats that had certain DNA sequences that told the animal’s cells to perform a specific task – and it’s desperately effective.  This method of DNA modification has massively increased our crop output, been responsible for the shape of modern chickens, and brought us monstrosities such as… well, specific dog breeds that I shouldn’t mention lest I get an army coming after me (*cough* pugs *cough*).

Eugenics as a method of genetic modification would probably work.  It’s frightening, ethically unsound, and questionably effective given the amount of time required between human generations (and, thus, changing societal goals could alter the implementation), but the concept is actually… scientifically sound.  A book that wants to show the horrors of gene modification need not have even a single piece of scientist-made DNA.

Some Notes From Throughout

*Molecular graphics and analyses were performed with the UCSF Chimera package. Chimera is developed by the Resource for Biocomputing, Visualization, and Informatics at the University of California, San Francisco (supported by NIGMS P41-GM103311). The crystal structure provided is B-form DNA, PDB file 1BNA.  To learn more about Chimera, which is my favorite crystal structure viewing and image export program, you can go to the Chimera homepage or read some scientific papers about it.

**Some viruses don’t contain DNA!  Instead, these viruses will contain RNA, a similar molecule that has different functionalities.

***The immune response is amazing.  We even use our own immune molecules as medicines.

****There are CRISPR modified animals in existence, but as of this writing they are mosaics – not all of their cells contain the modification.  As well, these organisms have not had targeted gene manipulation with specific results.  There are knockout strains of mice out there, which means strains of mice that do not express a particular gene or do not have it, as well as mice with modified immune systems and expression of human genes, but these are expensive and almost entirely for scientific purposes.

*****Image was taken from the Arctic Apples information page.  These apples do not readily brown because they do not contain the enzyme that helps browning occur.  In principle, keeping apples crisp and fresh helps reduce the need for preservatives in pre-sliced apple products.  I suggest looking at their page here.

Think Before You Thesaurus

The thesaurus is our friend. With a bit of poor application, though, it can cause unexpected pain.

So how do we avoid these grievous mistakes?

Don’t Use Words You Don’t Know

The reason this works is simple: if you only use words you know, you’re much more likely to use them correctly. Like Vizzini in the clip above, we all have words that we think we know and actually don’t, but those are much fewer than the horde of nonsense you find in a thesaurus. Using a simple word correctly communicates far more information than a complex word incorrectly.

Another reason to use only words you know is that your readers are more likely to understand them. If your word is perfect, large, and exciting, but no one who reads your story knows it without looking it up, it still doesn’t communicate your idea well.  People who read and write often are more likely to have a larger vocabulary, meaning that they (or you!) likely have a vocabulary that eclispses the average person’s.

Hall, in his 1991 article “Toward a Meaningful Definition of Vocabulary Size” in the Journal of Reading Behavior, estimates the average, native English speaking college student has a vocabulary of 17,000 words, but allows that some people have a larger vocabulary and others have smaller.*  When writing a book with intent to sell, as well, you may be marketing towards a younger audience with a smaller vocabulary, or perhaps an audience educated in a different way (i.e. people who speak English as a second language, scientists and engineers rather than linguists and English majors).  There are definitely large discrepancies between what types of words people know.  For instance, students in the sciences learn a different set of jargon than a student in the humanities.  Both are likely similar in scope and usefulness, but it presents difficulties for people wishing to bridge that gap.  As everyone in every writing class I’ve taken likes to say, write toward an audience, and if the audience is broad like it would be for most speculative fiction (let’s be real, that’s what this little site is about), write as simply and succinctly as your ideas allow.

So, if you don’t know a word, other people probably don’t either. Consider strongly whether or not to use it and, if you decide it’s necessary, look for the word used in context before you commit.

Stay Away From the Unnecessarily Arcane

English is an ever-evolving language because it is very much alive, and words fall out of use or come into use all the time. Though your goal may be to write a timeless piece that withstands the test of the ages, your words will inevitably fall out of favor eventually and people will have to hire scholars to translate English from your time. Communicate in as effective a manner as possible with what you have in the now, stepping into the arcane and difficult only when it adds something major to the story.

Adding tone to a narrator or character meant to seem like they’re from the past is likely the most common reason to use arcane words.  Be careful, though – this can be taken too far.  Often, the words ‘thee,’ ‘thy,’ and others of that ilk are used to make writings seem ancient or religious in tone, but they can get annoying and difficult to weed through if too prevalent.  Since we (except for people from certain regions of England) no longer speak this way natively, it can also be easy to use these words incorrectly anyway.

Using old words in a similar manner to created words with special definitions or connections to the world can be effective.  One has to be careful not to butcher these words or use them in a manner wholly different from the original meaning, but otherwise this can add depth to a story.

Accuracy vs. Precision

The engineer in me is going to come out now. The above words don’t have the same meanings in every field, so you may know a different set of definitions than what I am going to describe.

Accuracy measures how close a measurement comes to the targeted value. In our case right now, a word is accurate if it means exactly what you want it to mean. Precision, however, is a measure of how close together several measurements come to each other regardless of how close they are to the target. A precise group of words can dance around a targeted meaning but never exactly overlap with what you want.

When using the thesaurus, remember that there are plenty of words that are precise and mean very similar things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean accuracy. Use the thesaurus to gain accuracy by finding exactly the right word, and use the precision of the thesaurus to vary your vocabulary enough that your sentences don’t become boring. Don’t look in a thesaurus for an accurate word in efforts to make a sentence sound fancier just to settle for a precise word that is confusing or, worse, wrong.

I hope you enjoyed this installation – stay tuned for more writing resources, or look at my Writing Resources page for other hints and tips.

*Almost all counts of vocabulary size are skewed, due especially because of the definition of a word.  It is also skewed because the test must necessarily be sample based rather than have people list out the entirety of their word knowledge.  In addition, a more recent study would likely have a more updated number.