Carl Sagan: Cool to be Smart

I know I’m dating myself, but modern day television is an absolute wasteland compared to the elevated discussion happening on a show like Johnny Carson back in the seventies. Young’uns wouldn’t know this, but there was a time when it was cool to be smart, thoughtful, and fact-based when it comes to science and science fiction. Take this 15-minute clip of Johnny and Carl Sagan, talking about the science of Star Wars and pivoting to the realities of FTL travel:

I love everything about how Sagan breaks down the science of Star Wars without losing focus on the fact that Star Wars is cool. He uses the interest to pivot over to what the discovery of extraterrestrial life might be like, and you can see the basis for his novel ‘Contact’ in some of the ideas he articulates.

No major takeaways from this blog post, only that we can be smart when we want to. My hope is that we will choose to be smart over the next few years, if only for our own sake.




You Don’t Have to Be Perfect at Everything

You Don't Have to Be Perfect at Everything

Let’s take a moment to appreciate this drawing of somebody … Indiana Jones. Doesn’t look like much, does it? In fact, it looks like something a bored twelve-year-old would draw in fourth period English class. But the signature proves otherwise, and makes an important point to every creative out there. Steven Spielberg drew this picture in 1980 when he first envisioned who Indiana Jones was supposed to be. This picture proves that you don’t have to be perfect at everything to be good at what you do.

Tons of funny comments erupted on Reddit. ‘Was Spielberg nine when he made Indiana Jones?’ Others discussed the origin of Jones’ look from Charlton Heston in the Secret of the Incas.

None of that really matters. What matters here is that Steven Spielberg, although a brilliant director and storyteller, doesn’t have much in the art department. And that is perfectly okay. By the time he drew this picture, he’d made millions of dollars, redefined filmmaking, redefined culture. Yet, for all that success he’s still a person, just as flawed as anyone else.

If he were less confident in himself, Spielberg could have been sidetracked. Go to art school, get better at drawing. He didn’t do that, he let the artists handle the concept art while he made the film. That’s important. That is critical. Spielberg didn’t let his flaws define him, he stayed focused on what he actually is good at. His success changed the world.

For the rest of us, this serves as an important reminder to be okay with our flaws. There’s nothing that says you have to be perfect at everything, even though social media suggests otherwise. One day, this nonsense will pass and we’ll swing back to the point where authenticity and humanity matter again. We’ve already started in that direction, so we want to be ready when it happens.

Why Authors Have Nothing to Fear from ‘AI Fiction’

Why Authors Have Nothing to Fear from 'AI Fiction'So as an author who writes about Scifi and AI, you might be wondering – what do I think of AI-written stories? You see news articles about them from time to time, and for right now they’re more of a vehicle for humor than anything else. What about the future? You’ll be glad to know that authors have nothing to fear from AI fiction.

To understand why this is true, you must answer the question: Why do people make art? What’s art’s purpose in life? From a pure survival standpoint, art means little or nothing at all. You can’t eat it. You can’t spend it. Art’s intrinsic value is subjective, and based ultimately upon whatever collective value the group is willing to put on it. So what is art’s purpose?

‘Art,’ as the saying goes, ‘communicates what words cannot.’ The human exploration of ‘political, spiritual or philosophical ideas, the creation of beauty, the exploration of the nature of perception,’ are all human goals with very little practical value but have a tremendous impact on our minds and hearts.

It’s more than that: The valuation of a particular work of art or creativity cannot be completely quantified on a rational basis. That ability to speak to those unspoken ideas and concepts, to capture that lightning in a bottle, cannot be commoditized. You can’t do any of those things unless you’re ready to, or need to, do one simple thing: relate.

That’s right. Humans use art to relate to each other, and we aren’t ready to delegate that function to a robot. At least, not yet. We – non-sociopathic human beings, that is – want to relate to each other. We want to be related with. We measure our value against each other, using intrinsic, unspoken value systems that refuse the level of control necessary for an artificial intelligence to understand.

So while artificial intelligence can tell a story, while a robot can play a musical instrument, nobody’s offering a book or album from AI right now. First, AI’s must learn to relate to humanity. Until then, that seems to be our job.


Mesh and the Big Book Deal Adventure – Part One

Mesh and the Big Book Deal Adventure - Part OneNovelists sometimes say that a novel is really two stories – the story itself, and the story about how it got to the market. I’m starting to see the truth of that statement, after this week’s events. Rather than becoming bitter, I’m choosing to see all of this as part of being a writer. Therefore, I’ll tell you about it in the form of Mesh’s Big Book Deal Adventure going forward.

So once upon a time, there was a writer named Jackson who wrote a book. It was called ‘Mesh,’ and he wanted it to be a traditionally published novel, instead of self-publishing it. That meant querying agents. Lots and lots and lots of agents. He sent out query letters for a long, long time.

After many re-writes of Mesh, he started to get responses from agents that weren’t rejections. Some liked the idea of Roman, Zeke, and the rest of the Snow Foxes. But while they were interested, other things in the world were happening.

“Thank you so much for submitting MESH,” the agent assistant said. “I had sent out the partial report … and immediately fell in love with your MS … I’m in the process of looking for another agency so keep an eye out and maybe in the future I’ll have the opportunity to read your full manuscript.”

“Oh wow,” Jackson replied. “She had to find another job? I wonder what-” his eyes fell across a news update about literary agencies closing down. Someone’s ill-formed social media post set off a firestorm of controversy and in the aftermath, the entire agency staff had been terminated. Now, instead of finding an agent to represent Mesh, the book agents were finding new jobs. Bother, and bother again.

Well, Jackson thought. It could have been worse. I could have signed with this agent, been mid-flight in getting a publishing deal only for Mesh to break apart like the Challenger. 

Additionally, the fact than an industry contact ‘loves’ Mesh means that someone else can fall in love with it, too. Like so many other hurdles in life, sometimes the only solution is to press on.

And then Jackson sat down, and began sending out more query letters.

So that’s chapter one of Mesh – the Big Book Deal Adventure. I hope you enjoyed it, we’ll see how many other chapters are written in this saga of daring experience!

Wanna Be a Modern Author? Read Modern Fiction

Wanna Be a Modern Author? Read Modern Fiction

I apologize in advance, I usually like to cite my sources. Today’s post is about the writing craft; how and why modern authors need to read modern fiction. This originally came up several  months ago in a number of Twitter threads and for the life of me, I cannot find them. However, the main point is this: if you wanna be a modern author, you must read modern fiction.

Let’s discuss why: most of my favorite novels are from the last century. To Kill a Mockingbird, The Caine Mutiny, Neuromancer, selected short stories by Elmore Leonard. I’ll re-read them about once a year because they’re literary comfort food and I enjoy them.

What does that do to you as a writer, though? Just like literal comfort food, the literary version can be unhealthy for your writing and ultimately work against you. I learned this the hard way while drafting Mesh, causing a lot of re-writes.

I’ll give you one example. Re-reading a book after finishing my last draft of Mesh, I found myself editing the prose of the novel the way I had just edited Mesh. Over and over again, I saw the author overusing words like ‘was’ and ‘were’ in many scenes. “Their burns were swathed in thick yellow-stained bandages. There were men with gashes from the exploded ammunition, and one sailor with a crushed foot, swelled to twice its normal size and mottled green. Chief Budge was one of the burned ones.”

Hullo, I realized. He’s overusing those words … I’m doing the same thing! Unconsciously, I had been imitating that same style choice as I wrote Mesh. I did a quick text count – those two words show up about 3,000 times in that entire novel. I’m embarrassed to admit that previous drafts leaned on that style choice more often than it should.

So yes, when reading you find yourself absorbing and consuming not only the story but the writing styles. The result? While you wouldn’t do anything as crass as plagiarizing the material, you do find yourself imitating style choices if you aren’t careful.

That’s when I remembered what other authors had been saying on Twitter. If you’re writing modern fiction, you have to read modern fiction. I didn’t understand what they were saying before, but I do now. Over the past century, writers have found new ways to efficiently communicate ideas and concepts. You’re doing a disservice to yourself if you don’t benefit from their discoveries, learn from their mistakes.

So to sum up this post, read modern fiction. Costs you nothing but time, all the books you’ll need to write in your particular genre are available at the library (or at least they will be, when Coronavirus has passed). I hope you find this piece of advice useful. Now it’s time to get back to work.


Movies In My Head

Movies In My Head

It’s a cloudy morning in Eugene and relatively quiet. Let’s grab a cup of something hot to drink and talk about something interesting and writer-related. Today, I’m going to talk about the movies in my head.

Actual movies? No. But they might as well be. Authors are a class of creature unto themselves. One common trait I’ve noted after some basic research (Talking to other authors, when I feel up to it) is this: our imagination is not only over-active, it’s a beast we need to learn to live with in order to maintain our own personal stability.

Creators have messy minds. Our imaginations need a place to live and breathe, and regular exercise. Left alone, our imaginations become unwieldy and chaotic. At first, it’s like having dirty gym clothes in a locker. Inconvenient, but something you can ignore. But then your imagination gets frustrated. Like a lonely dog chained up in a yard, it grows bored, lonely, and depressed.

My head, and perhaps yours as well, is an ocean of wishes, hopes, dreams, ideas, fears, and regrets. You can’t control an ocean, but you can sail upon it. Ask any sailor: navigating the sea requires careful, constant attention. My imagination is a healthy coping mechanism for my stress, and it gives me dreams that I call ‘movies in my head.’ I’ll tell you a little about the ones I had last night, as an example:

Movie 1 – Zombie-like aliens invaded my neighborhood, forcing me to hole up in the bedroom of someone else’s house for safety. As they loot or scavenge, I play a silent cat-and-mouse game, staying out of sight, keeping doors locked. All I can do is hide, because if they come for me, I am lost.

Movie 2Two football firms converge in a polluted, waist-deep canal for a hand-to-hand battle.  Ferry boats filled with other game day fans cheer them on but for me, I’m fascinated, yet horrified. This isn’t just a fist-fight, some bring broken pieces of wood with nails or staples visible. Another brings a shotgun, but is quickly disarmed. Why would grown men brawl in a sewer, wounding and smashing each other over a football game? The dream ends before anyone answers my question.

So yeah, two dreams. I try to make sense of them but other times I just sit back and watch the show. I’m sure they mean something to my subconscious, but I’m not up for self-psychotherapy today. My point in telling you all of this is to say, it’s okay to have movies in your head. It’s not okay for people to tell you to keep it chained up in a yard. Frustration becomes self-destructive. On a long-enough timeline, your imagination will grow aggressive and if allowed to escape, it may not come back.

Sorry, no Sci-Friday this week …

Don’t take this the wrong way, I’m not trying to make current events about me. I’m just not up for posting anything. Between the protests, the virus, and everything else that’s going wrong, my heart just isn’t in it.

Yesterday was June 4th and I should have been all over the latest #PitMad broadcast but … I dunno, I just couldn’t. People are suffering, dying. I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of going ‘Hey – look at my book!’ with everything that’s happening right now.

And that’s not to say I’m going to start talking about George Floyd or Coronavirus, either. I’m not going to pretend that I have more to say about this than others, and I’m not going to pretend that my voice is more meaningful than theirs.

So if you’re feeling the emotional weight of this moment, if you feel like that weight is overwhelming, know that you aren’t alone. Stuff gets to me, too.

I have other things to talk about, I’ll get to them after I take a mental breather. I hope you’re safe, and your family is safe. Let’s pick this up next week.


It’s Called ‘Empathy,’ Stupid

Like you, I’m overwhelmed by the madness of current events. This is a different time, an angrier time. A time of wrath. A time of madness. A world where people stupid themselves to death. A world where innocence and humanity wash away in the inexorable tide of cruelty. Over and over, one word echoes into the darkness, one single word missing from all of this chaos: empathy.

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. As human beings, we gravitate to those who show us empathy. We respond to those who relate to us. Sadly, we live in a time where empathy is a commodity, a sign of weakness.

In fact, when you think about modern civilization it’s clear our culture thinks that the strongest person in room is the one who cares the least.. Our culture values those who demand that everyone relate to them while relating to no one but themselves. ‘I’m the center of the universe,’ they say. ‘You revolve around *me.*’ Our culture takes its cue from that toxic mindset and says ‘okay, well since I want to be strong this is what I gotta do.’

Our culture thinks that the strongest person in room is the one who cares the least.

I can cite a hundred examples of what I mean based on the news this week, but next week you won’t remember them. We seem to be trapped on a treadmill of loathing and animus, and I’m not sure where this lunacy will end. So I’m not going to discuss in detail what is already known and lost. The world is not showing empathy, and it’s apathy seems to beget more apathy.

Nobody is perfect. Even professional facilitators recognize their own weaknesses when it comes to fostering environments of reciprocal empathy. Our disruptive age challenges cultural norms of what empathy is, and what it isn’t and it’s created confusion.

For guys in particular, there are experts who say ‘men are experiencing a clear tension point between the expectation for them to be empathetic and emotionally connected spouses and fathers, to the equally strong expectation for them to be manly providers for their families … this tension seems to be at breaking point; men just don’t seem to know who or what they are supposed to be in 2018 and beyond.’

So yes, showing empathy is hard, but it’s a vital part of humanity. Horrible things happen when we let greed and apathy run the world. When Charlie Chaplin talked about the ‘passing of greed’ in The Great Dictator, he did not know the world was staring down the barrel at the Second World War. He talked about being victims of a system that makes men torture, but we live now in that system and it’s of our own design. There’s no mistaking that our world has become vicious and repulsive.

It’s difficult to show empathy to cruel people. The only advice I can offer is ‘learn to deal with them.’ Don’t take what they say personally. Don’t try to make them understand. Distance yourself from them, and their influence. Cultivate and nurture relationships with people who deserve your trust and your compassion. Recognize that you are valuable, no matter what other people think, say, or do.

We can’t save everyone. We can’t fix everyone. A college professor once said: “You all have a little bit of ‘I want to save the world’ in you, that’s why you’re here, in college. I want you to know that it’s okay if you only save one person, and it’s okay if that person is you.” Even if the light inside of you is small, let it shine! It will help others find you in the dark.

Write on!





Great Moments in Bad Storytelling: Man from Earth

Muggy, cloudy Memorial Day here in Eugene. I’m drilling through my Amazon Prime account and decided it was time to check out the best movie you’ve never heard of: Man From Earth. I got about three-fourths of the way through and realized it was time for another great moment in bad storytelling.

I really wanted to like Man from Earth (MfE), I really did. This story comes to us with pedigree. It was written by Jerome Bixby, famous for writing the short story ‘It’s a Good Life,’ later becoming the famous Twilight Zone episode. He wrote episodes of Star Trek and co-wrote Fantasic Voyage.  MfE was filmed on the movie-famous ‘Agua Dulce Movie Ranch‘ and you can see many familiar rock formations in the background.

But for all its pluses, the minuses are too big to ignore. No disrespect intended, and I know I’m not in the best person to judge. Yes, it’s an indie movie with indie movie budget and production values and yes, the soundtrack is distracting. Those are forgivable sins – indie movies get a pass for that. What makes MfE ‘the little movie that could’ should have been the story and that’s where our discussion takes place.

MfE’s plot focuses on “John Oldman”, a departing university professor, who claims to be a Cro-Magnon (or Magdalenian caveman) who has secretly survived for more than 14,000 years. The entire film is set in and around Oldman’s house during his farewell party and is composed almost entirely of dialogue. The plot advances through intellectual arguments between Oldman and his fellow faculty members.

At first glance, the story seems like the perfect blend of minimal scifi sorely lacking in the mainstream. Sadly, it’s greatest flaw is that MfE doesn’t blend at all. It’s structurally correct, but has the organic feel of a Brutalist apartment block. Dialogue only seems to exist to give the protagonist something to react to, and when he does his delivery doesn’t have the depth-less impact you’d expect from a timeless character.

So I’m a little bummed. I had high hopes for MfE just like I do for any indie scifi project. As I said at the outset, I’m not necessarily qualified to judge. Bixby finished the story on his deathbed and if you can go out with your boots on well then, my hat is off to you. I think it’s important to understand what I can learn from Man from Earth so that I can improve the craft of my storytelling.

Writers: Stop What You’re Doing and Read This Right Now

Someone tipped me off to this brilliant essay by Charlie Jane Anders, a chapter in a larger book about being a writer. There are so many good points in here that I knew immediately I should talk about it. If you’re interested in being a writer, there’s a good reason to stop what you’re doing and read this chapter right now:

Nobody is ever going to come along with a magic wand and say “You’re a real writer now.” There are a million different definitions of writing success out there, and almost everyone feels like a failure sometimes. (Constantly, in my case.)

And we’re not really competing with other writers. The first thing people do when they finish reading a book they enjoyed is search for more books like that one. Your biggest competition is always the dreaded “reading slump,” when people just fall out of the habit of reading because they haven’t found the right book for them lately. Anything, or anyone, who gets people reading more is good for all of us.

Nevertheless, imposter syndrome is everywhere, and everyone has their own supposedly ironclad rules for writing—and if you let this stuff get you down, you’ll find it harder to write. And you definitely won’t be able to use writing to find liberation, or to see a better future, if you’re worrying about whether you’re “allowed” to do this, or whether your work matters.

Her chapter is filled with tons of glorious emotional validation. If you’re sitting at a keyboard, wondering if you have what it takes, this chapter is for you.

Imposter Syndrome Is Just Part of Being a Writer