Dear scientists: please stop ruining science fiction

There is an aspect to science fiction some members of the scientific world seem to have forgotten about: most often, science fiction is speculative fiction. That is, it is not always a story about what is, or even what we imagine could be, but rather a story about what might happen if something was.

I know that last idea is hard for some because science fiction, unfortunately, came to have science in the name. Depending on who you ask, that name came about because its writers wanted to define their fiction as describing a universe bounded by physical laws and to differentiate it from fantasy. Certainly all along, the lines between sci-fi and fantasy have blurred, but I’m not even really talking about those works. Yes, there is even hard science fiction wherein authors chose to constrain themselves within the boundaries of what we believe to be true, and that’s fine.

However, the fact remains that the great body of what comes to be called science fiction isn’t really about science at all. Instead, it’s about imagining a world similar to our own where different rules now apply because we’ve discovered new ones. It’s possible that those rules may be implausible based on our current understanding of science, but that fact does not represent a detraction from the ideas being explored in the work.

Moreover, the demand that science fiction adhere to our current understanding of science undermines one of science fiction’s most powerful benefits: its ability to fire the imagination to see beyond the constraints of what be believe to be the rules to discover rules we did not understand existed before that moment.

To me, the benefit of science fiction’s ability to speculate isn’t to engender a, “That’s not possible,” response so much as it is to bring out, “But what if it is?”

I understand, for scientists who trade in the currency of what we believe to be true now, that kind of speculation can seem counter productive. But for society as a whole, it’s part of the fuel that drives the engine of imagination, innovation, and advancement. Let’s stop putting a limit on what might be possible in works of fiction so that we can find out if those ideas might be possible in fact.


Pondering NaNoWriMo 2015 and the act of writing at all

I know it’s a while until November, but experience says it’s never really too early for one to get ready for National Novel Writing Month. For those who might have missed it, NaNoWriMo is an event put on by the Office of Letters and Light that encourages people to write 50,000 words in 30 days in an effort to encourage people to write. It’s a lot more difficult than it might sound, it turns out.

I’ve attempted NaNoWriMo six times starting in 2007 and achieved the 50k word goal in 2010. In fact, achieving that goal in 2010 reinforced for me something I’ve come to realize and have tried to avoid since I started taking writing classes in 2006: I’m not a novelist.

Instead, what I have discovered is that I am a short storiest. A really short storiest. In fact, I’ve found my comfort zone lies at around 2500 words, and writing 10k works feels like trying to move the earth. Why does that matter? Because if one wants to succeed as a writer, the best way to do so is to write to one’s strengths.

Of course, success in writing is relative. Another thing I’ve realized along the way is that my long-time dream of being a successful, published writer is probably just that: a dream. Some might find that sad, but what I’ve realized along the way is that I write because I have to get this stuff out of my head. If someone else likes it, I’m glad, but I like not having these ideas slowly drive me insane even more.

So, what does that mean for NaNoWriMo 2015? Basically, cheating. My plan is to write a thematic anthology of stories, more or less 30 stories in 30 days all centered around a single topic. For me, it’s the best of both worlds: I try to write 50k words in 30 days, but I do it by writing 2700ish word short stories everyday for 30 days.

I’m looking forward to the challenge. And to the relief. More will follow…


NaNoWriMo Preview: Finding the story

One of the questions people who don’t write yet tend to ask people who are already writing is, “Where do you get your ideas?”

Frankly, there is no answer to that question because the process is different for every writer and, at least for me, different for every idea.¬†While I can’t answer that question directly, I can answer it tangentially, and partly by issuing a challenge.

I think one of the things that differentiates people who write from people who don’t is a specific kind of world view. People who write, in my experience, tend to pay a lot of attention to what is going on in the world around them and tend to be–this is even true with fiction writers–realists and pragmatists. I think the source of a lot of writers’ ideas tend to be events happening around them changed through the filter of their own creativity.

Writers tend to achieve this state of realism and pragmatism by being deeply connected to the events of history and of their own times. Writers tend to be the most voracious readers, tend to be deeply involved in politics of one sort or another, and tend to be willing to learn just about anything that happens to come along. In my experience, it is not unusual to find writers who are also engaged in a dozen other pursuits unrelated to writing.

This connectedness serves as the engine for creativity, constantly exposing the writer to new thoughts, new ideas, and new ways of doing things. Inevitably, these new things will periodically create an idea strong enough that it becomes the basis for something the writer will write, mostly because that’s what writers tend to do with such ideas.

So, if you want to find your own ideas, the first step is to get connected. I probably spend 3 t0 4 hours everyday just reading through my regular cycle of weblogs, news sources, and social media connections, and that does not include the books I am reading. Because of the amazing tool of social media, I conduct dozens of conversations a day about things that catch my attention.

I’m guessing, because I’ve never really kept track, that this behavior is good for at least a couple of new ideas a week. Now, most of those ideas die young due to disinterest or lack of follow-through, but I probably commit at least 3 or 4 ¬†ideas to some more formal status every month. That’s 36 to 48 ideas a year. Of course, most of those ideas won’t go much further, but a few of them will, and those few ideas that do move forward is what writing is all about.

For a new writer, I recommend carrying a notebook around. Granted, you can use a smartphone or a tablet, but I find that writing ideas by hand adds an extra level of intimacy for new writers that helps them see how their ideas come into being and how they can develop them. Down the road, every writer develops different styles for developing ideas, but everyone has to start somewhere, and the notebook works for a lot of people.

Once a new writer has some ideas captured, he has to think about them. By thinking about them, I mean actively mulling them over in his head kind of thinking. I find that this idea of active thinking is one of the hardest things for most modern people to comprehend and achieve. Most people don’t actively think about things. They feel. They react. They don’t think. If you want to write, you have to learn to think, actively and intensively and extensively. I have sometimes been accused of being lazy or distracted, and I can assure you that what I was doing during those times was thinking.

Finally, once a new writer has developed an idea by thinking about it, he has to act on it, but that action does not have to be good. I can assure you that most of my idea development is crap, but within that crap are the gems from which good stories will come. Frankly, if a writer never puts out the crap, he never gets the gems either.

So, at the end of all of it, I guess ideas come from life and being connected to it. From there, ideas are what the writer does with them.