Tag Archives: writing

A scientific defense of science fiction

One day when I was growing up, over dinner at a friend’s house, his parents told me they’d read some of the stories I wrote for fun. They thought I had real talent. I might even be a published author someday — if only I would stop wasting my time with all those spaceships and aliens.

I know it was meant as helpful advice but still, I was caught unprepared. I had never before considered time spent reading or writing the stories I loved to be a waste of time. I had certainly never considered my favorite genre to be inherently inferior to “more serious books.” And I absolutely rejected the implication that books on speculative topics couldn’t be as well crafted as any others.

Heinlein, Clark, Asimov, L’Engle, Wells, Norton, Bradbury, and Verne were just a few of the luminaries who happened to not be sitting at the dinner table with us that night, so it was up to me alone to defend the honor and integrity of science fiction. But I was twelve or thirteen at the time, and just mumbled something into my spaghetti.

My favorite defense these days is to imagine that we have a time machine that we can use to visit the somewhat distant past, after the invention of fire but before wheels, airplanes, and smartphones.

When our Neolithic ancestors weren’t searching for food, fighting the elements, or fending off predators, they spent their free time asking questions about the world around them.

Question: How old is the world?

Our Neolithic ancestors could ask around, but not even the oldest of the tribal elders could remember back to the start of the world.

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: What is the world made of?

Our Neolithic ancestors could break chunks of stuff into tiny specks of stuff, but there was no telling what those specks were made of.

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: How far up does the sky go?

Our Neolithic ancestors could throw a rock upward from a hilltop or tall tree without hitting anything, or estimate the height of a soaring bird, so at least a little higher than that.

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: Why do things fall?

Our Neolithic ancestors could observe that things always fall downward when you drop them. Except when you catch and release a bug. So what do the bugs know that people don’t?

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: Where did all the animals and plants come from?

Our Neolithic ancestors were familiar with the wide variety of forms that life takes on Earth. Some forms were similar to others—were they designed that way? If so, by whom? Was the creation of life an ongoing process, with new kinds of plants and animals still sometimes popping into existence? There were no answers.

Answer: Nobody knows.

Imagine how frustrating it must have been for our Neolithic ancestors to have so many fundamental questions about the world and so few definitive answers.

To fill the gaps, ancient peoples made up stories that were speculative but plausible, given the best-available contemporary understanding of science. Or to put it another way, every ancient culture on Earth independently developed the genre of science fiction.

These early sci-fi stories were told them around the communal fires and passed them down across the generations. They inspired the process of imagination, speculation, and experimentation that helped advance civilization forward to modern times.

Those stories presaged and created the modern world. So let’s look at those questions again, this time with all the collected knowledge of the Internet Age.

Question: How old is the world?

We now know that modern humans have been around for 200,000 years on a planet that’s 4.5 billion years old in a universe that’s 13.8 billion years removed from the Big Bang—but what happened before that? One leading scientific theory is that there was an era of cosmic expansion that took place before the Big Bang, but how far back in time does that go? And what, if anything, came before cosmic inflation?

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: What is the world made of?

We now know that all objects in our world are made of atoms that appear on the periodic table of elements, that those atoms are made of electrons that orbit a nucleus of neutrons and protons, and that those particles are made from quarks and other elementary particles. But can quarks break down even further? Are there additional elementary particles we haven’t found yet? What is the nature of the dark matter that makes up most of the matter in the universe? What is the nature of dark energy that makes up more of the universe’s energy balance than all the dark matter and baryonic matter combined?

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: How far up does the sky go?

We now know how far Earth’s atmosphere extends and the distances to the moon, sun, planets, and all the stars that we can see. We know that the observable universe extends 46.5 billion light years in every direction. But what lies beyond that? Does it go on forever? Does it wrap back on itself like the screens of an old arcade game? Do all parts of the universe have the same physical constants?

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: Why do things fall?

Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity explains a lot. Albert Einstein’s theory explains more, including the gravity waves that were only just confirmed in February, 2016. But is there a theory that explains everything we observe about gravity? Is there a particle that carries gravitational energy the way photons carry light? Is there a reason why gravity is so much weaker than the other fundamental forces?

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: Where did all the animals and plants come from?

We now know about genes encoded in DNA, and that all the species we see evolved over billions of years from the same one-celled ancestor, but where did that first ancestor come from? How does non-life first become life? Were the elements of life seeded from space or did they arise entirely on Earth? How rare or how common is the development of life on other worlds in our galaxy and across the universe? Did life ever exist on Mars, or does it now exist elsewhere in our own solar system?

Answer: Nobody knows.

For all the progress we’ve made, we still can’t definitively answer any of these fundamental questions about the nature of our universe. We still have gaps to fill with stories that we now tell, now in books and new media, but still meant to be passed down across the generations.

Speculative fiction is still needed as much as ever to inspire the process of imagination, speculation, and experimentation that will take us forward to the next level of knowledge.

And that is why I’m still wasting my time with all those spaceships and aliens.

Greg R. Fishbone is the author of the Galaxy Games series of sporty science fiction from Tu Books and Spellbound River Press. This article first appeared on the From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors group blog in June, 2016.

10 Ways Writing a Middle-Grade Book is like ZUMBA®

I recently earned my Zumba Instructor certification and it occurred to me that writing middle-grade books has a lot in common with Zumba.

1.You’re never too old

I never understood why adults think that middle-grade books are beneath them. (Have you ever had anyone ask you when you are going to write a real book?) As for Zumba, you can work at whatever intensity you want. Don’t want to do that jumping move? Don’t. Just step instead. There are Zumba Gold classes especially for those with limited mobility, but if you can put one foot in front of the other, then you can do a regular Zumba class. As for teaching Zumba, suffice it to say that I have both a Zumba Instructor Certification and an AARP card.

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2.You can do it in the pool

There are Aqua  Zumba classes for those who enjoy that kind of thing. It’s especially easy on the joints. I don’t care for them, at least in an indoor pool, because the music echoes so much. As for writing, I do some of my best writing while swimming laps. I don’t bring a computer or notebook into the pool with me, but the meditative action of lap swimming can sometimes help me work out sticky plot points.

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3. Music helps

The Latin and International music is one of the major appeals of Zumba, at least for me. I often need music to write, and coincidentally, it is often International music, because the lyrics are not in English. English lyrics seem to short circuit the neural writing pathways. (Even though I understand French, those lyrics don’t bother me, because I’m writing in English. I haven’t tried the converse experiment—writing in French while listening to English lyrics.)

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(photo credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

4. Earplugs help, too

Several people I know use earplugs in Zumba classes, especially with some of the younger, more enthusiastic instructors. They like to crank the tunes. Some writers work better when it’s quiet. I know I resorted to earplugs when they tore up my street last summer.

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5.Working together has benefits

Some authors have writing retreats together, and the peer pressure to be writing while your fellow retreaters are writing can increase productivity. Some writers connect online and hold each other accountable. Word sprints are an online productivity tool. You each commit to writing without stopping for a set amount of time, say fifteen minutes, then you report your word count. Sure, you can lie about it, but you don’t. As for Zumba, research has shown that dancing in unison can have health benefits above and beyond simple exercise. Even more benefits than dancing independently to the same music.

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6. You can learn from each other

That’s what critique groups are for. That’s why you go to writers’ conferences. That’s why you read a lot. It’s how you figure out what works for you. Same with Zumba. You go to different classes with different instructors. You watch the choreography videos. To get ideas. To see how other people interpret the same music. That person next to you in class adds a turn or a flourish of the arms to the same step you are all doing. Hmm. What if…?

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7. A marathon session can be painful

The Zumba Instructor Training went from 7:30am to 4:00pm. It started with an hour-long master class, and although we didn’t dance the entire time, there were multiple sessions of learning the steps and variations, warm-ups and cool-downs, and practice putting together choreography. I learned that Zumba uses just about every muscle, because just about every muscle was sore for days. A marathon writing session can also leave me pretzel-like, because I find myself in the vulture position when I am really concentrating.

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8. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

We learn in elementary school language arts class that a story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. In Zumba, we start with a warmup, to ease the body into the class, get the blood moving, and increase the heart rate. Then at the end, a cool down gradually decreases the heart rate, and stretching helps reduce muscle pain later on.

9. The middle is the hardest part.

In a Zumba class, the most strenuous, fastest songs fall between the warmup and the cool down. Authors refer to the “dreaded middle,” “sagging middle,” “middle muddle,” “sticky, icky middle,” and so on. You know where the book starts, and how you want it to end. The trick is to get your reader to the end without getting bored.

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10. There’s a supportive community

The children’s writing community is one of the most supportive groups I know. Whether it’s a hug at a conference, an email or Facebook post to show an author a photo of their book “in the wild,” or offering goods and services to online auctions to help pay another author’s medical bills, you can count on the kidlit community. There’s a lot of support among Zumba aficionados, too. The instructors sub for each other and get together to run charity Zumbathons. And if you are a regular participant in a class, you are definitely missed when you don’t show up.

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Whether it’s a publishable manuscript or a healthier body you’re after, you can’t just wish for it. You have to work at it. So get your butt in that chair or get your butt to the gym. You’ll feel better for having done it.

Jacqueline Houtman is the author of the middle-grade novel The Reinvention of Edison Thomas (Front Street/Boyds Mills Press 2010) and coauthor, with Walter Naegle and Michael G. Long, of the biography for young (and not-so-young) readers, Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist (Quaker Press 2014).

So, Where Do YOU Write?

I’m a fulltime caregiver these days, but I’m also a writer and an editor. Lately, with the help of a home care companion, I’ve been able to get away a bit more, and sometimes when I get away, I can do my job.

I was remembering the Happy Holidays post here on the Mixed Up Files in December, in which we shared pictures of ourselves doing what we do as writers wherever we do it. That inspired me to take you on a little tour of some of my favorite places to get stuff done.

Many authors I know write in cafes and coffee shops to get away from distractions. I understand this. I’ve tried it. I drink coffee or tea, and that makes me really hungry and I always respect the no outside food rules, and then I end up buying (and eating) something I didn’t need. Ugh.

I often prefer to stay at home, but when I do get away, it usually looks something like this. I almost always end up making my huge bottle of iced ginger tea and grabbing a bag of trail mix and some chocolate, and heading to one of three favorite places.

The Library

Yup. I go to the Library. I’m a retired school librarian, after all; it’s a lot like home anyway. There are three branches of my wonderful regional library almost equidistant from me. Sorry, no photos – I’m not a big selfie-in-the-library taker. But here is a link to their webpage, because all the branches of Sno-Isle Libraries rock.

I love writing in the library. I take my earbuds because it is always noisy – in a good, distracting way. If I can’t get a table, there is always an easy chair somewhere, and I can work in my notebook or edit paper pages. I’ve learned to take multiple tasks with me so that I can pick which one best fits the conditions when I’m there. I used to take just one thing to do, and if it didn’t fit the available opportunities, it felt like time lost.

I know not every writer works this way, but I always have multiple things in my bag besides my current largest project now, and I know that every free moment gives me a chance to make something of whatever I’ve got with me. When I get stuck in the library, I love to wander to the local history shelves and browse for new ideas and information for future stories. This counts as (blissful) work for me!

The Beach

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No computer here. Just paper pages, editing pens, and a secure document box to hold them when it’s windy. Don’t forget the beach towel, and the same big bottle of tea and some snacks.

While I can become “distracted” by birds and boats and all the activity of the world around me, it’s a distraction of peace, and the calm helps me to focus more deeply on my task.

I also take a book and relax with it when the day’s work goal is met.

The Sunroom

On a recent cloudy, drizzly day, I dressed for the weather, packed my lunch in a cooler, and headed… downstairs.

Sometimes when our home care helper comes, I don’t feel like leaving home. Those days, I run away to the basement, to our sun room. This lovely space sat lonely for a time, home for over-wintering plants and HUGE spiders, but I’ve recently reclaimed it. When I walk in, my pulse rate drops and my heart begins to sing.

On a recent day, I raced out between rain showers and planted some starts and worked some garden beds. When it started to rain seriously, I headed inside to add edits to more pages of my manuscript. Doesn’t every author dress like this to write?

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Mostly, these days, I don’t have big blocks of time to lose myself in the work I love so much. I make time, snatch moments, come to the page if even for a few minutes, or paragraphs, wherever I can. When I do have a chance, these are my favorite places to get away and write.

Where do you write? Where do you feel most productive?