Tag Archives: research

Stretching Your Writing Limits

This is going to be a bit of a ramble. I hope you don’t mind, and would appreciate your thoughts at the end via comment.

For the last year or do, I’ve been working on an ambitious project: a series of novels spanning epic concepts of philosophy, religion and mythology, with my friend @sareliz. Both of us wrote first drafts of two chunks of narrative last November as part of NaNoWriMo, then earlier this spring I knocked out a 50K first draft of a third book. As I’ve chipped away at rewrites, however, I’ve become more and more aware of one simple fact: in order to be true to the reality of my protagonist’s world, things are going to have to get a lot darker and more brutal than I ever anticipated, which is going to require a metric f*ckton more research than I’ve done so far.

The book isn’t supposed to be gritty or hard-hitting in a way that features depictions of extreme violence or torture, so there’s also going to have to be a balance stuck between realism and the fantasy world of the series. The more I research, the more I question: can I do this? Have my ambitions gotten ahead of my ability?

This story story, currently planned as the first novel in the series, involves a reporter who travels to a corrupt county to look for a friend and colleague who’s gone missing. As part of my research I’ve been reading about reporters in war zones and oppressive regimes (which plays into another aspect of the series’ overall plot), and with each article I read I realize that the draft i have so far actually features what could be called “danger-lite.” Terrifying things happen to journalists who travel abroad to investigate corruption. They are beheaded, jailed, tortured, ‘disappeared’ and more. The citizens of the countries they investigate are far from immune to brutal treatment, too: look at the kidnapped/murdered Mexican teachers, girls kidnapped and sold into “forced marriages” by Boko Haram, and activists murdered by drug cartels. Even in America, police Senn able to act with near impunity when out comes to summarily executing American citizens in the street.

While there are certainly overlaps in how oppressive regimes the world over treat their citizens and their media figures, (Pakistan and Myanmar are currently in the spotlight on this issue) specificity is key in writing what you don’t know, perhaps top an even greater degree than when writing what you do know. After all, I might take poetic license if I’m writing about a bar in Buffalo or a subway route in New York City, but that’s an informed choice. Blundering the details in a novel about another country or another culture just comes across as lazy ignorance.

Even the small chunks of reading I’ve done so far have highlighted my own ignorance while at the same time pouting my research in stark contrast to lived experience. Reading books like THE BRIEF WONDEROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Diaz, being immersed in a world where a revolutionary leader reigns over the lives of citizens with sadistic whim, is nothing like living under such a regime. ‘They’ say to write what you know, but what chance do I have (thank goodness) to understand the lifestyles of people in those circumstances with any degree of accuracy in fiction? How does someone like me write inclusive, relevant, diverse novels on topics like this without fucking it up royally?

The only answer I have is research.

So I’m trying. Really hard. I’m reading what I can, trying to get a feel for both the human, day to day lives of people living under the repressive circumstances the story needs to portray, but also trying to gain more knowledge of the truly horrifying acts oppressive governments can subject their citizens to. At the same time, Itry to find a way to retain the ability to see the monsters responsible for these reprehensible acts as humans, with motivations that made sense to their own internal logic, because it’s a rare human being who sees themselves as a villain, no matter how vile they might be. I try to think of ways i can portray the horror of human suffering at the hands of others while being honest but while avoiding graphic depictions of circumstances that don’t fit the tone of a series of fantasy novels. And then I question myself and start to feel paralyzed. And then i remind myself I’m still working on a draft. There’s always time for another rewrite.

There are bright spots in my research. My trip to St. Martin last year and the one i just took to St. Thomas both informed me on climates, terrain and cultures that will also figure in to the stories my cowriter and i will be telling. And I keep reminding myself of the importance of this, whole trying not to get to bogged down in the details. But when a simple hike through a national park demonstrates that you’ve completely miscategorized your story’s setting, how can you ever know when you’ve researched enough to get on with the writing? And even writing  this, I cringe, because I feel like I’m wading into waters where it would be so easy to give offense.

They say to write what you know, but it’s also critical that writers be willing to learn what we don’t know so we’re can write accurate, diversity populated fiction in terms of our characters, settings and cultures. Whether it takes the form of readings, conversations or traveling, the only answer to this conundrum is research.

Oh, and asking for recommendations. Anybody got any suggestions on trying material or media I can consume? Please leave them in the comments. Your thoughts would be very much appreciated.

Would You Like a Robot on Your Board of Directors?

Groundbreaking (for its time) computer ENIAC being operated by two women

Back in its day, ENIAC was pretty darn advanced, too. [Photo credit: PD image of ENIAC. Two women operating the ENIAC’s main control panel while the machine was still located at the Moore School. “U.S. Army Photo” from the archives of the ARL Technical Library. Left: Betty Jennings (Mrs. Bartik) Right: Frances Bilas (Mrs. Spence)]

I’m geeking out over this article.

While the title of that piece is a little misleading (the artificial intelligence tool in question, called VITAL (from Aging Analytics Agency), will be used to create comprehensive reports but humans will still be making the decisions), this is the kind of piece a sci-fi junkie salivates over. One more step on the way to the singularity, Skynet is just around the corner, etc., etc. A venture capitalist firm called Deep Knowledge Ventures, where board members wait for reports from a robot before making decisions? I can already see the film rights getting optioned.

As the above article points out, of course, this isn’t the first time machines have been entrusted with making decisions that affect the course of human business. Remember the Flash Crash of 2010? The Dow Jones lost around 1000 points within a matter of minutes, all because a computer algorithm misfired. (As far as I’m aware, the issue quickly self-corrected when the programs in play recognized the sharp drop and shut down trading.)

While one likes to think that VITAL won’t have that kind of access to major markets, it isn’t hard to see where it might have deeper repercussions for both venture capital firms and the field of life sciences research. It will be interesting to see how other venture capital firms react. If the machine works as advertised, the firm will be able to make safer investment bets on new companies, operating less on human emotion than on raw data. If one VC firm is able to make decisions that pay off with more regularity, it’s almost guaranteed that others will want to use this technology as well, just to remain competitive.

Think about it as a data arms race between private companies. Where could it wind up? And what does it mean to the life sciences companies? (And what consequences could it have for disease and other biological research?)

I’d like to know more about how VITAL will calculate an investment with the potential for success – in knowledge gained? In jobs created? Or (as I suspect) in terms of the most profitable bottom line?

It’s definitely a story I’ll be trying to stay informed on.

Additional Reading:

Swimming with Turtles in Sint Maarten/Saint Martin

If you read my last blog post, you’ll know that about a week and a half ago I had a wonderful adventure. Magical, you might even say. But…

allmagic graphic for site

All Magic Comes With A Price








…and the price I paid for this piece of magic was the worst sunburn I’ve ever had in my life. (Yes, I wore sunscreen, and yes, I re-applied; the sun in the Caribbean is just different from the sun in New York.) As burns go, and looking back, I would now compare this to the burn I got when I was a kid and I stepped in the ashes of a burnt-out fire on the beach. I had scaly, peeling skin, two giant blisters on either side of my back, and my thighs were so badly burned that I literally couldn’t sit down or turn over in bed for the pain.

The thing is, I’m a Libra – a sign that’s all about balance. I don’t know how much stock I put in horoscopes, but the horrifying recovery of the last ten days was well worth the six hours of excitement, adventure and fun that I had two Saturdays ago in Sint Maarten.

The reason I went to Sint Maarten was to do research for a project that’s coming up over the next couple years. It was important to me, for the sake of the project, to learn how not to be terrified when swimming in the open water. So I signed up for a snorkeling tour that would allow those on it to swim with turtles.

The snorkeling was amazing. Here are some of my favorite photos from the journey.

One of these days, I’ll get to writing the rest of the trip up. Till then, my review of the trip for TripAdvisor, and some turtles: (If you’re viewing this from an email, you may need to click the link to this entry to see the photos…)

0001138-R1-013-5 0001138-R1-023-10 0001138-R1-037-17 0001138-R1-051-24 0001138-R1-053-25 0001138-R2-032-14A 0001138-R2-034-15A 0001138-R2-038-17A0001138-R2-040-18A0001138-R2-036-16A

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Cool Tweets About Robots, Writing & More

As you may know by now, my next collection is made up of short stories about artificial intelligence and robots. So here are some tweets I’ve seen about cool robot stuff over the last few weeks:



Many years ago, I saw the Tiger Lilies perform in London – so here’s another tweet that caught my eye:


Some links on Self-Publishing:


How to Make Money Self-Publishing Fiction.ow.ly/kghjm #writing #indie

— James Scott Bell (@jamesscottbell) April 21, 2013


And a friend talked about starting a forum about women who write science fiction…


I’ll leave you with some wise words:

This Is Not A Movie Review Of “Safety Not Guaranteed”

“It’s about a time, and a place…do you have a favorite song? …. It’s that time and that place and that song and you remember what it was like when you were in that place and you listen to that song and you know you’re not in that place anymore and it makes you feel…hollow.”


I’m watching Safety Not Guaranteed and there’s a conversation about how people feel about memories and favorites, and I think, I don’t have the same favorites now that I used to..

Favorites are useful shorthands to have. We ask people their “favorites” as if we can divine from their personality the things that will define them, define their character. It’s convenient to have favorites.

Favorite movies, favorites bands, favorite songs, favorite television shows, favorite restaurants, favorite foods, favorite drinks, favorite beers, favorite wines, favorite actors and actresses, favorite books, favorite writers, favorite animals, favorite colors, favorite memories. Favorite jokes. Favorite achievements, favorite opportunities and lenses through which to experience the world, favorite nights lying out on the dock staring up at the Milky Way and favorite theater productions you did with your cousins when you were eight. Favorite nights up wandering the city streets, favorite mornings when you woke full of peacefulness and warmth.

Favorites are naturally transient. I used to tell people my favorite song was Mysterious Ways, by U2, and the reason I knew that was because I had never fast-forwarded past the song when it played. But shortly after this observed fact, reality changed: now conscious of the song and my proclaimed affection for it, it no longer seemed boundless and limitless and full of infinity. By framing the idea for someone else, I limited what, in expression, it could be. And Mysterious Ways by U2 was no longer my favorite song.

Life changes, inevitably, and the favorites most worth having are the ones you never anticipated in the moment. Favorite afternoon with sun on your face among the springtime flowers in Green Park.

Favorites are full-body snapshots of a singular moment in time and space; reflecting snowglobes within neurons.

Favorites are moments, precise and crystallized.

Easily shattered, growing with geological constance.


2013-01-20 13.25.58A couple weeks ago, I was visiting a friend in Boston and he asked what kind of writing I was working on right now.

When I said I’d started thinking back to my robot/AI anthology, his response? “Then we should go to the MIT museum.*” (*not a direct quote.)

Which was how, in the space of a day, I went from walking the decks of the oldest ship in the U.S. navy to wandering through examples of the robots of the latter half of the 20th century.

The visit was a kick in the pants. A reminder of where the study of artificial intelligence started, and how far the field has come in fifty years.

2013-01-20 13.41.42

Also a strange reminder of gender imbalance in the sciences I most love (there were no women participants in the conference held at Dartmouth in 1956, as far as I’ve been able to find, and the school didn’t start accepting women until 1972). And of the incredibly intellectual and creative capacity of those men who did take place in the conception of artificial life.

(One of those men, John McCarthy, wrote this story (“The Robot And The Baby“) about a robot and a baby, which is utterly specific in its representation of how an artificial ntelligence (each word being taken at its face value) might weigh options and make decisions.)

Another participant in the conference, Marvin Minsky, was (according to Wikipedia) referred to as one of only two men who Issac Asimov acknowledged as being smarter than him. The other was Carl Sagan.

The visit gave me both inspiration on old drafts and ideas about the potential shape of my AI Anthology, and set my brain buzzing with new possibilities for themes and research.

Now for the fun part: applying them.


P.S. If you’ve got $2.99 USD to spare and an Amazon account, click on over to the page for Sassy Singularity and read my short story Sweetheart.

Homework Takeaway #5: We’re Pretty Sure There Was A Big Bang

After several months – was it really back in January that I posted my most recent update in this series? – I picked up “The Elegant Universe” again and kept reading. On page 349 (in my edition), Green talks about how there was a moment where the universe from being opaque to being transparent.

He then goes on to describe the moment of the birth of the universe in terms that make me think about how he talks about black holes in the previous chapter (p 342-344?). I’m not a hundred percent sure why, but this part of the book reminded me a little of those four-axis graphs, with space on one axis and time on the other, and black holes sucking in all information. It brought to mind the image of a God’s Eye, or one of those cool graphic design things everybody used to doodle in high school (the nearest I can find via Google Images is the first graph used on this total stranger’s blog entry, but imagine four quadrants of that facing one another).

Continue reading