from a slush minion’s diary #8 do your research

I’d like to talk about an issue that has made me feel a bit sad about some competently-written stories I’ve seen over the two-and-a-bit years I’ve been with the magazine.

The story works fine, it’s effective, well-written technically, but the pseudo-science is such a lot of rubbish that making corrections would be a major undertaking and sometimes wipe the plot from under the foundations of the story. It’s not all that common, because by this stage, most stories will have been rejected for other reasons, whether the setting works or not.

But it breaks my heart having to return a story with a big physics or chemistry lecture containing facts more or less directly from Wikipedia. I’m not a chemist, or a physicist, and if I can look up these facts, why can’t the author?

OK, OK, I fully accept that science fiction twists facts, and bullshit is pretty much the name of the game, but, having said that…

If you’re going to use a scientific term, make sure you know what it means and how it’s defined and use it in that context, or if you decide you don’t want to do that make up a different term. Google this term to make sure that it doesn’t mean something you are unaware of.

If you are going to go into detail about such varied things as space ship propulsion, plant breeding or geology of a river bed (just to pull out a few things I remember reading about), make sure you know what you’re talking about. Use the correct terms, look up the orbital formulae and at least some of the latest on rocket propulsion. Read about basic genetics. Don’t make up stuff without consulting the current science. If you don’t want to do this (yes, it’s a lot of work) don’t go into detail. This type of detail, by the way, is what may well push your story into the pro magazine range. Yes, it’s a lot of work. No one said writing was easy.

But don’t use a lot of pseudo-scientific terms to befuddle the reader ‘because it sounds good’. In the words of a buddy on the Analog forum: Don’t think no one will check this. They will.

In this case, ‘someone’ is a slush reader with a finger over the ‘reject’ button.

Do your research. Please.

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4 comments on “from a slush minion’s diary #8 do your research

    • Yes, and being specific sells stories. It really shows when you have done research and made an effort to add depth and knowledge to either your setting, your characters and/or their behaviour. I get extremely annoyed when people describe life and work of scientists where it becomes painfully obvious that they have no idea what a scientist does.

      • Sometimes you get in trouble for being non-specific.

        I had a story submitted to Analog with some very specific lab details, and a casual remark about a tech pouring liquid helium into an instrument with superconductive circuits (a real device, been around for years). Analog editor Dr. Schmidt said he personally liked the story but it wasn’t quite right for Analog — and then added that the last time he worked with liquid helium the procedure was a bit more complicated than just “pouring” it. (I looked it up; it is.) Stan Schmidt has to be the only (?) editor on the planet who has actually worked with liquid helium. Sigh. 😉

      • The more specific you are, the more sure you need to be of your facts, and even then you may get it wrong, or, more likely, you may use a specific detail that not everyone agrees with.

        I wrote a story about liquid Helium a while back, and would you believe there are actually videos on the web that show how it behaves as a liquid? I watched them, and used the knowledge in the story. That said, that didn’t make Stan buy the story 😉

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