Speed vs Quality: the eternal debate

I’m probably venturing into dangerous territory with this one, but here goes.

I consider myself a reasonably fast writer. Mostly, it’s because I spend a lot of time writing, more than someone with a full-time job, but also because I think my writing process is reasonably efficient. I am, however, a pantser extra-ordinaire, and this brings a measure of inefficiency. I tried, but cannot write any other way. I could write faster if I was better organised, but my process doesn’t allow it. My process involves going over the manuscript again and again, and again just for good measure, until I’m willing to set the piece free into the world.

There are a lot of writers with different writing speeds, from really fast detective writers to writers who only complete a book every few years. There is, however, nothing that gets fast writers riled up so much as the suggestion that fast writing equates poor quality, and the suggestion that a writer ‘should’ only write two books a year.

I’m on the fence on this one. I could write faster, but I could write a heck of a lot slower.

Does faster writing equate poor quality? I’ll stick my toe in the too-hot tub and I’ll say that it does, sometimes. It does when you can tell that a piece of fiction is written fast.

These are what I consider symptoms of writing that suffers from too little time spent on it:

The introduction of each new character is accompanied by a character sheet, in other words, an infodump (usually peppered with the word ‘had’) that lets the reader know exactly and unambiguously who the character is and what events have shaped him or her. It often spells out clearly whether the character is good or bad, and what their main aims in life are. I use character sheets in-text in early drafts. Remember I’m a pantser–I just stop the show and waffle on for a page or so to get myself acquainted with the character. The important bit is that a character sheet in the final version of your novel is boring as hell. It takes any tension out of the character by taking away the reader’s opportunity to wonder and question. A character sheet is first drafty stuff and should be deleted in a final draft. If that hasn’t been done, the story was sent out one draft too soon.

Too much throat-clearing. A character spends an entire chapter musing about the past and nothing much of note happens in the chapter. This is an extension of the character sheet problem. I write chapters like this in order to become further familiar with the character. It happens at a point where I’m at a loss as to what to write, so I start bullshitting the character’s internal thoughts to get the ball rolling again. This sort of stuff doesn’t belong in a final draft.

Simplistic characters. In early drafts, characters often do the job they need to do, and little more. At this stage, they’re merely chess pieces. Subsequent drafts add depth, quirks or ambiguity. If vital characters are one-dimensional, the work hasn’t seen enough drafts.

Sloppy research or worldbuilding. Facts are untrue or inconsistent. Sometimes the facts aren’t untrue as such but lack depth. The worldbuilding doesn’t venture beyond what can be gleaned in five seconds from Wikipedia.

If you can write really fast and not do any of this, great! But I know that I can’t. For me, fast writing definitely equates poorer quality. Then again, fast means something different for each writer, and I think setting limits as to how fast is too fast is pretty silly. Too fast is when the quality suffers. End of story.


Infodumps: why you should embrace them

I have, in the past, written numerous posts extolling the virtues of writing groups. I still highly recommend them, especially for beginning writers finding their style and interests, and especially if the group includes writers further along the path than you are.

That said, there are also drawbacks. One of those is that often these groups (and writing courses alike) will develop a strong subculture of ‘writing rules’ which leads the group’s members to believe that only if they eradicate all adverbs, all instances of passive writing and all instances of characters looking at themselves in a mirror from their manuscript, it will be publishable.

Another writing group taboo covers the poor old infodump.

What, exactly, is an infodump? I found this link on Writing.com which covers the commonly-touted opinion. Much of what is mentioned on this page is correct. The reader doesn’t need to know everything, and it’s usually not a good idea to start off your story with a huge block of info. But, that said, this article takes a unanimously negative view of information in fiction, as if you should never add any. Wikipedia offers a more balanced view. For starters, it routs the search for ‘infodump’ to ‘exposition’, a much more values-neutral word. It also describes exposition as a ‘literary technique’, again, without attaching a value. And it notes that exposition can be very useful. To this, I would add that if you write Science Fiction or fantasy, it is often mandatory.

If I write a story that involves, for example, the construction of a space habitat at the Earth-Sun L4 LaGrange point, I bet my readers are going to be mightily annoyed if I don’t explain somewhere in the story just what exactly L4 is and why one would locate this habitat there. That doesn’t mean I will start the story with that explanation to make sure the reader knows before the story starts. It means I need to explain where the information is needed when the reader needs it.

A similar situation will exist in fantasy. You need to explain your magic system, your class system, your hierarchy of gods, because the readers can’t even begin to understand how the world works from half a hint here or there.

The explanation could take various forms. It could be straight narration (very efficient). It could be one character talking to another (more dynamic). Or it could involve a scene. The latter would be most elegant, but you can’t do it for every single little fact without both blowing out your word count and slowing the plot to a crawl. This means that sometimes you have to lecture. Bad, bad, writer! Nah, really? What a load of BS.

These bits of information, worldbuilding, made-up or real, are what attracts readers to SF and fantasy. They want to learn about weird worlds, therefore, show them weird worlds. Show them where they need the information to fully appreciate the story. Show them in as active a way as you can make it. Sometimes, the most effective way is a full-scale lecture in orbital mechanics. Sometimes it involves a character giving a lengthy narration of the history of a kingdom, or a lesson in elemental magic, or having two characters discuss the course of the Second World War in the Pacific for five pages. Guess what? If it’s been clear from the outset that you were writing hard SF, or historic fantasy, or high fantasy, historical fiction or any genre that includes settings that are not those we’re familiar with in our day-to-day lives, this is exactly the reason why your readers are reading this stuff.

Embrace your infodumps. Your fiction needs them.

How close are we to developing artificial minds?

The last few days, I’ve spent some time doing some research I’d been avoiding. It’s no secret that I am interested in astronomy, am not afraid of chemistry or physics, but I’ve rather been avoiding medical science, since I don’t feel particularly qualified to tackle it.

But since I’m developing a world in which artificial humans exist, and where people’s minds get transferred from one body to another, I thought I had better read up on the sort of stuff we can do, or are close to doing, in terms of replicating human brain functions.

And wow, I was impressed.

The human brain contains up to 33 billion neurons, long-armed, spidery cells that may have up to 10,000 synapses each. An adult human brain is thought to have up to 500 trillion synapses. The synapse, at the end of a neuron cell, possesses mechanisms to transfer tiny electrical currents to surrounding tissue, prompting this tissue to ‘do something’, like move or withdraw your hand from something that’s hot, or think or remember.

These tiny currents can be measured with various types of EEG (Electro-encephalography) techniques, which involve placing electrodes on someone’s head.

In today’s medicine, EEG is used for a variety of brain function measurements, such as the diagnosis of epilepsy, and other conditions that affect localised brain function.

But whatever constitutes a person’s ‘mind’ is still poorly understood. While brain chemistry and neurology approach understanding of the human brain from the bottom up, ‘if we understand how individual cells work, we’ll eventually get to the overall picture’, psychology makes an approach from the top, asking questions ‘how does the whole thing work?’, treating the minor workings of the brain as a black box.

But how do you go from here to re-creating an entire artificial brain?

When a current passes through a synapse, its potential changes long-term through a process called synaptic plasticity, and this is how memory and learning works. Supposedly, if you were able to record the potentials for all synapses of a human brain, you’d be able to simulate that brain at that point in time.

Five hundred trillion requires a heck of a lot of computing power, but there is a project to this extent which claims to be able to build a functional computerised brain within ten years (see for example the Blue Brain Project).

A simulation model would involve the mapping of brain processes with EEG equipment more detailed than currently available, or alternately through serial sectioning, in which very thin slices of the brain are scanned (hint: this is not good for the patient). This material would then be encoded and uploaded and then the code might develop a mind and identity. This takes a bottom-up black box approach that’s similar to throwing together a bunch of springs, gears and a case and hoping that it will somehow assemble itself into an old-fashioned working watch.

So, are artificial brains far future science fiction?

Yeah, I thought so, but then I stumbled across some research dealing with Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI). These are electrodes of some description that connect directly from the brain to an external device. Current thoughts are that these devices may help patients retain or recover memories or body functions for diseases like dementia or Parkinson’s. One such research project concentrated on the neuron firings of just 177 cells in the thalamus region of the brain, which decodes signals from the eye. The scientists were able to reconstruct images of what the cats saw.

Others are already working on processes that take this one step further: to stimulate the body to do something with this information, for example, in order to steer a prosthetic limb (check out the awesome Wikipedia summary about this research)

The step from this to encoding and developing an entire brain is no doubt great, but no longer seems to be impossible.

Farming on Mars

Let’s presume the collective world has gotten out of its space-exploration budget-funk, and has decided it’s worth sending people to Mars. The first have gone and have returned, and now it’s time to set up a colony.

Of course that colony will have to be self-sufficient. Thankfully, there are a number of very useful things on Mars, so the colonists won’t need to bring everything, but the more they can find locally, the better. Ideally they should not need anything from elsewhere to survive after an initial supply of resources.

Most importantly, the colonists will have to grow their own food.

At its distance from the Sun, sunlight on Mars is about 40% up to half that on Earth, but still sufficient as power source.

Unless the colonists choose to grow plants in hydroponic systems, they will have to use Martian soil. Preliminary analysis shows that the basic composition of Martian soil is fairly similar to certain soil types on Earth. To be sure, no one has ever taken a sample from Mars and returned it to Earth, but we have two methods for determining composition of Martian soil and/or rocks. In the first place, there are meteorites that have reached Earth from Mars, of which 34 are known. Without going into a lot more detail, they are all igneous rock, in other words, hardened lava. These rocks tell us about the composition of the Martian crust, but very little about sediments, water and free elements in the soil. Secondly, in 2008, the Phoenix lander carried equipment that allowed it to perform an in-situ analysis of the soil near Mars’ north pole. The soil turned out to be alkaline, and contain elements necessary for plant growth, such as sodium, magnesium, potassium and chloride.

However, things are unlikely to be as simple as that. For one, it’s not correct to refer to the substrate as ‘soil’ (but failing a different, similarly evocative word, I will use it anyway), since the definition of soil includes the presence of organic material. The Martian regolith (which is a word I should use instead) contains none. Plants need soil for two basic purposes: for anchoring, and for their nutrition. Plants can anchor themselves in virtually anything (which is why you get plants growing in concrete and on roofs), as long as they have enough water and food. Water is available on Mars in the form of ice. The colonists will be deposited somewhere close to a source of this ice.

But what do you think would happen if you wet a soil that has been dry for billions of years? A soil that has been subject to direct radiation and dust storms. For one, there will be a lot of fine material. On Earth, growing crops in heavy, gluggy soils with lots of fine particles (clays) is hard. Plants need adequate aeration to grow properly. If the soil becomes too compacted (either because it is too fine or because people walk over it) plants don’t grow properly. This is why there is frequently no grass in a soccer goal. So you’ll have to get rid of excess dust before you wet the Martian soil else the stuff will turn into something akin to cement and be of no use for cropping. Also, there will be something like four billions years’ worth of accumulated salts that are freed if you wet this soil. When the Phoenix lander wetted the Martian soil, it released perchlorates, which are poisonous to plants. The soil pH was alkaline (8.3), which indicates accumulated salts of one type or another.

There are plants, notably those that are native to deserts, that tolerate a high salt concentration in the soil, but in order to grow highly-strung and finicky crop species, it’s necessary to get rid of excess salt. This probably requires a lot of (recycled) water, but at the very least, it will require lots of detailed testing, and time.

Next: the air. Mars has lots of carbon dioxide. Plants grow better with a higher concentration of carbon dioxide than present on Earth. It makes sense to run the glasshouses with a high carbon dioxide level. But at high carbon dioxide concentrations, the plants are likely to take up an increased percentage of poisonous elements from the soil, such as arsenic, cadmium and lead. Some areas of Mars are known to have fairly high concentrations of arsenic.

The big trouble is going to be nitrogen, because there is very, very little of that on Mars. Nitrogen is an element that does not easily form bonds with other elements. Whereas oxygen facilitates chemical reactions by reacting with other elements (for example by burning or rusting), atomic nitrogen just does… nothing. Since we have seen in an earlier post that Mars is too small to hold onto its atmospheric nitrogen, there may not be all that much of nitrogen to be found on Mars in any of its forms. So unless early explorers locate a deposit of nitrogen-rich substrates, the colonists will have to import nitrogen from elsewhere. And nitrogen is the most essential of the essential elements for plant growth.

All of which is not suggesting that using Martian soil for cropping is impossible, but that it likely isn’t easy or straightforward, and that early colonists are probably better off starting with hydroponic installations while all this other testing takes place.

Humans in space

A while ago, I asked on Twitter what people would like me to blog about. One person (you know who you are) said: the effect of space travel on human beings. I promised that I would write about it, but that I wanted to read one more book before I did so. That book is Packing for Mars by Mary Roach. I have now read it (highly recommended), so here we go: the effect of space travel on human beings, with an eye on the future and the science fiction writer.

As one might expect, there are two types of effects long-term space travel has on human beings: physiological and psychological effects. Each of these effects mentioned below is probably worthy of a separate blog post, but let’s start with the overall first.

The physiological effects themselves can be split into two sections: lack of gravity and what I shall call external threats.

External threats are simple: accidents and radiation. Both are managed at the space ship design level and crew training stages. Good design will limit radiation exposure. The risk is solar flares, but it is a known and theoretically manageable risk. Manned missions to—say—Mars will contain shielding (best material: water, since the ship will have to carry plenty of that anyway). There will be advanced warning for the crew to take shelter in a fortified part of the craft. Accidents are obviously less predictable, and can be expected to be serious and fatal. Space travel is not without risk. Nor is getting into a car.

By far the most serious and insidious effect of space travel on human beings is the bevy of problems caused by the lack of gravity. We have evolved to live with gravity. On the short term, its absence causes disorientation and nausea. Individuals vary in their responses to weightlessness and astronaut training famously involves weeding out those most seriously affected. People with abnormalities to the inner ear may be completely unaffected, but having a deaf crew member could pose challenges of its own. It’s interesting to note that all mammals can be made to suffer from motion sickness, except rabbits and guinea-pigs (thanks to Mary Roach for that tidbit of information).

Other short-term effects of the absence of gravity are the loss of taste and appetite, the disruption of the digestive system, the pooling of blood in the upper body and the inability to sleep. Most of these effects will disappear, or at least become less prominent, after a few days as the body adjusts.

Far more serious is the loss of bone and muscle mass. Exercise helps, but doesn’t completely prevent the decrease of bone density in long-term space-travellers. And that loss can be significant, comparable with that suffered by a sufferer of extreme osteoporosis.

That said, there is a fairly simple solution: artificial gravity through rotation. At the moment, it is beyond the engineering limits of current missions, but once people overcome problems associated with sending manned missions to Mars or further, giving the inhabited section of a ship or station a constant rotation should not be too hard.

The psychological effects of space travel are associated with the fact that you’re isolated in a tin can, a long way from anywhere, with people who, like partners in a stifling marriage, start to irritate you more and more.

This makes psychological screening important. The first chapter of Packing for Mars describes seemingly inane tests done by the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) in order to select possible astronauts, and unravels some reasons for these tests. Most importantly: how do you react to boredom? How do you react when something unexpected happens? There are huge differences between people, and in an isolated group of people, these differences may make or break a mission.

An obvious partial remedy is to send larger missions in larger ships. The lack of privacy and the inability to get away from each other conspire to make any inter-personal problems worse. The human being is a curious type of herd animal. We want to be close, but not too close to each other. It seems that a larger mission will be the answer in the long term.

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.

So you want to be a space farmer?

You are writing space-based Science Fiction, and have decided your world is going to have a self-sufficient space station, base or space ship. A lot of Science Fiction books have this assumption in common. Any human colony, whether on a moving vessel, space station or on the surface of a planet, will need to produce its own food, since vast distances and transportation costs will make import unpractical. Being self-sufficient means growing stuff to eat. Here are a few points to consider to make your food production system more realistic.

There is a fair bit written about the design of the habitat. It ideally needs to be in the habitable zone of a star or closer to make optimal use of light. Artificial light is expensive and mineable energy is scarce in the depths of space. If you do position a habitat far from a star, make allowances for vast amounts of energy needed to grow plants. Without cheap and easy solar energy, the energy source would probably have to be nuclear and would have to be shipped in.

Other requirements run parallel with those for human habitation. The habitat needs to have radiation shielding. It needs to have adequate air circulation, temperature control and day-night cycles.

(ETA: this interesting article was published a week or so after I wrote this post. It deals with the effect of radiation on crops and how it seems plants can evolve to deal with it)

As an agricultural scientist, I often get annoyed when SF books suggest that ‘magic happens’ inside a food-producing habitat. You just chuck in the necessary elements, wave your fingers and POOF, there is food on the table.

In reality, things are lot more tricky than that. Once you add a biological element to your controlled environment, the system becomes complex and liable to unexpected and sudden failure.

The nutritional needs for plant growth are simple enough, but since you’re in space, you’ll have to cart everything in. Plants need the following to grow: Main elements: C, H, O. Main nutritional elements: N, P, K. Also essential: S, Ca, Fe, Mg, Mo, Mn, B, Cl, Zn and Cu. A lot can be recycled, but you’ll need to replenish occasionally.

One of the lessons learned from the Biosphere 2 experiment is that maintaining a viable ecosystem in a closed environment is damn hard. Biosphere 2 was a mixed ecosystem, containing many species. An agricultural centre aboard a facility in space is more likely to contain a much smaller range of species, making it much more vulnerable. For example, the grass family (maize, wheat, rice), the nightshade family (potato, tomato, capsicum, egg plant), the cabbage family and the cucumber family (pumpkin, cucumbers) provide a huge chunk of our daily vegetable needs. A virus only need take out one of those families and you have a severe problem.

Closed ecosystems are extremely vulnerable to pests & diseases resulting from less-than-optimal air circulation and light conditions. When something goes bad, it does so in spectacular fashion, quickly and without easy remedy. I’ve seen this happen several times… in glasshouses… on Earth.

For that reason, you’ll want backups. Don’t rely on one system, or one crop, or one station.

There will have to be some artificial tofu-like foodstuff produced for easy protein and nutritional value. Most plants are extremely wasteful in their useful crop/waste ratio. Compost works very well on a farm in the open air, but in a space station, it just…. stinks.

A process of rigorous, dare I say neurotic, quarantine will be necessary. You cannot risk anyone bringing in the tiniest mite or aphid from outside.

Some crops and livestock are much more suited to high production per unit area than others. Use tropical crops with a fast cropping cycle (C4 crops such as rice and corn) over temperate crops. Breed varieties of crops which can efficiently utilise a higher-than-usual CO2 percentage. Plants grow bigger in low-gravity conditions, and use more water.

There are some crops you won’t be able to grow no matter what. They’re either too expensive to grow or for some mysterious reason defy all attempts at growing them in any sort of health or quantity in a controlled environment. You can’t always explain why this happens. Biology is funny like that. Of course, those crops will be the most valued.

Where are you going to get your initial seed-stock and how are you going to conduct breeding and renewal? I could see a situation where each growing condition requires a different type of plant. The more variety, the less risk of wipe-out due to disease.

To sum up, a food production scheme needs to be reliable and robust. Diversity is the key to risk-spreading. My guess is you’ll probably end up having to resort to some quick & dirty chemical shortcuts, such as mining O2 from comets to make sure you have the capacity to quickly act in case of impending ecosystem collapse due to disease.

Communication in space

Electromagnetic waves, whether gamma ray, microwave, radio or visible light frequencies, travel through vacuum at the speed of—well, uhm—light.

When on Earth, this means communication is pretty much instant. If the distance travelled in one second by a photon, a light particle, were a string, it would wrap around the Earth almost five times.

You will notice that if your call goes via satellite, there is a small time lag. This is because your voice has to travel all the way up to the satellite in Earth orbit, and back down again. Communication satellites generally reside in geostationary orbit, at 35,000km above the Earth** so there is still a small, but noticeable time lag.

This time lag becomes larger the further you go.

If you were to call someone on the Moon, at 380,000km from Earth, your voice would take a bit over a second to get there.

Travelling time for a signal from Earth to the planets, travelling outwards:
Mars 19 minutes
Jupiter, 47 minutes
Saturn 74 minutes
Uranus 174 minutes
Neptune 258 minutes
Pluto 271 minutes

We say that Mars is 19 light minutes from Earth. Note that a light minute, like a light year, is a unit of distance, not time. A light minute is sixty seconds times 300,000 kilometres, which is the distance traveled by light in one second.

That’s right. If you were on the outer edge of the solar system, a radio signal would take at least four hours to get back to Earth, and another four hours to get a reply, presuming the receiving party doesn’t have to think about the response for too long. At this point in time, barring magic and wormholes, this is the fastest possible travel between these points. Immediate communication by radio between Earth and even Mars is physically impossible. This is an important point to consider if you write space-based Science Fiction

Think of the consequences:

You’d have to think very carefully about what you say. Your questions would have to be very detailed, efficient and concise. No chit-chat.

If there was an emergency, you’d have to figure things out by yourself.

If you were facing a hostile alien army, you would not have the time to ask a base on Earth if it was OK to attack, because by the time you got a reply, you might have been shot to bits.

On top of this, the strength of a radio signal is directly related to the square of the distance from the signal. Double the distance between transmitter and receiver, and the signal is reduced to a quarter of the strength. This would severely limit your options to communicate if you were talking to someone in the outer reaches of the solar system.

There might well be political consequences for your made-up solar system-wide human empire. They would suffer a lack of communication reminiscent of that which existed in the early days of European colonisation. They had no radio and letters took months to get to their destination. Lack of efficient communication may well have contributed to the fact that those new colonies went their own way within a generation, even if they were nominally still within the formal colonial structure. Eventually, wordwide communication problems were solved by radio and the telephone.

That won’t happen so easily to distances from here to the outer planets. Unless we find faster-than-light communication, which physics tells us is impossible, even the solar system will probably be too big for a connected human empire. For coherence of a human society, communication is essential.

**Geostationary orbit is the altitude at which an object orbiting the equator of a planet or moon travels at the same speed as the rotating body. In this way, the orbiting object is always in the same position over the surface of the planet or moon.

write what you know

Notes from a Worldcon panel led by Kaaron Warren with Jack Dann and Kim Stanley Robinson. This post is based on my own interpretation of the information. Feel free to comment below if you wish to correct anything.

Write what you know is one of the things workshop leaders and more experienced writers say to new writers in workshops, and that statement is the cause of much lamenting amongst those aspiring writers, because, really, what do we know? We’re boring wannabes with boring, suburban lives coloured by our western culture. We’re McDonalds and Desperate Housewives or Four Corners, New Scientist or The Financial Australian, and everything in between, but we’re not special, not interesting. Writing what we know would result in much same-ness, much bland-ness, much white-and-middle-class-ness because to be fair, what do most of us really know about other cultures, about crime and violence, about life in the 16th century, or, for that matter, about space travel?

Enter Kim Stanley Robinson.

It may come as a surprise to people who have read his Mars books, as it certainly was to me, that he holds a degree in English. I personally would have pegged him for a geologist, but there you go. Not a scientist at all. He says that if you write what you know, you have very little to say beyond an autobiography which in most cases wouldn’t be very interesting. Apparently Isaac Asimov was an agoraphobic who spent most of his days in his apartment. Did either IA or KSR write what they knew? Most certainly not.

Instead, they wrote what what they could find out.

Ah, research. Google, the library. Get every detail. Bury yourself in years of factual research, because, as Jack Dann reminded the audience tongue-in-cheek, the unspoken ‘rule’ is that only 10% of facts end up making it into the book. Writers are meant to have this vast store of factual knowledge about their subject that somehow gets stored in books full of notes.

Hold the phone.

Well, the books of notes may happen. But sometimes they do not. You may be writing about an obscure, or even less obscure, part of history about which there may not be all that much information, or about which the information you find is so exactly what you need to complete the story that you may not need to go any further. Of course, you usually end up becoming interested in the subject, and read more than required anyway, but that aside.

Kim Stanley Robinson said that for his Galileo book, he could find only 20 or so texts directly relevant to the subject. Some were in Italian only. For his Mars books, he obviously delved deep into everything we knew about the planet, a lot of which is based on various re-hashings of the same data, and about planetary atmospheres in general, but obviously no one knows the fine detail of going to Mars.

Neither does pure information convey a sense of reality, of a ‘feel’ for the place or the characters, which, as Jack Dann said, is vital for writing a story that engages the reader. All three writers agreed that it’s often more about the experience than about the facts.

Kaaron said that she lived in Fiji for a number of years and uses the experiences of daily life in Suva in her writing, not always in obvious ways.

Kim Stanley Robinson spent a few months in Antarctica to feel the sense of isolation. Experiences like this, while seemingly irrelevant to your subject matter, can prove very valuable. While you can find out the facts through books and online, there is a wealth of information for the writer in the small details of daily life that requires at the very least contact with someone who has experienced a particular environment. The small details make all the difference. He cited an example of an image of pine needles melting into the snow, which he used in one of his Mars books. The needles are warmed slightly by the sun and the process of deterioration and therefore sink deeper into the snow, creating little holes. If he hadn’t travelled to cold climates he would never have known this type of detail. It’s irrelevant in the general plot, but this type of detail makes a story real for the reader.

Jack Dann admitted to being not half as interesting.

But that’s OK.

Although Kim Stanley Robinson did a lot of research about the period, much of the actual information on Galileo he could find is in the book. He needed information on character, which is only found in a few lines in letters (apparently, Galileo was an arsehole). It is hard to come by this sort of information about real people, and it makes you realise that even historians have put their own interpretation on their writing. Everyone is coloured by the culture and time in which he or she lives. The line between fact and fiction becomes very thin. There are in fact people who believe we have already been to Mars.

But to get back to the subject, the trick is not to necessarily know a lot more than what is in the book, but to create the feel that the characters do. Don’t be timid to approach real-life researchers on a subject. Researchers love talking about their work. Often, the problem is not getting information from them, but getting them to shut up.

Read available books. Read what’s available online. Speak to experts if necessary, and let them check the results if you can. Most of all, try to get a ‘feel’ for your character and the setting by finding out as much detail about daily living conditions as you can, or by looking at similar settings.

Jack Dann pointed out the importance of being concise and clear in your use of language. If you don’t know the right word for a term, find out. Make sure the narrator sounds knowledgeable. This has more to do with writing technique than with the actual knowledge.

Kaaron Warren needed to write something about men on an oil rig, so she joined a chat group for them to become familiar with the vernacular.

Kim Stanley Robinson agreed, but also stated that it’s impossible to know everything. Readers will forgive you for this, as long as you don’t point at possible flaws, and gloss over trivial things that aren’t clear nor very important to the plot.

Overall, the mantra ‘write what you know’ probably does more harm than good. Kim Stanley Robinson even went as far as stating that it came from people like Hemmingway and Kerouac who had no imagination therefore they felt they needed to have experienced everything themselves (his words, not mine). Everyone, barring aliens who read this blog, is human, everyone knows human emotions. A story, a book, a trilogy is made up primarily of human emotions. This is what we know, and this is the main area in which a writer can stuff up. The facts you can find out.

Thanks Stan. You’re a legend.

Picture: Kim Stanley Robinson signing books. I got my copy of Red Mars signed by him (insert fangirl squee). I was enormously impressed by him, by his non-assuming manner and his interesting contributions to a number of panels I attended.