Friday, October 26, 2012

No such thing as monsters

Derrick bought Men in Black for Sylvia to watch. You know, Sylvia, my four-year-old, with the newly active imagination and lack of understanding of fiction?

So, of course, she's having trouble getting to sleep.

My daughter loves watching TV, so I may be reading too much into this, but even though she was scared by the aliens, Sylvia wouldn't stop watching the show. She was worried about the people, worried about who was good and who was bad, worried that people and aliens were going to die.

Little kids are an easy audience (which is obvious if you ever watch a kid's show or, even worse, go back and watch a kid's show from your childhood. Ugh). Even so, that's the reaction I want from my readers. I want them to care about the people in the story, to worry that they're going to get hurt or die. I want them to wonder who is evil and who is good. Those things are harder to accomplish with adults than with kids, but the basic principle is still the same.

Sylvia cared most about the characters who looked most human to her.

The aliens, especially the more monstrous looking, were much less sympathetic to her. Likewise, I care most about characters who feel real, who have realistic attitudes and reactions, rather than about caricatures or people who react in an alien way. As an adult the physical form of my character is less important than the way they're reacting to their situation or to the other characters around them. David Brin writes all kinds of aliens who are very human in their emotions and interactions, and that makes them effective, sympathetic characters. The people who I see as good are going to be those who make good choices, who build up the people around them, who stick to their principles in the face of difficultly. The stories that I find most interesting, though, are the ones were those same sources of good and of strength get twisted in a way that takes a good character into bad territory, or where the bad character is bad because of an extreme adherence to a good trait.

As an example from history, in Nazi Germany most members of the LDS church used the 12th article of faith as an excuse to not stand up against Hitler. Helmuth Huebener, Rudi Wobbe, and Karl Heinz were three teen-age boys who dared to criticize the Nazi regime and they were not supported by their local church authorities. Huebener and his friends recognized there were more important freedoms and rights (like, say, life) that were being infringed upon and they chose to take action, even though it cost them dearly. We now see the actions of the other people in their congregation as at best apathetic, and at worst monstrous. It's that kind of decision--to hold to a good principle in the wrong situation--that I think makes the most interesting, and the most terrible monsters. 

The kind of monster all of us can imagine becoming.

After way too much discussion of why aliens wouldn't really come to Earth, I finally told Sylvia aliens were made up. That, finally, was the explanation she needed to hear to go to sleep. I don't think it's time yet for a discussion of what makes a person into a monster.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Paying attention

For those who don't know, my husband and I and our two kids are moving to Australia soon. Joy. Part of preparing for our departure is going through all of our stuff, including the boxes and boxes of papers I've accumulated through, oh, 10-ish years of grad school and getting rid of as much as we can.

This time around it's easier than ever to throw out the paper copies of articles I've had gathering dust since we moved to San Diego. Or earlier, to be honest. I have most of them digitally, and if I need them in the future I will almost certainly be able to get them digitally, so there really isn't a good reason to hang on to the carbon. Except maybe for the carbon credits.

Interspersed among the articles, though, are snippets of stories I penned between class notes and on the backs of scratch paper. Those I'm keeping. Some of them are really surprisingly good. Like, "I can't believe I wrote that" kind of good. Some of it is crap, too, but there are little nuggets of goodness in there that are the kind of fiction I would love to read myself (if I'd ever finished it).

Perhaps I'll post some of it here, or maybe I'll finish one or two off and actually attempt to publish something.

I made a comment about all my fragments to Derrick. Apparently he's paid more attention to them than I have. I haven't thought of myself as a writer, but he's seen me write enough stories in my spare time he thinks of me as a writer already.

Sunday, October 21, 2012


Writing is hard for me. I'm a pantser, but not in a good way. While I like to write and see where things go, I really do need to know where I'm going. There are all kinds of great tools out there to help with plotting, like this, this, and this.

Which I'm mostly putting here so I can find them later when I need them :)

So far the most successful strategy I've found for myself is having a list of things I want to accomplish in the chapter and then writing with those ends in mind. It's not quite plotting (though having a plot structure in mind does help) but it's not so much freedom that what I end up with in the end is a pile of wretchedness wrapped in metaphor.

Friday, October 19, 2012


I'm good at beginning things. Not so good at endings (just ask my PhD advisor). Not such a bad thing for blogging, since blogging isn't about endings, it's about documenting the journey and sharing adventures and lessons learned along the way.

As is writing.

This is my writing blog. I have another blog where I pursue other things, where I put down my musings on my family life, on politics, on my science, and where I display my photography. This blog is going to be about writing.

'Cause I'm gonna be serious about this :)

And what kind of writer would I be if I didn't have a writing blog?

So here it is: my inaugural post for my inaugural writing blog. Here's to a fabulous journey, many adventures, hard slogs, and pearls of wisdom gleaned from the muck.